What's The Issue With Nitrate Film Stock? It's Combustible The Turner Classic Movie Festival in Hollywood built a booth to project old films on nitrate stock. A firewall was needed. Nitrate can catch on fire and blow up — just one reason it's no longer used.

What's The Issue With Nitrate Film Stock? It's Combustible

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Audiences had an unusual opportunity over the weekend to see classic movies the way they were originally projected. The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood played movies on old-style nitrate film. It's very rare and beautiful and flammable. Here's Beth Accomando of member station KPBS.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: Nitrate film stock has been praised for the beauty of its images and for truly allowing cinematographers to paint with light. Whites pop off the screen, blacks are deep and rich, and gray tones shimmer.


DOOLEY WILSON: (As Sam, singing) You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh.

ACCOMANDO: "Casablanca" was the first film Genevieve McGillicuddy saw projected on nitrate. McGillicuddy is director of the TCM Classic Film Festival which sponsored the screenings.


HUMPHREY BOGART: (As Rick Blaine) Sam, I thought I told you never to play...

GENEVIEVE MCGILLICUDDY: I felt like I was seeing Humphrey Bogart for the first time. Ingrid Bergman never looked better. And the outfits popped off the screen.

ACCOMANDO: Color nitrate been described as equally breathtaking. Dennis Bartok manages the Egyptian Theatre, where the films are playing. He says his single most unforgettable screening experience was watching a Technicolor nitrate print of the movie "Black Narcissus."


DENNIS BARTOK: So a lot of people will compare them to, say, an illuminated manuscript or something like that. All I can say is that watching "Black Narcissus" really is a spiritual experience for people who love cinema.

ACCOMANDO: But there's physical danger involved in nitride film. It's unstable, combustible and contains a substance that was also used in explosives. Kodak stopped making it in the early 1950s, when it was replaced by more stable film stock.

TCM wanted to screen some of the nitrate prints that exist in archives at its festival, so it worked with Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation. Together, they brought the projection booth at the Egyptian Theatre up to fire code. And Bartok says they also modified two vintage 35 millimeter projectors.

BARTOK: In the event, God forbid, of a fire, the projectionist, you know, hits the emergency button which is now clearly displayed on the wall between the two projectors. That will immediately stop the projectors, and the metal fire shutters slam down into place.

ACCOMANDO: Good thing because if nitrate film stock does catch fire, it will continue to burn even if you douse it with water.


DANA ANDREWS: (As Det. Lt. Mark McPherson) Somebody was murdered in this room. Do you have any idea who it was?

ACCOMANDO: TCM screened the film noir classic "Laura," Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and the musical "Lady In The Dark," in addition to "Black Narcissus." The Egyptian Theatre will continue to show nitrate films from time to time. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando in Hollywood.

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