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Podcast Episode 117: The Beauty And Danger Of Nitrate Film

Nitrate film can spontaneously combust, but does that matter when it looks so good?

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Photo by Beth Accomando

Nitrate film prints are rarely screened because they can spontaneously combust. But last month the TCM Classic Film Festival helped bring the projection booth at The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood up to fire code so it could run four nitrate prints at its festival. April 6, 2017.

Episode 117: The Beauty And Danger Of Nitrate Film

Nitrate film contains a substance also used in explosives and if it catches film it can burn underwater. Join me for a tour of the projection booth at The Egyptian Theatre that was brought to fire code specification in order to screen highly combustible nitrate prints at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival.

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For almost a century nitrate base film was the standard for motion pictures and for good reason. The image looked stunning on the huge screens of movie palaces. But now only a handful of theaters can project the film stock, which has a reputation for spontaneously combusting.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival Martin Scorsese introduced a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” on nitrate, and after praising the breathtaking beauty that nitrate film projected, he casually added that the only problem is it can “blow up.”

That potential was put to dramatic use in the films “Cinema Paradiso” and “Inglorious Basterds” where deadly theater fires were started by nitrate combustion.

But seriously, what film lover would not tempt fate by watching Hitchcock or Michael Powell or “Casablanca” on nitrate? I would be perfectly content with my obit reading “She died in a nitrate fire at a cinema watching ‘Black Narcissus.’”

Nitrate film stock has been praised for the beauty of its images and for truly allowing cinematographers to paint with light — whites pop off the screen, blacks are deep and rich, and gray tones shimmer. That is why TCM teamed up with Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Academy Film Archive and American Cinematheque to bring Hollywood's The Egyptian Theater’s projection booth up to fire code specifications so that four nitrate prints could be screened at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival that took place in April.

But — if we want to play up the danger — nitrate film can kill you. It is unstable, combustible, and contains a substance that was also used in explosives. And if it ever does catch fire, it can burn under water.

Kodak stopped making it in the early 1950s when it was replaced by more stable acetate film stock.

But TCM wanted to screen some of the nitrate prints that exist in archives at its festival. Last month the festival screened the film noir classic “Laura,” Michael Powell’s “Black Narcissus” and the musical “Lady in the Dark,” in addition to Hitchcock's 1934 “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” And now that its projection booth is up to code, the Egyptian Theatre will continue to show nitrate films, hopefully on a quarterly basis.

For this podcast, I speak with American Cinematheque General Manager Dennis Bartok about upgrading the projection booth of The Egyptian Theatre and about the beauty and danger of nitrate. I also speak with Kristen Merola, project manager at The Film Foundation and Genevieve McGillicuddy, festival director at TCM Classic Film Festival who gave me a tour of the renovated projection booth the day before the first nitrate film screening at the festival.


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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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