Creator Sam Levinson and cinematographer Marcel Rév always wanted to shoot their HBO series “Euphoria” on film. But during Season 1 “there were a lot of reasons why we couldn’t do that,” Rév told IndieWire in a recent interview. Rév was happy with the digital look he and Levinson created for the show, but for Season 2 they agreed that film was essential in order to achieve the “deconstruction of memory” that they hoped to achieve. With the intention of finding a new color palette and a grain structure that would give the impression of old photographs, Rev and Levinson tested every possible option when it came to analog film — and ended up reviving an entire format in the process.
“We explored all the available film stocks and all the laboratory tweaks and tricks we could think of,” Rév remembered. “The closest thing to what we had in mind was 16mm Ektachrome, but it was too grainy — 16mm wasn’t quite right for the show as we saw it.”
For photography and film enthusiasts of a certain age, the name “Ektachrome” evokes very specific memories of striking imagery with high contrast, vivid blues, and smooth, rich blacks. Kodak discontinued the production of 35mm Ektachrome over a decade ago; even the 16mm version was used relatively rarely since it was reintroduced to the market in 2019. Rév reached out to Kodak and asked if they could manufacture 35mm Ektachrome again; once the “Euphoria” team assured the company that they would shoot enough film to make it worth Kodak’s while, Kodak agreed to bring the format back and Rev shot around 50 percent of Season 2 on the stock. (The other half was shot on the more universally used 500T Vision 3).
According to Fred Knauf, quality manager for Kodak’s industrial film and chemicals group, Ektachrome was created in the 1940s for use by government agencies, then made available to the public as a still film in 1946. Designed to be an economical and versatile alternative to Eastman Kodak’s signature color reversal film, Kodachrome, Ektachrome was launched as a motion picture film in 1958—though it was intended for industrial applications as well as educational and nature films rather than traditional motion picture use. Later, with the increasing popularity of color television, 16mm and occasionally Super-8 Ektachrome became a favored stock for newscasts, and its 8mm variants were popular with amateur filmmaking enthusiasts. A reversal stock, it produced a positive image on the camera original rather than a negative, eliminating the added expense of creating a positive print from a negative for projection.
screencap / YouTube
Because it wasn’t a negative stock, Ektachrome never took off as a capture medium for big studio movies. But a handful of filmmakers used it to striking effect in the 1990s and 2000s, including Steven Soderbergh in “The Underneath,” Vincent Gallo in “Buffalo 66,” David O. Russell in “Three Kings,” Tony Scott in “Domino,” and Oliver Stone in “Savages.” Most of these filmmakers cross-processed the reversal stock (as does Rév on “Euphoria”), taking the positive image and processing it as a negative rather than in Kodak’s intended E-6 process. The result was unpredictable — “finicky,” as “Domino” and “Savages” cinematographer Dan Mindel remembered it — but the bold and unexpected images were part of the appeal. Before shooting “Domino,” Mindel and Scott used Ektachrome on a commercial where the lab accidentally processed the footage as a negative. “They sent it back to us, very apologetic,” Mindel said, “and we said, ‘Oh, look at that.’”
Scott wanted to use Ektachrome for the entirety of “Domino,” but Mindel talked him into combining it with more traditional stocks “I was saying to him, ‘We’ve got to shoot normal print stock at some point,’ because the emulsion was already very volatile,” he remembered. “We had pushed it one stop, because it’s slow, and then when you cross-process, it gets even more volatile and the highlights and everything are basically up to the discretion of nature. The color spectrum gets a bit wonky.”
For “Savages,” Mindel utilized Ektachrome in sections where he wanted to take advantage of its uniquely saturated palette. “Ektachrome is one of these mystic stocks that takes color and makes it super punchy before you even start,” he said. “Oliver’s vision of California was that it was a really colorful place, so that was basically our reason for using Ektachrome there.”
Unquestionably the biggest proponent of Ektachrome among major Hollywood auteurs is Spike Lee, who has used it on several of his best films. “The first time I shot on Ektachrome was with [cinematographer] Malik Sayeed on ‘Clockers,’” Lee said. “We did a bunch of tests and we both liked the oversaturation of the colors and the way it fit the story, it’s as simple as that.” After “Clockers,” Ektachrome became a staple of the director’s filmmaking grammar, as instantly recognizable as his audacious editing patterns and floating shots of actors riding the dolly.
