The Polaroid corporation, whose former headquarters are located conspicuously close to the Conservation Center of the Harvard Film Archive between Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, made a grab for the home movie market in the late 1970s with the release of Polavision.

1978 Polaroid Polavision Instant Movies Commercial

Polavision camera and cartridge

Polavision camera and cartridge

Known as a favorite endeavor of Polaroid’s founder Edwin Land, the Polavision project, which included a camera, viewer, and instant super 8 film cartridges, went into development in the 1950s and was released to the public in 1978.

photo courtesy polapix

photo courtesy polapix

The project’s technical premise was based on additive color, a process inherently slower than the subtractive color process used in one-step print color photography that Polaroid pioneered in the 1950s and 1960s and also unlike other motion picture film stock of the time. (though it did have some similarities to the Dufaycolor process used in the 1930s and 1940s by filmmakers such as Len Lye).

Essentially the film consists of a black and white base and a three color filter layer where colors are formed by blocking light with dyes of magenta, yellow, and cyan. If you take a look at some processed Polavision film under a microscope, you’ll find that its surface is made up of strips of alternating red, green, and blue filters (appearing in some ways like the phosphor stripes of the CRT of a color TV).  These filters act both during exposure and during viewing to reproduce color.*

Polavision film scan

Polavision film scan

The nature of the additive process resulted in a very dense look, as the filtering cut down on the amount of light that could be transmitted through the film. This is the reason for the standalone table-top viewer, which aimed to correct this problem, but also made the system very proprietary in nature, unlike most other super 8 films which could be viewed with any brand’s super 8 projector.

While the instantaneous nature of the process was undoubtedly innovative, Polavision was a monumental failure for the Polaroid corporation with disappointing sales and languishing inventory. More than anything, the timing of the new process was just off – instant movies were quickly becoming available to home consumers with video cameras. The Polavision system as a whole, aside from the difference between the recording format of film or video, resembles early camcorder systems: the portable VCR consisted of the cassette player/recorder unit, and a television tuner unit, much like Polavision’s camera, cassettes, and separate viewer.

Polavision proved to be a costly mistake for Polaroid, and by 1979, only a year after widespread public introduction, production ceased and the Board of Directors wrote down the huge inventory of Polavision products, rumored to result in a $15 million loss for the company. In spite of its short life span, Polavision cartridges exist in many archives and collections today, including those of the Harvard Film Archive. Artists and filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Robert Gardner, Stan Brakhage and Charles and Ray Eames utilized the format for their works, as well as countless numbers of equally important amateur home movie makers.

*Technical information courtesy The Land List, http://www.rwhirled.com/landlist/landdcam-pvis.htm




projector-with-film-cartridges1

This is the 9.5mm Pathé Baby projector and film (reduction prints).

9.5mm, a safety stock (not flammable) developed for home use, was invented in France in 1922, pre-dating the familiar 16mm gauge by one year.   Previously, Pathé had offered a safety stock on 28mm, which proved too expensive to see widespread use.  9.5mm took off, becoming extremely popular in Europe where it is still used to this day by amateur filmmakers.  9.5mm was sold in the USA as well, but 16mm proved to be more commonly used by North Americans, which is why many of us have never heard of 9.5mm film.

95mm-film-showing-notches-and-titles1

As you can see in this image, the 9.5mm gauge features a perforation between the frames instead of along the side (which is the standard for all other film gauges used today).  This affords greater real estate for the image, as leaving space along the edge for the perforation is not necessary.  This narrow film has the image area almost as big as 16mm.

9.5mm was an early amateur film stock, used by people to make home movies.  Pathé initially included instructions and equipment for developing the film at home as well, but difficulty in achieving consistent results led most people to send it away for processing.

The glassed-in circle at the bottom of the projector is an enclosed film take-up area.  The projector can play two sizes of film cartridges, lengths of 8.5 meters or 20 meters.

2-sizes-95mm-film-cartridges

The films in this box are reduction prints of  French, English, and American condensed films, sold in France.   The projector features a mechanism which stops the film for a few seconds when it is signaled to do so by a notch on the edge of the film.  This was employed for commercial films, freezing the film on a title card, saving precious film stock for moving image instead of using it up making longer title cards.

For more information on 9.5mm and the long history of home movie technology, see Alan Kattelle’s exhaustive book on the subject, Home Movies (Nashua: Transition Publishing, 2000.)

1920s-pathe-baby-9-5mm-projector2