Wages of Fear in the Archives

When you hear the dreaded words “nitrate film,” do you think of “Inglourious Basterds” or “Cinema Paradiso?”

Nitrocellulose was the first film base, developed by Eastman Kodak and put into production in 1889. Despite the danger of combustion, it was used to print most major motion pictures until 1952, when Kodak began making acetate and polyester film stocks. In addition to being extremely flammable, it  decomposes into an explosive gas when stored improperly. The film becomes sticky and gooey.

Henry and Carol Brower Wilhelm write, “On a hot afternoon in July 1978, the original negatives from more than 300 Hollywood motion pictures in the George Eastman House Collection were lost in a disastrous fire. The cellulose nitrate films were being kept under astonishingly poor conditions in an old concrete building.  The Rochester Fire Department attributed the fire to spontaneous combustion.” (www.wilhelm-research.com)

In the same year, 12.6 million feet of newsreel footage were flambéed at the National Archives.

So, if you thought being a film archivist lacked excitement and danger, put on your fireproof gloves and check out the Arriscans.

The British Film Institute recently got an Arriscan equipped specifically for archive and restoration applications. Founded in 1935, the BFI National Archive is one of the largest film archives in the world, holding over 930,00 titles. With films dating back to 1895, the collection is vulnerable, with evidence of  shrinkage, warping and buckling. The BFI is installing a 4K Arriscan with Sprocketless Transport.

The Polish National Film Archive, Filmoteka Narodowa, is planning to save a unique collection of 150 films that precariously exist only on flammable nitrate stock. With funds provided by the EU to protect the cultural heritage of member states, Filmoteka Narodowa has taken delivery of a 4K Arriscan with 16 mm and 35 mm Wet Gates, a Sprocketless Transport and a 35 mm Archive Gate. The project is aptly called Nitrofilm.

“America’s Museums: The Belmont Report” bemoaned, “I question whether even a small percentage of the museums in this country are doing anything more than presiding over the steady deterioration of that which they have been instituted to preserve.” They should all invest in Arriscan archive scanners.

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