I’ve been a cinephile for a long time. I worked in video stores for years as in my ‘teens & 20s, I studied film in college, and I was a projectionist for a decade after that. Not only did I watch most of the films I showed, but I also went out to see 5-10 movies a week in my heyday. I’ve projected at several film festivals, and still do at the Provincetown Film Festival, although we don’t run much film anymore. I’ve been working with film for so long, I can usually identify the film base by touch.
After years of projecting, I went to film preservation school in Rochester, NY (class of 2001) at the George Eastman House (now GEM), a museum and archives of photography and film in the mansion of the founder Eastman Kodak. It’s an inspiring place.
A few weeks ago, I went back for my school’s anniversary reunion, attended by 20 years of graduates, which coincided with GEM’s 2nd annual nitrate film festival.
Watching nitrate films used to be the standard movie-going experience. Now it’s incredibly rare. I had only seen a nitrate print projected once, a lovely Technicolor print of THE RED SHOES, at GEH when I was a student.
Many things in the field of entertainment were made of nitrate-based plastic back in the day, including theatrical motion picture film, still photography negatives, dice, and billiard balls. Sometimes you’ll see a silent film in which a billiard ball explodes and you may well think, what the heck is that gag all about? They say ping pong balls are still made from it; they sure do burn fast.
Nitrate, or celluloid, is a plastic that is fairly unstable, and prone to dramatic fire. If stored correctly and not decomposed, nitrate can last for a long time, but under the right circumstances, it can burn and it burns hard. As it burns, it creates its own oxygen source, making it very difficult, if not impossible to extinguish.
Although safety (non-flammable) film was produced commercially for the amateur film market in the nineteen ‘teens, it was not perfected enough to use for theatrical film prints that could be shown hundreds of times in cinemas until the 1950s.
Many fires in storage depots, cinemas, and even on public transportation were attributed to nitrate film in the first half of the twentieth century. People were not as careful with it as they should have been – projectionists sometimes smoked in the projection booth, storage depots were not kept at cool enough temperatures, and accidents do happen.
Recently there was a nitrate fire at a film archive in Brazil. The government had cut funding to the archive, and as a result they were unable to properly oversee the nitrate film vaults. They lost over a thousand reels of film, one vault of many, and probably some of the films were lost forever. The firemen didn’t immediately grasp the seriousness of the situation, and left the scene without being sure another fire wouldn’t start. A former classmate of mine convinced them of the seriousness of the situation by reminding them of that scene in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Thank you, Patricia, and thank you, Tarentino!
In 1952, the industry switched to safety film, on triacetate base. Nitrate was no longer produced (although production did continue in the USSR, reportedly through the 1970s). Around the same time, other major changes were made to theatrical motion picture film and presentation that caused the film we watched in theatres to look very different to the trained eye.
- Base change. As I said, the film going through the projector was no longer nitrate.
- Silver. As a cost-cutting measure, the manufacturers stopped putting so much silver in the film. Silver is part of B&W emulsion, and its depth creates greys and blacks. With less silver, the blacks aren’t as black.
- Technicolor. Technicolor was a highly successful, beautiful, and expensive color process. Its 3-strip variety was fantastic and its color dyes were exceptionally stable, but in 1950, a cheaper system for color print was introduced, Eastmancolor. It was unstable and faded to magenta pretty quickly, but hey, it was cheap! Technicolor was used less and less, and become obsolete in the USA by 1977 or so. China produced it for a while, but they say the quality wasn’t dependable, and their last Technicolor lab closed around 1990. Cheap color also meant fewer films were made in B&W, an inherently stable and beautiful process.
- Light source. Did I mention projectors before the 1960s essentially used an open flame to project film onto the screen? Carbon arc lamp houses were the theatrical standard until the (explosive) Xenon bulbs were introduced in the 1960s. While some theatres continued to use the carbons, including the fantastic Welfleet Drive-in (which ran 20 minute 35mm film changeovers and carbon arcs to play a continuous show until they switched to digital a few years ago), most switched to Xenon bulbs, which have a different color temperature and don’t need to be adjusted as frequently as the carbons do. For better or for worse, the color of the light illuminating the screen was different.
- Aspect Ratio. Some people love widescreen, but my heart belongs to 1.37, the Academy ratio. Starting in the 1950s, studios started using widescreen in a bid to pull people away from their TVs. Screen sizes changed, and since masking now had to be moveable, there was another possibility for error with presentation. Correct lens, aspect ratio, screen size, all had to be in line. Not all projectionists are created equal.
When the industry switched to safety stock, archives tried to do the same. New prints of old films were struck on safety film by studios and archives, which was important if the films were to be seen. Repertory theatres started showing old films on the new stock, including my own, beloved Brattle. Many films were never copied over because they weren’t popular. Fifty years of film production under the studio system added up to a lot of titles made on nitrate in the US alone, and there wasn’t enough money to copy everything.
Archives and studio archives, worried about the dangers of storing nitrate, began a process of copying and destroying old films. In some places, this philosophy toward nitrate continues today. Unfortunately, the studios and archives often destroyed the original negatives, creating inferior copies on the new base. The copying process leaves much to be desired, even now, and there will never be as good an element in any film preservation process as the camera original.
Archives and studios didn’t destroy everything, and stopped doing it so often as time went on. Nitrate storage isn’t simple – there are numerous fire safety laws to be followed – but it can be done. Historically, it has been common to store nitrate films in former munitions bunkers, but there are also purpose-built nitrate vaults. The Library of Congress, for instance, used to store their nitrate films in bunkers on an air force base in Dayton, OH. Recently they upgraded to state-of-the-art vaults in Culpeper, VA.
In the intervening years, it has become clear that it was a drastic mistake to destroy nitrate wholesale just because it was nitrate. Celluloid in good shape can be kept in good shape. It actually has, in many, many cases, lasted longer than its successor. Tragically, triacetate based films turned out to be unstable as well. When they decomposed, they didn’t pose a fire risk, but they did decompose, posing a cultural heritage risk. Kodak introduced a new safety film base, polyester, in the 1950s, but the industry didn’t start using it as the standard for theatrical film printing until the 1990s. Camera stock is still usually acetate-based, because a jammed polyester film can destroy the camera, whereas a jammed acetate film will just break.
I guess what I’m getting at is, I was born too late for one of my great loves, cinema. Technically speaking, motion picture film really peaked in the early 1950s. The switch from nitrate to safety stock was only one of the things that caused the downfall of the look of film, but it was a pivotal and memorable moment. Saying that nitrate film looks better than safety, while true, is because of more than just the carrier.
This post has become too long! Read on here for my review of the Nitrate Picture Show, the event that inspired this lengthy post. “To my friends, my work is done – Why wait?”