June 30th, 2009
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.
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.
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.*
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