Working in a facility that stores over 24,000 reels of nitrate film can sound daunting, but actually…I love it. Everyday is a new adventure, as I wind through reels of film discovering new information. One of the most frequent questions I am asked is: How do I know that I am looking at nitrate?
Well, first off, nitrate motion picture film was manufactured circa 1893 until 1951. If a film was made after 1951 it is most likely not nitrate. In 1951 companies such as Kodak began the manufacturing of film stock to a newer compound called acetate (commonly referred to as ‘safety’.) Original nitrate stock was highly flammable… unlike acetate, which does not burn. One of the most common and simple ways to see which stock you have is to look at the edges of the film!
For example, Kodak printed clearly in black letters on the edge of the film indicating the stock.
As you can tell it is pretty simple and straightforward.
Now, if you see this information printed with WHITE LETTERS ON A BLACK BACKGROUND you are looking at print-through, or information coming from a previous generation of the source. Always look for the clear black writing! In this photo, you can see the words ‘Agfa’ printed clearly in black and the words ‘nitrate film’ are in white.
This white lettering does not mean your film was manufactured on this stock. It is print through!
The physical material is a story of its own, regardless of the images and sound printed on the film. This is what we look for to help us identify when the film was made: if it is an original, a censored, foreign, or altered film. This is what helps us preserve the images for tomorrow.
Oh, and if you are unsure of what materials you have in your home, here’s a reassuring hint: 8mm, super-8mm, and 16mm film stock were never manufactured on nitrate, regardless of the maker. So if you have these around the house, don’t worry… they are safe!
Tune into future blog entries for more tips on how to identify your home movies…
Deborah Stoiber is the Nitrate Vault Manager at The Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. She graduated from The L. Jeffrey Selznick School in 1998. After graduation, she spent time at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY working on their 16mm collection.