A Midwinter’s Nitrate Dream

Surely the facts are not in dispute.

“Nitrocellulose was used as the first flexible film base, beginning with Eastman Kodak products in August, 1889. Camphor is used as plasticizer for nitrocellulose film. It was used until 1933 for X-ray films (where its flammability hazard was most acute) and for motion picture film until 1951. It was replaced by safety film with an acetate base.
The use of nitrocellulose film for motion pictures led to a widespread requirement for fireproof projection rooms with wall coverings made of asbestos. The US Navy shot a training film for projectionists that included footage of a controlled ignition of a reel of nitrate film, which continued to burn even when fully submerged in water. Unlike many other flammable materials, nitrocellulose does not need the oxygen in the air to keep burning and once it is burning, it is extremely difficult to put out. Immersing burning film in water may not extinguish the fire and it could actually increase the amount of smoke produced.[6] Owing to public safety precautions, the London Underground forbade transport of movies on its system until well past the introduction of safety film.
A cinema fire caused by ignition of nitrocellulose film stock was the cause of the 1926 Dromcolliher Cinema Tragedy in County Limerick, Ireland in which 48 people died. Today nitrate film projection is normally highly regulated and requires extensive precautionary measures including extra projectionist health and safety training. In addition, projectors certified to run nitrate films have many containment strategies in effect, among them including the chambering of both the feed and takeup reels in thick metal covers with small slits to allow the film to run through. Furthermore, the projector is modified to accommodate several fire extinguishers with nozzles all aimed directly at the film gate; the extinguishers automatically trigger if a piece of flammable fabric placed near the gate starts to burn. While this triggering would likely damage or destroy a significant portion of the projection components, it would prevent a devastating fire, which could cause far greater damage. In addition, projection rooms may be required to have automatically operating metal covers for the projection windows, preventing the spreading of a fire to the auditorium.
It was found that nitrocellulose gradually decomposes, releasing nitric acid, further catalyzing the decomposition (eventually into a still-flammable powder or goo). Decades later storage at low temperatures was discovered as a means of delaying these reactions indefinitely. It is thought that the great majority of films produced during the early twentieth century were lost forever either through this accelerating, self-catalyzed disintegration or through studio warehouse fires. Salvaging old films is a major problem for film archivists (see film preservation).
Nitrocellulose film base manufactured by Kodak can be identified by the presence of the word Nitrate in dark letters between the perforations. Acetate film manufactured during the era when nitrate films were still in use was marked Safety or Safety Film between the perforations in dark letters. Letters in white or light colors are print-through from the negative. Film stocks in the non-standard gauges, 8 mm or 16 mm, were not manufactured with a nitrate base.
The material was replaced by polyester or PET film, which is much more resistant to polymer degradation. Polyethylene terephthalate like Cellulose Mononitrate is less prone to stretching than other available plastics.
The volatile nature of nitrocellulose film was used as a plot device in the 2009 film Inglourious Basterds to start a theater fire during the film’s climax.”

Or to put it another way –

“Nitrate film base was the first transparent flexible plasticized base commercially available, thanks to celluloid developments by John Carbutt, Hannibal Goodwin, and Eastman Kodak in the 1880s. Eastman was the first to manufacture this for public sale, in 1889. Unfortunately, nitrate also had the drawback that it was extremely flammable (being essentially the same chemically as guncotton) and decomposed after several decades into a no less flammable gas, leaving the film sticky and goo-like (and ultimately dust).
As this happened, the likelihood of auto-ignition increased even further. Projection booth fires were not uncommon in the early decades of cinema if a film managed to be exposed to too much heat while passing through the gate, and several incidents of this type resulted in audience deaths by flames, smoke, or the resulting stampede. While an accident of this kind was recreated in Cinema Paradiso (1988), the risk was certainly far from fictional; in one instance, at the Laurier Palace Cinema in Montreal on January 9, 1927, a fire broke out during a children’s film program and resulted in the deaths of 77 children between the ages of 4 and 18.
The year 1978 was particularly devastating for film archives when both the United States National Archives and Records Administration and George Eastman House had their nitrate film vaults auto-ignite. Eastman House lost the original camera negatives for 329 films, while the National Archives lost 12.6 million feet of newsreel footage. Because cellulose nitrate contains oxygen, nitrate fires can be very difficult to extinguish. The US Navy has produced an instructional movie about the safe handling and usage of nitrate films which includes footage of a full reel of nitrate film burning underwater. The base is so flammable that intentionally igniting the film for test purposes is recommended in quantities no greater than one frame without extensive safety precautions.
Many nitrate films have been transferred in recent decades to safety stock, and original nitrate prints are generally stored separately to prevent a nitrate fire from destroying other non-nitrate films; the gas they give off also affects the emulsion of safety film. Usually nitrate collections are even split up into several different fireproof rooms to minimize damage to an entire collection should a fire occur in one part. It is normal for a theater today to pass rigorous safety standards and precautions before being certified to run nitrate films; this includes a fireproof projection booth, fire chambers surrounding the feed and take-up reels, and several fire extinguishers built into the projector and aimed at the film gate should a trigger piece of fabric ignite. Nitrate film is classified as “dangerous goods”, which requires licenses for storage and transportation.”

