#492) Two-Color Kodachrome Test Shots No. III (1922)

#492) Two-Color Kodachrome Test Shots No. III (1922)

OR “Color Me Impressed”

Directed by John Capstaff

Class of 2012 

The Plot: It’s 1922 and after over a decade of experimentation, American film is very close to perfecting a color film process. George Eastman and his Eastman Kodak Company develop Kodachrome, a two-color process originally developed for their still photography. Kodachrome creator John Capstaff is commissioned to shoot a series of test films: simple shots showcasing such glamorous movie stars as Mae Murray, Mary Eaton, and Hope Hampton. The results are admirable, but will it surpass the rival Technicolor process? We’ve done almost 500 of these and it’s the first time I’ve mentioned Kodachrome: what do you think?

Why It Matters: Both the NFR write-up and the accompanying essay by film historian James Layton give detailed insight on this film and the Kodachrome process.

But Does It Really?: Well this one’s easy: It’s one of the earliest surviving color tests, and it’s a demonstration of a color film process that isn’t Technicolor. Done and done. Welcome to the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: John Capstaff invented the Kodachrome color process in 1913, and while it was perfected a few years later, development was put on hold until after WWI. Producer Jules Brulator was a friend and business associate of George Eastman, and these tests were filmed at Brulator’s Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. A year after the Kodachrome tests, Brulator married his long-time mistress Hope Hampton, one of the three models seen in this film.

Other notes 

  • First off, a major thanks to the aforementioned Layton essay, which contains most of the information in this post. Turns out a large majority of the internet isn’t interested in Kodachrome.
  • So how did the Kodachrome color process work exactly? Good question. The Kodachrome camera had two lenses – one red-orange, one blue-green – that captured both images onto the same black and white negative. The red and green combination made certain colors appear quite realistically on film (especially skin tones). Because the two lenses were on top of each other, the slight angle difference did lead to some discrepancies, which had to be corrected by hand. The black screen used in these test was a way to avoid any noticeable emulsions appearing in the final print.
  • Of the three performers, Hope Hampton and Mae Murray were film stars, while Mary Eaton was primarily known for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies.
  • As the title suggests, this is one in a series of film tests (possibly as many as 30). Apparently the other test reels filmed actors at the Famous Players-Lasky Studio in Hollywood, with Gloria Swanson being one of the test subjects.
  • Either Kodachrome didn’t quite master skin tones, or Mary Eaton is quite pale, because she looks like a ghost! OooooOOOOOOoooooo….
  • Some interesting speculation from the Layton essay: Test No. III may be outtakes! That would explain how natural and relaxed everyone looks, quite a departure from the poised presentation expected of movie stars of the day. None of the other tests are known to exist, so this is anyone’s guess.
  • My main takeaway from this film is the same as most of the internet: it looks so realistic. Black and white films automatically create a divide between the film and the viewer: we instantly perceive that what we are watching happened “a long time ago”, but even in this primitive form the people in the Kodachrome tests look as vivid and alive as anything you could film today.

Legacy 

  • The Kodachrome test films premiered at the opening of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York on Labor Day weekend 1922. Reception was enthusiastic, though the film’s expensive process limited their showings exclusively to the Eastman Theatre.
  • The Kodachrome process continued to be perfected throughout the ’20s, and in 1928 was in the early stages of becoming the official color film of the Fox Film Corporation. Shortly thereafter, the deal fell through, and Technicolor’s more advanced three-strip color process made Kodachrome the Betamax of its day.
  • Kodak did eventually develop color photographic film called Kodachrome in the 1930s, but this process was related to the Capstaff Kodachrome in name only. This Kodachrome remained popular throughout the 20th century, but like so many other film processes, Kodachrome was discontinued in the early 2000s following the rise of digital photography.
  • In 2009, “Two-Color Kodachrome Test Shots No. III” received a restoration by the George Eastman House, and was posted on Kodak’s YouTube page. As a result, interest in the film skyrocketed (it has over one million hits), and was added to the NFR two years after being posted.

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