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The Nitrate Picture Show at The Eastman House


If you’re in or anywhere near Rochester, New York, your weekend activity should be set, because something big is happening at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. It’s The Nitrate Picture Show, the world’s very first festival devoted entirely to film conservation. The weekend will be filled with feature films, book talks, a roundtable discussion with renowned figures from the world of film archiving, tours of the Dryden Theater projection booth which, due to the specific requirements for nitrate projection should be a really interesting tour, and a workshop, which has been sold out for several weeks now, devoted to the process of actually making nitrate film.

I had a chance to talk via e-mail with Jared Case, the Head of Collection Information, Research and Access in the Motion Picture Department of the George Eastman House, and I quickly found out there was a lot I did not know about the history of nitrate film and what makes the process so unique. Jared’s love of nitrate is infectious and inspiring, as the following exchange will most certainly reveal. I only hope that somehow cinephiles and film history buffs who don’t live near Rochester can someday get a look at what’s in store for lucky Nitrate Picture Show attendees beginning today. If there’s a NPS part II, I could be enticed to plan next summer’s vacation around it!

 
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Dennis Cozzalio: Jared, for those who may not know, or for those who haven’t seen Inglourious Basterds, what is nitrate film?

Jared Case: Haha! There does seem to be a micro-genre of nitrate fire films, and you can add Cinema Paradiso and The Artist to that list. The accuracy of these fires still leaves something to be desired, but it does add to the mystique of nitrate film.

Basically, film stock from the 1890s until the early 1950s was made of nitrocellulose, a compound not that far off from guncotton. It was an excellent plastic for the time that made film strips and successive exposure possible. Unfortunately, when exposed to harsh conditions, it was flammable, and since nitrate fires create their own oxygen, the fire fed itself and was impossible to extinguish. Pair that with poorly-maintained equipment, shoddy building construction, and projectors among the audience, and it resulted in some terrible tragedies. There were applications in the early 20th century using acetate-based plastics for smaller gauges, but the film industry as a whole didn’t change over until the 1950s. 

DC: What is it about nitrate stock, other than its historical importance or its chemical volatility that separates it from safety film and makes it worth celebrating?

JC: It’s the nitrate film stock, but it’s also the corresponding technologies of the time that make nitrate look great. Nitrate has a different refractive index from the safety films, making the highlights cleaner and brighter. The black and white films of the era had a higher silver content, before studios figured out how to do it cheaper, which provides greater detail and greater range in the lowlights. The color of the era was not done via color emulsion, but was, instead, dyes pressed directly onto the film stock. This is the era of Three-Strip Technicolor, and the colors just cannot be re-created by printing onto modern film stock. All of these combine to create images that can be approximated, but not duplicated; images that seem to provide more depth of image and glow with a vitality you can only get from nitrate. 

DC: How much more care is required, not only from a preservationist standpoint, but also by an exhibitor/projectionist’s standpoint, in exhibiting nitrate film?

JC: It takes quite a bit of extra care. The conservation and storage of these films are heavily standardized by governmental regulations, ensuring that all precautions are taken to prevent and inhibit combustion. For example, only 2000′ of film can be stored on a shelf without needing separation (provided by the shelving unit) from other cans in the same vault. So, you’re limited to a single 2000′ can in each cubby hole, or two 1000′ cans. We have a separate nitrate storage facility outside the borders of the city that houses all of our nitrate collections, both still and moving image. That facility has “blow-out” doors at the end of each vault, which I enjoy telling people when I’m really trying to impress them.

The Dryden Theatre here at George Eastman House was opened in 1951, just at the end of the nitrate era, and most of our film collection at that time was on nitrate, so we needed a theater that was equipped to handle it. We’ve maintained and updated the booth over the last 65 years to ensure that we would never lose this ability. You have to run nitrate reel-to-reel, and we have two projectors that alternate. The film path needs to be enclosed, so both the supply and the take-up reels have magazines that surround them. Steel shutters are suspended over the ports to the auditorium so that, in an emergency, they can drop instantaneously and confine the fire to the booth. We always have two projectionists running nitrate film, one on each projector, so that we can catch any problems before, or as soon as, they happen.

Remember, these are all archival elements, and it’s not just about putting on a great show, but also about making sure nothing happens to these historical artifacts. 

DC: Is the Eastman House collection, at over 28,000 titles, one of the larger collections in the world?

JC: Yes, and one of the oldest. Some government institutions became de facto film archives as they began collecting art produced in their countries, but the film archive movement really took hold in the 1930s, culminating in the formation of FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives). We have grown from a core collection of about 800 films in the late ’40s to what we are today. We hold all types of film, on a dozen different gauges, as well as a large collection of supportive material, from manuscript collections to pre-cinema devices to posters and publicity stills.