Dangerous? And how!

To whit –

“The most serious problems originate from deterioration of plastic film support. Most preservationists are familiar with nitrate film decomposition. Cellulose nitrate film stock was in commercial use through the early 1950s, when it was replaced by cellulose acetate plastic “safety film.”

Nitrate degradation is a slow chemical process that occurs because of two factors: the nature of cellulose nitrate plastic itself and the way that the film is stored. As nitrate film decays, it can become highly flammable at relatively low temperatures.
In spite of nitrate’s inherent tendency to self-destruct, the natural aging process can be greatly slowed down by low-temperature storage. The original nitrate negative of Edison’s 1903 classic, The Great Train Robbery, is in excellent condition, residing happily in cool storage in the Library of Congress film vault. The lesson from nitrate that applies to all the major deterioration problems is that “nurture” (a good environment) can win over “nature” (the inherent rapid degradation of plastics and dyes under poor storage conditions). But good storage conditions have to be put in place BEFORE the film becomes too far gone.”

Thus the preservation’s watch-cry “Nitrate Won’t Wait!”

Things have of course changed for film. In fact we may not have film anymore at all, what with the rise and conquest of digital video. It ushers in a few flexibilty — whose visual qualities have yet to be fully explored.

Nitrate, meanwhile, lingers in the air — like a heady perfume.

Consider this key scene from the Reinhardt/Dieterele —

While Hal Mohr is the DP of credit, nothing in his filmography comes close to this. It’s perfectly obvious that Reinhardt — whose lighting wizardy inspired German expressionist filmmaking in the 1920’s — is the party responsible.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is central to the 30’s, — the richest and most experimental period in commercial film history. The hysterially over-praised 70’s are not even so much as a tinny echo of what went on here.

The cine-savvy will note the above embde is the motion picture debut of Little Kenny Angerim — as the “Chageling Prine” lusted after by a darkly bejewelled Victor Jory.

Doubtless as a result of his experiences, Little Kenny went on to make experiemntal film whose visual lushness recalls his initial nitrate rape — albeit in 16mm and color.

As you can see, not too shabby. Especially considering the equipment and the budget. It captures the gleam.
And nitrate in the golden — or more properly silver — age was all about The Gleam

Few were gleamier than Sternberg.

And this of course only serves to underscore the visual innovation of such greats as


and Whale

who not surprisingly found their careers grinding to a halt in the 40’s, as routine shooting procedures demanded by the studios — not to mention the “Production Code” — tossed the queers out of a Hollywood that once embraced them.

Of course a few stayed on

But as might be expected stylistic adjustments were made. Many of them wonderful.

As for the nitrate-drenched 30s’ — hey We’ll sing em all and stay all night! Right Marlene?


1 comment

  1. OhCrapIHaveACrushOnSarahPalin February 23, 2010 5:53 am 

    I really really rilly-rilly was trying not to like _Inglorious Basterds_ but then f’n Tarantino had to put this subplot about nitrate film into the flick.

    *Damn him!*

    *Shakes fist in air!*

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