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Nitrate Film

Luminous Imagery and Its Dangers

independent film, entertainment, film festival, film events, film reviews

By Ron Merk

If you do not know what nitrate film is, then here’s a quick primer. It’s the film that started it all. It has both a bright side and a dark side, like most things in life. Images on nitrate film have an amazing luminous quality, but they are always at risk of being lost because nitrate film is an unstable compound of chemistry. The film can last for a long time, without any problems, or it can turn into a pile of gooey stuff or powder as it sits in a film can without any apparent reason. There is no particular way to determine if and when nitrate film will deteriorate. It has one other gigantic problem. It’s highly flammable, and the flames cannot be put out even if you were able to pick up a reel on fire and put it under water.

Nitrate film was replaced for the most part around 1950 when safety film was invented. Many films on nitrate base stock were transferred to safety film materials, but as someone who has done this and see the results, I can tell you that there are distinct differences in the image quality and “look” of the original images on nitrate and safety film. The differences are subtle, but I would describe the images on nitrate as luminous, glowing and unique.

If you’ve never seen nitrate film projected on a big screen, and you are a film buff, then you have a great treat waiting for your eager eyes. However, nitrate screenings are rare, mostly because of fire regulations regarding the use or transportation of nitrate film, and the very few screening rooms which are set up to handle and project nitrate film.

But there are still a few. Eastman House in Rochester, New York recently put out this news about upcoming screenings of nitrate film. If you are anywhere near Rochester, or want to fly in and have an amazing experience, this is your chance. Here’s a recent press release from Eastman House.

George Eastman House Launches The Nitrate Picture Show

The world’s first Festival of Film Conservation to showcase vintage 35mm nitrate prints at the historic Dryden Theatre

Rochester, N.Y., October 27, 2014 – George Eastman House announced today the launch of The Nitrate Picture Show, the world’s first archival festival of film conservation, showcasing vintage 35mm nitrate film prints made from the beginnings of cinema to the early 1950s. The inaugural edition of The Nitrate Picture Show: A Festival of Film Conservation will be held May 1–3, 2015 at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House’s historic venue for film exhibition in Rochester, NY. The Dryden Theatre – one of only a few archival venues in the world that can project nitrate film—is home to the museum’s ongoing program of past and present cinematic works from all countries.

“At a time when the future of film is confronted with the reality of digital as a dominant form of visual expression, there is an emerging need to celebrate the achievements of cinema as a photochemical medium,” said Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator of Moving Image, George Eastman House. “There is an inherent beauty—a true ‘aura’—in moving images made on nitrate stock. We feel it is time to demonstrate that these images are alive and well, thanks to the collective efforts of the international community of film archives and museums.”

Production of 35mm nitrate film originated around 1895, at the dawn of cinema; the manufacturing of flammable stock, however, was discontinued in 1951 with the advent of safety film. If not kept in appropriate conditions of temperature and humidity, nitrate film is subject to irreversible and, at times, rapid decomposition, thus requiring duplication onto other carriers. “Yet, if properly cared for, a 35mm nitrate print in good condition can survive for a very long time,” said Edward E. Stratmann, Associate Curator of Moving Image, George Eastman House. “Some of the films set to be screened at The Nitrate Picture Show are almost a century old, and yet they have lost almost nothing of their original glory.”

The Nitrate Picture Show will showcase films on nitrate stock from the Eastman House collection and from fellow archives and museums in the United States and abroad. The museum holds one of the country’s largest collections of nitrate prints, preserved at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center, a state-of-the-art facility located 12 miles southwest of Rochester. George Eastman House is also a member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the world’s leading group in the field of film conservation and preservation, and its collection of over 28,000 titles covers the entire history of cinema, from Edison and the Lumière brothers to contemporary works by Peter Greenaway and Tacita Dean. Many of the prints in the collection are in good enough shape to be publicly screened due to the museum’s longtime commitment to film conservation. Fellow members of FIAF will be invited to contribute to the festival with films from their collection. Details on the concept and structure of The Nitrate Picture Showwill be announced closer to the event.

“Watching a nitrate print projected on the big screen is a rare privilege. It is our hope that a new generation of viewers will enjoy being part of this truly unique cinematic experience,” added Cherchi Usai.

The 500-seat Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House was built in 1950 through a gift of Ellen and George Dryden, and is one of the world’s few remaining archival venues suitable for the public exhibition of nitrate film. The theater is also fully equipped for the projection of analog films in a variety of formats. Digital projection equipment was installed in March 2013 as part of a major renovation of the theater’s interior. “The Dryden Theatre is the museum’s exhibition gallery for the art of film,” said Dr. Bruce Barnes, Ron and Donna Fielding Director, George Eastman House. “Presenting the best cinematic achievements as they were originally intended to be seen is a critical part of our mission as a cultural institution.”

For more information about The Nitrate Picture Show, visit eastmanhouse.org over the next few months.

About George Eastman House

George Eastman House is located on the estate of George Eastman, the father of popular photography and motion picture film. Eastman House comprises world-class collections of photographs, motion pictures, photographic and cinematic technology, and photographically illustrated books. Established as an independent nonprofit institution in 1947, it is the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the earliest film archives. The archive houses 28,000 film titles and 4 million film-related publicity stills, posters, scores, scripts, and pre-cinema artifacts. Eastman House also holds the world’s largest collection of camera technology. Eastman House’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation is regarded as the premier venue of professional training in film preservation, restoration, and archiving. Eastman House is also the archive in which many filmmakers have chosen to preserve their films, including Cecil B. DeMille, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Ken Burns, and Kathryn Bigelow. Learn more at eastmanhouse.org.