What is Film Stock?

Jessica Ellis

Film stock is the basic component of all motion pictures, allowing images to be captured and reproduced through the use of a camera. Since the early experiments with celluloid film in the late 19th century, the motion picture world has undergone constant revolution through the development and improvement of film. Thanks to applied technical wizardry, film has moved from the grainy black and white images of the original Kodak camera to the colorful marvels of modern stock in just over a century.

A piece of film usually contains several layers of filters and emulsions.
A piece of film usually contains several layers of filters and emulsions.

Originally, film was built on a paper base, making the composition of moving pictures an incredibly difficult process. Celluloid film stock, which was flexible and less delicate than paper, became heavily marketed by several early film pioneers, including George Eastman and Thomas Henry Blair. Despite the considerable advantages given by celluloid film, early film stock was deficient in a few serious matters: it was unable to process red light, and had no standardized size.

Film technology has been evolving since the late-19th century.
Film technology has been evolving since the late-19th century.

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In the early days, film cameras were often unique to their creators, leading to all kinds of variation in the size of film used. As equipment became more standardized, film stock began being issued in a few typical sizes, most notably the 35, 16, and 8 millimeter widths. The matter of film being rendered in realistic color was not addressed until the early 20th century, with the invention of panchromatic film that could see red, blue, and green layers of light.

Today, modern film stock is a lot more complicated than it looks. Instead of a simple piece of dark flexible material, a typical piece of film contains several different layers of emulsions and filters. On top of a safety base, an anti-hilation layer prevents fogging, followed by layers of red, green and blue emulsions each with a filter between them. The film stock also contains yellow, magenta and cyan dyes that are released during processing to give a full spectrum of color.

In purchasing film stock for a motion picture, speed and resolution are two key qualities to consider. The width of the film determines the resolution, or image sharpness, given by the film. 8 mm film typically has the lowest resolution, while 35 mm film is the standard form almost all major motion pictures. Film speed determines how sensitive the film is to light; if a lot of night scenes are planned, higher film speed may be necessary. However, higher film speed may lower the resolution, so filmmakers tend to look for a happy medium in terms of resolution and speed.

Film stock can be quite pricey, depending on the width of the film and length of the roll used. With 35 mm film, a 1000 ft (304.8 m) roll will result in approximately 10 minutes of usable film, and will usually start at about $500 US Dollars (USD.) Using lower resolution film, such as 8 mm, will result in more time per foot of film, and may be a wise solution for amateur or low-budget filmmakers. Some enterprising independent filmmakers choose to avoid film stock altogether by shooting on digital cameras, but film cameras are still considered the giant of the motion picture industry by most experts.

Film stock allows images to be captured and reproduced through the use of a camera.
Film stock allows images to be captured and reproduced through the use of a camera.

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Discussion Comments


Digital cameras are great, but there are some things I miss about film, too. I had a couple of photography courses in college and I really enjoyed my darkroom class. It was a lot of fun to watch the images appear. We really had a good time learning the techniques of black and white developing.

I think the Fuji Corporation is the only company that still makes 35 mm film for regular cameras. I don't know if anyone still makes black and white film. I think it's something of a loss to the photography community.


I think making good film stock is a dying art. I work for a newspaper and our microfilm from the thirties through the nineties looks great. However, the film from the late nineties until now is really starting to fade. We have it in a climate, humidity-controlled environment, and the boxes are acid-free paper, so my only conclusion is that the film stock is really sub-par.

Even though I know most companies don't even make film anymore, and microfilm is less and less common, there are still a lot of companies that use it for archival purposes, so it would be really nice if they could do a better job of producing better quality stock.

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