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Bringing silver back to the screen

Overview of the 2019 Nitrate Picture Show

Nitrate picture show
Sign in front of the George Eastman Museum promoting the event. Image by Michael Cahill.

True film preservationists typically come running at the mere mention of the word “nitrate”. That’s what the George Eastman Museum was counting on when they launched the first Nitrate Picture Show five years ago and, based on maximum occupancy, their gamble has paid off nicely.

Featured screenings

Billed as a festival of film conservation, the three-day gathering in Rochester, New York drew capacity attendance again this year from May 3rd through the 5th. Attendees from the U.S. and Europe made the trek to enjoy uncommon and rarely seen cinematic delights projected on original nitrocellulose film stock. The thrill of having nearly century old films wash over you in an auditorium packed with like-minded fans of the medium can only be topped by the knowledge that almost all of these one-of-a-kind prints are the only known copies. The value of storytelling on film is elevated exponentially by such a superior communal experience.

What better way to kick off the festival on day one than by showing an eclectic selection of nitrate shorts, fronted by John Ford’s BATTLE OF MIDWAY (1942) and including both color and monochrome examples of animation and travelogues? For three days and nights, the museum’s Dryden Theatre showcased a winning slate of nitrate features headed up Friday night by a handsome color print of Preston Sturges’ 1949 lark THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND and then a Saturday morning film noir nail biter, NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947).

Saturday afternoon and evening featured a great double bill with a glorious color western THE NEVADAN (1947) and then the classic REBECCA (1940). While I’ve seen this Hitchcock nerve-wracker on the big screen several times, to witness such a stellar nitrate copy in still-beautiful condition was something rare to behold. Turns out I’d never really seen this film before! Sunday packed a delightful wallop with Humphrey Bogart sleuthing his way through DEAD RECKONING and John Barrymore delivering a high octane performance in COUNSELOR AT LAW (1933).

The last night’s surprise final feature (announced only moments before it screened) was Michael Powell’s deeply moody drama GONE TO EARTH (1950). The most shimmering attraction of this film was its stunning color cinematography of the English countryside. Every one of these unique presentations gave me a tremendous appreciation for the silver halide effect these original prints deliver. Oh, how I love projected nitrate!

Behind the scenes at Kodak

The day before the festival began I took advantage of a rarely offered view into the workings of the Kodak factory. LAC Group Content & Archive VP Tim Knapp also took part in this in-depth tour, which admitted only a handful of us to see up close the chemical preparation areas and mixing vats, plus film coating, slicing, sprocketing and packaging processes that create and deliver some of the finest still and motion picture film to the world.

Electronics and cameras were not permitted and we donned static-free clean room suits for this up-close look into their meticulously controlled operation. Though my general impression of Kodak’s productivity up to now had been that of a slightly waning film giant, this factory was operated by seasoned professionals whose exceptional expertise in photochemistry and emulsion processes were on full display, not to mention a demonstrable passion for their craft. The factory seemed very much to be at peak operation. I was previously unaware of one product that keeps them supremely busy—printed computer boards. Turns out that Kodak manufactures a significant number of the tiny computer chips that operate the lion’s share of the world’s mobile phones!

Diving into preservation special programs

For the remainder of my Thursday, I browsed through the museum’s impressive galleries and grounds. Spring had just arrived and the weather was crisp but delightful. I even let myself into the 20 x 40 concrete bunker that formerly housed the Eastman nitrate collection (it now houses gardening supplies). Seeing how nitrate was stored decades ago offered a stark contrast to the more contemporary facilities I was going to visit tomorrow.

On Friday, before the late afternoon screenings began, I dedicated the entire morning and early afternoon to three special events:

First, I toured the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center’s modern nitrate vaults. The George Eastman Museum’s collection manager Deborah Stoiber was a delightful guide, detailing the facility’s impressive features as well as some of their more prominent residents—negatives for GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ being two of their proudest nitrate holdings. These very modern vaults reside in a handsome state-of-the-art structure that delivers every item on a preservationist’s environmental and security wishlist.

