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.