I’ve been shopping for “lots” on eBay lately: sellers box up a bunch of low-end things, like cameras or 8mm movies, and then sells them as a set. I’ve found I can get some pretty cheap fun stuff — plus, the mixed-bags aren’t always described very well, so sometimes you get a surprise. In a lot of three movie cameras, I got this strange little beast:
It looks about the same size and vintage of Super8 cameras, and upon opening it up I can see it required a film cartridge. However, the cartridge is too long and too thin to be Super8, or even a cartridge-loading 8mm roll-film camera. The Polaroid logo on the front should have been my first clue — In the land of Land, Polaroids weren’t the kind of camera that used over-the-counter film formats. This is a Polavision camera: Polaroid’s first and only foray into self-developing movie film.
Yes, that’s the part that blew my mind: the magical Polaroid 600 film that everyone shakes like a Polaroid picture is awe-inspiring enough, so doing that at 20 or 30 frames a second blows my mind. The film was, technically, 8mm film, but it wasn’t the same beast. The film was pre-loaded in a cartridge, along with a reservoir of developing fluid. The movie was filmed in a Polaroid camera, like any other normal home movie. The specialized player did most of the work: the first time a cartridge was played, the player released the developing fluid, and in 20 seconds the whole movie was ready to be watched.
Polaroid devoted enormous amounts of money and resources into producing these instant-watch films — compared to regular 8mm home movies, which could take days to get back — and when they released it to the market they expected these Polavision cameras to take off like hotcakes.
In 1950, maybe: color silent movies were the standard of the day, and quick developing would be a big advantage.
In the 1960s, Super8 film, with a larger frame and better sensitivity, was beginning to take over the market — but Polaroid might have still been able to hold their own.
The Polavision home movie system, unfortunately, debuted in 1977 — the same year the VHS tape broke into the United States market. Betamax had been around since 1975. Even Super8 got sound recording in the early 1970s. The self-developing technology was an enormous breakthrough, but as a personal movie-maker it was about twenty years too late.
The image quality was too poor, even by the low-quality bar that VHS lived with well into the 1990s. It could only shoot for two minutes at a time, and being locked in a cartridge means no splicing film together into longer movies. The Polavision film had a very low ISO, so it only worked well in outdoor bright daylight. The Polavision viewer that was crucial to the development of the film was inadequate for shared viewing, and wasn’t able to project on a large screen. Pretty much the only advantage the Polavision system had was that magical quick developing, which made it only useful for speed, and not for, you know, enjoyment or artistic creativity.
The Polaroid company was already beginning to implode, even without this huge financial failure; Land left the company in 1980, and the business struggled to hold on until 2001 when it was sold off to investors, and stopped producing instant film shortly thereafter. The quick-developing technology didn’t die, though, at least not right away: Polaroid upscaled the process and loaded into standard 35mm rolls, releasing it as the quick-developing Polachrome instant 35mm slide film.