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» Film-Tech Forum   » Operations   » Film Handlers' Forum   » The Beauty And Danger Of Nitrate Film

Author Topic: The Beauty And Danger Of Nitrate Film
Harold Hallikainen
Jedi Master Film Handler

Posts: 793
From: Denver, CO, USA
Registered: Aug 2009

 - posted 05-13-2017 07:31 AM      Profile for Harold Hallikainen   Author's Homepage   Email Harold Hallikainen   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post


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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Leo Enticknap
Film God

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From: Loma Linda, CA
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 - posted 05-13-2017 02:55 PM      Profile for Leo Enticknap   Author's Homepage   Email Leo Enticknap   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
I suppose this kind of article is useful for drumming up publicity, but it does really annoy me how the usual untruths, half truths and exaggerations tend to be perpetuated by journalists who don't do the necessary research to get the factual basis of their articles right.

Nitrate film can kill you ... if you do something f***ing stupid with it. The same applies to your car, the bottle of acetaminophen (paracetamol) pills in your bathroom's medicine cabinet, the bread knife you used when making your breakfast this morning, etc. etc. The real risk we were working to minimize was the risk of destroying an irreplaceable archival object, not the risk of killing ourselves. Yes, we did have to do a lot to meet the NFPA regulations, but many of those regulations are unnecessary. With proper training, common sense and awareness, handling nitrate in a projection booth is no more dangerous than many activities we do every day. If it were, nitrate would not have remained in mainstream theater use for nearly six decades. The bottom line is that you can't win a Darwin award without first nominating yourself!

And ironically, nowhere does the writer mention what the biggest risk to human health from burning nitrate actually is, namely the nitric acid fumes. A single 2,000 foot reel igniting in a magazine or approved bin is not going to generate enough heat and flames to hurt you (unless you stand next to it long past the point that anyone not high on marijuana would have left the vicinity), but breathe in any of the fumes and you'll be in big trouble, very quickly. But we're not going to, because we're trained to get out of the booth immediately if an accidental film ignition does happen, and no-one who has not been trained to do this is allowed to set foot in the booth when nitrate is in it.

Two things that shocked me about the Man Who Knew Too Much evening were, (i) how poor the print was, and (ii) Scorsese made a claim that is flat out untrue in his speech. To take the second first: he told the audience that safety film that was every bit as good as nitrate was on the market decades before the 1950s, but that it was developed in response to the Cleveland Clinic fire, and therefore used only in non-movie applications, and no attempt was made to sell it for use in the motion picture industry until the late 1940s.

This is simply not true, and on two counts. Firstly, the cellulose acetate-based film bases available before 1948 were not the same as cellulose triacetate, launched by Kodak in that year. Cellulose diacetate, butyrate and propionate were the three main pre-1948 safety bases available. They were much more expensive than nitrate and far more fragile (less tensile strength). They were used on a very limited scale for movies, mainly for amateur use in 16mm and 8mm (for which the ability to withstand hundreds of passes wasn't necessary), but also for 35mm theatrical use in situations where the need to avoid fire safety precautions trumped all other considerations (e.g. to be able to send ads and trailers through the regular mail). For regular theatrical use, the precautions needed to reduce the risk of using nitrate to an acceptable level continued to work out cheaper than using any of the pre-1948 safety bases available.

The reason why cellulose triacetate superseded nitrate for motion picture use where previous safety stocks failed was because it was no more expensive per foot to manufacture, and was almost as durable as nitrate. The full test results and figures can be found in this article, and anyone who had done even basic reading around the subject would know this. The fact that Scorsese hadn't, and hadn't even taken advice from someone who had, was something I found very disappointing. He's done some wonderful advocacy work around film technology over the years, but his credibility as an authority on the subject took a big hit for me that night.

As for The Man Who Knew Too Much, the image was soft, impossible to focus sharply, and very crushed in the midtones (e.g. you couldn't see lapel lines on dark jackets). The print was physically in very good shape (hardly any dirt or scratches on the actual print itself), but photographically, it was garbage. It looked about 10th generation, with some of those generations being printed optically. I'm sure that anyone in the audience who had not seen nitrate projected before came away wondering what all the fuss was about. Personally, I'd argue that this made it all the more worth playing: to show audiences that there were good nitrate prints and not so good ones, and therefore do some valuable mythbusting. Hopefully, some of the audience at least came away having got that.

Laura was photographically stunning, but very scratchy and beat up. Black Narcissus had two excellent reels, but the dye registration on the others was so-so, bordering on fringy. It was also heavily scratched in places, though most shots were dark enough that the scratches weren't very distracting. I wasn't there for the last night, and so can't comment on that one. None of the three nitrate prints I played looked even remotely close to the visual quality of the MoMA print of Casablanca we played last November, which really was a powerful demonstration of how great nitrate can be. I'm puzzled as to why TCM chose to showcase the prints that they did. Maybe there simply isn't anything else known to be out there that is as nice as that Casablanca print, or if there is, it's of such obscure titles that they'd struggle to pull any sort of an audience in.

