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Nitrate Film – More Feared Than Frankenstein – Less Understood Than Eraser Head – More Dangerous than repeated viewing of Sleepless in Seattle

There is an interview with me about  nitrate at   http://www.talltalestruetales.com/2010/02/dennis-nyback-on-nitrate-film/ .  This is to add to that.  I’d suggest you read that one first. There is  one thing I should repeat now:  Nitrate film was discontinued in the early fifties because safety film was cheaper, not because of safety considerations.  Safety film had been available for thirty years but was not implemented, because of the inherent superior picture quality of nitrate.

It struck me that for many people the only thing they know about nitrate film, is from the movie Inglorious Bastards, where nitrate film was such a powerful and dangerous thing, sort of a deus ex machina,  that  it was able to kill Hitler, and stop World War II, at least in Europe.  The implication being it was just about as dangerous as the atomic bombs that ended the war in Japan.   Previous to Inglorious Bastards  people got a primer on nitrate in the film Cinema Paradiso. There it just burned down a town.  I would prefer that they got a primer from Spirit of the Beehive, or Picture Show Man, or Sherlock Jr., or just about any other film that shows 35mm projection, or people in movie theaters, which occurs prior to 1950.  The only reason those films aren’t associated with nitrate is that there is no fire or explosion.   What I mean is, for every film that shows a nitrate fire, there are probably hundreds that show the movie experience during the nitrate era  where fire isn’t the only logical ending.  One of the problems is that the almost sixty years that have elapsed since nitrate was the norm has left very few witnesses to the era to shed light on it.   I must admit that I sure wasn’t there.  But I am apparently one of the few people, at least of those willing to write about it, who worked with men and equipment from the era and has also handled, stored, and projected nitrate film.

There does seem to be two schools of thought about nitrate film.  The first is:  Huh?  I’d imagine if you asked a hundred random people you’d find less then a handful who knew anything about it at all .   The second is:  Run for your lives!  The idea that the stuff is DANGEROUS does seem to be the one thing some people know about it.  I have come to that conclusion from bringing up the subject with people over the years.   It is a fact that if ignited nitrate film can create a fire that is almost impossible to put out until all of the nitrate film is consumed. If you want to look at it:

If the fire can be contained it will go out once all the film has been consumed. Most of the safety measures in place in the movie theaters were put in place to assure that if there was a nitrate fire, it would be contained to the projection booth.

There is some information on line.  The Association of Motion Pictured Archivists put out a directive on it.  Under Hazard:  “Nitrate can be very dangerous, mainly because it is highly flammable. Nitrate film burns at a higher temperature than even gasoline. Chemically, nitrate film is very similar to gunpowder. Once ignited a nitrate fire cannot be extinguished, because the combustion process generates its own oxygen. A
nitrate fire also generates nitric acid fumes. These are highly poisonous and can be lethal if inhaled. Nitrate fires are violent and fast-burning. In some countries or states it is even a criminal offence to store nitrate on any premises which has not been approved for this purpose by the fire authorities.”

Further down it says:  “Although some believe that nitrate can spontaneously ignite if it is stored for a long time in very hot and dry conditions, no-one has ever been able to prove this for sure and suspected incidents are rare. Almost all fires begin after a reel has been ignited by another source, usually involving human error.”

The Library of Congress advises:  “Cans of nitrate film that have remained closed for some time should be opened in unconfined, well-ventilated spaces. If gasses given off by decomposing nitrate-based film are trapped in a confined space — such as in a sealed can — they can ignite at temperatures above 100° F. Nitrate film is highly flammable, ignites easily, and cannot be extinguished after burning has begun.”

Kodak has the directive Storage and Handling of Processed Nitrate Film which advises:  “Nitrate base films must be handled with informed care.”   That seems clear enough.   Know what you are doing, follow accepted procedures, and nitrate film can be safely stored, handled and screened.  It also says “Cellulose nitrate base film is relatively unstable. If you store it in large quantities of about 5,000 feet or more and in non approved storage cabinets without proper ventilation, it becomes a fire hazard. Admittedly, it takes a bit of pushing to cause it to burst into flames spontaneously. For example, in one laboratory test, combustion occurred with a decomposing 1,000 foot roll of film only after it was kept at 41°C (106°F) for 17 days tightly encased in a can wrapped in insulation to retain the heat of decomposition.” Our family farm was in rainy Yacolt, Washington.  When I was growing up we were always worried about “spontaneous” combustion.   Wet hay in a barn can explode into flames and burn down a barn.  It doesn’t need to be pushed.

I am trying to get a copy of the book This Film is Dangerous. A review of the book includes this helpful information:

“Naturally, there’s no shortage of fire stories, and a calendar in the book covers over seventy-five incidents dating back to 1896 and ending in 1993.  this followed by comprehensive accounts of individual tragedies reaching into occsion and places both obscure (such as Sunniva O’flynn’s evocative “The Drumcologher Disaster”) and widely known (the connection between nitrate and the Hindenburg disaster.”

