“What lovely Nitrate weather!” – Virginia Keane, wife of Film Historian Kevin Brownlow
From April 30 to May 4, 2015, The George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. held a unique film festival, “The Nitrate Picture Show: A Festival of Conservation”. The George Eastman House is home to a collection of over 28,000 films, though not all on Nitrate. Many of the features during this festival came from the Eastman collection as well as on loan from archives all over the world.
Ten feature films, several short subjects and panel discussions on the theme of Nitrate-based film stock took place. Writers, historians and film preservationists gathered, discussed and watched movies in The Dryden Theatre at The Eastman House, one of the last theatres (less than half-a-dozen) in the United States that can still project the highly flammable film stock. (As the industry shifted to Acetate-based and Polyester film stocks in the early 1950’s, Nitrate-based film negatives and prints retreated into vaults and became preservation elements.)
The festival was curated and managed by Festival Director Paolo Cherchi Usai, Executive Director Jared Case and Technical Director Deborah Stoiber. Many others deserve credit, too, especially the incredible staff of projectionists, 3 of whom were in the booth at all times during screenings. The Eastman House has a great legacy of not only preserving films, but also providing access.
The Nitrate Picture Show Highlights
After an opening night screening of William Wellman’s original, A STAR IS BORN (1937), Wellman’s son, Bill Wellman Jr. spoke about the process of making the film. It was a perfect opening night film – both because the print itself was so unique – this was an IB Technicolor print, struck in 1946 and looking much like the prints audiences of the day would have watched. But also because the subject matter seemed so appropriate. How much illusion and fantasy can drive our collective history, and how fleeting success in the movies can be. Careers come and go and so do the movies themselves. It’s good to watch an original and flammable print of something with this kind of message. It may not happen again.
On Saturday, May 2, 2015, Paolo Cherchi Usai led a roundtable discussion with archivists and preservationists.The legendary Kevin Brownlow spoke of his early encounters with Nitrate film and how unique he thought the look of the prints on display were. He lamented that more prints weren’t vaulted and held onto as they are clearly not decomposing as rapidly as the community once thought they would. He spoke of how, in the 1970’s, when visiting the MGM studios in Los Angeles, Brownlow saw barrels of water with original Nitrate-based negatives and prints dumped into them. In those days, liability fears were causing the studios to panic and dump their Nitrate holdings. If only they had waited a bit longer, at least until the DVD era, then maybe we would have better examples of our shared cinema history to work with today.
Meg Labrum of The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia spoke about an unintended benefit of the panic to purge Nitrate film in the late seventies and early 1980’s. Many rare films were being held by private collectors and when the publicity that surrounded the “Nitrate Won’t Wait” philosophy emerged, these collectors were willing to part with their collections of Nitrate. A van, hired by the archive, drove across the outback picking up films, many of which became the only known elements for some rare titles. Meg spoke about one collector who had stored his films in a tin shed. Though not climate-controlled, he did wind through these films twice-a-year to air them out. This is still a good technique for keeping Nitrate film from building up gasses that can catalyze decay. (Though a tin shed would not be the preferred vault of choice). Sadly, there is no theatre left in Australia where Nitrate-based film can be projected.
Two of the more unique films screened during the festival were Czech-produced cigarette commercials for the Norwegian Cigarette brand, “Blue Master”. These were on loan from the National Library of Norway. Filmed in “GASPARCOLOR” an early 3-color technique that worked well with animation, these two 3-minute long original Nitrate prints were sharp and stunning, with the vivid colors and the crispness of highlights that one associates with Nitrate-based prints.
A short subject, “how to” film produced by and for the British Navy titled “THIS FILM IS DANGEROUS” was screened, ironically, on a Safety-stock print. This 19-minute long film showed the dangers of projecting Nitrate-based prints, particularly in the more temporary locations of military bases. Proper and improper techniques were covered, with vivid demonstrations of how easy it is to ignite a roll of film while in the projector, how nearly impossible it can be to extinguish the flames and what to do if a fire occurs. For many in the audience, it was a reminder of how tricky it can be to be a film-projectionist anyway, in addition to the added danger of projecting Nitrate.
Ten Feature Films Screened at The Nitrate Picture Show
As for the feature films, there were ten screened and all went off without a single technical glitch. A few highlights included:
CASABLANCA (1942) – (On loan from The Museum of Modern Art) – Probably struck sometime between 1942 and 1947. This print was step-printed and pin sharp and although it wavered a bit here and there due to some very minor warping, it looked stunning. This particular print was the last Nitrate-based film to be screened publicly at MOMA before they renovated their projection facilities and eliminated the proper equipment to screen Nitrate.
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) – (On loan from UCLA Film and Television Archive) – Another Technicolor print, this was an original release print and it showed some scratching and wear and tear. But that is to be expected, since this print played in ordinary movie theatres and was probably run hundreds of times. Projectors back in 1945 were nowhere near as well-maintained as todays special venues are. The color was rich and stunning, with no fading. Having also recently projected a Safety-film based print of the same title, many in the audience agreed that the Nitrate-based print, while more worn, was also richer and sharper than the later, Acetate-based Safety print.
BLACK NARCISSUS (1948) – (On loan from The Academy Film Archive) – This was a Technicolor print and with the high silver content and unbelievable richness of the dye-transfer process, it looked nearly 3-dimensional on screen. A stunning example of why a Nitrate-based print should be screened if it can, the audience literally gasped at certain sections, so impressive was the image.
Don’t Try This at Home: Skilled Projection Required
Besides the safety precautions hanging over the projection booth, these were older film prints with a certain amount of shrinkage and warping, so the projectionists had to ride the focus knobs constantly, making minute changes as they went along. When an original film print is projected as well as these were, the audience can see the moments of perfect clarity and sharpness that can only be achieved under certain conditions. There were many moments like these during the 4-day festival.
On the last day of the festival, participants were given a tour of the Dryden Theatre projection booth, where we were shown some of the safety precautions taken during the show. During all screenings, three projectionists were in the booth. Since each feature had to use two projectors with a change-over, there was 1 projectionist for each machine, so their attention and focus was never split anticipating a reel change. A third projectionist kept a birds-eye view of both machines.
The Projection Booth itself was well-armored and included heavy metal doors that were designed to slam shut over the portholes in event of a fire. The projectors were armored as well, with both the feed-magazine, the take-up reel and the gate all encased in sealed boxes, to isolate any potential fire and keep it from spreading. As the film feeds into the gate, it passes a heavy-metal set of spring-loaded rollers designed to instantly snap shut if the film catches fire, preventing it from spreading into the gate and take-up area.
The Beauty of Nitrate-Based Films
Nitrate-based films may have a higher Silver content, which can give the image richer blacks and a sparkling sheen, with many shadows and highlights all along the grey-scale. Colors, particularly IB-Technicolor, seem richer and sharper, too. Some will argue that the Nitrocellulose base, upon which the photographic emulsion sits, is clearer and allows a truer pass-through of light. These virtues can and will be debated, but one thing is obvious; Nitrate-based film prints have a unique quality that makes them unforgettable once seen.
Perhaps it’s all attributable to something Philosopher Marshall McLuhan said; “The Medium Is the Message” in his book, UNDERSTANDING MEDIA: THE EXTENSIONS OF MAN. The phrase is meant to illustrate that sometimes it’s the medium itself; in this case, Nitrocellulose-based film, that holds meaning for a society. Film is both the medium and the art. It’s not just the images on the medium, or the story those images tell, but the actual physical film itself that tells us about who we are and how we want to remember ourselves.