The Alchemist in Hollywood

I was browsing through Youtube when I saw this amazing video from 1940 explaining the “modern marvel” of black and white motion picture production. The video covers the complete production of a motion picture, from capture in the camera to projection onto the silver screen, and describes not only the machines used to facilitate this process, but the actual chemistry by which photography is accomplished. It’s a wonderful watch and I highly recommend it.

(Skip ahead to 1 minute if you don’t like campy 1940’s title credits music, but shame on you if you don’t.)

It’s so incredible to watch something from another era and notice what kind of ‘common knowledge’ the narrators took for granted. For example, black and white film which was sensitive to red light was very expensive at the time and wouldn’t come into widespread usage for another decade or more. Photographers considered sensitivity to the colour red as a luxury – something that you’d pay extra for on occasion, but not something needed in day-to-day photography. Therefore, the technicians seen in the video who handled the film would have been working under red safelights – completely able to see what they were doing. That’s not so with today’s black and white film and certainly not so with colour film.

What I really dig about this video is how it demonstrates the “mixture of Art and Science” required to produce something as complex as a motion picture. The idea of “Art meets Science” or “Art meets Technology” is pretty popular among iOS developers who often invoke Apple’s “intersection of the Liberal Arts and Technology” soundbite. In fact, this idea is one of the core principles at Artsy. It’s so cool to hear a video discussing how both Art and Science are required to make something great, and know that the video was produced 75 years ago. Combining Art and Science/Technology is not nearly as new as we have been led to believe.

Developing film at the scale necessary for overnight processing and review by filmmakers the next day is no small feat. The video shows the “old way” of doing things before presenting the new-and-improved “scientific” approach. When showing the ingredients for a film developer, they show how certain chemicals were added to stop the chemical reaction from exhausting the developer solution too quickly. They also reclaim the silver out of the fixing agent, since they’re developing enough film to make it worth their while to do so. And they even use a punchcard-driven machine to reproduce the film negative onto another strip, a film positive.

Humanity’s tools for creating art have become more advanced, but the drive to use science to make art seems to have been a constant companion of our existence.

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