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Film on fire

Photo by kino-eye

The subject of inflammable film is dealt with in great depth on the internet. Anyone wishing to study the subject, in depth, will find plenty of opportunity to delve into the history of motion picture film in general and the hazards of fire in particular. I intend, only,  to offer a potted history, in brief, to set the scene.

Until 1950, moving pictures were recorded on Cellulose Nitrate film stock.    This stock had two major problems, one, the film could disintegrate into dust and, two, it was highly inflammable.  The stock was Cellulose Nitrate film and was called “Nitrate”.

Motion picture film consists of a light-sensitive emulsion applied to a tough, transparent base, sometimes with anti-halation backing or “rem-jet” layer. “Rem-jet” is taken from ‘removal jet’ indicating that this anti-halation layer is removed by powerful water jets during the developing stage.

In 1910 Kodak introduced a cellulose acetate based film which was non-inflammable. Plasticizers, such as camphor, were used to give flexibility to the film.   The plasticizers evaporated quickly, making the film dry and brittle, causing splices to part and perforations to tear.

The following year, the movie industry returned to using Nitrate film.

Safety film was to be used in sub-standard formats such as 16mm, 9.5mm and 8mm.

In the 1930s film manufacturers introduced safety film with a cellulose triacetate plastic base.  The motion picture industry carried on using nitrate until 1950.

Nitrate film is very dangerous. If it catches fire, it burns at a higher temperature than petroleum.  The fire cannot be extinguished because its combustion process creates its own oxygen.  From a chemical point of view nitrate is similar to gunpowder, guncotton or even dynamite, as they all contain some of the same ingredients.  Nitrate film will even burn under water.  It is said that nitrate film can burn spontaneously.  Even sympathetic explosions have been reported whereby a film bin in a cutting room can catch fire and at the same time another bin on the other side of the room will catch fire at the same time.  This is a known phenomenon but unexplained.

A nitrate fire generates nitric acid gas which is toxic and lethal if inhaled.

A nitrate fire is violent and even explosive, it burns very quickly.

In the early days of the film industry, projectionists, editors and negative cutters soon became aware of the dangers of working with nitrate.  The threat of cutting room fires were ever present.  Projection box fires were also common occurrences in picture houses around the world.  For over twenty years, the earliest picture houses were make-shift affairs.   Projectors were set up in church halls and even shops.  Sometimes, projectors would jam, leaving the nitrate film in the gate exposed to the intense heat of the projector lamp, which would later to become a carbon arc.

Eventually, projectors were designed so that in the event of a jam, the film in the gate would be isolated.

Projection boxes in purpose-built theatres were constructed so that any fire within the box would be contained and would not spread to the auditorium.

There have been many devastating fires in storage areas, resulting in the loss of entire archives.   Much of the loss has also been due to the deterioration and eventual destruction of the films.

It has been estimated that 90% of all American films produced before 1929 have been lost.

600full-my-profileIn 1937 a vault fire at 20th Century Fox destroyed the original negatives of the company’s total production prior to 1935.

In 1955 and 1960 there were major fires in Metro Goldwyn Mayer‘s storage areas.

In 1967 M.G.M. suffered a major fire which destroyed hundred of original negatives of their silent movies and some of their early talking pictures.

The United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as well as George Eastman House have suffered devastating losses when their film vaults caught fire.

NARA lost millions of feet of newsreel footage, while George Eastman House lost three hundred and twenty-nine original negatives.  These were devastating losses.

The original negative of the classic “Citizen Kane” was lost some years ago.

Nitrate film is unstable and can decay into a gooey liquid or powder.

It is impossible to predict whether film will deteriorate in this way.  Nitrate film for the late nineteenth century can still be found in good condition while other film has had to be discarded, due to deterioration, after twenty years.

I was working at British Movietone News in 1950 when we changed from Nitrate film to acetate “non-flam” film.  I do not recall any mention of film fires within the company prior to my arrival in 1945.

