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The Third Nitrate Picture Show at Eastman House

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

As Liz Logan writes in the excellent web journal Hyperallergic, nitrate film refuses to die.

As she notes, “many of the most iconic films in cinematic history — Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane — were recorded on nitrate, the earliest form of motion picture film, yet the material has a terrible reputation. Used from the late 1800s through the 1940s, nitrate film was incredibly flammable and caused some major fires in movies theaters.

These tragic chapters in cinematic history have been revisited in films such as Cinema Paradiso, Inglourious Basterds, and The Artist. Later, once nitrate film was phased out, many archives were intentionally burned, simply to destroy the hazardous material.

But film archivists see nitrate in a different, less fiery, light. Aside from being an important ancestor of all the forms of film that came after it, nitrate is lauded for its luminous, high-contrast images, resulting from an emulsion that was rich in silver and the film’s excellent transparency.

And if it’s handled properly, the film is perfectly safe. For all these reasons, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York is gearing up for the third Nitrate Picture Show, which will take place from May 5–7, 2017. Passes for the weekend go on sale at midnight on Monday, December 12.

‘It’s kind of a mystery how nitrate film has endured, because people are so afraid of it,’ said Deborah Stoiber, technical director of the festival and collections manager in the museum’s Moving Image department, which houses more than 100,000 cans of nitrate in its vaults.

Those cans comprise more than 6,000 titles, many on extended loan from Warner Brothers. The museum’s Dryden Theatre is one of only three theaters in the US with the legal safety measures in place to screen nitrate films, and the only such theater outside of California.

The Nitrate Picture Show is intended not only to give audiences an authentic cinema experience from the past, but also ‘to dispel the myth that all nitrate is scratched, jerky, falling apart or otherwise not worth keeping,’ Stoiber said. The films that are shown at the festival are in pristine condition, and visitors can see and touch such nitrate prints up-close. People are often astounded by the quality, according to Stoiber.”

It’s true – nitrate film is difficult to handle, but the quality is superb – director Jean Cocteau noticed the difference when new, safety film prints were struck of his masterpiece Beauty and The Beast in the early 1950s, and lacked the shimmer and brilliance of the original imagery.

There’s no question that nitrate cinema is, and will remain, a niche technology, something like stone lithography, but for sheer pictorial impact and depth, nitrate remains unmatched as a visual technology. Those who have the chance to see this festival will be able to see the difference for themselves; the result is really stunning.

This festival is a labor of love, and the results should be simply gorgeous.

Digital vs. Film — Cinematographers Weigh In

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Martin Scorsese on the set of Hugo.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen has a fascinating piece on the differences between digital cinematography and working with conventional 35mm film, as discussed by some people who really know what they’re talking about; the 2012 Oscar nominees for cinematography.

As Olsen writes, “This year’s Oscar nominees for cinematography present a particularly varied cross-section of contemporary filmmaking at a time when the very infrastructure of how movies are made and seen is in transition. Consider: 35-millimeter film prints are being phased out in favor of digital projection. Consumer still cameras can be used to shoot high-definition digital video. Video on demand is becoming a popular viewing option. Even the venerable Eastman Kodak, which produces the film stock on which many movies are made, recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

The Scandinavian-modern The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was shot with digital cameras; the World War I-set War Horse was shot on film. Hugo was shot in digital 3-D to portray 1931 Paris, while The Artist was shot on color film, then transferred to black-and-white to evoke the end of the silent film era in Hollywood. The Tree of Life used footage shot both on film and digital and integrates nature photography into its storytelling. (That three-on-film, two-on-digital split is likely an approximation of Hollywood production overall, though changes are evolving rapidly.) As this moment of transition challenges distributors, exhibitors and even audiences, cinematographers are on the front lines of those responding to the changes. Many of them recognize just what a unique window this particular time presents.”

You can read the entire article here; a remarkable meeting of the minds. And as cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the DP on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, notes, “In all fairness, we’re at the infancy stage of digital cinema.”

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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