Nitrate Film: The Beginning

Posted by on Dec 28 2014 | Motion Pictures, Other

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).

 l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled)

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.”
the Cinematographe

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.

Projectionist Darryl G. Jones getting ready for a nitrate screening at the Dryden Theatre.

Projectionist Darryl G. Jones getting ready for our nitrate screening at the Dryden Theatre.

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

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Mystery nitrate negatives – we need your help!

Posted by on Jul 02 2013 | Behind The Scenes, Exploring the Archive, House & Gardens, Technology

via guest contributor and Eastman House volunteer, Kate Wallace


While cleaning out the nitrate holding room at the museum, boxes of safety film and nitrate negatives were discovered that appear to have been donated to the museum in the late 1940’s when the museum was getting ready to open to the public.


The boxes contain negatives that document various aspects of Kodak’s progress and activities from the late 1930s through the 1940s. Interesting handwritten notes describe many of the pictures that range from details such as a “small crack in the wall of a basement” to “condition of a safety boot.”


There are portraits of employees who won awards for their initiatives to improve the company, along with parts of machines or tools from all different branches such as optics, film processing, and even some war time preparation and production.


Not every negative matches up with a note, however, and many of the images are unidentifiable without knowledge of the film and processes used during this period. Any help in determining what some of these photographs are depicting, or what the machines pictured may have been used for would allow us to continue this documentation that began so many years ago.


We are posting these five images in this post to start. If you can help send us a message, or leave a comment below. Thanks!

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Technical Breakdown of the Dryden Renovations

Posted by on Mar 07 2013 | Motion Pictures, Technology

Beyond the theater’s plush new seats, fresh coat of paint, new carpets, and enhanced lighting, the Dryden has undergone some serious technological overhauling and upgrading both up in the projection booth and behind the screen (did we mention the screen is new too?). These new features enable us to maintain our high standards of motion picture exhibition and also greatly expand our projection capabilities. Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s been added and augmented:


1) Barco DP2K-32B Digital Cinema Projector
Motion picture distribution is moving away from traditional 35mm film, and movies are now being presented on DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages). These high- quality, heavily encrypted hard drives are quickly replacing 35mm prints as the primary format for film distribution and are slowly becoming the new finishing format for many film preservation projects. Our new digital projector will allow us to exhibit DCPs of both new first-run features and digital restorations of classic films with a bright, brilliant image and crisp, full surround sound. Of course, the Dryden will continue to primarily screen photochemical film (we always will, whenever possible) but this new technology greatly increases the depth and variety of films we can now show in the theater.


2) Automatic Masking System
The masking encompasses the black curtains on the top, bottom, and sides of screen. In an archival theater such as the Dryden, which exhibits a wide range of films with different aspect ratios, it is imperative that the masking be adjustable to fit the projected image. In the past, the masking had to be manually fine tuned by the projectionist using a system of pulleys behind the screen (and even then we could only adjust the sides!). Now, all four masking curtains are connected to independent motors that are operated from touch panels in the projection booth. This system not only makes the projectionist’s job much easier, but it also facilitates more precise control of the screen’s size and shape, which in turn allows us to exhibit any film the way it was intended to be seen.



3) Enhanced AMX Control System
With all these new gadgets, we needed a way to effectively control them all in a simple, elegant fashion. Our booth had an existing AMX system that controlled some aspects of our film projectors and auditorium lighting, but that’s next to nothing when compared to our new capabilities. The AMX touch panels in the booth are now linked to nearly every aspect of theater. A projectionist can control the lights, sound system, masking, video decks, in-booth monitors, and the digital and film projectors all from one screen. Although unseen to most Dryden patrons, this interface is the nervous system of the theater that makes everything you see possible.


And there you have it! All of these features were expertly installed by a crew of cinema engineers from Boston Light and Sound in conjunction with LeChase Construction and IATSE technicians. Everyone involved with the renovations showed unparalleled dedication and prowess in their efforts and I feel honored and privileged to have been part of this workforce. I sincerely hope you enjoy the new Dryden and that you have gained at least a small appreciation for what’s going on in the dark little room at the back of the theater.


More on the Dryden Theatre Renovation:
Part I, The Curtain Stays
Part II, Seatless
Part III, Cement, Lighting, and Accessibility
Part IV, Painting, Listening System and Digital Projection
Part V, Stage and Carpet
Part VI, Seats and Projection Booth
Part VII, The Curtain Returns


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Dryden Theatre Renovation Series: Seats and Projection Booth

Posted by on Feb 14 2013 | Technology

The moment you’ve all been waiting for is here: the seats have been fully installed. The seat parts arrived Monday morning and sat in the lobby in boxes as preparations for their installation began. All day Monday holes were drilled through the carpet and the legs of the chairs were bolted in. Working into the night Monday, the backs were attached to the legs throughout the balcony. By 12:00 p.m. Tuesday, the backs and seat cushions had all been installed and the seat numbers were stapled in. Barbara Galasso, our in-house photographer,  took some great photos of the seat installation and of the finished product.

Installation of the digital projector has begun. The Barco projector was delivered on Monday. Installing it into the booth however, is not an easy process. Before anything could begin Chief Projectionist Dave Rodriguez and the team from Boston Light and Sound, a company devoted to designing entertainment centers, specializing in projection booth maintenance and installations, had to wait until the chairs were completely installed to avoid damage to the projectors currently in there from dust. Once the chairs were finished (early Wednesday morning) work in the projection booth began. There are a number of factors in the installation process. The projector must be connected to the equipment currently in the booth and allow the continuation of the use of the other projection systems without obstructing the process. With the rather large size of the digital projector and the limited space in the booth, it is a bit of a puzzle to figure out how everything will fit, yet Dave and the BL&S crew are up to the challenge and rearrangement of the booth equipment is already in progress. Once everything is in place, the projector will need to be calibrated, focused, and color balanced and they will be testing the projector for the remainder of the week and into next.

We now have three projection systems: the new Barco digital projector (allowing us to show the newest DCP releases as well as DCP restorations of classic films), the Kinoton projectors (which have served us over the past 6 years as we’ve screened 35mm and 16mm), and of course the Century projectors (which have served us for 60 years, enabling us to screen Nitrate film—we are one of only four theaters in the country to be able to do so).

Another exciting installation taking place, also by BL&S, is the rigging of motors for the automatic adjustable masking. Four motors, one behind each corner of the screen, will be operated by controls in the booth. When activated they can automatically bring the masking to the desired aspect ratio.

Although the pictures are great, they really don’t compare to physically being in the theatre. We look forward to seeing all of you in our new theatre and the reactions you will have as you enter.

More on the Dryden Theatre Renovation:
Part I, The Curtain Stays
Part II, Seatless
Part III, Cement, Lighting, and Accessibility
Part IV, Painting, Listening System and Digital Projection
Part V, Stage and Carpet

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