The Beauty And Danger Of Nitrate Film
Cinema Junkie / May 12, 2017
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 spontaneous combustion.
Armando: Welcome to another edition of listener supported KPBS cinema junky podcast, I’m Bertha Armando.
Now that everything’s gone digital, one thing you never see any more in mainstream movie theaters is a frame of film bubbling and melting on the screen, but for almost a century, nitrate based film was the standard for motion pictures, and if a frame of that ever melted, like it did in Cinema Paradiso, it could ignite the whole real film and the projection booth and even the theater, in other words it could be deadly.
But there was a reason why nitrate film was the standard, the image looks stunning on the huge screens of movie palaces, nitrate film stock has been praised for the beauty of its images and for truly allowing cinematographers to paint with light, whites pop up the screen, blacks are deep and rich in great tone shimmer.
Earlier this year at the TCM classic film festival, Martin Scorsese introduced us to screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s the man who knew too much on nitrate.
After praising the breathtaking beauty of nitrate film projected he casually added, the only problem is, it can boil up; that potential was put to dramatic use in Cinema Paradiso and more recently in Glorious Bastards where deadly thereafter fires were started by nitrate combustion.
But seriously, what film lover wouldn’t tempt fate by watching Hitchcock or Michael Powell or Casablanca on nitrate, I mean I’d be perfectly content with my obit reading, she died in a nitrate fire at a cinema watching Black narcissus, but yes, nitrate 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 offers this little bit of information on its website, cellulose nitrate based film is relatively unstable, if you store it in large quantities of about 5,000ft or more in none approved storage cabinets, without proper ventilation it becomes a fire hazard, admittedly it takes a bit of pushing to cause it to burst in to flames spontaneously, Kodak stopped making nitrate film stock in the early 1950s when it was replaced by the more stable film stock known as safety film, safer but far less exiting.
Now only a handful of theaters can project nitrate film, I had a chance to visit one that had just been renovated for the TCM classic film festival last month, TCM teamed up with Scorsese’s The film foundation, the Hollywood foreign press association, the academy film archive and American Cinematheque to bring the Egyptian theater’s projection booth up to fire code specifications so that four nitrate prints could be screened at the 2017 TCM classic film festival that took part in April, Christine Morolla project manager at the film foundation and Genevieve Mcgiller Carty, festival director at TCM classic film festival game me a tour of the renovated projection booth just before the first nitrate film screening at the festival. I think I was in the booth just after Martin Scorsese had come to check it out.
He would later introduce the Hitchcock film at the Egyptian theater and share his passion for film preservation and the thrill of seeing the exact same nitrate print as audiences had seen almost a century ago.
Armando: Introduce yourself and tell us where we are.
Christine: Hi, my name is Christine Morolla and I am from the film foundation and we are in the newly retrofitted booth at the Egyptian theater where now they can screen nitrate film with thanks to the Hollywood film press association turner classic movies, the academy film archive, the film foundation, we are here tonight to have a great screening of Man who knew too much.
Armando: So what goes in to creating a nitrate booth?
Christine: What we had to do was bring the booth up to current fire codes, the walls have one hour ratings, there is now a fire screen that is in front of the ports, in front of the projectors that if something happened would come down and lock off the booth and the projectors that are here, these are original projectors to the booth but now to screen nitrate they have cases over the reels on the top and bottom of the projector.
Armando: Now the reason for all of this extra kind of protection is that nitrate is a rather unstable format to be projecting and so explain what nitrate is and why it was eventually kind of retired as a film stock.
Christine: Well, nitrate film is highly flammable, once a fire does start it generates its own oxygen and so nitrate film generates its own oxygen so it’s hard to and actually I don’t think that you can put it out, so that’s why they have these cases on the reels and there’s also a section inside the projector that will clip the film off so that the fire if there was to be one would be enclosed within the projector but you know, it is flammable, with the proper care its fine with proper projection and proper handling, proper storage but it’s just a real treat to be able to see something like this that audiences were seeing back in the beginning of cinema. The system that we have here and the great projectionist that we have and the new booth I think we are going to be fine.
Armando: And what is it, I’ve heard that projecting on nitrate that there really is a different kind of quality to the image, so what is it about nitrate or what is it about that experience that you think is unique?
Christine: There’s a higher silver content in nitrate film and so that’s what people talk about with the silver screen in there and stuff like that, like a sparkle to it but black and white still is very different on nitrate stock and the way that they did color nitrate film is very different from the way that we see movies now so you will notice a difference in both color and black and white.
Genevieve: My name is Genevieve Mcgiller curty and I am the festival director at the TCM classic film festival, we are now in our 8th year here in Hollywood and we are thrilled to be able to return to the Egyptian theater this year and screen nitrate for the first time.
Armando: What was it about screening on nitrate that you felt was important, why was that an experience you wanted your attendees to have?
Genevieve: Well, from day one of the film festival we have always subscribed to the philosophy that we are about presenting films the way that they are meant to be seen, not only on the big screen but as the director intended and that would include being able to screen these films in the original formats that they were created in.
Over the years we have done a lot of unique presentations and this way we have screened 70 millimeter, we have screened Sinorama prints, we have screened all kinds of different formats but we’ve never been able to screen nitrate prints and this is a film format that was basically the film format before 1953, so many of the films at TCM shows were actually created on nitrate but we have not had the ability to do this before.
Armando: I understand that this was kind of a long process; this booth did not go up in a couple of days or anything.
Genevieve: It did not, this is something again when we first started planning the film festival back in 2010, I recall talking with the Egyptian theater about the fact that they had these projectors that could show nitrate but at that point we weren’t able to do it because the booth was not outfitted properly according to code so we’ve been waiting a long time to do this, and when the film foundation approached us about being a part of this project we jumped at the opportunity for a lot of different reasons, we felt that it fitted in with the mission of TCM and it also would enable us to present something very unique to the festival audience which really comes from around the world.
Armando: In terms of the technology that’s used to project the nitrate, these are machines that have been around for quite a while.
Genevieve: They are, I think what’s really incredible to think about regarding film formats is that nitrate and 35 millimeter overall, we really was a standard format for over 100 years and what’s remarkable about the machines that we are using here for the nitrate projection is that these are machines that are decades old and they were built to last and its remarkable because this technology, yes its analogue but it’s something that you can go back to and use time and time again, it doesn’t matter how much time has passed if you are taking care of it. It’s kind of like using sewing machines, you can go back to the singer that your grandmother used 50 years ago and it works just as well.
Armando: And your festival is unique in the sense that you guys really put a lot of effort in to how a film is screened and I’ve been to the festival before and there have been prints that you’ve struck specifically for your event so how is that like part of kind of the mission of the festival to kind of put that much emphasis on the actual screening experience?
Christine: Thinking about the actual screening at the festival I would say that there’s nothing more important to us in terms of what our priority is, we want to provide a cinematic experience for audiences that they may not get anywhere else. It’s very important to us that our audience has the highest level of quality of what we can present and we go out of our way to find the best possible prints or digital restorations and we have very close relationships with all the major archives and studios and really enjoy collaborating with them to do that. It’s extremely important for return of classic movies.
Armando: We are at the Egyptian in Los Angeles, how many nitrate booths are there; this is not kind of a common thing, is it?
Genevieve: No, not at all, there’s only really a handful probably in the United States that cannot screen that trade, has a booth up to fire code.
Armando: What about the storage of this one’s because in order to project nitrate you have to have some archive of them so how difficult is it to keep these prints in a condition that can be projected?
Genevieve: The prints that we are using for the festival are coming from film archives; locally the academic film archive in the UCLA archive and television archive and then the print for “The man who knew too much” is coming from our orchestra New York the George Eastman Museum.
Armando: These prints do have to be kept in special conditions, correct?
Genevieve: Yes, they’re kept in cold volts, low humidity and cold storage so that they can be protected so that we can all watch them this many years later.
Armando: What is it about the Egyptian that made this a good venue to invest in putting a nitrate booth in?
Christine: I would say, my answer would be I think that having a nitrate booth restored here at the Egyptian theater seems extremely appropriate to me thinking about the history of the Egyptian theater, this was the first of Grauman's [Phonetic] [11:28] theater, he built this before the Chinese theater down the street and he was the [indiscernible] [11:34] chairman, he’s the one who created the red carpet and when I think about bringing back a type of cinematic experience to Hollywood boulevard and to audiences I can’t think of a better location for this to be.
Armando: Before I started talking to you guys you were speaking to Dennis and he was pointing out that this booth is equipped with a broad range of projection possibilities.
Genevieve: Yeah they just installed a laser projector and so they can screen anything from 35 millimeter nitrate at silence speed although up new state of the art laser digital projection.
Armando: And why was it important for the film foundation to be involved in something like this?
Christine: We just really, exhibition is a big part in public access is a big part of our mission and a big part of what we do, educating people about film and about film history and film preservation and restoration, I mean we need an audience and being able to have a theater like this that is so historic and have interested engaged audiences coming out and learning about nitrate film and learning about film restoration, the things that they’ll see at the festival, it’s as important as the restoration itself, we need people to see the work that we are doing and the reasons why that work needs to be done.
Armando: And what kind of audience reactions do you get when people see these things on nitrate, because I imagine this isn’t going to be the first time you’re seeing something on nitrate or at an even where they are screening it, but do people actually notice the difference?
Christine: You know, I think so, we were able to screen Casablanca in the fall when the booth was completed and for a lot of people that was the very first time they had ever seen nitrate and Genevieve could speak of this more because this was a new experience for her but I do remember the first time that I saw nitrate, it’s definitely, you can tell the difference, it definitely jumps off the screen a little bit more and there is kind of a gasp when it first comes up on the screen.
Armando: So what was that first experience like watching nitrate?
Christine: Well it was a perfect experience to watch Casablanca on nitrate, to watch a nitrate film for the first time and have that be the title because I have seen that film so many times, I’ve seen it projected, I’ve seen it on television, I’ve seen digital.
Christine: Seeing it on nitrate I have to say I noticed a lot more detail I hadn’t seen before, the contrast with the black and white is rich, there’s a depth to it that you just don’t get in another way in another format, I felt like I was seeing Humphrey Bogart for the first time and that’s a pretty unique experience for someone who’s seen a lot of Humphrey Bogart films over the years, Ingrid Bergman never looked better and the outfits popped up the screen.
Yvonne at the bar is wearing this beautiful sequent top and it shimmers off of the screen, it’s beautiful.
Armando: And what went in to the particular selection of films that you decided to show with at this year’s festival?
Christine: Well this was really the work of Charlie Tapish, head of programming for both the network and the festival, when it came to choosing the films he worked very closely with these archives to really present a range, so as Christine mentioned we will have two black and white films and we will also have two color and not just any color or black and white films, I would say.
The first film is “The man who knew too much” and it’s an early Alfred Hitchcock, the second film will be “Laura” which is probably one of the most stunning black and white nitrate prints I’m guessing you can see and followed by “Black Narcissus”, a press Bogart film in color followed by “Lady in the dark coming from UCLA” and that’s also a color film.
Armando: I mean “Black Narcissus” even on a video screen, even on my computer it like leaps off the screen so I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in nitrate, it will be amazing.
Armando: So what other kinds of work does the film foundation do, are you also involved in helping preserve these prints as well?
Genevieve: Yes, so we work with partner archives to restore films in their collections that are in need, we have an education program called the story of movies, it educates young people about film language and history, we also have a world cinema project and so we are working with endangered prints around the globe, endangered films around the globe to make sure that those are protected and restored so that our audiences can experience them and public access is a really big part of the foundation and each year our restored prints and DCPs are screened about 425 different times around the world at festivals and educational facilities, arts organization, things like that but a lot of film preservation and restoration is where we started.
Armando: Can I ask how much, do you know how much it cost to upgrade this to kind of nitrate safe?
Genevieve: It was a big undertaking, which is why we are really happy to partner with the Hollywood film of press association and turner classic movies.
Armando: Is there anything special that a projection has to do when handling nitrate film?
Genevieve: Yes, actually they should be as careful and protective of any pint, the thing that happens with nitrate is that when we project nitrate they have two projectionists so that there’s always one person by each projector just in case anything happens, and then the films are put when they’re waiting to be screened or to be put on to the projector they are put in to fire proof cabinets so that they are just an extra level of protection while they’re waiting to be shown.
Armando: Well I remember at one point I was working at a museum and they wanted to train me on 35 and they said “Alright, here is your flak suit for when you change the ball” but I was like, wow [laughs] I didn’t realize.
Genevieve: That’s like a whole another thing. [Laughs]
Armando: It’s like nobody realizes how dangerous a projection is like.
Christine: Sure, yes.
Armando: You talked about the casings that are on the front windows so I remembered when I was walking on a booth that they actually like have these like metal plates that can slide in down in front of the glass, is that what these are?
Genevieve: The fire shutter, it is actually in between the back wall here and the port window and so it would just slide down, that’s all, there’s a trigger and also emergency button if needed but yeah it will slide down and protect the ports so that the audience is safe.
Armando: That just adds an extra level of excitement, is there anything else you want to add about the nitrate film experience about what the foundation has done in terms of putting this booth together?
Genevieve: No, we are just really pleased that you know, the festive community who is coming from all over is able to experience this new thing this year at the festival and we are just really pleased to be a part of it and pleased that now at the Egyptian they can screen nitrate year round.
Armando: Anything you want to add?
Christine: We are just so thrilled to be able to partner with organizations like the film foundation who are helping to actively preserve and very importantly exhibit these films, it’s important to us in terms of the programming at the festival that we are able to incorporate these things and equally it’s important to us as to the foundation, it’s to get audiences in front of these films, it’s really exciting to be able to do that.
Speaker 1:That was Christine Morolla, project manager at the film festival and Genevieve Mcgiller Curty, festive director at TCM classic film festival giving me a tour of the projection booth at the Egyptian theater, next I met up with Dennis Burtock of American Cinematheque outside the Egyptian theater as nitrate prints were about to be delivered.
Dennis: I’m Dennis Burtock, I’m the general manager for the American Cinematheque and we’re thrilled that this is the opening night on TCM classic film festival here in Hollywood and the historic 1922 Egyptian theater is one of the main venues that TCM uses during their festival.
Armando: Now new this year for you is a nitrate booth, so what went in to putting that in?
Dennis: The retrofit to allow us to screen nitrate films was actually a huge undertaking and it was sponsored by the film foundation TCM itself and the Hollywood foreign press association and what was involved was completely removing all of the equipment from the existing projection booth including our two massive neurelca 3570 millimeter projectors or existing digital projection system, all of the sound equipment’s, the server for DCPs everything that was in there so it was completely stripped down to the bare walls and bare floors and then working with the LA county fire department officials overseen by the film foundation and their construction team which was KCS west.
They installed a number of safety features that allow us to legally screen nitrate, the one that is most visible, actually I should say its invisible because you can’t see them are the metal fire shutters which are now hidden behind a false wall and in the event God forbid of a fire the projectionist hits the emergency button which is now clearly displayed on the wall between the two projectors that will immediately stop the projectors and the metal fire shutters slam down into place.
So one of the unusual qualities of nitrate film is that when it burns it produces its own oxygen so for example if you throw it in a bathtub of water it will continue to burn producing its own oxygen, so the idea you want to do is protect the booth so that it is literary sealed off from the rest of the theater, again God forbid in the event of a fire, which what we do we is seal that off so that the fire would only be contained inside the booth.
We have special fire proof magazines which go on to the projectors so the feed and the take ups so that when the film itself is actually placed in them we close the heavy metal fire doors and its completely sealed off, there are special red rollers that the film is essentially almost never exposed to the open air in case of a fire so that it would be shut off smothered if a fire happens.
Armando: So with all these potential dangers of nitrate why is it that you want to project it, what is it about the quality of a nitrate image that is different from what people are used to seeing?
Dennis: You have to be very careful with nitrate but in many ways its gotten something of a bad rap, there were disastrous nitrate fires both at studios and occasionally at movie theaters in the past and a number of famous and important films were lost forever, probably the most famous was the launching in silence film London after midnight directed by Todd Brown which made it a few years after he directed Dracula and there was a nitrate fire at MGM studios in the mid-1960s which destroyed the original negative and all existent copies of London after midnight and it has since become probably the most famous lost film but there are hundreds literary thousands of others that were also lost to either a nitrate fire or decomposition.
Nitrate can decompose and when it does it eventually will literary turn to dust, the reason why we still screen nitrate is because it gets us the closes we can to the experience of how an audience originally saw the film, you are actually showing a print, the same print that an audience would have seen back in the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s so you are not seeing it through any other intermediary ,so if you scan a film now even if it’s off the original camera negative somebody is making critical aesthetic and technical decisions about how that film should look.
They’ll do color grading and that may very suddenly but profoundly change the experience of watching the film depending on what its scanned at if its scanned at HD or 2K or 4K you may see more or less grain, sometimes people do grain reduction digitally, don’t get me wrong-- I love digital and certainly that’s the error that we are firmly in now but if you see an original nitrate print for example black narcissus which is screening here during the TCM festival, that is probably the single most beautiful 35 millimeter print I’ve ever seen with my own naked eyes.
And that’s the one that stands out when people say what is the most beautiful print you’ve ever seen, it was done in the three strip technical process which was in use and basically the dyes are transferred onto the print, roughly the same as if you were doing news print, if you can imagine a blank piece on news print and then it passes through the printer successively getting the different layers of dye imbued into it, it’s called IB Technicolor for inhibition, so then they would have a blank strip of film which would run through the printer, first it would get the yellow metrics, the sien, the magenta and that’s the reason why dye transfer prints holds their color because they’re not chemically developed, they’ve literary pressed the dye in to the print, so a lot of people will compare them to say unlimited manuscript or something like that.
All I can say is that watching “Black Narcissus” is really is a spiritual experience for people who love cinema.
Armando: What is it about nitrate that does make it so combustible and so dangerous?
Dennis: If nitrate is not properly stored, if it is exposed to extreme heat it can spontaneously combust, one example would be a collector who has old nitrate in the film and in their garage, I’ve heard these kinds of stories, they open it up, they see that it looks a little gluey, they say oh I’ll put it out in the sun to dry it out, they put it out in direct sunlight and instead it bursts in to flames, that kind of thing has happened in the past, I will say that the archives that handle nitrate now and that store it and preserve it like academy film archive usually film and television archive the George Eastman Museum have had decades of training in the proper storage of nitrate, the proper handling, our projectionist here have all had extensive training in nitrate safely procedures, when we have nitrate present in the booth nobody who has not had nitrate training can go in there so we do observe a lot of precautions.
Again handling nitrate properly it is completely safe and it is a beautiful and very moving experience both visually and conceptually to see it through the eyes of an audience as they saw it back in the era when the film was made, it’s pretty much as close as we will ever get to seeing for example black narcissus or Laura the way people first saw it and I think that more than anything is why we still show nitrate, for black and white nitrate they use a lot more silver in the composition of the film stock so the blacks and whites tend to be much richer, the Technicolor prints again were made through the three strip process that I mentioned so those colors tend to be incredibly vibrant.
Not every nitrate print of course is an eliminated manuscript or a beautiful mural by Judo, nitrate doesn’t make a bad film look great for example and as we are speaking of course the wonderful archivist from the academy film archive have just arrived with two of the nitrate prints that are going to be screening at the TCM film festival and the fire proof storage cabinet that they’re going to go into.
Armando: Can you take a picture of the fire proof storage cabinet, do you mind, is that all right?
Male speaker: [indiscernible] [29:25]
Armando: No, you can bring it.
Male speaker: [indiscernible] [29:28] the front of it.
Dennis: Its perfect timing,
Armando: So I take it these are the nitrate and that’s just normal film.
Male speaker: No that’s actually the nitrate.
Dennis: This are the cabinet, those are the nitrate prints.
Male speaker: Two of them are going to be playing here tonight.
Armando: Oh, I see, that was good timing.
Dennis: Yes, that was perfect timing, the archivist from the academy arrived with the nitrate prints of Hitchcock’s “The man who knew too” much and [indiscernible] [30:04] Laura, they’re going to be screening here at the TCM film festival as we are talking.
Armando: Like security guards coming with them.
Dennis: Yes, but they are in normal film cans, now they had a large yellow fire proof storage cabinet and that’s what the film cans go in to when they are not being screened so again they take very serious and proper safety precautions with the handling of the film but it’s not like nitro glycerin and wages of fear or something, it’s not like if you look the wrong way at a nitrate print its certainly combust, the sad thing is that nitrate got such a bad reputation so that in the 1950s and 60s a number of the studios became so afraid of It that they consciously destroyed a lot of their invaluable nitrate negatives and original prints and again precious images were lost because people misunderstood what nitrate is, why it’s so special and also why it’s safe if you treat it the right way.
Armando: How long did it take to do this upgrade for the booth and can you reveal how much it cost?
Dennis: You know I actually don’t know the final budget figure, that would be a question for the film foundation who are the sponsors and the project managers for the nitrate retrofit here at the Egyptian, I can tell you that in terms of the actual work it began in the spring of last year and was finished actually just before the [indiscernible] [31:46] film festivals, so May, June, July, August, it took about four months of actual active work, removing all the equipment, installing the safeguards to project nitrate film and then putting all of the equipment back in.
It’s actually much easier to remove the equipment than it is to put it back together again and while we were putting it together we actually refurbished the neurelca 3570 projectors that we use to screen the nitrate films, installed a new buckle laser projection system which makes us one of the few maybe the only theaters in the United States right now that can screen everything from an original nitrate print at silence speed to a DCP using the very latest digital cinema technology at laser projection.
Armando: Alright, thank you very much.
Dennis: Alright, great talking to you.
Armando: That was Dennis Burtock, general manager for American Cinematheque in Los Angeles which runs the Egyptian and Aero theaters, thanks for listening to this combustible episode of the KPBS cinema junky podcast.
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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place