Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960

When and Why did 35mm Film Become the Standard?

Most commercial movies were, and some still are, shot using film that is 35 millimeters wide.
When and Why did 35mm Film Become the Standard?

When Thomas Edison and his team of inventors, headed by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, finally introduced the Kinetoscope in April 1894, it used a film that was almost identical with the 35mm film used today – the same width and with four perforations on each side of the image.  It has been assumed that Dickson arrived at the 35mm width by cutting a 70mm roll of George Eastman’s transparent, celluloid film in half.  The evidence that survives, however, shows that 35mm film evolved quite differently.  This evolution is meticulously detailed in Paul C. Spehr’s definitive article “Unaltered to Date: Developing 35mm Film” that is included in the book “Moving Images: From Edison to the Webcam” (2000) edited by John Fullerton & Astrid Söderbergh Widding.  We will try to summarize Mr. Spehr’s account, but offer in advance our sincerest apologies to Mr. Spehr for the enormous amount of information we are leaving out.

Film gauges.

When W.K.L. Dickson was developing a motion picture camera, he found that rolls of the new, flexible, unbreakable, celluloid film (which started to be manufactured in the late 1880s) offered the best means for recording multiple images very quickly.  However, the 70mm film being produced by George Eastman for his popular Kodak camera (which took still photographs) proved to be too thin to withstand the severe strain from the continuous intermittent movement to which film in a motion picture camera was subjected, not to mention the wear and tear on the sprocket holes.  Because of this, Dickson found that he needed to special order thicker, tougher film that would meet his special needs.

Dickson began his motion picture experiments using film that was 3/4ths of an inch wide.  Unfortunately this produced a ½ inch wide image that was blurry and unsatisfactory.  So Dickson and his crew experimented with several different image sizes and eventually settled on a picture that was 1 inch wide by ¾ inches high.  Since sprocket holes needed to be placed on each side of the film so that it could be advanced and registered accurately, Dickson found that the actual film width needed to be 1 and 3/8ths inches (35mm) to provide enough room for the image and the perforations.  (Note that the film width was determined by the image size, not the other way around.) But because Eastman’s company couldn’t consistently cut the film to the exact width needed, it appears that from 1890 to 1894 Dickson had his film trimmed and perforated on a special machine at the Edison laboratories to assure accuracy and consistency.  Because of this, the film that Dickson ordered was wider than needed so it could be trimmed to the required size. For instance, by 1892 he was ordering film 1 and 9/16ths inches wide even though by this time the film used in his camera was 1 and 3/8ths inches wide.

William and Edison 1892.

Although the Eastman Kodak Company supplied most of Dickson’s film initially, the manufacture of celluloid roll film in the early 1890s was not an exact science and a great deal of the supplied film was rejected because of its poor quality.  Eastman’s company actually stopped making transparent roll film during the second half of 1892 and didn’t resume its manufacture until 1894. During the period when the Eastman Kodak Company stopped making their transparent film, the Blair Camera Company of Boston, another manufacturer of celluloid roll film that Dickson had used occasionally, stepped in and began supplying Edison’s Company with all its needed film and, eventually, they were able to supply it pre–cut to Edison’s 35mm specification.  But by 1896 the Eastman Kodak Company had perfected its manufacturing processes for celluloid roll film, and when they returned to producing what they called ‘Cine Film’, which was polished on both sides making it clearer than the dark–toned film from Blair, Edison switched back to ordering all of his film, pre–cut, from them.

Despite the many experiments with various film widths by other pioneering companies, the swift acceptance of the 35mm film format by the major motion picture camera and projector manufacturers (Edison in the U.S., and the Lumières in France) was a critical factor in the rapid introduction and spread of motion pictures. It’s interesting to note that prior to 1896 the term “35mm” was not used for what quickly became the ‘standard’ motion picture film.  Until the Lumières finally had their own film stock manufactured in France, all ‘cine film’ was made in the United States or England.  In both of these countries the size of film was measured in feet, inches or fractions of inches.  (As late as 1933 W.K.L. Dickson referred to his film as being 1 and 3/8ths inches wide.)  The universal acceptance of the metric designation ‘35mm’, as well as George Eastman’s acceptance of the term ‘Cine Film’, reflects the early impact of France on the development of the motion picture industry.

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