Polavision: The Demise of a Legend 

Welcome to our new biweekly series! This semester, every two weeks on Tuesdays, we will be blogging about some of the most obscure media formats ever created. We will be focusing in particular on instant flops and on niche, quirky oddities—some of which (like the format covered today) even reside in MSU’s own audiovisual collections. 

Meet Polavision: the instant film home movie system that was entrepreneurial mastermind Edwin Land’s most treasured brainchild, and the most hated archnemesis of everyone else who worked for his company. 

A Polavision film cartridge pictured with its original packaging
A Polavision film cartridge pictured with its original packaging

Polavision was intended to be the Polaroid company’s biggest breakthrough, and instead it was the company’s biggest flop, one that contributed significantly to its eventual bankruptcy, and that was discontinued only two years after it was introduced on the market. 

But what was Polavision? 

In brief, it was an instant movie system similar to Polaroid’s instant photographic film cameras, and it included a camera, film, and a movie viewer that could develop the film and view it at the same time. The system used a simple color additive process with three color filter layers that allowed for instant developing (point of fact, it was similar to early Dufaycolor processes). 

The concept of instant film development was not without precedent: the first attempt to create instant movies was by John Logie Baird in the 1930s, who used a so-called “intermediate” film system in his studio cameras in the early 1930s. This included 35mm film cameras with developer tanks placed beneath them, so that the film developed straight out of the camera, and it was scanned while it was still wet. This system was not intended for mass market production like Polaroid’s Polavision, though. 

Problems plagued Polavision from the get-go: Stanford Calderwood, the executive vice president, complained that “the movie camera business only accounts for three percent of the entire photographic market, and yet Land insists on getting into it.” No matter: Land insisted that once the public markets caught wind of his technological innovations, demand would follow supply. President Bob McClune was more skeptical of this, and believed Polavision was too big of a bet on a new product with very little market research to support it. 

Segment from a Polavision user manual

Eventually, after many delays and ten years in the research and development pipeline, Polavision was released in 1977—the exact same time as many other, better competitors. If Polavision had been released earlier, perhaps it would have had the upper hand, but as it was, the resulting image quality of its three-color filter layer process was extremely grainy, and “closer in appearance to the dots on a color television screen than regular film.” This was not its only serious shortcoming: Polavision could only shoot up to two and a half minutes of content; it did not record sound; and, finally, its extremely slow film speed required bright light at all times during filming. Compared to existing Super-8 cameras and projectors, the public was unimpressed. 

Even former Polaroid freelancer Paul Giambara remarked that Polavision was “a turkey compared to anything that Kodak offered, and a positive disaster when compared to my 8mm Bolex.” 

Judge for yourself from MSU’s digitized Polavision—what do you think of the image quality? This digitized recording is from the University Archives and Historical Collection’s materials, and depicts an MSU basketball practice from approximately 1981. 

For further reading about Polavision and the history of the Polaroid company, see the resources below:


Add yours →

  1. I just wanted to drop a comment that I love this blog! I’d never heard of Polavision and it’s fascinating.

  2. Ruth Ann Jones 2023-08-29 — 19:28

    Wow that basketball clip was pretty grainy! And very staticky at the beginning, as if the system needed to warm up to achieve its best reproduction.

  3. Marian Matyn 2023-08-30 — 19:28

    Thanks for the informative and very interesting blog. Fortunately for me I do not have any Polavision in the Archives at CMU.

© 2023 Media Preservation at MSU Libraries

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