I was looking at the schedule for the Turner Classic Movies upcoming film festival in Hollywood and saw that they have two “nitrate screenings” of movies. What the heck does that mean? Aren’t nitrates bad?
Though we live in a digital age where film is just a series of bits on a USB drive, hard drive or backup device, the history of cinema of course is about film stock. You’ve heard of celluloid, probably, but throughout the over 100 years of cinematic history there have been quite a few different materials and products tried for reproduction and projection of high quality images onto a screen. Not only that, but even the shape of the lens involved in recording and then projecting back onto the big screen has also gone through a remarkable evolution, ranging from Cinerama (which initially had three films being simultaneously projected to the screen in different colors) to VistaVision, to the weird distorted lenses of anamorphic Cinemascope.
But let’s get back to Nitrate. As you know, nitrate is generally considered to be a bad ingredient in processed lunch meats and bacon, among other things, to give them color and to prolong their shelf life, but it’s actually pretty benign: a salt or ester of nitric acid, containing the anion NO3. Which leads to the question of how the heck does this relate to old movies?
Turns out that NPR has a good article that explains why nitrate film is so prized: “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 incredibly flammable, making it very dangerous for theaters that project a nitrate film. In fact, you have to go to a classic film festival to even bump into nitrate film because it was phased out in the 1940’s because of how dangerous it was. The projector bursting into flame has memorably been captured in movies too, including Cinema Paradiso, Inglourious Basterds, and The Artist.
Fortunately, a few modern movie theaters have created projection systems that work with the old nitrate film and have extensive fire prevention and management systems added so that the projection can immediately be shut down and any potential fire stopped as soon as it rears its ugly head. Most well known of those is the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and it’s no coincidence that it’s one of the theaters for the TCM Classic Film Festival coming up.
So the long and short of it is that if you have a chance to see a “nitrate print” screening of a movie, any movie, rush and get tickets. It’ll be more vibrant, warmer, and more beautiful than standard film stock, and ideally suited for films with great cinematography like 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, 1943’s Phantom of the Opera, 1947’s Black Narcissus, 1949’s The Third Man or, yes, 1949’s Samson and Delilah, the last of which is in the TCM lineup for 2019.
You can learn more about the history of film stock and chemistry at the UCLA Film & Television Archive if you’re curious: Nitrate Film: From Vault to Screen.