Thursday, March 21, 2019

Crazy space shuttle forensics Acmel Polaroid camera conversion. or: The X- Files inspiration.

This is a screen capture of the X files episode with Mulder shooting an Acmel m-165.

Several years ago, I was casually watching X- Files reruns from a DVD while putting in my time on my treadmill, and I spied the oddest and most wonderful large camera. Mulder was taking pictures of a crime scene with what I would later find out was an Acmel Polaroid m-165 forensics camera. It was longer than it was wide, white all over with a Polaroid back grafted to the bottom. It had a bulbous barrel tip with flashes and multiple holes in the front- more like a Gatling gun than a camera. It looked like something Hollywood would make up, maybe for a sci-fi movie involving a space shuttle and future space station. You hold it the way a gunner on the deck of a ship would hold a mounted gun-one hand gripping each side with the barrel sticking straight out in front. Mulder was pointing the barrel of this gun at a body on the ground and snapping instant shots! He was not looking through a viewfinder, but rather at the subject itself by aligning two lasers. Sadly I do not remember which episode- one minute buried in 3 packed DVD sets!
It took me a while to find it, and even longer to acquire it( I am notoriously cheap when adding to my Polaroid collection). Though there is little information on this particular camera out there, I pieced together a picture with lots of google searches and blogger comments. The camera shoots 337 and 339 film. This is an extra wide and large integral instant film- bigger than spectra, and it does not have internal batteries.
The day I got it ( I believe it was from a dentist's office in California), I went on eBay and ordered some 339 films ( by now way expired- like all integral film it was discontinued). I loaded the handles with 4 C cell batteries and tried it out. The film was(not surprising) dried out and pretty useless.
I suppose I could've given up there, but this camera is sooooo cool! It comes with detachable fronts that dial in different depths of macro, some even having auxiliary flashes. The built-in front contains a ring flash and an exposure/ aperture preset. When you plug in these fronts, they push a series of pins in, resetting the aperture and speed to the optimal settings for the lens! I have 3 of the 5 fronts that were offered, and two of them I got from Germany! There was no way I was going to give up. I had to find a solution to this unique challenge(that nobody in their right mind would care about!). Little did I know then that this effort would lead to lots of mini failures!
My second effort was to borrow from a technique I developed to shoot old Kodak instant cameras. If you are not already familiar with this method, I go into more detail in my Kodak instant camera revival blog entry. In a changing bag and using the dried up integral 339 films as a sleeve, I would tuck Instax Mini into each shot and reload the film into the cartridge. One of my shots came out okay(albeit backward due to the type of film being used). Almost all the others failed. The problem was that the rollers got bogged down by the fatter film.
A side-note about the integral film: Polaroid took years and millions of dollars to refine their film. The last days of Polaroid had them putting 12 shots in their Spectra packs. The packs were sleek and light, with just the right amount of paper and chemicals for a perfect spread and perfect shot. Kodak had a brief period of R&D on their instant films before they were sued, so the pack was chunky and there were only 10 shots in a pack. The remade Polaroid film that started in 2009 under “The Impossible Project”, later to become “Polaroid Originals”, had and still has only 8 shots per pack. Fuji used and refined Kodak tech independently, and has refined film packs.
The irony is that the more primitive films(old Kodak and Impossible film) are more robust and therefore easier to twist to the will of artists, creatives, photographers, and tinkerers! The Impossible /Polaroid Originals film is great for transparencies and other manipulation by peeling, and the old Kodak instant film makes a perfect sleeve to tuck Instax film into!
I then tried all manner of cardboard shaped like the film and taped onto Instax. It was terribly impractical(waaay too much time in the changing bag) and met only with mediocre success. Disheartened, I put it back on the shelf for another day.
Occasionally I would come back to it- trying to figure out how to get the modern integral film to shoot out of this bygone film format. I bought a more dried up film and allowed myself to be disappointed each time. My Acmel Dine camera sat like a proud paperweight- a useless, but an interesting artifact of the days of Polaroid film in laboratories all around the world(Polaroid made a film that was the fastest in the world at the time-20,000 iso!).
A couple of years later and some Polaroid Pathfinder 110 conversions behind me, and I looked at this shelf object in a different light. You see, the Pathfinder to packfilm conversion is a time consuming and tedious task with a lot of filing and cutting of metal and plastic, dialing it into exactly the same film plane as the original film back. After doing something that challenging, the idea of film conversion kept returning. This camera would go from artifact to actual usability!

