In today’s age, the concepts of scientific research and creative experimentation are not often considered to be linked - in fact, many people believe them to be complete opposites. When one looks at a famous oil painting, odds are they are not thinking about the science behind the canvas underneath. When one watches a movie, they are certainly not thinking about the digital rendering or the ______, but rather the story that is being told on the screen. However, these two concepts are connected in more ways than one, as one could not come to fruition without the other. A scientist needs creativity in order to discover new things, and a creative figure (let’s say, in this case, a director) would not be able to put their vision on the screen without the science behind filmmaking. The artistry that is filmmaking was born in a chemistry lab.
The idea behind showing a series of moving pictures started with many people. We all know that the Lumière Brothers created and released one of the first films ever made, but who made this possible? Who were the original masterminds? Before the age of Adobe Premiere and iMovie, of RED Cameras and ARRI Alexas, of (digital) color correction and hard drives, before the brilliance that came with De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves or, more modernly, Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, there was a scientist named Johann Heinrich Schulze. A German doctor, professor, and chemist from the 18th century, Johann Heinrich Schulze was the first to experiment with the action of light on silver salts. By mixing chalk, silver, and nitric acid, henceforth making silver nitrate, Schulze was able to discover that silver nitrate darkened upon an exposure to light. Unfortunately, these images were only temporary, as the action of the light could not be stopped, darkening the pictures fully.
Over 150 years later the world was presented with the invention of one Etienne-Jules Marey. As a French physiologist, aviation researcher, pioneer in time-motion studies, and an inventor, Marey mainly focused in the studies of transcribing the motions of bodily organs. Once he completed these, he studied the movements of birds, insects, horses, and eventually, humans. In order to capture these movements, Marey successfully invented the chronophotographic gun. Invented in 1882, it was the first camera able to take twelve consecutive frames per second, and record them within the same picture. Seven years after the chronophotographic gun was invented, George Eastman discovered that using the polymer cellulose nitrate, or celluloid, made the photographic film flexible and practicable for all to use. George Eastman is known for popularizing the name “Kodak.” While the younger generations might not understand this reference today, as most of the world has gone digital, no longer using photographic film as their main source, this form of filmmaking is still used and preserved today.
When exposed to light, photographic film chemically reacts, recording a fixed image onto it. However, this image is latent, needing to be developed in order to manifest into the moving pictures we see today. The roll of film consists of several components - the film itself is composed of the emulsion and the base, then the cassette or cartridge, and finally the outer packaging used for protection. Within the base, cellulose and solvents are mixed to form “dope,” a viscous liquid that provides a base for the emulsion, made from silver, nitric acid, and gelatin, to be spread. This process is quite sensitive, and must be handled gently.
The base of photographic film is a cellulose product known as cellulose acetate, which is formed using cotton. The cottonseed fibers are mixed with acetate to form a syrup from which solid pellets of cellulose acetate emerge. Once these pellets are separated from the syrup, they are again washed and dried before being dissolved into the added solvents, forming the thick liquid known as dope. Once the dope materializes, it must be thinly spread on coating machines, or wheels, “on which sheets 2000 feet long and 3.5 feet wide are formed. These sheets, when dry, form the celluloid base on which the emulsion is spread” (RAW). The wheels are coated with chromium, turning slowly, causing the evaporation of the solvents within the dope.
Once the celluloid base is formed, a process known as emulsion begins. In order to form the silver nitrate, pure silver bullion, or pure silver bars, are dissolved in a strong nitric acid solution. This process is able to release heat, and after the silver fully dissolves, the solution must be cooled in order to produce crystals of silver nitrate. In order to retain the pureness of these crystals, they are removed from the solution and whirled in centrifuges that have sieve-like openings.
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