Archivists and conservators are well aware of the hazards posed by cellulose nitrate film stock. Nitrate films are highly flammable; they release toxic gases; and the chemical structure of their base support breaks down, destroying the image.
Most movies made before the early-1950s used nitrate film stock, and surviving prints of the era generally reside today in archives or private collections. Because of cellulose nitrate’s inhererent instability, these films, many of which are historically significant, not only pose real fire and health concerns, but are also at risk of being lost forever to decomposition.
These general characteristics of nitrate film have been known for some time, but specific, reliable information about the material’s behavior is contradictory, inconclusive, or lacking altogether. Dr. Heather Heckman, the Director of Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina, devised the Wisconsin Nitrate Film Project to help address this problem.
Taking an interdisciplinary approach, the project combined chemical analysis of heritage nitrate film samples, extensive review of historical and contemporary literature, and information from modern professionals who deal with the practical aspects of handling, storing, and shipping nitrate film.
Graciously funded by a Preservation and Access Research and Development Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, with support from The Graduate School of UW-Madison, this project was a joint venture among the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, the Mahanthappa Research Group in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.