This Film is Dangerous  came out of the FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives)  Congress in London in 2002 from the symposium The Last Nitrate Picture Show.  Since the FIAF is an international group I assume the 75 incidents cataloged are from around the world.  Given the world wide extent of motion pictures prior to 1950 it would seem one event or so per year in the world is not a bad safety record.   I am troubled by them saying that there is a “widely known” connection between nitrate and the Hindenburg disaster.  First, researching it, there is no nitrate connection, and in any case, it would have had nothing to do with nitrate film, anyway.

Being a projectionist in the thirties was a good job and it was hard to get into the projectionist union.   Frank McClellan, who I worked with in a reel to reel carbon arc booth in the early eighties, when he was in his late seventies, told me that he had gotten into the union in 1941 and that at the time he was the first new member admitted in over ten years.   The majority of operators appreciated their jobs and took them seriously.    Of course, some were more conscientious than others.  Without naming names I’ll tell a story I was told about a guy who I knew later as a grand old man of the Union.  In 1940 he was working at the Egyptian Theater on University Way NE in the the University District of Seattle.  The Egyptian Theater building is still there.  In is now a chain drugstore.  I was told long ago that above the false ceiling in the store the gaudily decorated ceiling of the theater is still there.  That would not surprise me.  In 1993 I visited  The Michigan Theatre in Detroit.  It had been turned into a parking garage, but much of the ceiling and other decorative walls and such of the great theater were left in place.  Just as with the fire shutters, heat fuses, and fire rollers that I found in place well after  the nitrate era was over, the ceiling in the Egyptian in Seattle could have been left in place just because it would have taken effort to remove it.  Too much of our historic preservation is a result of such capriciousness instead of thoughtful planning. On second thought, maybe we are lucky the way things are. Anyway, back in 1940  a guy I knew stopped in the Egyptian to visit the projectionist there.  As in many theaters, the projection booth was entered through a door in the balcony.  The visitor walked into the booth and found the film running properly and no projectionist present.  Stepping back out into the balcony he saw the projectionist sleeping in one of the chairs.  The assumption, based on past behavior, was the the projectionist had been drinking.  The visitor heard the reel end warning bell ringing in the booth.  He went inside, trimmed and struck the carbon arc lamp, and made the reel change.  He then re-wound the spent reel and threaded up the other projector.  Twenty minutes later he made the next reel change.  He had re-wound and threaded again, with the final reel of the feature, when he heard noises in the balcony.  He stood off  in the shadows while the projectionist came into the booth, checked to see if everything was fine, and then went back out to the balcony  to sleep.

Just about any article about nitrate film will say that smoking is not allowed near it. Just as some operators would drink on the job, some would also smoke.  I have a 16mm Ken Murray short from the forties.  In it he goes into a film vault and looks at 35mm silent films with a moviola while smoking a cigar.  The film ends with an explosion.  That is comedy fiction, based on some sort of reality. I have seen veteran operators strike the carbon arc, turn off the current, open the lamp house door, lean inside, and light their cigarettes off the glowing hot end of a carbon rod. I don’t imagine that process started with safety film.

The most recent nitrate fire was at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto on April 2, 2009.  The theater is operated by David Packard.  He sent out this announcement:

“The recent fire in the projection booth at the Stanford Theatre has stimulated interest and discussion, so I will try to explain the event and its background. The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto was built in 1925. For its first 25 years every film shown was nitrate, and I am not aware of any notable event during that period. We purchased the theatre in 1987 and made major renovations and seismic upgrades (being near the San Andreas Fault). We designed the projection booth to comply with all code regulations regarding nitrate film, and we received approval
from the local authorities to run nitrate. The booth has walls with very high fire ratings, two exit doors, smoke and heat detectors, fire sprinklers, and metal shutters to cover the ports into the auditorium. Nitrate reels are stored in specially designed bins.Between 1989 and 2009 we have shown nitrate prints as part of our regular program many hundreds of times. When we show nitrate we always have two skilled projectionists, so neither machine will ever be unattended. We always inspect the film very carefully. Occasionally we have had splices break in the sound head (away from the heat of the film gate) but never any serious problem. On April 2, we were showing a Technicolor nitrate print of Cover Girl (1944). The event happened about three minutes into the first reel. The film broke, or jammed, or somehow got stuck in the film gate and immediately caught fire. The film below the gate continued into the take-up magazine and was not affected by the fire. The fire traveled up the film above the gate and entered the supply reel in its magazine. The entire reel (nearly 2000 feet) burned in the magazine. After briefly trying to control the fire, both projectionists left the booth. The heat detectors did not respond immediately. The fire burning in the upper reel was briefly visible to the audience through the ports. Then the shutters closed over the ports, and the fire sprinker flooded the projector. The fire was over within a few minutes. When we returned to the booth, we found that fire damage was restricted to the projector and was less than I had expected (thanks to the sprinklers). The sprinklers did not prevent the nitrate from burning but did limit collateral damage. We use Simplex XL projectors with carbon arc lamps. After cleaning the projector, we re-opened the theatre two days later. The fire sprinklers continued for about 15 minutes and created an enormous flood of water that flowed into the balcony and seeped into lower floors. The water damage was significant, though not catastrophic. My conclusion is that the proper design of the booth and the skill of our projectionists had their intended effect of minimizing the damage. It appeared to me that the Fire Department had the same opinion. We plan a temporary moratorium on running nitrate until we evaluate whether we can take any further steps to make the booth even safer. One idea is a panic button that the projectionist can push to activate the sprinklers and shutters sooner. We certainly intend to install a floor drain to handle the water from any future sprinkler event. We also believe that we can develop a way to sense a fire in the gate and quickly and automatically cut and isolate the film in the two magazines. Some people may wonder why we show nitrate prints at all. Sometimes they are the only print available. But often we do it for the quality. The afternoon of the event, we had done a side-by-side comparison (with alternating projectors) of our old nitrate print and a newly-made, nearly pristine print. A professional filmmaker was sitting beside me, and we both felt that no one could fail to be amazed by the great difference. This is no criticism of modern film restoration. The plain fact is that the old dye transfer printing process can achieve results that are not possible with current methods. We all hope that future technology may bring back the old experience.”
David W. Packard
The Stanford Theatre Foundation

