Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as expe

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silentfilm

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Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as expe

PostWed Sep 13, 2017 7:07 pm

http://news.wisc.edu/fire-in-a-crowded-theater-nitrate-film-is-crumbling-as-experts-strive-to-salvage-the-past/

Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as experts strive to salvage the past

September 12, 2017 By David Tenenbaum

Mary Huelsbeck, assistant director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, and director Jeff Smith, in the Wisconsin Historical Society vault. Old movies, TV classics, and a series of Soviet films share the space on both 35 millimeter reels and the 16 millimeter reels seen here. David Tenenbaum, University Communications

A University of Wisconsin–Madison group has just published results from a six-year exploration of old, unstable film stock that nevertheless holds the oldest heritage of moving pictures.

Called “nitrate film,” it’s flammable and fragile. Many films shot a century ago are largely transparent, or clumped and unable to be seen, let alone projected.

This deteriorated cellulose nitrate film in cold storage at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research is past the point of no return. David Tenenbaum, University Communications

The Wisconsin Nitrate Film Project at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research was the brainchild of Heather Heckman, then a communication arts graduate student in Madison. Heckman, who now directs the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina, wanted to address nitrate film from multiple directions, and so the effort combined chemical analysis of the film, review of historical literature on it, and information from professionals who have handled, stored and shipped nitrate film.

Cellulose nitrate film stock was introduced in the late 1800s as a medium to hold the emulsion that carries a photographic image.

“Film had to be transparent and flexible enough to run through the camera and projectors,” says Smith, “and this engineering problem was solved by invention of cellulose nitrate. At first, people did not think about it being highly flammable, but the word got around that the brown powder it formed after it degraded was especially combustible. Our tests, on a small sample, showed the powder to be non-hazardous, but more tests are needed.”

A Wisconsin National Guard unit shows off its cavalry and horse-drawn artillery along the Mexican border in 1916. Sporadic degradation is visible in the film. The full film is here. Credit: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research collection

The phase-out of nitrate film in favor of “safety film” started in the 1930s, and Eastman Kodak “retired” nitrate film by 1952. Many older films have been transferred to modern film stock, but the remaining nitrate film amounts to “a whole visual heritage,” Smith says. “If you look at the silent movies, the rate of survival is around 20 percent. Preserving what we have left is important, because the losses have been massive.”

The nitrate project was needed, Smith says, “because we did not know what happens at a very basic chemical level.”

The project’s researchers based their recommendations on tests of surplus nitrate stock.

“The big finding was to keep it dry,” Smith says. “Humidity is one of the most important factors to control, and temperature comes second.”

The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research stores about 20,000 film and videotape titles in the Wisconsin Historical Society. A row of freezers holds a handful of nitrate films that are likely bound for storage at the Library of Congress. According to Jeff Smith, “The inventory once contained historical curiosities, a short on Clark Gable’s career in the navy, newsreels about the war effort during World War II, and a Bureau of Visual Instruction short: ‘Wisconsin, your government at work.’ But we have downsized our nitrate collection, sending some titles, like the Gable short, to other archives.” David Tenenbaum, University Communications

Beyond the science, the project also created an oral history from people experienced in handling nitrate stock. “These were long-form interviews of projectionists, preservationists and people who worked in photo labs,” says Smith. “There has been lore that nitrate would spontaneously combust, but we heard that nitrate was to be respected but not feared. It needs to be handled with care, but it’s not going to explode. It’s not nitroglycerin,” even though cellulose nitrate is a close relative of guncotton and other flammables.

Early projectors used high-temperature arc lamps, a decidedly dicey combination with flammable film, and projectionists “deserved hazard pay,” says Smith. “A 1936 trade journal estimated that a film projectionist in the U.S. died every 18 days, partly attributable to the dangers of working with nitrate film.”

Most of the well-known films from the 1930s and ‘40s were shot on nitrate, but were transferred long ago to safety film stock, says Mary Huelsbeck, assistant director of the Wisconsin Center. Although transfer and restoration is expensive, scanning nitrate films is not as risky as projection.

Still, the remainder deserves preservation, says Huelsbeck. “What’s left on nitrate documents early film history by independent film makers and studios. This is a part of our past life that we can’t find documented anyplace else.”

Some of the most endangered films date to beginning of motion pictures, between 1893 and 1910, says Smith. “They are short, attention grabbing. I see them as equivalent to a YouTube video today.”

Stills from “Our Own Gang,” a silent shot in Madison in 1933 that was inspired by the popular “Little Rascals” series. The film, a paid ad for the businesses seen in the many frantic chases. Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research collection

Despite its instability and danger, “For its pictorial quality elements, its clarity, its contrast, nitrate was the best,” says Smith. “Many people say you have not seen the classic film noir titles unless you have seen them on nitrate.”

