Rogue Russian movie and other nitrate surprises

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Nitrate film vaults built inside a mountain! The newest nitrate film made! Martin Scorcese’s own personal print on the big screen!

The 4th Nitrate Picture Show, held May 3-6 at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, once again did not disappoint lovers and guardians of filmmaking history. Anyone interested in the historic and artistic aspects of nitrate-based cinematography should attend this event or make the pilgrimage to the Museum at least once in their lifetime. Meanwhile, you can count on me to report back on my findings from this annual showing.

Preserving nitrate film while projectors go obsolete

Talk by Mikko Kuutti, Deputy Director
Kansallinen Audiovisuaalinen Instituutti (National Audiovisual Institute or KAVI) in Helsinki, Finland

Until 2007, when one went to the movies at Finland’s National Archives, one saw nitrate film projected on the screen, even though most countries ended this practice long ago. Unable to screen prints in their home country, archives around the world shipped their nitrate prints to Helsinki for various festivals and screenings. Many international filmmakers have made the pilgrimage to Helsinki’s Orion Theatre or The Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankyla, Finland to see their films projected the way they were meant to be, from original nitrate prints, created for the film’s original release, including Nagasa Oshima, Andre DeToth, whose own countries, Japan and America in this case, had long ago stopped screening these prints.

Besides Finnish films, the KAVI collection also includes original prints of films from around the world, by directors as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman and John Ford. KAVI has the only known nitrate print of NOT WANTED from 1949, the first film by Ida Lupino, one of Hollywood’s few female directors during the studio era. The KAVI print of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a John Ford film regarded for its stunning black and white cinematography by American cinematographer Gregg Toland, noted for his innovative use of lighting and techniques in this movie as well as CITIZEN KANE and other notable works, is said to be startling in richness and detail.

So why did the Finnish archives stop projecting nitrate film prints? Not because of safety concerns, but simply because of the lack of film projectors left in Finland. After major upgrades to the projection booth at the Orion, including the addition of a digital projector, no room was longer available to provide the equipment and personnel to project nitrate prints. With nearly every theatre digital-only, Finland finally stopped screening nitrate prints in 2007.

Finland had a realistic understanding that projecting nitrate prints could be perfectly safe if proper procedures were followed, and preferable to Safety prints, when there was a choice. No major fires or accidents prompted the ending of this practice, just the more mundane tide of digital conversion that has swept the globe.

Storing nitrate film in a mountain

Twenty-five miles outside of Helsinki, in Tuusula, built into the side of a mountain, is the KAVI Nitrate Film Vault. Heavy steel doors lead into chambers blasted from rock and carved out of the snow and ice. Kept at a constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 35% relative humidity, these vaults contain the massive Finnish nitrate film holdings. While cracks in the rocks and melting snow present challenges, the bunker could withstand a nuclear blast.

Nothing beats nitrate for shifting light

Ingmar Bergman’s SOMMARLEK or SUMMER INTERLUDE (1951)

An early feature film from Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and the first feature film he made that he felt was wholly his own, achieved the artistry he believed film was capable of. Although this print had been screened many times in the past seventy years, it was still stunning.

Filmed mostly on a small island near Stockholm by cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, the northern European sunlight was the perfect subject to capture on nitrate film. Deep, rich, silvery-blacks and a vast scale of subtle grey-tones looked alive and shimmering. Fischer, who was also the cinematographer on Bergman classics THE WILD STRAWBERRIES and THE SEVENTH SEAL, captures the memories of a first love, filtered through the haze of competing memories.

According to an interview reprinted in The Washington Post on 2/3/2008, Fischer said he brought to Bergman:

“…a fantasy-like style. It wasn’t about making the scenes realistic but more theatric, like a saga.”

I have seen this film before, but not on nitrate, and in this medium, it’s a richer experience. As film’s young lovers progress through the story, the summer light begins to shift and shadows begin to lengthen. Subtle shifts of blacks and greys are what nitrate film and its intense silver-content emulsion project best.

Nitrate in Technicolor

1948 UK film THE RED SHOES by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Print Source: George Eastman Museum

I can’t think of a better movie to watch on nitrate film than this Technicolor classic, THE RED SHOES. Since Technicolor imbibed a clear piece of nitrate film with ink and dye to create an image onscreen, the experience can be richer and more colorful than nearly any other color film process ever developed. This still holds true today and this movie was filmed and designed to take advantage of the medium. Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer, used a vast spectrum of subtle tones to move the viewer’s imagination. Lipstick, clothing, the shoes themselves—all are variations of the color red. That effect and the radical unreality of the lighting combine to make this a unique visual story.