The operators leaving the projection booth at the Stanford jogged my memory a bit.  If you should ever be in Switzerland, you should visit LICHTSPIEL – Kinemathek Bern  . Among the many wonderful and beautiful machines is a nice suitcase style portable 35mm projector from the silent era.  It is maybe three feet by three feet square, six inches wide, and has a handle on the top.  Inside is a clever mechanism that could project a single 1000 foot reel.  It has printed instructions.  It says that in case of a nitrate fire the operator is to pick up the projector and take it outdoors.

One little thing that bothers me is the reference to “heat detectors” that didn’t respond fast enough.  I wonder if that is something other than the “heat fuse” links that used to be the trigger to drop the shutters.  It could be the old technology would have worked better.  Mr. Packard mentioned that they use carbon arc lamps.  It apparently is more than just a personal  decision to use carbon arc with old archive prints.   The prints struck in the era before xenon  were intended to interface with carbon arc light, and were processed accordingly.  It does get a little tricky, as the “color” of carbon arc was changed in the early forties, with the color balance of technicolor adjusted to coincide with the change in carbon arc color.  Old technicolor prints projected with  xenon  lamps have a yellow tinge.

I am far from alone in extolling the beauty of nitrate.  Kevin Brownlow wrote “Nitrate has unique qualities which the modern black-and-white safety stock cannot duplicate.  I saw a few reels of a rare French silent recently, and was very excited by the quality of the production.  apart from its setting…the film wass photographed so beautifully that the film was a pleasure to watch.  The nitrate was then copied and I subsequently viewed the black-and-white dupe.  I stopped after a couple of hundred freet.  it had lost all interest for me.  The information there…but the aesthetic pleasure had gone.” If you have not read Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, and you love silent films, I urge you to do it.  It is a wonderful book.

One thing not touched on in this article is the great loss that the discontinuous of Technicolor was.  A few years ago Paul Allen, who could afford it, bought the Cinerama Theater in Seattle.  I heard at the time he was thinking of bringing back true technicolor.  That is, he would buy all the rights and produce the film stock and processing needed.  It was also said that he was also thinking about producing nitrate film again.  I don’t know if the report was true.   I wish it was.

Since the statute of limitations has now probably ran out, I can admit that I showed nitrate films at every theater I owned.  I have lived to tell the tale. So did those in attendance. I would hope we all were enriched by the experience.

11 responses to “Nitrate Film – More Feared Than Frankenstein – Less Understood Than Eraser Head – More Dangerous than repeated viewing of Sleepless in Seattle”

  1. […] post on Day 1 of the blogathon, Dennis Nyback, has contributed a post himself, on the conventional, but erroneous wisdom on the dangers of nitrate and the loss to cinematic beauty by its obsolescence, at Dennis Nyback Films. Christopher Snowden […]

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  3. Perfect article, thx regarding that update. are you considering submitting additional reviews like this one?

  4. Joane Raddle says:

    Thanks. Thanks for typing this. It is always great to see someone help out the world.

  5. Jamie Dolan says:

    Thanks for the review. We found some old files for sale and think some could be old enough to be Nitrate film, my knowledge on them was somewhat limited so I came online to do additional research. I really enjoyed the piece about the movie theater and the steps they took to mitigate the risk of fire.



  6. Dennis Nyback says:

    I’m curious if you did find some Nitrate films. It should be added, the is NO 16mm Nitrate. Almost all Safety film will say Safety along with other edge coding. Most Nitrate will say Nitrate, but not always.

  7. Jamie Dolan says:


    Once we looked at them more closely, we did find they were labeled as safety film. We purchased quite a few of them and have a small collection of some odd old movies now. We sold several on ebay, some were quite valuable!

  8. Cathleen says:

    Thanks for srhinag. Always good to find a real expert.

  9. PAUL says:


  10. […] so what we get a short film history along with some dust. none of the nitrate film exploded burning down half of paris along with a happy ending. all that for $14.00 not bad although […]

  11. […] el tiempo.  Lo de las llamas es interesante: el tipo de celuloide con el que filmaban, que tenía una base de nitrato, es sumamente inestable, e incluso puede llegar a autodestruirse en un brote de combustión […]

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