Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Do We Need to Preserve Films? A Brief History of Nitrate (Part I) -- February 16, 2010

This post is part of For the Love of Film, The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films (http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/) and The Self-Styled Siren (http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/).

Works of art often need active help to be preserved. Librarians have been fighting bookworms and mold for centuries. Many old oil paintings were covered with shellac in an effort to protect them. Europeans have discovered that acid rain is not good for marble sculptures.

Motion pictures, long strips of pictures on a thin cellulose base, have special issues for preservation. Until about 1950, virtually all motion pictures intended for theatrical exhibition were shot and printed on film using nitrocellulose as a base. This film is generally referred to as "nitrate." Nitrocellulose, a compound originally made of cotton (cellulose) treated with nitric and sulfuric acids, was developed in the Nineteenth Century as an explosive. By their nature, explosives are unstable. Celluloid used in photographic film was produced by treating nitrocellulose with camphor, to produce a plastic-like substance.

From the Salt Lake Herald, September 04, 1889. This article is an early description of the use of nitrocellulose film in photography.

An important discovery in photography was recently demonstrated before the Society of Amateur Photographers in New York. This is a transparent flexible film possessing all the qualities of a sensitive plate and so thin that it may be rolled up and a large quantity carried in very small space. It takes the place of glass plates which are heavy, bulky and subject to breakage. The demonstration was given by Mr Gus D. Milburn, who is a member of the society. He showed the films, which are as thin as notepaper and have a polished surface like celluloid. The negatives were as clear as though they were taken on glass and the finished photographs were excellent. The backing of the film is a compound of nitrocellulose and camphor, using alcohol as a solvent, and is impervious to water and unaffected by the chemicals used in development. The new article requires no change in the method of operation except that the plate holders in the camera are replaced by a roll holder.

Nitrocellulose, known as gun cotton when used as an explosive, was a hot topic in the late Nineteenth Century. I found this item used as a filler in at least five newspapers around 1901. This example comes from the San Francisco Call, 07-July-1901:

People became aware fairly early that nitrocellulose and celluloid were not stable. Nitrate motion picture film decomposes, releasing the nitric acid from the compound, which causes faster decomposition. The first signs of decomposition are a smell commonly called "vinegar syndrome."

From the New York Tribune, 20-September-1914. I was fascinated when I came across this article, written just a month after the start of World War One, which speculates that poor marksmanship attributed to German infantrymen may have been caused by their use of nitrocellulose powder, which suffered from what film collectors call vinegar syndrome. The Allies used cordite-based gunpowder, which was more stable.

What appears to be a logical and reasonable explanation of the poor marksmanship attributed to the infantry of the German army is the subject of an article in a recent issue of The Field. The writer asserts that the fault does not lie either with the man or the rifle, but with the ammunition, which, he says, is deficient in two vital particulars.

Calling attention to the fact that the German service propellant is of the nitro-cellulose order, he says: "In a remarkably short space of time the explosive undergoes acid decomposition, whereby shooting quality deteriorates, as many sportsmen in hot countries have learned to their cost. So marked are the decomposition tendencies of nitro-cellulose powders that small quantities put aside in specimen tubes develop in about a couple of years the characteristic smell of nitric acid. When the decomposition proceeds in the cartridge case the brass is attacked, becomes rotten, and exhibits the green discoloration termed in domestic circles verdigris. In due course the mouth of the case splits, assisted, no doubt, by the wedging action of the tightly gripped bullet."

Aside from its tendency to decompose rapidly, the instability of nitrate motion picture film made it liable to burn and/or explode. This resulted in several fatal fires including the 04-May-1897 Charity Bazaar fire in Paris, which killed 125 people, including several aristocrats.

From the Richmond Times, 24-June-1897. Fire Wardens express their problems with motion picture exhibition.

In a letter to Hon. G. L. Heckler, Director of Fire Service at Cleveland, Ohio, Messrs. Reif and Miller, Fire Wardens, say:

"We would respectfully report that we investigated fire report of June 7, box No. 21 at 2:33 P. M., in one-story frame-and-brick building, Nos. 22 and 24 Public Square, owned by Hull & Dutton, occupied by O'Donnell & Quinn, and found cause of fire to be a spark from the arc light in the kinetoscope machine to the celluloid film, and in our opinion said machines are very dangerous, even when handled with the utmost care by a skilled operator.

"The distance from the lens to the celluloid films is about eight inches, and if the film is not kept moving and the cap is off the lens the film will ignite immediately. It is so powerful that you cannot hold your hand before said light when cap is off, and what makes it more dangerous is that they have the films which are not in use hanging up alongside of the machine, and everything about the machine is inflammable. We condemn the use of said machines in any building in the city, and especially in places of amusement."

I found many accounts of theaters burning when the celluloid films caught fire.

From the Los Angeles Herald, 10-April-1905. The theater burned but there was only one fatality thanks to the well-designed fire escape system and well-trained employees. So why was a bag of films hanging over the balcony railing? To keep them away from the projector to reduce the fire hazard?
By Associated Press.