“I’ve never been shy about experimenting,” Lee said, “and I’ve been blessed to work with Malik Sayeed on ‘Clockers,’ Ellen Kuras on ‘Summer of Sam,’ Rodrigo Prieto on ‘25th Hour,’ Matty Libatique on ‘Inside Man,’ and Newton Thomas Sigel on ‘Da 5 Bloods.’ All great, great DPs who made my movies come alive using Ektachrome and shooting on film — long live film!”
High-profile filmmakers like Lee and Stone weren’t enough to keep the format alive, however, and by the end of 2012 Kodak stopped manufacturing the stock. Still photography demand for Ektachrome diminished as professional photojournalists and high-end “prosumers” began to opt towards digital cameras. Eventually, business across the Ektachrome portfolio declined such that Kodak began to discontinue “first the higher speed Ektachromes, then the Infra-red, and finally, the low speed 64 and 100 speed films,” Knauf said. “The smaller Super 8mm and 16mm business was not enough to keep the products afloat and the product was closed down,” he said.
Yet the format came back — at least in Super 8 — in 2018 with improved consistency and colorimetry (largely thanks to Kodak’s technical manager Jeff Hansen. “The reception in the industry was extremely positive,” said Vanessa Bendetti, global managing director of Kodak’s motion picture business. “When we added Ektachrome Super 8mm to our motion picture portfolio as a regularly stocked item, it immediately sold out. And it continues to be a favorite for Super 8 users.” In 2019, Kodak tested the waters with the new Ektachrome film in 16mm, which, appropriately enough, was first used in a commercial film by Lee for flashback sequences in “Da 5 Bloods.”
In spite of filmmakers’ near immediate embrace of the revived 8mm and 16mm Ektachrome formats, Kodak opted not to pursue the stock in 35mm. “There’s still relatively strong photochemical lab support around the world to process Super 8 and 16mm formats as intended in E-6 process,” Bendetti said. “But currently, there’s limited support for 35mm. While many filmmakers love the distinct and almost surreal impact of cross-processing, we weren’t sure we’d have enough demand in the feature film, TV and commercial segments that use that format most.”
Then came “Euphoria.” Rév and Levinson were looking for a deeper, more intimate style than the broader sweep of Season 1, and they felt the way colors looked in Ektachrome made it the ideal format for their show. “It’s both very true to life and yet has a nice golden or blue — depending on what color lights you’re using — glow to it,” the cinematographer asserted. “Somehow the color hues are not at the exact same point where they would normally be on the spectrum.” Rév worked closely with Kodak, sharing lessons learned from both his tests and the actual shoot, to fine-tune the process of shooting on and cross-processing Ektachrome. “35mm Ektachrome was not in our product portfolio at the time, so we produced to their needs only,” said Bendetti. “Our VP of sales in L.A., Mark Breeze, worked hand and hand with ‘Euphoria’ throughout Season 2’s production.” The result was a spectacular looking season that has already, along with Taylor Swift’s short film “All Too Well, (photographed in 35mm Ektachrome by Rina Yang), generated enormous interest in the format according to Kodak.
A large part of Ektachrome’s appeal in the digital age is its grain and roughness; while other stocks like the 500T have gotten “better” over the years, with more latitude and a smoother image, that look isn’t desirable for cinematographers aiming to get away from a clean digital surface. Even with non-Ektachrome stocks cinematographers like Libatique have pushed 35mm to add grain and texture, and other directors of photography like Ed Lachman (on “Carol”) and Joe Anderson (“The Old Man & the Gun”) have turned to 16mm to achieve similarly striking effects.
Eddy Chen / HBO
Mindel sees other possibilities for Ektachrome in the digital age. “One idea that’s gaining prominence is to shoot digitally and scan onto print stock, and then back to digital,” he said, “so you’d gain some of the photochemical process in the digital world.” (This process was utilized by director of photography Greig Fraser for his Oscar-winning work on “Dune.”) “I’m very keen to mess around with that approach using Ektachrome.”
“16mm and Ekatchrome are definitely the current darlings of our film portfolio,” Bendetti said. “You can’t duplicate their distinct looks and grain, and filmmakers love how they differentiate visually from all the digital content.” Or, as Rév put it: “It has a texture that nothing else has.”