Legend has it there was once a film that held in its grasp the bright greens of summer and made all the world a sunny day. That was until a fateful day in 2010 when Kodak brought it’s benevolent reign to a fateful halt.
We are, of course, talking about Kodachrome, the legendary color reversal film that was top dog in everything from family photos to fashion shoots, that lived in an adventure in nearly every film photographer’s camera bag.
When Kodak finally killed Kodachrome in 2009 after 74 years in production due to the rise of digital and — as rumor has it — it’s environmental impact, there was gnashing of teeth and much angry posting in dark corners of the internet, but most people moved on.
One person in particular, did not.
In 2016 rumors rose of a madman with the unholy power to raise Kodachrome from the dead and develop it in color long after Kodak had given up, long after all the labs across the globe ended support for it. It was said that if you spun around 3 times counterclockwise and offered an F/0.75 lens on the correct altar he would appear and grant your deepest of desires: developing your freezer kept stash of Kodachrome film in color.
Well, I’m here to tell you that those rumors are (mostly) true. I am that man. And I’m going to take you through the story of my descent into madness right here. Cue the wobbly lines…
It started many years ago when I was offered a large stash of film for simply the cost of shipping by a friend of mine. He ran a studio and was retiring, so had no more use for his collection of film. There were a ton of rolls, but among them were several hundred rolls of Kodachrome 64. All freezer kept and all totally undevelopable to their original full color glory.
Being the obsessive tinkerer I am I began to look into the prospects for developing it myself. I knew it was officially dead, but I also knew that the death of a film didn’t mean a lot to the sorcerers of film and darkroom alchemists that live their lives in the deepest, darkest bowels of the internet.
Time and time again I was told, “It’s impossible”, “Give up”, “Not a chance!”.
Now, impossible isn’t a word that I’m familiar with. If it had been done before I saw no reason it couldn’t be done again so I began to research what exactly that would involve. Not a humblebrag but I ask you to bear in mind I know a LOT about film processes. I’ve used nearly every process out there and have developed several of my own (ask me about E6 reversal without E6 chemistry sometime!) so I figured it wouldn’t be the end of the world. But I quickly discovered that “Thar be dragons here!” was the only thing on the Kodachrome edge of the map.
Kodachrome’s K-14 process is quite unlike any other. You see, Kodachrome isn’t ACTUALLY a color film, it’s several layers of black and white film sensitized to the different colors and the necessary color dyes are added during the development process. This involves:
- A black and white “first” developer.
- A remjet removal.
- Three separate color developers (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta).
- Three filtered light re-exposures between each color step(Red, Blue, and full-spectrum).
- A ferric bleach.
…not to mention a plethora of washes at every step in between.
This whole dance has to happen in the dark as well, as you slip the film in and out of the tank and past filtered lights. The process is unique and only used with Kodachrome. Objectively, it was totally unlike any other film produced and I truly believe that the complexity of this process played a massive part in the eventual demise of the film.
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Once I had done the research into what the process looked like, I then had to figure out how to pull it off. It turned out that it was true that many of the original chemicals were totally impossible to source, so I was forced to fabricate many of them myself.
I dove into a crash course in organic chemistry via Professor Google to begin learning how these compounds did what they did. This part alone was nearly 6 months of gruelling research and stacks of barely understood textbooks to even begin wrapping my head around what was coming next.
Armed with a basic understanding of what I was looking for and what I needed to build to complete the process, I quickly ordered a bunch of chemistry from China and a multicoloured LED flashlight and waited for my parts to arrive.
I went out and shot a roll of K64 and dove into the darkroom full of hope. After 2 hours of mixing, waving flashlights around in the dark and getting remjet all over the place, I emerged with a processed roll of K64.
IT WAS IN COLOR!
The balance was way off, some colors were wrong, and the slide was very thin. But it proved that it was possible to hand process Kodachrome in my garage with chemical formulas I’d hacked together myself!
Fast forward to hundreds of rolls and many, many, MANY failures later, each test gets me a little closer to Kodak’s results. There’s been a lot of “one step forward, 40 steps back” moments, as I would think I’d finally mastered the dark art only for the next roll to turn out to be a total failure. Back in March 2017 I was getting consistent results on my small test batch so I briefly opened up and begin accepting rolls to process for others. It quickly became apparent that the age and storage of the rolls was playing a huge factor in the processing of the film and as more failures were produced than wins I had to begin refusing rolls while I sorted it all out (again).
Most recently I have began working with a corporation that has been sponsoring my work and providing lab services to help iterate through the process at a much faster rate than possible on my own. We’re making progress. We’ve identified a bug in the processing machine I initially built, and some stabilizing chemistry in the last few days that should help with base fog.
So where does this go in the future?
Ideally, I conquer the beast and produce again the beautiful colors we all pine over from Kodachrome at a scale that’s viable for the shooters of the world to take advantage of. Sadly it’s impossible at this point to know if I’m going to reach that goal, or what the timeline will be, but since I’m the last best hope for Kodachrome I continue to fight the good fight.
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