Preserving remnants of nitrate film’s heritage

Salvaging nitrate's historical and cultural value

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nitrate film degradation

Nitrocellulose was the standard film base for about 60 years of photographic film production, from the 1890s until the 1950s. It’s been about 70 years since nitrate film was replaced by cellulose acetate, yet many historical nitrate film assets linger in archives and collections, hanging on for dear life at this point. 

If you’re the owner of any of those assets, letting another year go bylet alone another decadeis not a viable option. 

Nitrate assets need action

Since nitrate has not been used in film manufacturing since the 1950s, it’s unlikely you have any in your collection, unless it dates back prior to the middle of the 20th century. If it does, any nitrate assets you have will exhibit some level of decay. Nitrate deterioration happens in waves, starting with an orange discoloration and fading images, moving on to odor and stickiness and ending with dryness and in extreme cases, the film crumbling into nothing more than foul-smelling, brownish powder.

Anything that is worth preserving should be digitized and prepared for archival storage if that is an option and goal. Due to the flammability and instability of nitrate media, professional archival storage for nitrate film is not readily available—even LAC Group does not offer that service. Proper nitrate film storage must incorporate the following criteria:

  • Constant low temperature and humidity (no higher than 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 40-45% relative humidity).
  • Proper ventilation, including both containers and rooms that are well-ventilated to protect against the toxic gases released by nitrate film over time.
  • Segregation to isolate the nitrate materials and minimize the risks of damage due to fire and off-gassing.

If the materials have degraded beyond restoration or is determined to be unworthy of preservation complexity and expense, it should be disposed of professionally as a hazardous material.

Along with these technical considerations, it’s important to understand the value of your nitrate heritage, which includes historical value, quality and interested audiences.

History captured on nitrate

Any nitrate film restoration and archiving endeavor should begin with an assessment of the content’s historical and cultural value. Ask yourself:

  • What is the relevance?
  • How could the content or the information it contains be utilized?
  • And finally, who would be interested?

Archives need an audience or purpose of some kind to be viable. The first half of the 20th century, when nitrate was the film base for both still and moving image photography, was one of great significance to worldwide civilization. The 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression, World Wars I and II, the beginnings of communism, greater automation and industrialization, the rise of commercial cinematography and the Hollywood film industry, women’s right to vote and more were all captured and recorded on nitrocellulose film. These events rely on the imagery that recorded them for posterity.

grayscape photo of 2 men in military uniform
Tanks advancing along a road, 1917, World War I. Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash.

Quality of nitrate images

While nitrate’s flammability and fragility are well-known, we often let the fear of these negative aspects crowd out the inherent goodness of nitrate film. That goodness comes from the silver crystals in the film’s emulsion.

As Director Christopher Nolan said at a special showing at the Egyptian Theater of Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA, which won the Academy’s Best Picture in 1940, 

“There’s no better way to see film noir than on a black-and-white nitrate print, with all that silver in the emulsion and those stark shadows and the clean lines between light and dark and the gradations of gray, that really represents sort of the in-between nature of these protagonists.”

On nitrate, light is more luminous, glimmer is more reflective and shades of gray include a richer, deeper black. While the opportunities to view nitrate film screenings are limited, it’s worth the effort to see them, especially for fans of photography and cinematography.

New markets and audiences for niche and historical content

Internet access and streaming services are more accessible than ever. Amazon, Apple, Netflix, the TV networks and others are battling for content supremacy and monetization, along with new content development (ie. historical films). 

Some historical content stands on its own, like popular or notable early movies and television programs. Some of it inspires the creation of new content. Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 movie FORREST GUMP and his groundbreaking integration of historical footage from the civil rights era, Watergate and other time frames helped frame and tell the story.

Support in filmmaking community

There’s a strong support of nitrate and other film media within the cinematography community, including:

This diverse community is working to keep film and film archives alive, even as digital photography and special effects continue to progress and demonstrate more sophisticated capabilities. 

With the 2020s, we start a new decade with new advancements, risks and opportunities. 

We are enamored with the bright, shiny objects of modern technology, yet history will always be relevant and meaningful. That may include the content contained within your collection. Whether it’s nitrate or some other substrate, the clock is ticking. 

Let this new decade be your motivation to assess and act on the film assets in your collection. The preservation and archiving experts at LAC Group are always available to help.

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Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp is EVP of Media & Archive services at LAC Group. He brings more than 30 years of experience in motion and still imaging – first in film, and most recently in digital. Tim has an extensive and wide-ranging understanding of the capabilities and challenges of film and video, including the issues and opportunities it presents for archivists as they face aging media libraries and an increasingly digital future.