Would you guess that this just might be the earliest color footage of Yellowstone National Park?
Last year, when staff in the National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab was processing a new collection accessioned from the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, we came across a reel that appeared to be black and white, but the words on the edge said, “KODACOLOR.” Other edge markings told us that the film was shot in 1930. Immediately, we knew we had something really special on our hands.
Kodacolor is black and white to the eye, but is color when projected through the proper filter.
An early reversal color home movie format produced by Kodak, Kodacolor only existed for a handful of years, beginning in 1928, until it was replaced by the much more successful Kodachrome in 1935. Kodacolor appears to the human eye as black and white images, but the base side of the film is embossed with hundreds of tiny lenses (called lenticules) that look like minuscule ridges on the surface of the film base. The lenticules captured the color information from the scene while it was filmed through a color filter with red, green, and blue-violet stripes. In order to see the color the film then had to be projected back through a similar color filter. Kodachrome had many advantages over Kodacolor because it was possible to create duplicates, did not require extra filters, and did not have vertical lines (the lenticules) running through the image. Most people have at least heard of Kodachrome, but few have encountered Kodacolor.
This is a before and after representation of what Kodacolor looks like to the naked eye versus the color that is encoded in the emulsion:
Because Kodacolor is so rare and requires specialized technology to access the color hidden in the film, there isn’t a huge preservation market for the obsolete format. We have a fully operational film preservation lab at NARA (one of the last in the country), but we do not have the ability to preserve the color information in Kodacolor. We can photochemically preserve or digitally transfer Kodacolor in black and white, but to see 1930 Yellowstone in full-color, we needed to use an outside vendor.
To see clips of the film and to find out how a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation and the innovative work of a local vendor allowed us to decode and preserve early color footage of Yellowstone National Park: