Film from the Ashes
A beautiful but deadly art is reborn at the Nitrate Picture Show
By John Lingan
The lights were low, and the house was slowly filling. Ben Tucker set down an armful of film reels in the projection booth and checked the Dryden Theatre’s vintage machinery for dust and positioning one last time. As assistant collection manager and archival projectionist at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, Tucker helps maintain one of the largest, oldest, and most historically valuable film collections on earth. On this evening in early May, he was screening the classic of classics: Casablanca. It was a typical evening at the Eastman House’s 500-seat, single-screen movie palace — except this version of Casablanca had the potential to kill us all.
The print dated from 1947, meaning it was made from a base of nitrocellulose, a cousin to gunpowder. Nitrate, as it’s commonly known, was the earliest mass-produced celluloid format, and the dominant motion picture medium from 1895 to 1948. Renowned for the beauty and clarity of its images, nitrate is so flammable and physically unstable that it’s rarely, if ever, still screened. The heat from a cigarette is enough to make nitrate catch, and once it does, the flame is so powerful that it’ll burn underwater. The explosive theater fires in Cinema Paradiso and Inglourious Basterds were both the product of nitrate combustion, and the first half-century of mass moviegoing was dotted with dozens of similarly deadly real-world conflagrations — the first of which occurred at the 1897 World’s Fair in Paris and killed 140 people. The UN still classifies nitrate as "dangerous goods."
Tucker was joined by two specially trained colleagues — a lot of manpower for one screening, but nitrate necessitates it: two projectionists trade off from one reel and the next on their respective machines, while a third gathers and winds each 10-minute length of brittle film and returns it to its nickel-plated aluminum canister. The Dryden’s projection booth is tiny, low-lit, and gizmo-packed, like a submarine control room. In addition to the floor-to-ceiling film gadgets, it’s equipped with sprinklers, reinforced steel doors, and a network of ceiling cables that control two guillotine-like steel gates perched above the windows, ready to slam shut in the event of a fire. The projectors themselves, which date from 1951, house each reel in a steel box of its own, and the projectionists have to keep one hand on the "dowser," which cuts off the connection between the light source and the film in case of overheating.
Despite the effort required, Casablanca was the opening whistle of an unprecedented event: a three-day festival consisting of only nitrate screenings. Announced in early winter, the Nitrate Picture Show drew hundreds of scholars, historians, critics, and classic-movie devotees to Rochester — an impressive crowd considering organizers didn’t even divulge the program until the festival began.
Megan Labrum, general manager of Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive, told me before the Casablanca screening that "there is a warmth, a brightness, a depth" to nitrate. But it’s basically impossible to see nitrate films in her home country, she said. "We have a fabulous cinema, but we can’t afford the constraints around putting it on — the licenses, the safety measures, the equipment."
The Eastman House is one of only three venues in America that are licensed and equipped to screen nitrate, and the only one outside of California. Labrum may have traveled the farthest to attend the festival, but many of us had clocked hundreds, even thousands of miles — all to watch a technology rise from the dead.
Jared Case graduated from the Eastman House’s Selznick School of Film Preservation in 2002 and has worked for the organization ever since, currently as head of Collection Information and Access and as the executive director of the Nitrate Picture Show. He’s the rare person who’s seen so many nitrate prints that he can’t even remember his first one. But the first to make a real impression was Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland, from 1934. "The clarity of those breaks between light and dark provided by the nitrate base and the silver in the photographic emulsion created images that jumped off the screen," he described in a post at My Nitrate Memories, a blog created to advertise the Picture Show and its aims. He designed the festival to provide other people with that same aesthetic epiphany.
"By showing a nitrate film, we can show that the experience people had 80 years ago can still be had today," Case explained by phone shortly after the festival was announced. He said the idea was to proclaim, "Nitrate doesn’t have to die, [be] hidden away, or… used only for research. It’s a viable, living artifact itself."
In 2015, that’s a radical notion. Beside its combustive properties, nitrate is also supremely fragile: the film naturally shrinks and deteriorates over time, even when treated with exacting care. For decades, the motto among film historians and preservationists has been "Nitrate Won’t Wait," meaning that with each passing year, more and more films are lost to history. Many have been digitized, or reprinted on polyester stock — the popular replacement for nitrate from the 1950s until only a few years ago — but a surprising number of movies have not.
And even if digitized nitrate films still exist, connoisseurs will tell you that they’re poor substitute, as if the last remnants of Van Gogh were gift shop posters. The format is prized for its famed "three-dimensional" quality and rich colors. Its proselytizers also stress the value of seeing a film the way it was meant to be seen: for people who care about cinema, seeing a nitrate projection is like watching a live orchestra performance instead of a cassette recording, attending a play instead of reading it, or standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon instead of flipping through photos. But these days, watching a nitrate film is rarer and harder to achieve than any of those experiences, and thus has an even greater aura of romance and authenticity.
The Nitrate Picture Show was conceived to raise awareness of the medium, but also to take stock of what remains. No one really knows how much nitrate exists in the world, or what kind of shape it’s in. The Eastman House currently houses 24,054 reels of the stuff, a total of 6,070 titles. But many of those are incomplete, or have shrunk to less than 99 percent of their original size, making projection impossible. For the festival, Case and his colleagues scoured the collection for the best-preserved feature-length films, and they approached some of the biggest archives in the world for contributions as well. The final program included 10 nitrate screenings, drawn from the British Film Institute, the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, and the Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo, among others.
The Casablanca print, Ben Tucker’s favorite of the bunch, was submitted by MoMA, where it was in fact the last nitrate film the museum screened, back in 2000. That same year, the BFI hosted a nitrate program of their own, entitled "The Last Nitrate Picture Show," a nod to the fact that the medium likely wouldn’t survive long. At the time there were fewer than 30 digital projectors in the entire US and Europe combined. DVDs were still brand new, YouTube didn’t exist, and limitless streaming video was barely a dream. The intervening decade and a half has seen an explosion in the sheer number of widely available movies, which in turn has made serious cinephiles even more keenly aware of what remains out of reach, and what aesthetic sacrifices are made in the transition to digital. That skepticism isn’t limited to film fans: the last few years have seen the resurgence of vinyl records and a seeming plateau of e-readership.
That might be enough to compel the impossible. The time might be right for a (relative) nitrate revival, or at least as right as it’s ever been for the last 60 years. As the house music faded at the Dryden, Paolo Cherchi Usai, the Eastman House’s senior curator of motion pictures, stood up behind a lectern in front of the theater’s billowing yellow curtain. He welcomed the near-capacity audience to the Nitrate Picture Show and, in a move I’ve never seen at any festival or revival screening, announced the names of the projectionists, occasioning a standing ovation directed at the booth. Ben Tucker waved modestly through the glass.
Once the crowd was seated, Usai presumed with a wild grin that there was at least one individual at the screening who had never seen Casablanca. A couple stray hands shot up among the dense crowd, met with cheers. "Well, this is like getting your first kiss in front of the Taj Mahal," Usai said.
Earlier that day, a couple Eastman House staff drove an excited handful of festivalgoers to an unassuming white bunker about 10 miles outside Rochester. The Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center is where all the House’s nitrate prints are stored, though driving by, you wouldn’t expect to find anything of note inside. That’s by design: the Eastman House doesn’t advertise its address or publish pictures of the Center’s exterior, and the facility isn’t open to tourists. But this is where the real grunt work of film preservation gets done.
The midmorning sun was blinding, and huge painterly clouds hung motionless in the sky. It was a clear, brightly colorful and beautiful day — the platonic ideal of spring: "nitrate weather," as more than a few festival attendees pointed out to me.
The lobby of the Mayer Center, meanwhile, couldn’t have been more humdrum: gray venetian blinds, two walls worth of stuffed file cabinets, a half-empty water cooler, printers, and a microwave, all under fluorescent lights. Standing in the middle of it, beaming for the chance to show some fellow aficionados around her playhouse, was gray-haired, unflaggingly friendly collection manager Deborah Stoiber.