Deborah Stoiber and Jared Case
Festival co-directors Deborah Stoiber and Jared Case on opening night. Image by Michael Cahill.

Secondly, I participated in the museum’s technology tour. This is where our small group was guided through the sealed, climate controlled vault where Eastman stores its priceless collection of still and motion picture cameras—from an original Lumiere camera and a couple of Edison’s hand crank machines, to an Alfred Steiglitz still camera and a Skylab camera package from NASA. Plus many, many more! Truly a fantastic collection of photographic artifacts and all masterfully illuminated by the curator of the Eastman technology collection, Todd Gustavson. The man is a tech-cyclopedia who clearly loves his work.

Todd Gustavson
Curator of the George Eastman Museum's technology collection Todd Gustavson. Image by Michael Cahill.

Lastly, I joined an utterly fascinating workshop titled How to Make Nitrate Film conducted by process historian Mark Osterman and historic process specialist Nicholas Brandreth. These guys ran the event like a Penn and Teller routine—solid photochemistry delivered with a witty flare and a good deal of photochemical humor. In under an hour, a dozen of us were introduced first-hand to the raw materials that make up nitrocellulose, then saw it expertly combined, mixed and spread out on a metal plate as a thin layer of transparent syrup.

By the time we left, the formula had been dried, sliced into strips, punched with sprocket holes and handed out in snippets as samples—actual nitrate film base. And, of course, one strip was impressively ignited which went up in a brilliant flash.

Mark Osterman demonstrates the flammability of nitrate during his workshop "How to Make Nitrate". Image by Michael Cahill.

Every archivist reads about the care taken to preserve old nitrate. To see genuine nitrocellulose film base created right in front of you lends some real perspective to the chemistry involved. A truly enlightening workshop and one of the highlights of the weekend’s festivities. Very highly recommended.

Bonus nitrate features

In addition to exchanging ideas, methodologies and pretty much everything nitrate with experts and fellow archivists from around the world, the festival provided two wonderful speakers: David Walsh with the Imperial War Museum and Elaine Burrows formerly with the British Film Institute and current editor of the FIAF journal. As these two speaking engagements conflicted with the morning workshops, I was only able to glean the spirit of these talks from fellow attendees and by all accounts they were exceptional presentations.

Nitrate Picture Show festival goers enjoy Saturday evening's big mixer in the George Eastman Museum. Image by Michael Cahill.

There were plenty of opportunities to drink wine, nibble pastries and share archiving practices. The gang at Eastman certainly know how to throw a party. A particularly keen feature of the weekend was a daily hands-on (with white gloves) event called The Nitrate Touch where a reel of rare original nitrate was set up on a flatbed rewind table for visitors to examine up close with a magnifying glass under the supervision of staff. I got to handle a beautiful 1931 nitrate print of Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS, a 1945 print of Jennifer Jones’ makeup test for DUEL IN THE SUN, and a gorgeous 3-strip Technicolor print of FOREVER AMBER with emulsion on both sides of the nitrate base.

"Duel in the Sun"
My examination through a magnifying glass of a nitrate reel of Jennifer Jones during hair and makeup tests for the film "Duel in the Sun". Image by Michael Cahill.
Forever Amber
From a reel of Techincolor nitrate of "Forever Amber". Image by Michael Cahill.

I’ve worked with every format of motion picture and still photography for many years, including nitrate for the last ten years, and this festival was considerably illuminating for me on several levels. One can never learn enough.

My hat is off to the entire staff of the Nitrate Picture Show, especially co-directors Jared Case and Deb Stoiber who made themselves available to everyone with questions about nitrate preservation and the George Eastman Museum’s massive facilities and ongoing mission to preserve film. They were incredibly accommodating to the entire LAC Group contingent including nitrate specialist Shelley Plummer and Tim Knapp, who also represented LAC as a festival patron, and myself. The next Nitrate Picture Show is scheduled for June 4th through the 7th, 2020. If you love nitrate, set aside those dates. And of course, Rochester is beautiful that time of year.

Michael Cahill

Michael Cahill

Michael Cahill is a Photo Archivist at LAC Group.
Michael Cahill

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