December 28 marks the anniversary of the first-ever public exhibition of motion picture film in 1895. The film, a continuing advancement of image capture, production, and technology, was made of nitrocellulose base, referred to colloquially as nitrate. Close in chemical composition to gunpowder, this film was known to be inflammable, but was not considered dangerous. Still, for portability and ease of use, open flames were the best way to project the flickering images, and on that first day the projector was set up in the middle of the room, in the midst of the audience, daring the patrons to decipher its magic. It wasn’t until the following year, and the first devastating fire, that nitrate began to garner its unique reputation.
It was a Saturday evening 119 years ago, in a basement room known as Salon Indien of the Grand Café, located at 14 Boulevard des Capuchins, Paris, that the first paying audience, of around 100, viewed projected moving images on a screen. The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, exhibited ten short films, actualities and simple comedies, that each ran less than a minute. Versions of these films survive today, including, most famously, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory) and l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled).
The Lumières used their own version of the Cinématographe, an ingenious device that was not only the projector, but also the camera and printer of the film. Specious rumors abound about that first show and the audience’s reaction to it, including stories that women screamed and fainted, but as every good reporter knows (or at least every reporter who has seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Like the film Thomas Edison was using for his peep show viewer the Kinetoscope, the Lumière film was 35mm in width and printed on a flexible nitrocellulose base. Unlike the Edison film, however, the Lumière film only had one set of circular perforations per frame. Edison’s film used four perforations on each side of the frame, the industry standard that exists to this day. The Lumière Cinématographe brought better clarity to the projected image by using an intermittent motion in the projector that had the film resting as much as it was motion, a feature that would be adopted by all future projectors and remains in use in the 21st century.
On May 4, 1897, a devastating fire broke out at the annual Charity Bazaar in Paris. The fire started in the section of the bazaar where film was being projected, and 180 people, mostly aristocrats, perished. Nitrate film got the reputation that it was a dangerous explosive, but the fire was actually the fault of the projectionist lighting a match while filling ether into the tank of illuminating fluid and not the fault of the nitrocellulose base film. From that day forward heavy restrictions were placed on how motion picture film could be handled, stored and transported, restrictions that are still in place to this day. The projector had to be placed within a fireproof booth, and since projected film was becoming a regular feature on Vaudeville programs, several theaters needed to be fitted with projection rooms.
For the next 55 years nitrate was the standard for producing commercial motion pictures. All silent titles universally recognized today, and the first 25 years of studio sound product, were created on nitrate film. Titles as enduring and varied as Cabiria, Greed, Sunrise, All Quiet on the Western Front, M, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Rules of the Game, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, and All About Eve were recorded and exhibited on nitrate stock.
As a film archive and a film museum, the George Eastman House is committed to conserving and exhibiting films as close to their original disposition as possible. This is why we have built vaults to hold and keep nitrate film from deteriorating over the years. This is why we have collected nitrate film since the beginning of the museum. This is why we maintain the Dryden Theatre and its projectors to standards that will allow us to project nitrate film and maintain safety for the audience.
This is why we train staff, and instruct students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, in the proper handling and projection of film objects. And this is the reason that we are embarking on The Nitrate Picture Show: A Festival of Film Conservation. We believe that film produced on nitrate should be seen on nitrate, and we are dedicating the weekend of May 1-3, 2015 to just this endeavor.
The legacy begun by two brothers in a basement in France 119 years ago this week continues at the George Eastman House in the present and in the future. If you would like to be a part, please visit eastmanhouse.org/nitratepictureshow.