The Eastman Museum has a print of this movie, but they also have a second print donated by filmmaker Martin Scorsese. The print shared at this year’s show was a combination of the two, with the last two reels of the Scorsese print run instead of the Eastman print, in part because the color is more vibrant in his print.

Although these last few reels had some wear and tear from previous screenings as well as some shrinkage due to age, the stunning Technicolor combined with the clarity of the nitrate film made the screening an intense, immersive experience on the big screen.

Leftover nitrate stock in Soviet-era movie

VESYOLYE REBYATA (MOSCOW LAUGHS) by Grigoriy Aleksandrov – Soviet Union 1934
Print source: 1958 print from Vienna’s Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum)

They stopped making nitrate movies in 1952, so how did I see a nitrate film from 1958?!

That was my thought about MOSCOW LAUGHS. Originally released in 1934, this film was a major hit throughout World War II and beyond in the then-Soviet Union. The plot involves a shepherd mistaken for a famous conductor and leads to slapstick set-pieces and musical numbers, with a screwball comedy quality that must have been great escapist material during difficult times.

The original negative is believed lost, so the filmmaker, Aleksandrov, began a restoration project by gathering as many prints as he could find. Starting in the mid-1950’s, he took the best of them and carefully created duplicate negatives, on nitrate. While nitrate film was in wide production throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, by the mid 1950’s, it was no longer being used as a film substrate. So filmmakers restoring an older film would most likely have used the newer, acetate-based Safety film. However, in this case, probably due to scarcity of Safety stock and wide availability of leftover nitrate in the Soviet Union well into the late 1950’s, instead of creating the new version on Safety film, it was created on nitrate film. We can only speculate that this must have been why a “new” restoration was done on an “old” film type.

So a 1958 Nitrate print of a 1934 film was projected at the Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre. Without question, this would be the most recently created Nitrate film print I have ever seen projected and I’m unaware of anything qualifying as more recent.

Demystifying nitrate film

The Nitrate Touch
Rare nitrate film on public display in the Potter Peristyle of the George Eastman Museum

Nitrate prints, negatives, full reels and small scraps were on public display during this year’s Nitrate Picture Show. Visitors were encouraged to look, touch and ask questions of the archivists.

Selznick School students and staff members of the Moving Image Department of the Eastman Museum were on hand to show off these films, offer history and help de-mystify some of the mythology around nitrate film. Over a hundred years old in many cases, these nitrate films were healthy and viable and still able to tell a story.

Examples included a section of the silent film version of the Nathaniel Hawthorne story, THE SCARLET LETTER (David Miles, 1913) produced and processed by Kinemacolor. Kinemacolor was the first commercially successful color film process, invented in England by George Albert Smith. It used a camera that had a spinning wheel with colored cutouts in front of its lens and another spinning wheel in front of the projector during playback. The Kinemacolor projector could synchronize the playback so the red colored part of the film was projected with red light and the green colored part with green light. Combined onscreen, it looked like a partial color film, much like early Technicolor.

The Eastman Museum displayed the one reel they had of this film, and since the other reels are no longer known to exist, it’s unclear how long the finished movie was. Kinemacolor produced over several hundred films during its run from 1908-1914, but never quite became a huge success, in part because of the expense of installing the tricky projection equipment in theatres.

Another early color movie was on display—PARADISE OF THE PACIFIC (Ruth Fitzpatrick 1934)—a piece of film created in the Cinecolor process. Cinecolor was invented by William Thomas Crespinel, who had worked for Kinemacolor starting in 1906. Many different companies and manufacturers created variations of the process and it was a cheaper alternative to Technicolor at the time. Cinecolor lasted from 1932 to 1954. A travelogue about Hawaii, this film looked incredible in person. Even at 85 years old, the print on display had vibrant colors.

Often seen as dangerous and inaccessible, nitrate film can be safe and stable, if stored and projected under proper conditions. Handling the films shouldn’t be rare and privileged, since thousands of people, up until fairly recently, have spent at least a hundred years working with nitrate, resulting in billions of feet of film from the earliest days of moviemaking, and well worth preserving for today and hopefully many future generations.

Danny Kuchuck

Danny Kuchuck

Danny Kuchuck is a filmmaker, writer and archivist living in New York. He is a former film technician and project manager for LAC Group, and prior to that, PRO-TEK Vaults.
Danny Kuchuck

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