Kodacolor Decoded: Early Color Footage of Yellowstone National Park

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

So, what would you do if you found what just may be the first color moving image footage of Yellowstone, but it was disguised as black and white images? Well, the staff in the NARA Motion Picture units got pretty darn excited because we’d just stumbled across some very rare film stock and truly unique footage!

First some background: NARA received a large accession of National Park Service records in the winter of 2012/2013. The Yellowstone Kodacolor was discovered while the Motion Picture Preservation Lab was processing the new collection accessioned from the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Because of the park’s popularity, the group of Yellowstone films was among the first of the collection to be inspected. As we were going through our accessioning inspection process 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. With that bit of information, we realized that this reel could be among the earliest color films of Yellowstone National Park.

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. (For more on how Kodacolor works and to see pictures of the camera and projectors, see here.)

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. We sent a query out to our professional organization, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) for help in locating a lab that could preserve this footage for us.

As a result of the query, Tommy Aschenbach from Video Film Solutions reached out to us to let us know that he was in the process of creating a software program that could decode the color information captured in the film. We scanned the film at NARA on our Spirit 4K scanner and provided Tommy with the scans to test and improve the software. We had our first glimpse of the images from the software when Tommy presented at The Reel Thing Symposium at the annual AMIA conference in Richmond in November of 2013.

Our work wasn’t done yet, however. We were able to see the decoded images, but we wanted to make sure that we saved the color information captured in the film using the best method possible – printing it back onto film. So, we wrote a grant proposal asking the National Film Preservation Foundation to fund a film copy generated directly from the decoded color file. Happily, the grant was awarded to NARA in June and we’ve begun working with Mr. Aschenbach at Video Film Solutions to make that preservation process happen and secure these images on film for posterity.

In addition to the technical aspects of the film we were also interested to know who shot the film in the first place and who the human subjects were that featured prominently. Kodacolor wasn’t widely available and was generally used by affluent people with an interest in photography since it required specialized cameras and relatively expensive film stock. Was it done by Park staff? Was it for the visit of the “Senator Rule” who receives a welcome cake in the clip above? We’ll probably never really know, but a note on the original leader suggests that the film may have been shot by Jack E. Haynes, the park’s official photographer. With some expert sleuthing done by NARA archivist Laurel Macondray in consultation with Anne Foster at the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center, we were able to determine that the “Senator Rule” named on the cake is Iowa state senator Arthur L. Rule. Senator Rule was passionate about Yellowstone and visited the park no less than ten times. He also gave lectures about the park during the winter. We believe this footage was shot during Senator Rule’s 1930 visit to Yellowstone.

While we’re not sure how this unique film came to be stored with the Yellowstone films at the National Park Service we’re grateful that it found its way here, where the footage will be preserved and accessible (in full color!) for future generations.

Special thanks go to Janice Wheeler at the National Park Service Harpers Ferry Center, Anne Foster at Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center, Tommy Aschenbach at Video Film Solutions, and to the National Film Preservation Foundation for making preservation of this film possible.

6 thoughts on “Kodacolor Decoded: Early Color Footage of Yellowstone National Park

  1. Great article! What an awesome job putting together the pieces of this old and very complex technological puzzle! Kudos to Motion for all their hard work and for sharing!

  2. Thanks to all of you for your observation and tenacity to pull this back from obscurity. Your work is a gift to all of us!

  3. Thankfully those images were on film or we wouldn’t be seeing it today. I can’t imagine being able to access a digital image 85 years from now.

  4. Very, very cool! I love learning about new-to-me formats. I’m so glad you all are able to preserve this.

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