Last Thursday: In the Vaults with Nitrate Film

I wrote this article a week ago, on Thursday, May 3. For technical reasons concerning the tablet I took on my trip to New York state, I was not able to add photos, which I felt were necessary for telling this story. So here it is.

I will continue, through Sunday, posting a daily report of what I saw a week earlier.


Thursday was my first day in Rochester, NY, where I am attending The Nitrate Picture Show, a small film festival celebrating the beautiful, long unused, highly-flammable, nitrate film stock. (For more on this special type of film, see my earlier article.) I spent the morning and early afternoon at the George Eastman Museum—the location of the Picture Show. I had a good time, especially in the Bollywood exhibit.

I must also mention that the museum store sells, along with a great many books, purses and neckties made of 35mm film. I hope they’re not nitrate.

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But the real pleasure came in the late afternoon, when Collection Manager Deborah Stoiber led me and four other members of the press on a tour of the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. For a cinephile, this is like finding the holy grail…actually, several holy grails.

2018-05-03 16.02.07.jpgThis is where the museum stores its nitrate prints. And no, you won’t find these prints in the Museum proper, or even in Rochester. The city government has outlawed the storage of nitrate film in town – a reasonable rule considering how that old film stock can burst into flames. The Center is out in the woods.

To keep the 24,000 reels of nitrate from rotting or burning, the vault is kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with carefully controlled humidity. Most of what they have are camera negatives; if you want to make the best possible print or digital scan, these are sources you want to start with. The negatives here include most of the major MGM musicals, along with Gone with the Wind, Olympia, The Big Parade, and many more. About 55% of the titles belong to Warner Brothers, which owns not only its own library but also MGM’s and RKO’, as well.

Right from the start, we saw something very, very special: an employee examining the camera negative from a 1896 Lumiere Brothers movie. Imagine, I could have reached out and touched it! (Although I would have gotten into considerable trouble if I had.) This reel of film went through a camera 122 years ago, at the very dawn of the motion picture. The film was 35mm , but the sprocket holes had an entirely different configuration than what would become the standard.

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Film from 1896. Note only one sprocket hole per side per frame.

Stoiber explained how they make a copy – either on film or digitally – with a special gate that doesn’t have sprockets and thus doesn’t need to match the sprocket holes. Stoiber also explained the five signs of the stages of nitrate composition:

  1. Smell, which Stoiber described as “a wet dog wearing gym socks.”
  2. Sticky
  3. Bubbles
  4. Hock puck: Her description of a roll of film that has fused into a solid mass
  5. A very fine powder that stains everything.

These happen, of course, only if the film doesn’t burst into flame.

You don’t just take a roll of film out of the vault. There’s a room, sort of like an airlock, where they sit for 24 hours to acclimatize after being removed from the vault and being returned back to it.

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Negatives adjusting to a different temperature. These roles are from the three-strip negatives of The Wizard of Oz (left) and Gone with the Wind (right).

Among the rolls in the “airlock” were reels from Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz – one reel from each. But since these films were shot in three-strip Technicolor, each of these reels contained a record of only one primary color.

Speaking of color, Stoiber also showed us a silent tinted print. We only saw it in the can, of course, but the roll of film itself was colorful.

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She also showed us a two-color Technicolor negative from a test with Mary Pickford. We got to look at a few frames on this one. We could see how the frames alternately flipped between the red and green frames (all of which, of course, were in black and white).

It was a great trip. But the real show starts Friday.

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