Some of the larger sections of our film collection are comprised of acquisitions such as the personal nitrate silent film collection of Cecil B. DeMille and Martin Scorsese’s personal film collection. 

DC: How much of what was printed on nitrate stock still exists?

JC: It’s hard to tell, but I’d say a very small percentage. Secondary markets for film didn’t exist in the early years, so the production companies at the time either needed to find other ways to use the film or clear it out to create space. There are legends about trucks full of motion picture film simply dumped into the Pacific Ocean. Some film was sold to reclaim the silver content. The Library of Congress conjectures that 75% of all silent feature films are gone forever. In addition to this, nitrate film decomposes in a very specific way that eventually winds up as dust. If not stored in proper conditions to lengthen its life, nitrate film will decompose past the point where it’s still useable.

And what does exist really frames our conversations of film history. Charlie Chaplin was a visionary in this way. He was a stickler about keeping his films safe, and as a result many of his films still exist. 

DC: Can you talk about your earliest experiences with nitrate? What opened your eyes to the immediacy of the format?

JC: I guess I’m spoiled. I’ve been at George Eastman House for about 15 years now, and I can’t exactly remember the first time I saw nitrate projected. I know the first experience I had touching nitrate film was when I was a student at the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, as I was on a rotation following the vault manager. We inspected films looking for damage, warpage, and scratching; we measured it for shrinkage and assessed its decomposition. I remember feeling stunned with the realization that the same film passing through my hands had passed through hands 80, 90, or 100 years ago.

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My awakening to the wonders of projected nitrate came from an unassuming source: The 1934 version of Babes In Toyland, starring Laurel and Hardy. My childhood memories of that film are of beat-up public domain (and later colorized) versions on television every year. The black-and-white nitrate was a revelation. I’m not much of a Laurel and Hardy man (give me Abbott and Costello or the Marx Brothers), and not much of a fan of operettas. But sitting down close to the screen (I’m a 4th-row dweller normally, where I can let the screen overwhelm me) I was completely absorbed by the images in front of me. The definition and depth were astounding and the images seemed to leap from the screen. 

DC: How did the idea of the festival come about?

JC: It’s really a festival that George Eastman House was destined to do. Our entire history with motion picture film has been geared toward saving, storing, preserving, restoring, and ultimately exhibiting these elements of film history. Our first Curator of Motion Pictures, James Card, really set the tone in his personal feelings about collecting everything, and allowing the audience to see the film themselves and make up their own mind. The Nitrate Picture Show is intended to demonstrate that all of these aspects – finding the film, conserving it in proper conditions, caring for the film with inspection and repair, and maintaining the equipment necessary to project the film – are important to getting those films in front of people’s eyes. And nitrate film, often thought to be just master material, under the same conditions and care, can be vital (and glorious!) up to a century after it was created.

DC: Only one title—William Wellman’s 1937 A Star is Born — has been announced, as a preview event, for the festival. The rest of the eight-film schedule won’t be released until the festival begins. Why the secrecy?

(At the time of our exchange, the full schedule of films had not yet been announced. For a look at the full menu of events and wonderful films being screened this weekend, click here.)

JC: Well, there are really two reasons we’re doing this. 1) The schedule isn’t done! We’re collaborating with archives across the country and in Europe to put this show together, but we want to make sure that the prints we’re showing won’t be damaged, and we want to put together a first-rate lineup of films. The limitations of nitrate being what they are, trying to create a diverse program of films is more challenging. As it is, we’ve got dramas, thrillers, comedies, and epics, in both color and black-and-white. I’ve seen most of them to ensure they look great.

2) We want to focus the conversation on nitrate. Most festivals are carried on the strength of the titles being shown. This festival’s mantra is “Nitrate DID wait.” And it’s waiting for you. Instead of answering questions about particular titles, we’d rather have a conversation about nitrate film, the challenges facing the future of this stock, and the vitality of a motion picture form that has too-long been hidden in back rooms.

But I can give you an exclusive tidbit – We’ve found so much great nitrate to show that we’ve added another screening. So, 10 features between Thursday and Sunday, with some additional surprises along the way…

DC: The festival will include other events, including book talks, a roundtable discussion conducted with a panel of renowned film archivists, tours of the projection booth at the Eastman House’s Dryden Theater, and even, most intriguingly, a workshop on making nitrate film. Will people actually be getting their hands wet and making film stock? 

JC: The workshops are more along the lines of demonstrations, at least for this year. Our Photographic Process Historian, Marc Osterman, will be leading those workshops, and I’m ambivalent about telling you that all the workshops this year are already sold out. I’m happy that they’re so popular, but sad we couldn’t accommodate more people. We do have a waiting list, though, so there is hope. Beyond the workshops, we’re very pleased to have people like Kevin Brownlow and David Bordwell talking about their experiences with film, and there are so many archive representatives coming for the festival that we may not be able to fit them all on stage!