Digitisation project for nitrate film

Nitrate film was the first carrier to be used for film content, and was produced as early as 1889. It was only in the 1950s that it became less popular and was replaced by acetate film. Nitrate is not susceptible to vinegar syndrome like acetate, but it is still very liable to decay and deterioration. We’re planning to digitise 85 films in 2022.

Challenge

Nitrate film (also known as cellulose nitrate or nitrocellulose) is a highly flammable compound that can spontaneously combust even without a heat source. And because it produces its own oxygen when it burns, unlike other materials it does not need any air to keep burning. The smoke that it produces is also extremely toxic. Furthermore, it can also be affected by chemical decomposition – a process that is irreversible, just like for acetate film. Even though nitrate films are the oldest films to be kept in archives worldwide, they will eventually perish forever, which is why they are in urgent need of digitisation.

This requires special measures: we are therefore providing special refrigerated transportation, and the digitisation company is taking meticulous precautions to digitise the film spools.

Pictured: painted nitrate film 'Halewijn', estimated 1929-1935, above the viewing table at Cinematek, film from the Letterenhuis collection, archive Anton van de Velde.

Our role

Just like for all our film projects, Cinematek is responsible for registering the films. They’re also taking action to conserve the films, such as replacing the film canisters and adding new labels. Meemoo is drawing up the policies for this nitrate film conservation and registration, as well as coordinating the digitisation process, including procurement and collecting the films together from 15 content partners.

Approach

In addition to vulnerable film on acetate, nitrate film digitisation also fits within our efforts to digitise lots of other at-risk and affected films before the end of 2023. We have developed a step-by-step plan:

Registration and storage

The registrars at CINEMATEK looked at all the nitrate films and described their contents. And because nitrate is so flammable, all content partners also handed their nitrate films over to Cinematek for safekeeping. 

Selection

Our content partners selected the nitrate films to be digitised. Important note: these are exclusively films that have never been safeguarded before, neither by digitisation nor having a copy on acetate. Cinematek has prepared a large number of nitrate films in the past.

In total, we’re including 85 films from 15 content partners, amounting to 7-8 hours of film content. The selection includes a mix of colour and black-and-white films, and films with and without audio.  

Digitisation

The contract to digitise the nitrate films was awarded to British company R3store Studios in June 2022, and the films arrived in London a month later. Following a test phase over the summer months, R3store Studios started the digitisation in September, and the entire process will be completed by the end of 2022.

See the tender procedure details
Pictured: Erwin Verbruggen, restoring nitrate film, Amsterdam, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Pictured: Erwin Verbruggen, restoring nitrate film, at the Cineteca Nacional de Mexico, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Do you have a question?
Contact Céline Vermeire
Project Leader Digitisation & Account Manager government and heritage institutions
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