KOKOMO, Ind., April 9. -- George Armstrong, l6 years, old was fatally injured and a score of persons severely burned tonight during a fire in the Sipt theater, caused by a roll of celluloid films used in operating a moving picture machine having ignited. In the panic that followed Armstrong jumped through a window in the third floor and was fatally injured.

During an intermission a bag of celluloid films, suspended over the balcony railing, was ignited by an electric light. The machine operator brought the audience into a panic by crying, "Look out everybody; the theater is on fire."

In an instant 600 people became a crushing mass of humanity.

Leaps to Death

That more were not hurt is due largely to the excellent system of fire escapes and exits in the theater and the deportment of the house employes.

Armstrong occupied a seat in the gallery and at the warning cry broke a plate glass window and jumped to the sidewalk, a distance of forty feet. Both his legs were broken and he was internally injured.

Mrs. Bert Jacobs was so affected by the shock as to require the attention of a physician. Her condition is serious.
Vance Hunt was badly burned by the flaming films. Several others were severely burned. The theater was damaged by smoke only.

Theater fires led several states to require fireproof projection booths in theaters and auditoriums. Scientists also developed safety film, cellulose acetate, which allowed films to be shown in schools and homes. Safety film melts rather than burning and exploding.

This ad from the 14-December-1919 New York Tribune, touting the Pathéscope, a home projector, stresses the use of "slow-burning film." Click on the image to see a larger version:

To stress the point further, the ad includes a box mentioning fire-proof booth requirements:

Sadly, most films didn't survive long enough to decompose or burn. Producers sold prints and sometimes negatives to companies that would burn them to recover the silver used to capture the images. Others dumped prints that no longer seemed useful in landfills. There are stories, possibly true, that some movies were recycled as guitar picks.

Part II tomorrow will include a smattering of examples of fires, and early attempts at preservation and restoration.

Thank you to Ferdy on Films (http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/) and The Self-Styled Siren (http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/) for organizing this blogathon. I'm having fun and learning.

Please consider donating to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The newspaper articles come from Chronicling America (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/), a project of the Library of Congress.


Sarah Baker said...

This was a really interesting blog. Amazing how so many old theatres burned back in those days.

Joe Thompson said...

Thanks for the kind words. It's a wonder the theaters survived, but fire prevention and containment measures got better.

Tinky said...

Fascinating post and research. Thank you for sharing it; it's so very different from anything else in the blogathon!

Joe Thompson said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I always try to be a little different.

ratatouille's archives said...

Hi! Joe Thompson,
I have returned and I'am about to read Part I and II of your series and leave comment(s).
DeeDee ; D

ratatouille's archives said...

"The first signs of decomposition are a smell commonly called "vinegar syndrome."

Hi! Joe Thompson,

I must admit that so far, your series is very interesting. I most definitely, will take a closer look at why we need to preserve films.
I usually, just focus on fund raising. Now, to focus on what I'am fundraising to...save.
In other words, What is at...stake!

Thanks, for sharing the following articles too...
The Danger of Nitrocellulose..."From the Salt Lake Herald, September 04, 1889. This article is an early description of the use of nitrocellulose film in photography."
"The New York Tribune, 20-September-1914."

The latter article is really an interesting article...Good thing that the Allies, didn't use the ammunition that the Germans were using during WWI.

But, most importantly, Thanks for
sharing all the photographs.

"Sadly, most films didn't survive long enough to decompose or burn. Producers sold prints and sometimes negatives to companies that would burn them to recover the silver used to capture the images. Others dumped prints that no longer seemed useful in landfills. There are stories, possibly true, that some movies were recycled as guitar picks."

Wow...I wonder if any of these films were the missing films that we are in search of today.

Thanks, for sharing...Now on to Part II...
DeeDee ;-D

Joe Thompson said...

DeeDee: I'm glad you find it interesting. We really have to thank the anonymous authors of all those newspaper stories and the heroic people at the Library of Congress who have digitized them and made them available for searching. Another good example of preservation. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

Gareth said...

Thanks for this wonderful series. I do research on cinema in Africa (African audiences more than African moviemakers), and because of the particular challenges of storage in many parts of Africa these kinds of occurrences persisted until quite late there.

For instance, there was a huge fire in Ghana in the mid-1950s that destroyed a major cinema but which also burned down the major storage area for film prints so that many cinemas were forced to shut down for as long as two years because there were no prints available for distribution - an event with a very tangible impact for people very far away from the fire itself.

Joe Thompson said...

Gareth: Thank you for the kind words about the series. I enjoyed writing it. Good exercise for the mind.

It's sad about the event in Ghana. A lot of people were deprived of some well-needed entertainment. I guess this was during the time people were seeking independence.

Doug Bonner said...

I really admire a writer who can do in-depth research. This is a great read!

Joe Thompson said...

Doug: Thanks for the compliment. The research wasn't all that in-depth.