An Ode to Celluloid

Originally published on 31 March 2015 at Cinema Poetica / Translated by Rizal Iwan and Adrian Jonathan


In the beginning, cinema came as a part of science—as an ambition among scientists to capture motion. At the end of the 19th century, the human civilization has discovered a means to preserve writings (through printing machines) and images (through photography). Both breakthroughs in technology led to the birth of the printing and photography industry—two industries that have continued to keep our civilization going today. It was different, though, for motion. People still had to rely solely on their sight and memories.

Scientists then started experiments using chemical substances and materials. After various experiments using different substances, they discovered a material considered to be the most stable in capturing motion, i.e. gelatin tape layered with silver halide (AgBr) emulsion, which we now know as celluloid. The way celluloid works is similar to how our eyes see things. The eyes capture images based on the lights reflected from the objects we see. Celluloid records images based on the lights exposed on its surface. The chemical emulsion on celluloid reacts, adapting to the various intensities of lights it receives: dark, bright, or in between. A moment later, the emulsion freezes—and that is the image that will be projected to the screen.

As the breakthroughs in printing and photography, the invention of celluloid led to the birth of the film industry. A matter that used to only involve scientists began to involve the public. Furthermore, for over a hundred years, celluloid became the highest standard for audio-visual recording material; used by all kinds of entities—film studios, artists’ workshops, and national archive centers. Certainly, throughout the lengthy period, celluloid went through various upgrades and improvements to adapt to the evolving eras. In the late 1920s, celluloid met audio recording technology, leading to the birth of “talking movies”. In the late 1950s, celluloid was developed using an emulsion that processed colors, leading to the birth of “colored movies”. Not to mention the different kinds of celluloid produced: 8mm, 35mm, 70mm. However, the working mechanism of celluloid remained the same: light exposure, chemical reaction and image creation.

A decade before the 21st century, the journey of celluloid came to a halt. Digital technology was introduced, and it rapidly became the new standard of filmmaking. In Indonesia, this transformation from celluloid to digital started in 2011. The big cinema chains began the migration to digital projection. The next year, smaller cinemas in small towns followed. This led to multiple consequences. Film production began to shift from predominantly celluloid to totally digital. One by one, film laboratories went out of business, losing their biggest source of income.

This raises a question: when celluloid is no longer the industry’s standard, is it losing its value as a medium? As it is out of date as a recording medium while all the convenience digital technology is offering, is the use of celluloid in the present day nothing more than pursuits of nostalgia?

At this point, we have to seriously reconsider the role of cinema and other audiovisual products in our lives. Thanks to the medium’s characteristic and the long history of usage, celluloid still has two practical functions. Firstly, it is still the most intimate medium of expression with its user. At the surface, digital technology seems practical and convenient, but what most people overlook is the bureaucracy that separates the user and their work. The digital technology used in film production today is based on standards predetermined by a consortium of major corporations.

The simplest of examples is ‘codec’, a software component that processes audio-visual data. Every time we play a film in digital formats such as avi, mpg, mkv or mov, we only get to have the files as they come, without any control to modify them as per our requirement. If we make even the smallest modification, the audio-visual data cannot be played. On a bigger scale, should the aforementioned consortium that owns the formats change their mind in the future, and a new ‘codec’ is introduced as the latest audio-visual standard, we will have no choice but to comply to this change.


Celluloid, with all its variants, works based on the same mechanism: light exposure, chemical reaction and image creation. Nothing more. If we decide to play or experiment with the level of light exposure or the chemical content in the emulsion, our audiovisual “file” can still be projected—because basically, celluloid only needs light exposure on show the images on it. Every stage of operation is physical and tactile. Processing celluloid is also not dependent on established film laboratories. The fact is, after many film laboratories worldwide closed down, filmmakers and film enthusiasts have been working to set up independent film laboratories, one of which is Lab Laba-Laba in Jakarta. Not all of its members have a background in chemical engineering. Most of them taught themselves how to use celluloid through books or Google. Sometimes Yahoo.