My third stab at getting this camera functional was to mount a pack- film back on the camera. It actually came together quite quickly, and since there were no powered rollers to contend with, it was very simple. My testing was successful, albeit quite a bit less functional. The problem was the film speed. This camera was designed for 640-speed film, so all of my shots on packfilm were underexposed. Since everything was automatically set, it would require many modifications to the pins in the add on lenses in order to dial in the film speed and aperture to fit the 100 films. Yikes! Sounds like work. It also sounds like too much modification. I want to shoot this camera, not a jumbled together facsimile of it!

Ok, so back to the drawing board. At this point, I started to disassemble various “donor cameras” for the project. I started with a Fuji wide 210 camera, before deciding that I was not OK with the film reversal phenomenon(Fuji film exposes through the back to form an image on the front, and Polaroid exposes through the front to form an image on the front). Then I started to dig into a spectra camera, only to discover that there was way too much junk I would have to account for(gears and motor) in between the film plane and the mirror. Finally, I settled on the Spectra 1200ff. Since it folds down into a small sandwich, it has all of the good stuff compacted down beyond the film plane, including the motor and gears!

Lots and lots of taping, cutting, bolts, nuts, and epoxy later, and I had a chopped down Spectra back on the rotating panel of the Acmel. All I had left to do was come up with the electronics that would allow ejection. I have been down this road before with Fuji Instax wide and mini cameras that I have modded, so I knew what I was looking for. Little did I know what I was digging into!
First off, this is a professional scientific camera with challenging parameters and amazing capabilities. Nothing about this camera is simple! At first, I thought I would use a multimeter to test and determine where I was going to draw the power for my new spectra bottom. I know I could have used the film battery to create it as a standalone, but I liked the idea of being able to shoot old, depleted battery film without effort. I wish I had gone the simple route. The cluster of wires was challenging to assign due to lack of significant voltage ( I needed 6 volts), so I decided to trace it back to the circuit board to find out where the missing volts could have been added. This made my brain hurt because as soon as I had developed a theory, I would find something that shot it down! I think I lost a half a day to that stupidity!
Eventually, I decided to have a switch and a circuit that pulls directly from the battery, and not sent thru any of the existing electronics. I rerouted the wires and mounted a red button momentary switch on the back. In hindsight this independent switch actually worked better, as I could shut the power off and devote 100 percent of the battery to film ejecting(normally you have the potential for the flash and the eject motor to draw power at the same time).
I think it is worth cautioning that whenever you are tinkering with one of these cameras with a built-in flash, be very careful around the flash capacitor. They store tons of energy and are just looking for the right sucker to zap(seriously, the charge could kill you). I use a big fat screwdriver with an insulated handle and bridge the cap pins, and the report and spark make me jump every time. This project was no exception, as the camera has a big ring flash and even plugs into an external flash with one of the fronts. I eventually want to build a variable capacitor discharger, but not today.

My hack is not pretty, but here you can see the red ejection button and a pivot button that swings the whole assembly 90 degrees, allowing landscape or portrait with the film!

My proof of concept works- and well! I have run a couple of packs of Polaroid Originals Spectra film through it with very amateur results. The camera has 10 part lightness to darkness exposure compensation, and in the heat of the moment I turned it in exactly the wrong way!
So my takeaways: 1. The Spectra 1200FF is a perfect candidate for organ donation.
2. This camera is going to take some getting used to. Though exposure control is robust, no two fronts behave the same when it comes to lighting.
3. It takes 4 C batteries and they cannot be cheap ones. The combination of the big ring flash and the film ejection will not work with dollar store batteries.
4. This camera is a blast to shoot! I am going to love burning thru some Spectra film with it! I have some ancient scientific grid film that still has some goop left in it...
Houston, we have liftoff!

Addendum: OK- so here are some samples that will help establish a baseline of functionality! They are all overexposed(user error). It has 10 levels of exposure control so that should not be a problem in the future. I got one of those "bad" spectra packs, so there was a lot of reinserting the darkslide and partial pulls(any black lines or vignetting was from that). There is a shadow of wire in the lower right that has since been fixed.
Each photo represents a different front lens module. 


  1. Season 2 episode 3, about 15 min in. I saw the weird camera and had to know how the lasers worked, and found your page.

    1. Awesome, thanks! I will definitely re-watch it!

  2. Hello! So I found this camera and it can be used with normal available polaroid film. My only problem is: the ring flash is dead. can I repair this somehow?

    1. I am just starting to experiment with rebuilding flashes, and I am a long way off! Good luck on this new adventure!