I'm convinced that a lot of the misinformation that circulates in the "film vs. digital" debate and every other contentious topic around media technology is down to articles like this. The quality of technical journalism (i.e. journalism that tries to make technical topics accessible to readers who don't have above average subject knowledge) is simply not what it once was.

I wonder if, in 50 years' time, when electric cars have totally superseded the internal combustion engine, we'll be reading articles about how daredevils took their lives in their hands sitting in a vehicle, only 2-3 feet away from 15 gallons of gasoline?

Finally, this paragraph of melodramatic idiocy cannot pass without comment:

quote: Article
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.’
One of the reasons so much money was spent refurbishing our booth was to ensure that if any fire starts in it, it will not enter the auditorium. She would be at greater risk of tripping down the stairs and breaking her leg during the evacuation than she would from the burning film, including during an evacuation that is required for reasons other than a nitrate fire.

If I were to die while watching a Michael Powell movie, it would be from losing the will to live as the result of being subjected to some of the most pretentious, overrated (and in many cases gratuitously sadistic) bullshit ever to go in front of a camera!

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Richard P. May
Expert Film Handler

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From: Los Angeles, CA
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 - posted 05-14-2017 11:22 AM      Profile for Richard P. May   Email Richard P. May   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Leo, thank you for this. It points up many of the myths of what I've called "if it burns, it must be beautiful".
I started in the industry when nitrate was the standard film stock, and safety was just coming in. It was a novelty, and to a projectionist sometimes a nuisance because it required different film cement to make a splice. Otherwise, we didn't pay any more attention to it than we do today putting gasoline into our cars.
A few comments regarding the article and the accompanying interview:
Nitrate was referred to several times as a "format". Format is the shape of the image. Nitrate is the film base.
It is probable that many of the surviving nitrate prints in archives were studio library copies, made from the original camera negative. For this reason, they are almost bound to be of superior quality from prints made off duplicate negatives. Your comments about the print of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" in comparison with "Laura" illustrate this.
As to color, the article did not recognize that almost all surviving nitrate prints were made by the Technicolor process, which was a whole different animal than Eastman Color (and equivalent) processes introduced around 1950. You pointed out that "Black Narcissus" had some registration problems. Again, there were inferior Technicolor prints, but these probably did not get into the archives.
There were many variables making nitrate prints, just the same as for safety. Laboratory quality, technician's care, generation of pre-print elements, etc.
During my years in film preservation, I have seen some absolutely beautiful prints made on contemporary polyester-based stock.
End of dissertation. Thanks for reading.

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Rick Raskin
Phenomenal Film Handler

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From: Manassas Virginia
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 - posted 05-14-2017 05:11 PM      Profile for Rick Raskin   Email Rick Raskin   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
I have seen and projected nitrate. What amazes me is the belief that nitrate is akin to handing a stick of dynamite. My experience projecting nitrate culminated in running an extremely beat up print of "The man Who Knew To Much" at the AFI when it was located at the Kennedy Center (1975). We had a fire that night and lost 1/2 reel. The film in the upper magazine was reduced to ash but the lower magazine was unaffected. The fire spread because the fire traps had previously been removed at the direction of management on the assumption that they scratched film.

What I'm driving at is that no one in the theater was in any danger. In fact my wife was in the audience and she didn't feel any danger. The port shutters dropped as designed and the other projectionist (the late Sidney Herwood) and I exited the booth with no difficulty. Like Leo stated, we were trained to get the hell out of there.

The only downside was that we couldn't turn on the house lights; a fault that was corrected by installing a switch in the theater.

What I do remember about seeing nitrate projected is the image was visually stunning. But I'd have to say that I've seen safety film equally as stunning especially the films on Fuji stock that I ran in the 1970s.

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Stephen Furley
Film God

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From: Coulsdon, Croydon, England
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 - posted 05-14-2017 07:12 PM      Profile for Stephen Furley   Email Stephen Furley   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Is cellulose nitrate still used for purposes other than making film? I'm aware of a few other uses for it:

Kodak professional film cement, the stuff in a metal can holding about half a litre, contained it.

It was still being used at least a few years ago for lacquer sound recording disks.

It was used in a lacquer on woodwork in some old British railway carriages.

It was used as a coating on playing cards.

It was used in dope for aircraft fabric, certainly during the first world war, and probably afterwards.

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Leo Enticknap
Film God

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From: Loma Linda, CA
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 - posted 05-14-2017 11:47 PM      Profile for Leo Enticknap   Author's Homepage   Email Leo Enticknap   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Nitrocellulose lacquer on aluminum substrate might still be used to make the master discs that are cut on the lathe in phonograph disc production. Nitrocellulose was certainly used for this long after photographic film base ceased being made of the stuff. I've just had a sniff around online, and can't find anything definitive. The world's largest maker of phonograph master blanks, Apollo (which coincidentally is located only about 25 miles from me), describes the recipe for their lacquer as "totally proprietary," so no clue there.

