Lost forever - nitrocellulose decay and why you shouldn’t smoke near vintage film
Nitrocellulose was the primary material used in film production until 1952, when it was discontinued and replaced with ‘safety film’ which was acetate based. It was a considerable safety improvement seeing as it doesn’t burn 20 times faster than wood or contain it’s own oxygen allowing it to burn underwater like nitrocellulose can; although acetate is still able to break down to form acetic acid and water limiting it’s longevity in a process known as ‘vinegar syndrome’.
Above: acetate based film affected by ‘vinegar syndrome’.
Not only was nitrocellulose incredibly flammable, it was found to gradually decompose producing nitric acid and a sticky flammable gunpowder like material. In order to prevent this film archivists store it at low temperature and humidity which allows it to be stored indefinitely.
Above: nitrocellulose film showing nitrate base deterioration.
Unfortunately, a majority of early 20th century material has been lost through fires or through the film’s degradation. Furthermore, some silent films were deliberately destroyed by film studios to make room for ‘talkies’. Roughly 50% of the films made up until 1950 are lost, while 70% of the silent films made before 1929 are gone forever.
The oldest surviving and first ever film, is known as the ‘Roundhay Garden scene’ (above). It was produced on acetate on the 14th of October, 1888 over 2 seconds.
Guide for handling, salvage and safe disposal of nitrocellulose film here.
GIF video/ image sources: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.