There is no doubt that the problem of fires was ever present.  Of course, nobody was allowed to smoke in the cutting room or anywhere where film might be exposed to flame. This was at a time when most adults smoked.  I recall that some cutting rooms elsewhere had a box outside the cutting room where safety matches and cigarette lighters were deposited  while the owners went into the cutting room.

22 Soho Square

22 Soho Square

At 22 Soho Square there was a row of eight film vaults.  Each vault was about three feet wide and eight feet deep and eight foot high.  On each side there were racks where 35mm film cans were stored one on top of the other. They were stacked six to a pile on eight shelves There was just enough room for a person to walk between the racks.  The doors were heavy and insulated.  This, I assume, was to prevent any fire inside the vault getting outside. The temperature within the vaults was controlled at a comparatively low temperature humidity within the vaults was also controlled at less than 50%.

These vaults housed, apart from recent issues, what one, today, might call “work in progress” that is to say material required for use in the next issue as well as all the film that was part of the Movietone shorts production department. They also housed the Movietone collection of music and sound effects which were all held on 35mm film. The sound stock was also held there.

Every night, at the end of the day’s work, all negative and print from the cutting rooms were returned to these vaults.  No film was allowed to be left in the cutting rooms or elsewhere such as the projection box or the sound department.

The main library of Movietone was housed at 26 D’Arblay Street where similar vaults had been built.  This library housed all recent issues of Movietone News as well as a quantity of trims and some uncut stories.   Here were also the offices of the Librarian and his staff.

Early issues of Movietone, and other film collections, were kept at a “deep” vault at Park Royal.  Material required from Park Royal would be in Soho Square within the hour from when it was requested.

Rank Laboratories Denham 1967 Movietone

Rank Laboratories, Denham

When Movietone moved to Denham in 1961, they had a new building constructed next to the Rank Film Laboratory where we had our offices and cutting rooms.  The building was to be used by the accounts department and the library.  In that building vaults were built to store the contents of the vaults at 26 D’Arblay Street and Soho Square. They also served the requirements of the Movietone News production team.

From my office window in the laboratory building, I could look out to the east and see the former Denham Studio vaults.   These consisted of two rows of vaults similar to those at Soho Square. The rows were about fifty feet long and could have contained millions of feet of film.  Each row had two lines of vaults facing each other with a narrow corridor between them. These would have, in their day, stored all the great films of the Denham Film Studios’ heyday.   All the Alexander Korda films would have been held there.

Movietone had lost a few cans of film due to deterioration, but the number was negligible.

What is strange is that modern advice calls for the film to be stored in ventilated film cans because , it seems, ventilation is what is required to preserve nitrate film.  At Movietone, every film was stored in a 35mm film can.   These cans would be those that originally had contained rawstock. They did not buy these cans specifically for storage.  The cans were airtight and I remember, when trying to open one of the cans, one was, sometimes, obliged to use the sharp edge of the cutting room bench where one could bang the edge of the lid of the film can to prize it off.  Surely they were air tight.

This modern advice calls of the storage facility to provide low temperatures, low humidity and ventilation.  This, we are told, will preserve nitrate film for a very long time.

The race is on to preserve the vulnerable film.  It will be a long and expensive process.

As time goes by, more and more films are lost while the industry tries to compensate by transferring the nitrate film to acetate or to DVD or, more recently, to digital conversion. These transfers lead to a deterioration of the image, but, there is no alternative. Digitized pictures are closest in quality to the originals and in time, perhaps, even that system can be improved.

There are still thousands of film waiting to be processed in this way.  It has been estimated that 85% of all the films made prior to the introduction of sound have been lost.  Not all due to fire, or even deterioration, some have been “lost”.  Let us hope that some of these may be found again. Librarians, and those in the preservation industry, are in a race to save the treasures of the early years of film production from total loss.

I hope they win.

Main photo by David Tames.

© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Pamela Ray Miles #

    I would like to learn more about the reported incidents of sympathetic explosions of nitrate film. Is there an account of any of these events available online or in print sources? Thanks!

    May 13, 2014

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