But it would be interesting to know if nitrocellulose is still being manufactured in significant quantities, and if so, what for.

quote: Rick Raskin
What I'm driving at is that no one in the theater was in any danger. In fact my wife was in the audience and she didn't feel any danger. The port shutters dropped as designed and the other projectionist (the late Sidney Herwood) and I exited the booth with no difficulty. Like Leo stated, we were trained to get the hell out of there.
Amen. When I heard that we were going to start playing nitrate again, the risk of accidentally damaging or destroying a completely irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind print kept me awake at night. The risk of accidentally killing myself did not.

quote: Richard P. May
It is probable that many of the surviving nitrate prints in archives were studio library copies, made from the original camera negative. For this reason, they are almost bound to be of superior quality from prints made off duplicate negatives. Your comments about the print of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" in comparison with "Laura" illustrate this.
The speakers introducing these shows talked a little about the provenance of the prints. The Man Who Knew Too Much was a print that was made for David O. Selznick when he was contemplating hiring Hitchcock, and wanted to see some examples of his past work. It was made four years after the movie came out, and so goodness knows what the source element was that it was printed from. Lots of generations removed from the o-neg would be my guess, and it showed.

Laura was the showprint used for the Academy screenings that resulted in Joseph LaShelle getting the cinematography Oscar. So, as you say, it will have been straight from the o-neg, with the lab's finest working on it. But because it was such a lovely print, it has been in constant use for shows ever since it was made in 1944 (a co-worker at the Egyptian told me that he'd played it several times over the years and in several different venues, starting in the 1970s). So it was scratchy, dirty, had bits missing (there was a particularly gnarly jump cut in the long, slow tracking shot towards Clifton Webb in the bathtub at the start of the show), and was basically so worn out that it must have been difficult for the audience to concentrate on its amazing photographic quality.

Black Narcissus was a British release print (the edge code on the stock was the British symbols for 1947), and we weren't told how it ended up in the Academy Film Archive. But it too had been through a projector many, many times.

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Paul H. Rayton
Expert Film Handler

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 - posted 05-15-2017 12:58 AM      Profile for Paul H. Rayton     Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
When we (Leo and I were both there) were in Rochester, NY for the AMIA conference in 2007, we took the "behind the scenes" tour at Eastman Kodak Co. We were told that cellulose nitrate was the main ingredient of ping pong balls. Now, it seems to me that they may have specified that it was for "professional" ping pong balls which were made of the stuff. I don't know enough about them to be able to differentiate a standard ball from a "professional" one, but I subsequently did purchase a pack at a local sporting goods store and tried setting one on fire, and it flared up like ... like it was made of cellulose nitrate. So, if you're feeling adventurous, just be super careful and do it outside, with plenty of ambient ventilation!

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Steve McAndrew
Film Handler

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As a film collector I would love to have some Nitrate prints in my collection however have avoided it over the years. I have always thought that a few nitrate reels stored in metal cans in a metal cabinet would be perfectly safe from spreading to the surrounding area. My question therefore is that in the well documented film store fires during the last century, how did the fires initially spread? I would imagine most prints were stored in metal cans. Was it just the heat generated in one can igniting the nitrate in the adjacent cans or am I wrong in thinking that the nitrate was involved actually starting the fire?

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Leo Enticknap
Film God

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 - posted 05-15-2017 08:39 AM      Profile for Leo Enticknap   Author's Homepage   Email Leo Enticknap   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
That's a hotly (excuse the pun!) debated question, in relation to which this article is worth a look. It suggests that "fresh" nitrate is not a spontaneous ignition risk, but that nitrate in "an advanced state" of decomposition is.

The short version: some believe that even nitrate in good condition is capable of spontaneous ignition if it is stored in a warm enough environment, and for long enough. Others believe that it isn't, and that (unless it's heated to the sort of temperatures you'd only find in an oven, or jams in the gate of a projector that doesn't have liquid cooling) it can only be ignited by contact with a flame or spark.

There have certainly been examples over the years of nitrate fires for which no viable external cause of ignition was ever identified. One I remember was the Hendersons lab fire of 1993. All the nitrate in storage there was in good condition, and in an outhouse/vault building that didn't even have an electricity supply. But the summer of 1993 in London was an abnormally hot one, just like 1949 in New York.

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Dave Macaulay
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It really is equivalent to handling a stick of dynamite. Both will burn, both can be physically abused within reason and not cause a problem. Both need a detonator to actually explode - I do not recommend trying a detonator on a reel of nitrate film.
If you put a scrap of nitrate film on an anvil and hit it with a hammer, it definitely explodes.

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Stephan Shelley
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 - posted 05-17-2017 06:30 PM      Profile for Stephan Shelley   Email Stephan Shelley   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Guitar picks are nitrate base. My roommate worked at a paint company in San Francisco that still makes nitrocellulose lacquer paint. There were signs around the plant that if the base was spilled to clean it up and not let it dry. The rags were stored in a water bath and a rag company dealt with them from there.

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Garry Knapp
Film Handler

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 - posted 05-27-2017 02:00 AM      Profile for Garry Knapp   Author's Homepage   Email Garry Knapp   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Thank you all for this info.
Recently I bought a big lot of trailers from a old guy that ran a film distribution biz. One of them turned out to be nitrate.
I've read and seen the danger and immediately got this into a film can. eeek...
I don't feel as threatened

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