The Five Stages Of Decomposition: From Guncotton To Dust

I can report that the fourth annual Nitrate Picture Show was a luxurious cinema spectacle, and I made it back unscathed. Black and white films–Ingmar Bergman’s SOMMARLEK, Edmund Goulding’s THE RAZOR’S EDGE–shimmered. The sweat on Maj-Britt Nilsson’s forehead visibly beaded, Gene Tierney’s tears glistened, and a sepia-toned print of HOLIDAY lived up to its 1938 Variety review, which stated that the film “is handsomely mounted and stamped with fine technical work throughout.” All the detail of Moira Shearer’s red and black cat-eye makeup was visible when we saw THE RED SHOES, which came from Martin Scorsese’s collection. Technicolor never fades. While nitric acid in the film stock makes it a flammable solid and dangerous to store and project, the image quality is superior. Silver in the film emulsion of nitrocellulose makes blacks richer and whites lighter than the later, and safer, acetate-based film. All the nitrate film prints screened by the George Eastman Museum during the Nitrate Picture Show were made before 1952, when filmmakers transitioned to using safety film.

In Chili, New York, nitrate film is stored in cold vaults at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The vaults hold the nitrate film collection of the George Eastman Museum, from which a number of films shown each year at the Picture Show are chosen. The vaults hold 24,000 reels of film on nitrocellulose, which comprise 7,800 films (films typically comprise multiple reels). GONE WITH THE WIND is 39 picture reels weighing a total of 488 pounds—and that’s without the sound reels. Over half of the collection was donated by Warner Brothers, another large amount was donated by Martin Scorsese, and the rest is from George Eastman’s personal collection. The oldest films in the vault are also some of the oldest in film history—including films made by the Lumière Brothers in 1896. Chili is 20 minutes away from the city of Rochester, where the Museum is located.

The Eastman Museum takes all possible precautions to preserve their nitrate prints from decomposition, and to prevent fires (the last one was 40 years ago, in 1978). The vaults are intentionally outside of Rochester city limits. Nitrocellulose is extremely flammable. Nitrate fires are particularly dangerous because nitrocellulose produces oxygen as it burns so water or chemicals do not easily extinguish the fire. The only difference between guncotton—used as an explosive—and nitrocellulose used for film is the addition of the chemical compound camphor, which is added to the nitrocellulose, transforming the base into celluloid. As nitrate film decomposes, it becomes more unstable and prone to implosion.

When I visited the nitrate vault, outside of the cold storage rooms was a brown cylindrical container that smelled to me like a subway car, to others like a wet dog. These were nitrate films in the first stage of decomposition—when they start to smell. There are five stages to nitrate film decomposition. After the smelly stage, the film becomes sticky. Third, the film starts to bubble. Then, there is what Deborah Stoiber, the Museum’s collection manager, called the hockey puck stage, where the film becomes a solid mass. Lastly, it turns into a brown powder. That nitrate dust is carted away by a company called Clean Harbors.

The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum is the only place to view nitrate films projected on the East Coast (and one of only a handful of places equipped to show nitrate in the world). The weekend-long festival brings together prints from collections around the world, including from the National Audiovisual Institute of Helsinki, the Library of Congress, the Academy Film Archive, and the Austrian Film Museum. In addition to the films mentioned above, the Fourth Nitrate Picture Show screened František Čáp’s MIST ON THE MOORS (1943), Anthony Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73 (1950), Grigoriy Aleksandrov’s MOSCOW LAUGHS (1934), and Robert Flaherty’s MAN OF ARAN (1934). The Fourth Nitrate Picture Show was directed by Paolo Cherchi Usai, with Jurij Meden, Jared Case, and Deborah Stoiber of the George Eastman Museum. The next Nitrate Picture Show will take place from May 3 to 5, 2019.