The Wisconsin Nitrate Film Project was supported by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.
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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostWed Sep 13, 2017 7:48 pm

This is a great article. Thanks for sharing.

The first time I saw all the emulsion sitting at the bottom of a Eastman film can as a fine brown powder/dust below a 35 mm nitrate film with just clear frames, I knew those reels in my garage had seen better days. It is definitely a strange odor that you won't forget once the film gets to stage 4 or 5 decomposition.

How long does nitrate film in good condition last in an archive if the environment has the perfect humidity and temperature for storage? A few more decades ....a century?
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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostWed Sep 13, 2017 9:02 pm

16mm safety film was around much earlier than the 1930s, the author is mixing up the two formats without any distinction.

There are nitrate films over 100 years old that still survive and look great, and then there are color films from the 1970s that have turned pink.
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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostThu Sep 14, 2017 2:45 pm

From the Kodak site "nitrate is not suitable for any permanent storage record" This can simple be read as, any film
stocks that remain for nitrate has already outlived it storage capacity and needs to be transfered to newer bases.
Thou we do find some elements in amazing grades of preservation, these would be the exception to the rule and not
the norm.

Even acetate film bases for black and white images have a life span of 100 years in proper storage, color components
much less time. The importance of moving materials to newer bases can not be understated.

As for safety film stock bases;

The first safety film compounds were made in 1908. However, it was not until Late 1911 (Pathe 28mm) and early 1912 (Edison 22mm) did safety stocks actually find a commercial outlet. The Edison venture was short lived. However, the 28mm by Pathe lasted until the WW1 in Europe and until 1922 in the United States, when Kodak made the last production
run of the film stock. Soon Kodak released it improved stocks in two new film gauges 16mm and 8mm in 1923.

Interesting note about the earlier stocks. The Pathe product seems to be a mix of diacetate and triacetate compounds
within the same matrix. However, Kodak, to much of their credit, kept a tighter control on production and their stocks
stocks seem to be completely diacetate in structure and leads to the Kodak film base to be more stable in long storage.

As for Kodak's switch over to a triacetate film base I believe it was in the early 1930s. But I am unsure of an exact date
of when the change happened. Maybe someone can chime in with that information.

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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostThu Sep 14, 2017 3:34 pm

It's unfortunate that some folks (those that are not familiar with film materials) still have in their possession 35 mm nitrate not being properly stored and by the time they figure out what they have it may be too late to transfer it. Not sure if many agree with me, but in the next decade or so it is critical that an all out attempt be made when this material is located to transfer these film reels to digital media to save the images. Archives take a while to do that because of lack of funds, but those in the public domain with funding may be the solution.
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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostFri Sep 15, 2017 12:25 pm

But digital is not a permanent archival format. Ask anyone who has a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk, or a 3 1/2 inch computer disk. Mylar safety film (not acetate) is the best way to preserve a film.
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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostFri Sep 15, 2017 2:40 pm

Yes so far digital has had a dismal performance as being an archive medium, despite all the trumpet blowing in the
orchestra touting otherwise on this matter.

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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostFri Sep 15, 2017 8:11 pm

Hamilton's Grandson wrote:It's unfortunate that some folks (those that are not familiar with film materials) still have in their possession 35 mm nitrate not being properly stored and by the time they figure out what they have it may be too late to transfer it. Not sure if many agree with me, but in the next decade or so it is critical that an all out attempt be made when this material is located to transfer these film reels to digital media to save the images. Archives take a while to do that because of lack of funds, but those in the public domain with funding may be the solution.


Sure, very critical time. Some of my 1930's and 40's have the vinegar disease. At this point they are still scanable. But the writing is on the proverbial wall.

Digital transfer if very important. It freezes time. Every time film is transferred analog it degrades. Sure make a film backup if you can. It is good to have both.
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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostFri Sep 15, 2017 8:17 pm

silentfilm wrote:But digital is not a permanent archival format. Ask anyone who has a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk, or a 3 1/2 inch computer disk. Mylar safety film (not acetate) is the best way to preserve a film.


Film is permanent! That is what they said about film all along...and still it decomposes. Poly seems OK, but time will tell.

Don't forget you are talking the very beginnings of digital. With digital you just keep upgrading the files to whatever is the state of the art storage. Hopefully the files are shared among worldwide collections so many back-ups are around. It is getting to the point where film projectors and film gear will be hard to find. Film someday many only be able to be accessed through digital scanning.

Plastics also have a dismal history when it comes to archival hopes...

https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/201 ... -archival/
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Re: Fire in a crowded theater? Nitrate film is crumbling as

PostFri Sep 15, 2017 8:30 pm

OP...the example video from Wisconsin Center for Film is something. So much history has been lost. Thanks for the link.

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