In the world of movie making we have today, any digital device with video functionality can help you tell a story, from your mobile phone to your computer’s webcam. But what about celluloid film? What is celluloid film, even? We still call movies “films,” right? Film stock used to be the only way major movies would be filmed and distributed. But of course, times have changed, and as technology has advanced, so has the way we make movies. But that’s not to say film is down for the count. Which is why we are going to answer “What is celluloid film?” with definitions, characteristics, and examples.

What is Celluloid Film

What is film made of?

So, what is celluloid film? We say the word “film” a lot to refer to movies, but that’s primarily because, for the longest time, movies were available only on physical film. Even when things went more digital, movies were still mainly being shot and distributed to theaters on film. And while that’s not so much the case anymore, the name has certainly stuck. So let’s dig into what “celluloid film” is and means.


What is celluloid film?

Celluloid film is a strip of transparent film base with plastic coating. First being used for general photography, it was later the prime method for shooting and distributing motion pictures. As movies were quite literally, “pictures that moved” in an order, a reel of celluloid film would capture the images and, strung together, to simulate the illusion of movement. 

What is celluloid film and its characteristics:

  • A flexible plastic strip divided into "frames" with perforations on the sides so it could be fed through a camera /projector.
  • Early nitrate film was extremely flammable and had to be handled with care.
  • Natural film grain present during projection.

Celluloid Film History

A quick history of film stock

Before movies were a thing, film stock was used for photography. Eventually, a few select individuals realized how single frames of cinema film stock could come together to create a moving image. From here, moving pictures were born as a novelty and evolved into a titan of the entertainment industry.

You can get an idea for celluloid film history and evolution in the video below. It also covers cinema film stock types and some of the science that goes into making a piece of physical motion picture film.

Celluloid film history  •  What is film made of?

Advances in technology made better film stock products that would be less flammable and easier to handle, along with film stock that could be used by professionals and amateurs alike. Companies like Eastman-Kodak led the way and became massive brands in the world of cinema film stock. To this day, Kodak reigns supreme as possibly the largest provider of physical film.

Along with things like Technicolor, motion picture film continued to innovate and improve the equipment everyone was already using. But as technology moved ahead, other forms of recording came into play, such as magnetic tapes. As far as movie theaters were concerned, however, celluloid film remained supreme.

Some directors started to embrace and experiment with digital early on, such as Steven Soderbergh and George Lucas. In the case of Lucas, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first major release to get a digital release in major markets. By the time of the 2010s, digital projection had become the norm, as many theaters switched around the same time most movies were being shot digitally.

Celluloid Film Examples

Celluloid film today

When film stock was the only option around, no one was really asking why they were using it as the only motion picture film stock. But once digital filmmaking started to dominate, more people started to speak out about what makes it so special.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the change from celluloid film to digital by many has resulted in some pushing very hard in favor of physical film stock. As a result, many contemporary filmmakers, both professional and amateur, have been able to reexamine what it is about celluloid film that makes it so desirable.

The video below talks about the very contemporary “fight” that persists between celluloid film vs digital, their differences, and how the medium itself is used for the story being told. It more or less establishes that the celluloid film vs digital fight is one that must always be left to the filmmakers and the stories they want to tell.

Celluloid film history  •  celluloid film vs digital

Directors (and evangelists) Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan believe in not just filming on celluloid, but watching it that way, too. A few of their movies have gotten special engagements that show the films on actual celluloid film, but not everyone has the massive pull they do.

Outside of major Hollywood players, other filmmakers have used traditional celluloid film, either in place of digital or a in combination. Both Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story (both from 2019) were shot, and in some cases presented, on 35mm. Even before that, other filmmakers stuck to celluloid film for one reason or other.

Keeping the aesthetic of celluloid film (which can be replicated with digital film grain filters) is one major reason why some directors like using physical over digital. There’s also quality reasons, such as the incredibly high resolution that physical motion picture film can give to an image. For some, the idea that celluloid film limits the amount of mistakes they make is a benefit. By having mistakes be of greater consequence, filmmakers have to plan things out with greater care and accuracy.

For a lot of filmmakers, shooting on celluloid film is very much sticking with a tradition that still endures to this day. Sure it can take a bit more work, but sometimes that extra effort with film is worth it. Whether it’s for a specific aesthetic or ideological reasons, celluloid film, from shoots to projection, is still very much alive.


Film grain explained

Now that we have answered “what is celluloid film” and know a bit more about it, you can dig into film grain, which is a very natural aspect seen in physical film stock. We not only cover what it is and how it looks, but also ways you can use it creatively for storytelling purposes, and how to add film grain digitally to your projects.

Up Next: What is Film Grain? →
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