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History of film speed (2 replies and 2 comments)

HereLiesTomy
2 months ago
HereLiesTomy 2 months ago

Hi, here's something I thought would be easy to find only, but haven't manage to.

I'd like to know the history of film speed used in narrative films, from the late 1890s to now, all in ISO-equivalent ratings, for both B&W and color.

A timeline of when a new higher speed as introduced, when it became widely adopted...
For example if I'm interested in the year 1966 : what was the most common speed used.

Anyone would know of such a website/document ? Would be much appreciated, thank you !

dmullenasc
2 months ago
dmullenasc 2 months ago

https://www.kodak.com/en/motion/page/chronology-of-film»

You'd have to do your own research to find out the speeds of the early stocks -- the problem is that the ASA rating system didn't come out until the mid-1940s. You can assume the Plus-X when it came out in 1938 was in that 64/80 ASA range that it later had, and that Pan-X before that was half that speed (32/40 ASA).  Super-XX (used by Toland on "Citizen Kane") that came out in 1938 was probably twice Plus-X speed, so 125/160 ASA.

3-strip Technicolor is harder to figure out because of the internal light loss from the prism and the color separation filters, plus three different b&w stocks were used in the camera. Plus throughout film history, you had some latitude to rate the stocks faster and print up, so what you see in articles of classic Hollywood cinematography is a reference to average footcandle levels of sets, some of which suggest that there was some underexposure going on.  Anyway, a good guess is that 3-strip Technicolor was about 5 ASA when it came out in 1935, then became 10 ASA by 1938 (it's no coincidence that Kodak introduced Plus-X and Super-XX the same year that 3-strip doubled it's speed), and possibly was around 16 ASA to 20 ASA by the time it switched to a tungsten-balanced system in 1951-52 before dissappearing in 1955. 

One hint is that Kodak introduced color negative movie film (5247) in 1950 at 16 ASA (daylight-balance) and claimed the speed and color balance "was equivalent to competing color systems". Then when 3-strip switched to tungsten-balance (partly by request of George Barnes, who was about to shoot "The Greatest Show on Earth" and wasn't allowed by fire laws to use carbon arc lighting inside circus tents) in 1951-52, Kodak came out with a 25 ASA tungsten-balanced film (5248).

In 1959, Kodak replaced that with a 50 ASA tungsten-balanced film, 5250, and in 1962, replaced it was a finer-grained 50 ASA stock, 5251. That was what was being used in 1966. Technically, you'd need 200 footcandles to get f/2.8 on 50 ASA stock (at 24 fps) but you often read about sets being lit to 150 ASA.  And once I talked to Ozzie Morris who said he was using 100 ASA stock through the 1960s when in truth that didn't come out until 1968, so I can only assume he was regularly rating 5251 at 100 ASA, maybe with a 1-stop push.

dmullenasc
2 months ago

Don't get confused by the fact that Kodak re-used their stock numbers -- 5247 got reused in 1974 for their 100 ASA stock, 5248 git reused as a EXR 100 ASA stock, the first high-speed (250 ASA) stock in 1982 was 5293 but that number got re-used just 10 years later for their EXR 200T stock.

dmullenasc
2 months ago
dmullenasc 2 months ago

For long periods, there was only one 35mm color movie film by Kodak on the market at a time, so figuring out what stock was used on, let's say, "2001" or "Lawrence of Arabia" was fairly easy, other than the year the new stock came out and some films were still using the old, some the new, and some mixed the two, like when the first 100 ASA film came out (5254) in the summer of 1968.

But then in 1974, Kodak wanted to replace the entire negative processing line from the old ECN-1 to the new ECN-2, which could be run faster and hotter and skipped a pre-hardening step, all of which required a new stock, which was 5247 (100 ASA).  But many cinematographers hated the look of 5247, which was finer-grained but more contrasty and the shadows tended to shift green when push-processed. So for two years, many Hollywood DP's refused to use 5247 and many labs kept the old ECN processing line going so they could use 5254, whereas in most of Europe and the U.K., they had no choice but to switch to ECN-2 (there might have been one ECN-1 labn left going in France.) Now some say that the 5247 stock being manufactured in Europe was less harsh than the stock being made in Rochester, NY, which is one reason there was less protest over the switch.

By the summer of 1976, Kodak came out with a new version of 5247 and obsoleted 5254, though it took another year before they got rid of 5254 for 65mm cameras, hence why "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" used both the old and new 5247 in 35mm anamorphic but used 5254 in 65mm for their visual effects.

"Barry Lyndon" was shot in 1973-74, released in Dec. 1975 and used 5254.

Chris Challis talked about shooting "The Deep" in 1976 and being surprised that 5254 was still an option since he was mostly shooting in the U.K. where 5247 had been around since 1974. He decided to shoot the harsh sunlight exteriors on the softer 5254 but the underwater work on the sharper 5247. Geoffrey Unsworth was shooting "A Bridge Too Far" in the summer of 1976 (hence why he turned down "Star Wars" being already booked) and said he preferred the sharper, finer-grained 5247 but that was probably because he used heavy fog filters and the newer stock worked better with his diffusion.

HereLiesTomy
2 months ago

Thanks a lot for all these insights David !

I guess a nice thing IMDB could have in the technical specs page of each film would be the negative used, just like in AC (and.. why not.. what is was rated at onset)

I guess you would have gone with 5254 if you could for Love Witch x) ?

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