Nitrate film: shimmering, unstable, explosive. Very shortly, the second annual Nitrate Picture Show will kick off at George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Billing itself as “the world’s first festival of film conservation”, this festival includes screenings of vintage nitrate prints from George Eastman Museum’s collection and overseas, as well as a lecture series, workshops, and tours of GEM’s facilities. The screening programme is not announced until the day of the festival, but last year’s event included Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (GB 1948); a print of Casablanca primarily printed directly from the original negatives (US 1942); adverts in Gasparcolor; William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (US 1948); and an original dye-transfer print of William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (US 1937).
One of the big questions for this year is whether any silent films will be screened. In an article published last year, festival technical director Deborah Stoiber expressed a wish to show a silent at the 2016 edition of the Nitrate Picture Show, but as she states, “finding a complete, projectable [silent, nitrate] print is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Cellulose nitrate is generally considered the first semi-synthetic plastic, and it is, of course, the first material that was used as a film base. Today, nitrate film is often fetishized, for three main reasons: its inflammability, its chemical instability, and its striking visual qualities.
The fire danger is very real. The 1897 blaze at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris and the infamous 1937 Fox vault fire are two of the most well-known examples, but even today, nitrate fires still occur: in February of this year, the Cinemateca Brasileira lost about a thousand reels of film to the flames. The fire risk was the driving force behind nitrate being phased out as a film base in the early 1950s, and cellulose nitrate is now classified as a flammable solid (Hazmat 4.1) and requires specialist storage and transportation. Of course, nitrate film can be projected safely, but only a handful of places are licensed to do so. When the BFI and FIAF held the symposium and screening programme ‘The Last Nitrate Picture Show’ in 2000, most people assumed that it would be the last event of its type.
Much has also been made of the susceptibility of nitrate film to chemical breakdown. As an organic material, nitrate ages and deteriorates—often to visually remarkable effect—eventually breaking down entirely. In the 1980s, the rallying cry of “Nitrate won’t wait!” was the flashpoint of the film archiving community, and there was a huge drive to preserve nitrate film, the decomposition of which was thought to be imminent. We now know that this rhetoric was overblown, and in fact, moving image preservationists now generally agree that acetate film is at greater chemical risk. Nonetheless, much nitrate film did not have the benefit of good storage until late in its life, and therefore time laid its mark on many films, sometimes in beautifully sensuous ways … One can’t resist the poetry of a picturesque ruin, in film as in architecture.
Thirdly, there’s the “nitrate look”: in projection, nitrate prints are reported to have a unique, shimmering richness, with gorgeously deep blacks. This special lustre is attributed to the high silver content in the emulsion combined with the very high level of transparency of the cellulose nitrate base. I’ve handled plenty of nitrate film, but have never seen it projected, so I can’t weigh in on whether it lives up to its reputation—and I’ve heard from people in the know both that it’s a somewhat overhyped out of romanticism, and that nitrate projection truly is a unique and transforming experience. The rave reviews of the 2015 Nitrate Picture Show suggest the latter. I’m also curious about the appearance of nitrate Technicolor prints, which, not being silver-based, presumably don’t have that same lustrous shimmer—although an original Technicolor print would undoubtedly be stunning in its own right.
Being located far from Rochester, I am not attending what looks like will be a wonderful festival. However, I will seize the opportunity to highlight some of my blog entries that have talked about nitrate film! Readers may be interested in the following:
- My interview with Bin Li, nitrate film specialist. Bin describes his work identifying silent films and the delicate work involved in preserving deteriorated nitrate film.
- Claire Crowther’s volume Silents (2015) is a beautiful suite of poems that contains many references to the physical nature of the medium. “If you should come across old film, a star on the edge / warns you that it burns.”
- I’ve written about several films that display spectacular nitrate damage.
- And don’t forget to have a look at GEM’s own Nitrate Memories blog.
And below, the emulsion boils and roils. A few kaleidoscopic examples of nitrate deterioration: