Nitrate film: If it hasn’t gone away, it’s still here!

If Nitrate-based film stock is in your holdings and it hasn’t decomposed extensively (yet), chances are it’s stable or at least decomposing slowly enough that now is the time to check, inspect, scan or screen. Nitrate film was made by Kodak as well as other manufacturers like DuPont and Gevaert, all with different standards and slightly different chemical formulas. In addition, how the film was processed and any processing residue could also affect the life and stability of the stock. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to Nitrate film, and we see it all at PRO-TEK.

Handling Nitrate Film

Have you transferred the films and digitized them? Or, are you worried that any handling will harm them further or accelerate decomposition? Don’t guess and don’t worry:

  • If the film is sticky and/or has brown powder on it, it may still be viable. Brown powder can be cleaned off with proper technique, and sticky sections may be confined to certain areas by removing the damage.
  • If your film is shrunken or decomposed, many new film scanners are highly adjustable and they are safe and gentle. At PRO-TEK, we prep Nitrate-based film for transfer every day.
  • Shipping and handling your films may seem daunting, but PRO-TEK is one of the few places in America that can ship and receive Nitrate-based films, as well as arrange for transfer and digitization.
  • Safekeeping is critical – PRO-TEK offers storage in our safe and up-to-code film vault.

The Nitrate originals should be used when they’re negatives to get the best possible prints; the original positives should be looked at as long as they can be put through projectors. Otherwise you’re not talking about films, you’re talking about facsimiles.  — James Card (1915-2000), Founder and first curator, Department of Film, George Eastman House of Photography.

Don’t Neglect to Project

If your holdings include prints, than you may even want to make them available to project in one of the world’s few theatres that still allows the projection of Nitrate. With less than half-a-dozen theatres left in the United States that can project Nitrate prints, the ones that do remain have perfectly maintained equipment and skilled personnel.

The Eastman House in Rochester, New York has a large collection of Nitrate-based films, including many prints. They believe that the prints were meant to be screened, if they haven’t decomposed beyond a usable threshold. Shrinkage probably has occurred, especially since we are dealing with prints that are at least 65 years old, at a minimum. Shrinkage that is 1% or under is a good baseline number; higher than 1% may still be viable, though careful examination is even more critical. But in a properly staffed and equipped projection booth, these films can be projected.

In May 2015, The Eastman House held a film festival, The Nitrate Picture Show; A Festival of Conservation. Over four days, they screened a wide range of Nitrate-based film prints from their collection and on loan from archives all around the world, without a single problem. Most of these were original prints made from original negatives during the initial release or some years after, for re-release. They all projected and screened beautifully, thus increasing the awareness and value of the various asset-holders’ materials.

Brief summary of the films screened and their respective strike dates and shrinkage rate: 

A STAR IS BORN (1937) – This was an IB Technicolor print, struck in 1946 and had shrinkage of 1%. It projected flawlessly.

CASABLANCA (1942) – (On loan from The Museum of Modern Art) – This print was probably struck sometime between 1942 and 1947. The shrinkage was 0.70%. 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.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) – This print was struck in 1943, had a shrinkage rate of 0.98% and looked excellent.

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) – (On loan from The Library of Congress) – This print is a good example of how tough and robust Nitrate film can be. Although there was some deterioration in the last reel, that was removed and a stunning color print with an overall shrinkage of 0.70% screened flawlessly.

LES MAUDITS (THE DAMNED) (1947) – (On loan from The British Film Institute) – This print was struck sometime prior to 1957, had a shrinkage rate of 0.60% and looked stunning, as if brand new.

NOTHING SACRED (1937) – An original IB Technicolor release print, struck when the film was new, this print had incredible color. Although it had some wear and tear in the form of some scratches and splices, that’s to be expected from a film that played in movie theatres almost 80 years ago. With a shrinkage rate of .90%, it looked great.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948) – Except for one reel that was struck in 1949, the rest of this film was struck in 1948. Beautiful black and white images mixed with some color tinting, toning and one sequence in IB Technicolor, the shrinkage rate was 0.83% and the print looked incredible on screen. During the final act, the film’s aspect ratio expands and the theatre curtains open further. Glorious high-silver content black and white images, as in most Nitrate-based prints, with a storm sequence that featured tinted and toned color lightning strikes. These prints are what make people gasp, including the most jaded cineastes!

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) – (On loan from UCLA Film and Television Archive) – With shrinkage of 0.85%, it looked stable and sharp throughout.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.

THE FALLEN IDOL (1948) – Another example of the need to project Nitrate. I have seen Safety stock prints of this movie and they look great, but not like this. Dripping with Silver, the blacks and entire greyscale looked deep and rich. With shrinkage of 0.75%, it projected flawlessly.

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! The audience literally gasped at certain sections, so impressive was the image. With shrinkage of 0.80%, it rolled through the projector with no problems.

Don’t be afraid to open up your vaults and pull your Nitrate! No film is pristine, but that doesn’t mean it has to be locked away forever. Give us a call at PRO-TEK and let’s see what you have and discuss where to go. Because when it comes to nitrate film, if it hasn’t gone away, then it’s still here and you may have more options than you realize.

To learn more about Nitrate and Acetate (Safety) film archiving and preservation, see the following articles:

Preserving Nitrate and Acetate Motion Picture Film Collections

Acetate (Safety) Film and Nitrate Film Don’t Mix – Or Do They?

Danny Kuchuck
Danny Kuchuck is Film Technician and Project Manager at PRO-TEK. His expertise in film ranges from old to new and celluloid to digital. He also specializes in nitrate film stock and antique movie production and presentation equipment and techniques.
Danny Kuchuck

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