What's The Issue With Nitrate Film Stock? It's Combustible

Apr 10, 2017
Originally published on April 11, 2017 6:30 am

Film fans had an unusual opportunity this weekend to see classic movies the way they were originally projected: on old-style nitrate film stock.

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 grey tones shimmer. It's also extremely flammable.

Casablanca was the first film Genevieve McGillicuddy saw projected on nitrate. McGillicuddy is director of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which sponsored the screenings. "I felt like I was seeing Humphrey Bogart for the first time, and Ingrid Bergman never looked better, and the outfits just popped off the screen."

Color nitrate has been described as equally breathtaking. Dennis Bartok manages the Egyptian Theatre, where the films are playing. He says his single most unforgettable screening experience was watching a Technicolor nitrate print of the movie Black Narcissus. "So, people will compare them to an illuminated manuscript or something like that. All I can say is watching Black Narcissus really is a spiritual experience for people who love cinema."

But there's physical danger involved in nitrate film. It's unstable, combustible, and contains a substance that was also used in explosives. Kodak stopped making it in the early 1950s, when it was replaced by more stable film stock.

TCM wanted to screen some of the nitrate prints that exist in archives at its festival, so it worked with Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation. Together with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Academy Film Archive and the American Cinematheque, they brought the projection booth of The Egyptian Theater up to fire code, and Bartok says they also modified two vintage 35mm projectors. "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."

Good thing — because if nitrate film stock does catch fire, it will continue to burn even if you douse it with water.

TCM screened the film noir classic Laura, Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the musical Lady in the Dark, in addition to Black Narcissus. And now that its projection booth is up to code, the Egyptian Theatre will continue to show nitrate films from time to time.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Audiences had an unusual opportunity over the weekend to see classic movies the way they were originally projected. The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood played movies on old-style nitrate film. It's very rare and beautiful and flammable. Here's Beth Accomando of member station KPBS.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

DOOLEY WILSON: (As Sam, singing) You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh.

ACCOMANDO: "Casablanca" was the first film Genevieve McGillicuddy saw projected on nitrate. McGillicuddy is director of the TCM Classic Film Festival which sponsored the screenings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASABLANCA")

HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Sam, I thought I told you never to play...

GENEVIEVE MCGILLICUDDY: I felt like I was seeing Humphrey Bogart for the first time. Ingrid Bergman never looked better. And the outfits popped off the screen.

ACCOMANDO: Color nitrate been described as equally breathtaking. Dennis Bartok manages the Egyptian Theatre, where the films are playing. He says his single most unforgettable screening experience was watching a Technicolor nitrate print of the movie "Black Narcissus."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK NARCISSUS")

DENNIS BARTOK: So a lot of people will compare them to, say, an illuminated manuscript or something like that. All I can say is that watching "Black Narcissus" really is a spiritual experience for people who love cinema.

ACCOMANDO: But there's physical danger involved in nitride film. It's unstable, combustible and contains a substance that was also used in explosives. Kodak stopped making it in the early 1950s, when it was replaced by more stable film stock.

TCM wanted to screen some of the nitrate prints that exist in archives at its festival, so it worked with Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation. Together, they brought the projection booth at the Egyptian Theatre up to fire code. And Bartok says they also modified two vintage 35 millimeter projectors.

BARTOK: In the event, God forbid, of a fire, the projectionist, you know, 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.

ACCOMANDO: Good thing because if nitrate film stock does catch fire, it will continue to burn even if you douse it with water.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAURA")

DANA ANDREWS: (As Det. Lt. Mark McPherson) Somebody was murdered in this room. Do you have any idea who it was?

ACCOMANDO: TCM screened the film noir classic "Laura," Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and the musical "Lady In The Dark," in addition to "Black Narcissus." The Egyptian Theatre will continue to show nitrate films from time to time. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando in Hollywood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.