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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As a lifetime professional photolab person, I realize the scale of your undertaking. Back in the ‘70’s, I visited Kodak’s plant at Hemel Hempstead, near London, and was shown the Kodachrome machine room. There were several machines, each one around 70 feet long, continuous processors as used in motion picture film developing. I take my hat off to you, I would not have believed it possible to do what you have done.
Awesome job man. Fully admire what you’re doing. “No such thing as mistakes. Only lessons”. Some have asked “why” and I get it, but just think and reflect for a moment what you’re learning by doing this. The chemistry stuff and so on…mind blowing. The sad bit is even if you do perfect the process, and whilst it will be great for those people with undeveloped rolls, the film itself isnt returning. But as I say, you’ll get a lot out of the work regardless. My Dad had a stash of Kodachrome slides taken of my brother and I in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Even today, 40 years on, the colours are astounding especially when projected.
I have some Kodachrome slides from the ’50s and they are still as clear and sharp as when taken. Kodachrome was made to last.
That was in reply to Khurt Louis Williams
I wonder if you have used much of, and looked at much of Kodachrome. In the entire period from 1972-1990 the only color I shot, outside B&W, was Kodachrome. When I posted my Kodachrome slides on Curbside Classics from a 1972 car show, back when cars had real colors, people were stunned by the colors after 48 years of storage. I was stunned since I never had prints made, nor used a projector to view them, only held in my hand and then put them away.
Kelly-Shane Fuller, kudos on you efforts to recreate a dead film. However, I was left pondering the “why”? What’s the big deal over Kodachrome? I don’t get it.
Some will disagree but Ektachrome had more accurate colour and the development process wasn’t arduous nor used chemicals that were an environmental hazard. And some might say that the recent Ektachrome is even better than in the past.
Some might say that, but I was recently looking at some scans of Kodachome slides that a pal of mine saved from a dumpster… they are utterly gorgeous and have a character and feel incomparable to anything else. Ekta is nice, but man do yourself a favor and look through some Kodachrome slides to refresh your brain. They make me melt with desire and sadness
Here’s a bit of film history from the E4 days of color slide film. In the early 1970’s, just as Eastman Kodak was getting ready to move from the E4 to E6 process for Ektachrome, the “Big Two” in Japan (Fuji Photo Film and Sakura by Konica.) were producing Fujichrome and Sakurachrome R100 for the domestic market.
If you look up a Modern/Popular Photography magazine of the time, there was an article on Fuji and Sakura R100. Fujichrome looked like a “green-enhanced” Ektachrome, while Sakurachrome had a “Kodachrome 64” look to it.
I know something about these films because I was in Japan in the Summer of 1970 on a student tour. I had bulk loaded 20 exposure rolls of High Speed Ektachrome (ASA 160, due to slow lenses in my kit). I tried a roll or two of Fujichrome and Sakurachrome R100 and came away impressed.
For a time, Fujichrome R100 and Fujicolor N100 were available in the U.S. market, until Kodak switched over to high temperature E6 and C41 processing, which took Fuji a while to adjust to. I don’t recall seeing Sakura color films in the U.S. market until later in the C41 years, marketed under a variety of second-tier names like 3M and Sears (?) So, for a time, Konica made an “Ektachrome that looked like Kodachrome,” though I imagine Ferrania also made a “warm tone” Ektachrome as well.
Hi, do you know if Sakurachrome 160 can be processed E-6 like Ektachrome? I recently found some Sakurachrome 160 super8 and want to process it at home.
Quite an amazing story! So sad that Kodachrome had to go away. It was the benchmark by which all other colour films were judged. I suppose we just have to be grateful that Ektachrome has returned!
I have two rolls of KR64 in my fridge that couldn’t make to Dwayne’s in time to get developed (thanks, brazilian post office) and got returned back in 2010. All this time I’ve been searching on the internet for people able to develop KR64 in color. Sometimes some info popped up on Facebook but following the thread took me to another dead end. Your message is a hope for me and those who have memories stored on those undeveloped film and wishing to see the daylight again. I really hope to get my KR64 developed without having to spin a record counterclockwise or sacrifice an f/0.95 lens.
Best wishes, Kelly.
My Kodachrome 25 (135 format) are from the last produced batch and kept in the freezer from the day I bought them.
Wait. Remjet in a film for still photography? Why that? Also I noticed not such a thing on the rolls of K25 I have.
Kelly, thank you for the heard work and countless hours you have invested in this project. I shot mostly Kodachrome from 1980 until it went away thirty years later, and I miss it everyday. My question is: Have you heard from Eastman Kodak regarding what you are doing? Thanks!
Kelly, I am admiring what you are doing over there…
If there would be a chance to get this film back to life…
Believe me; I would do anything to put my hands on a roll of “Fullerchrome” again…
I am indebted to your wife, to give you and us all the time you need for this project.
With my deepest respect
I think she’s a saint for putting up with my crazy photog ways. 🙂
This is insane in best possible way. 🙂
You’re a damned hero. Thank you for your dedication 😘
I wish you well in your crusade.
Worldwide Product Manager Kodachrome and Ektachrome Film
Glad to see all the hard work you’ve done! I know you’re not the only one out there though for developing Kodachrome in color though. I think there’s a gentleman that goes by the name of Adrian Cousins that has had some limited success in developing motion picture Kodachrome in color as well! https://youtu.be/275gPJYDnCI
I know Adrian! He’s making good progress as well. We’ve talked a couple times about process. Quite the awesome dude.
Great Job, I sold, Installed, and repaired several Refrema K-14 Processors. If you have questions, I may be able to help. I also designed a few of the things in those processors. That process is long and complicated, and you seem to have done well up to this point. Almost nobody understands the level of complexity that K-14 has.
Fantastic! I was aware of the incredible complexities of processing Kodachrome, so I knew it would never be possible again. And yet here you are, getting very close! That really is a testament to your perseverance and skill, well done.
Would not have thought it possible for a small ambitious company to do this, let alone a single person. Well done, even if you don’t get all the way there, what you’ve done to-date is impressive!
Kodachrome 25 was my color film of choice and at last count, I had over 20,000 Kodachromes filed away. Now if someone would just bring back the film as I am down to my last 4 roles of Kodachrome 64 in 120… Keep up the good work and thank you!
Thats the sad part about all this, at some point the supply will run out and thats that… But its about the challenge and fun of it for me as much as shooting K14 film(Ok its about that too…) So I’m gonna just keep on keeping on!
I use to work in a technicolor Kodacheome plant. The chemistry was awesome
Very cool! I’ll bet that was quite the experience!! I’d love to have seen that myself.
You’re a madman! Keep fighting the Good fight!
Hi Kelly, we are so fortunate from you following your bliss. Louis
I was brought up on Kodachrome and would be willing to pay to a hefty price to see it come back. Is there a way to support you
You’re my hero, Kelly-Shane! 🙂
the man’s a freaking genius!!
Do yourselves a favor and don’t miss his YouTube channel.
Thanks Efrain! 🙂