As a medium, celluloid is flexible. This means, it also offers a huge amount of possibilities for artistic endeavours, potentials that have not been fully explored yet by Indonesians. The fact is, the use of celluloid in Indonesia was quite limited to film productions. One of the reasons was because of the high prices of celluloid stocks in the past. Today, when celluloid no longer has high economic values, it is possibly time for us to play with it more.

Secondly, celluloid is very much attached to the historical legacy of our nation, and also the world. The history of cinema went hand in hand with modern history in general. This medium has been used for more than one hundred years as the standard for audio-visual recording—and this is not limited to the film industry. Our state-owned archive centers like the Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia (ANRI/National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia) and Perpustakaan Nasional (National Library) are storing more than a few collections in celluloid.

Not to mention the personal uses of celluloid. Many home videos, either by individuals or families, are still stored in celluloid. Every year, there is International Home Movie Day, organized by celluloid enthusiasts and activists all across the globe, inviting people to screen their amateur films and home videos for public. Indonesia is a part of this movement. On 14 October 2014, Lab Laba-Laba organized Home Movie Day in Paviliun 28, a public screening space in Jakarta. They openly invite anyone to bring documentation of family films in the format Super 8mm, 16mm, and Betamax.

Speaking of family documentation, I was reminded by the late Misbach Yusa Biran, a film director, screenwriter, columnist and founder of the Indonesian film archive Sinematek. He kept the 8mm recording of his wedding day with actress Nani Wijaya. Unfortunately, because the projector is compatible to play 8mm hardly available, he could not access one of the most important days of his life. Forum Lenteng, a Jakarta-based visual art community and research group, managed to digitize the images recorded in the celluloid tape—excerpts of it are included by Forum Lenteng in their feature-length documentary about Misbach titled Anak Sabiran, Di Balik Cahaya Gemerlapan (Behind the Flickering Light: The Archive) in 2013. The images were brownish and blurred by many scratches due to age and lack of proper maintenance. Sadly, Misbach passed away in 2012 before Forum Lenteng released their film.

Cinema perpetuates histories, including ours. In fact, human civilization has grown increasingly visual due to the development of photography and cinema technology. Previously human could only be immortalized as a name in police records and a statistic in population census. Now, anyone can capture the world, including him or herself, in still or moving images. Unfortunately cinema as a storage medium, in any format, is not eternal. Visual recordings have a finite lifespan, so are the memories of civilization contained therein. Misbach is not alone. Someday we might have trouble accessing our own memories.

We need to give attention back to celluloid, especially when the film archival and preservation in Indonesia is hardly ideal. In one of the film vaults of Perum PFN (Perusahaan Produksi Film Negara / State Film Production Company), Lab Lab-Laba managed to note around 853 films, mostly news reel and documentaries. They estimated, in other PFN’s film vaults, there are one thousand more films that need to re-inventoried. Obviously these films will not be as good as the condition of the 853 films that Lab Laba-Laba had found, considering the condition of the film vaults itself is inadequate. Even then, those 853 film themselves were already in alarming condition—scarred and moldy. Some have even already lost their emulsion layer.

Sinematek Indonesia is no better. In 2013, there were 414 films consisting of 84 negative copy, 17 black-and-white 16mm films, 58 color 16mm films, 53 black-and-white 35mm films, and 235 color 35mm films. In addition there is a collection of news reel and documentation in celluloid, which is around 313 titles. Roughly only a third of Sinematek’s collections are still suitable for re-viewing. Most of them are missing one or two reels or suffered minor to major damage.

If in the near future there are no serious measures taken to address preservation measures, as well as the lack of adequate film vaults in Indonesia, our histories stored on thousands of celluloid will slowly but surely disappear. The question is: to what extent are we willing to tolerate the loss of history, until finally we can only lament the history of loss?

Now, celluloid has returned to us as science, just like it was when it was born. We need to get reacquainted with it, and go back to exploring the small universes it has created. To forget celluloid just because it no longer has practical use is the same as forgetting a large part of ourselves.

This article is an expanded version of the intro for Lab Laba-Laba Exhibition in Perum Produksi Film Negara, Jakarta, from 4 to 26 April 2015.