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Old Film

Unprocessed old Film - what's to be done?


You've probably got some old film, unprocessed, from long ago. You may have inherited it, and of course it contains memories of the old days, but where can you get old photo film developed these days? Don't worry, because help is at hand. However, you'll have to be patient, and it might cost more than originally expected. But it's worth it! Historical photos of the irreplaceable age are to be valued.

It's important to avoid being in a hurry, and also it's important to keep ALL of the evidence. Being a hoarder is good. Besides, information can be recovered in the future even though it was thought to be "impossible" in the present time. You need to keep the evidence, originals, etc, otherwise it's lost.

Photographs taken on plates can always be recovered. There are museums whose speciality is the preservation of old photography. The processes of early black and white photography are well known and it is possible, with a darkroom and some available chemicals, to develop and bring back to life images from a long time ago. Extreme care is required, though, as the stuff is fragile.

Black and white film, whether stills or movie, can be recovered by similar processes.

Colour developing of old film is more complicated, and some processes used unusual chemicals and equipment which is difficult to cope with. Kodachrome was a particularly notable system which required some elaborate technical equipment, chemicals, and technical expertise. The last "official" Kodachrome processing lab was Dwayne's Photo in Kansas. They were processing old Kodak film right up until 30th December 2010, by which time there was such a vast rush as people discovered hoards of undeveloped old films, that some people missed the deadline. Don't blame Dwayne's for the closing of the last official K-14 Kodak Chrome process; Kodak stopped making the chemicals. Even after this there were still some unofficial places doing some Kodachrome processing, and it's now become a Linux-like hacking movement to recover old film. See http://www.kodachromeproject.com/forum/ and other online sources. There are even some people trying to rescue old K-Lab equipment, which will require special photo chemicals to be found, from such places as Bellini Foto of Italy, etc.

If you have some old film, undeveloped, don't be put off by the present (2012) difficulties. Instead, hang onto your old film, and keep it cool and dry, because sooner or later there will be a well-proven way to recover it, good as new! How cool? How dry? Well I'd recommend fridge temperatures and less than 50% humidity (in a sealed box), but if you can't manage that, just keep it somewhere safe.

One option for Kodachrome still available in 2012 at least is the "Kodachrome to black and white" method. This sounds decidedly non-ideal, but hear me out, because I believe the colour CAN be recovered later but only in some circumstances.

For example, Old Film Processing.com is a specialist place in London. The experts there know about the complicated process of Kodachrome but they don't have the chemicals. However, they are able to process a Kodachrome film, whether it be stills or super8 movie, to produce a black and white negative. Now here's the important bit: KEEP THE NEGATIVE SOMEWHERE SAFE. Keep a digital copy for showing off, but keep the archive original somewhere safe. In the next 20 years, a better quality digital version can be created from it. And in 50 years, an astonishingly good quality result can be produced, but only if you keep the old film safe somewhere. It's no good having a copy of a copy. You need the original.

The thing is, Kodachrome film consists of several layers of black-and-white film which then have colour filters added. If an undeveloped Kodachrome film is developed using black&white methods, all of the layers develop, producing what LOOKS like black&white. But, the colour information is still there, inside the developed result. You may not be able to see it, but it's there, and if you had the result scanned with one of those microanalytical devices they have in about 20 years from now, the colour would be recoverable. Or to put it another way, provided you keep the film, the colour WILL be recoverable.

If you have a Kodachrome movie film developed, using the black&white technique, what you get is a movie in negative. You can put it in a projector and you see shapes that are recognisable, but with black being white and white being black, and no "visible" colour information. Using present-day techniques you can easily reverse the image to get black-and-white positive movie, but you MUST keep the negative. In years to come, the colour will be recoverable.

If you think this is far-fetched, consider this: A lost episode of "Dad's Army" that famous British sitcom, was recovered but it was in black&white. However, the black&white version had been created by taking a black and white film of a colour monitor, and there were telltale dots on the screen, which by modern computer techniques, allowed the original colour to be recovered. So, that episode is now in the original full-colour even though it had at one time only existed as a black&white version. This is essentially an archaeological technique, and works where the medium has hidden things in it.

If you've converted your movie to DVD and not kept the original, it's probably too late. You need the original!

The black and white to colour post-processing on old Kodachrome is possible because within the film there are multiple layers each of which is about a colour. When this information is all recovered, the result may have colours which are "off" the correct version. Old Kodachrome was known for its special nuances of good colours, so it's noticeable if this is off. However, you can recover the true colours provided there are some objects in view which still exist and which are of known colour for calibration. This technique was discovered on Mars in the early Viking landers. The sky was the wrong shade of pink, but then someone noticed an orange cable which was part of the spacecraft, and as the colour of this was known because there were pieces on Earth, the colours coming in from Mars could be adjusted to give the correct Martian sky colours and vivid red rocks on sand with rust. Essentially a matter of calibration.

More contacts to be added about this, the archaeologicalesque restoration of old film. Please contact this site for more links and references to be added. It's important for future history, posterity, that these things be kept.

Film museums are keen to have everyone's support as they often have vast quantities of old Nitrate film which needs to be rescued before it goes bad. Let's give them some help by being included here in this film rescue and recovery page.