"This is my Eden," she bragged. "I don’t have kids. I don’t have pets. I have film."
The building was originally a welding factory, but since the Eastman House purchased it in 1995, it’s been transformed into a pristine temple of preservation. Stoiber led us out of the office foyer, over a Tacky Mat, and into the workroom. It was empty but for three light tables with reel-winding mechanisms.
"This is the magenta negative of the final reel of Gone with the Wind," she said, picking up a strip of film off a table, "the part with ‘Frankly my dear.’" A few audible gasps came from the group. "This print is nitrate, and was actually on set during filming. Right near Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Every single copy of the movie ever made has been taken from this film. Go ahead and look."
One by one, the crowd approached the table and held the filmstrip up to the lightbox. One the edge, between the perforations, the customary stamp identified it: N I T R A T E. Other than that one detail, it looked exactly like any other film, and didn’t even seem particularly aged. Despite its renowned fragility and explosiveness, nitrate film is surprisingly sturdy and durable if treated well, and this Gone with the Wind had lived the most privileged nitrate life possible: air-sealed, artfully projected, kept cold and moisture-free. In May, a UK photography studio discovered century-old nitrate footage in their archives, just as an Argentinian studio found long-unseen footage from Metropolis in 2008. With some minor refurbishing, these films played perfectly well. Try to imagine someone 80 years from now stumbling upon a box of floppy disks or a maltreated flash drive — how easily will she access those secrets? Will the technology to access them even exist?
The Mayer Center is as thoughtful and rigorous as nitrate preservation gets, and assuming its storage and environmental standards are continually upheld, Deborah Stoiber says that each of its 12,000 reels will last 400 years. The Eastman House takes this mission deadly seriously; in 1978, when their nitrate archive was kept in a literal barn, a spontaneous combustion resulted in the loss of more than 450 titles. They learned their lesson. The six vaults are now held at a continuous 40 degrees Fahrenheit with 30 percent relative humidity. A full mechanical air exchange is programmed to occur every 20 minutes. In accordance with the newest standards from the National Fire Protection Association, the building was recently updated with grated film carts, nine fire extinguishers, new emergency exits, a new sprinkler system, and outward-opening steel-reinforced doors. Before new film goes in the tightly packed vaults, it spends 24 hours in a shared "staging room," kept at 70 degrees. But not too many new films go in; each vault can hold only 2,184 reels, and most are at or near capacity.
The Mayer Center’s collection includes everything from silent rarities to undersung masterpieces like the 1924 Peter Pan, featuring early work from legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Martin Scorsese’s personal print of his mentor Michael Powell’s masterpiece The Red Shoes is here. Deborah gestured to one meat locker vault door and declared, "That’s where we keep all the Garbos." She asked for requests, and one of my fellow devotees asked to see Meet Me in St. Louis. Deborah pulled down Reel 12 and opened it for us to see. White fabric gloves on, my heart swelled as I held one of my most beloved movies in my hands.
"So who wants to go watch it burn?"
In person, nitrate film is strikingly physical and tactile: heavy, thick, and dense, each reel was like a circular black brick. Thousands of tiny plastic photographs wound end to end, each one expertly tinted and color-adjusted; that’s what gives old film that famous luster and otherworldly hues. It didn’t look fragile, it looked powerful and important.
Deborah reached in the big trash can and grabbed a couple discarded feet of nitrate film. Holding it up, she asked us all, "So who wants to go watch it burn?"
Back outside, in the stunning natural light, Deborah walked us over to the far end of the small parking lot by the edge of a field. She dropped the film in an upturned canister lid, then bent over and began flicking at a matchbook.
When she tossed in the light, the nitrate ignited and hissed back at us. The flame shot up, a 4-foot pillar, and then spread laterally, unstoppably, along the length of the coiled filmstrip. I felt its glowing heat from almost 10 feet away. Within a few seconds, the film burned out and left behind only a shaft of singed emulsion, like a scrap of femur after Pompeii. Deborah laughed, delighted, as we dipped to our knees on the asphalt to take cell phone pictures of the ruin.
"If you have a fire here," she said, "it’s going to take out the whole neighborhood."
Back in the theater, the lush yellow curtain raised and Ben Tucker’s co-workers trained their beam on the screen. The scratches and pops crackled like a campfire, then a blaring fanfare announced the Warner Brothers logo and a map of Africa. I stared intently, eager to see something life-changing. But it only looked like an old movie. Maybe a little sharper than usual, but also blemished and scuffed.
Then, right after Peter Lorre’s corrupt operator is gunned down and Humphrey Bogart goes upstairs to his office safe, there’s a shot of Claude Raines’ scheming Vichy officer, standing fully lit, talking to Bogart’s shadow. When that shadow darkened the screen, I sat up. Here it was: the famous depth of nitrate’s blacks. It looked and felt like real negative space, like an infinite void. From that point forward, I began to notice all sorts of little details: the clarity of individual fibers in Bogie’s low-lit hair or the texture of Ingrid Bergman’s dress.
The rest of the weekend provided a parade of similarly breathtaking imagery. The Picture Show organizers had included a huge breadth of filmmaking styles, all of which yielded moments of incredible beauty. In Cecile B. DeMille’s 1949 biblical epic Samson and Delilah, it was an opening sequence full of red and purple smoke, which billowed so warmly that I could nearly smell it. Nothing Sacred, an underappreciated Carol Lombard screwball comedy from 1937, contained outdoor and aerial footage of Depression-era Manhattan more immersive and gritty than any comparably aged movie I’ve ever seen. Leave Her to Heaven and Black Narcissus, two of the most blaringly colored and psychosexually intense movies of the ‘40s, both felt positively enveloping. But the highlight was William Dieterle’s underseen black-and-white fantasy-romance, Portrait of Jennie, which in its climactic seaside storm scene takes on a subtle green tint before moving to full color for its last shot. The effect was overwhelming; the promise of nitrate stock fulfilled all in one emotionally devastating 15-minute sequence.
I came away a proselytizer. On nitrate, characters somehow move across the screen at a more lifelike pace than on regular film. It feels like you’re sharing an atmosphere with them, within reach of their conversations. This festival was the most wonderful moviegoing experience of my life. It was the closest I’ve ever felt to time travel.
The Eastman House sold nearly 300 festival passes to people from 20 countries, and looks poised to hold it again next year. But this excitement belies a wider unease. Film has been more scrambled by the digital age than any other medium. Once-standard 35mm celluloid is now a luxury item used mainly by high-profile directors who insist on it. Digital projection and storage is now standard, but just like its film forebears, it poses its own preservation challenges: file formats change so quickly and hardware is so unreliable that, in the words of Matthew Dessem, writing for The Dissolve, "Unless the unique challenges of digital preservation are met, we run the risk of a future in which a film from 1894 printed on card stock has a better chance of surviving than a digital film from 2014."
Cultural artifacts, like natural ones, go extinct as a matter of course. The question is simply how to carry history into each new era. There will never be a final film format; the movies will keep getting upgraded and compressed into tinier units of digital memory. But as they do, the world’s slowly improving stock of nitrate film will beckon — romantic, profound, extraordinarily novel. Before the festival, Jared Case said he hoped the Nitrate Picture Show would attract a broad group of bloggers, scholars, and film-Tweeters who would spread the word of nitrate’s viability as a living medium. "For a certain segment of the population," he told me, "it’s a real experience."
Nitrate film will never be widespread again, and certainly nothing will ever again be printed on it. But to go from near invisibility to one specialty destination weekend a year would constitute a huge increase in the sheer number of people who have actually witnessed this beautiful sight. It would offer the chance, rare for film fans, to commune with original artifacts from the golden age of the medium. And it would refute, even just a little, the stubborn idea that digitalization is forever. For a supposedly dying, deadly format, we have a lot to learn from it.