Notes from a 'nitrate beginner'
Back in mid-February I started my internship at the EYE Filmmuseum in the Department Film Conservation and Digital Access, where under guidance of Curator Elif Rongen, I started working on this year’s ‘nitrate project’, consisting of roughly 150 cans of films donated to the archive in 2013 and now known as the ‘Manshanden collection’. These films are now in the process of being fully registered, inspected and identified, on the basis of which further preservation decisions will be made. Over the course of the past few months I have been getting acquainted with film handling and dealing with specifically nitrate material: viewing films on the winding table (watching the film reels frame by frame), on the viewer (watching the films ‘in movement’) and more recently also watching sound films on our Steenbeck tables. During this viewing process, I write an inspection report on both the levels of the content and the material condition. If the film is not immediately identifiable (because the title is missing for example), I do further research online in databases of film companies, studios and newspapers or film journal. Based on this, I enter information into the EYE Collection database, as well as into the curator’s database, where I could for example comment more in-depth on the film style and why I feel the film might be relevant to preserve, or not ofcourse.
So far the collection and our findings are incredibly curious and varied (from different countries, and varying in years from the early 1900s to the 1950s) and there is not really one clear pattern to be determined, making it the ideal collection to work with for a ‘nitrate beginner’ like me! It is also really interesting to see the difference between watching a film on the winding table and seeing it in motion on a viewer: watching the film on the winding table, frame by frame, does sometimes not enable you to grasp the story, but does provide insight to details in the image (indications of country, setting, year, faces, clothing). Viewing it in motion (as a film is ‘meant’ to be seen) on the other hand, provides a different perspective and might allow you to read certain scenes differently, grasping the story in full. Identifying the films is a very exciting process as well, it is almost like working as a detective; acting on a hunch, a name or a detail and then perhaps finding out what a film is, sometimes after spending days on the case, must be one of the best feelings in the world.
With the French film Printemps fleuri (1912) for example, we found Pathe edgemarks (indicating a French film), but a German title (Fruhlingbluten) and intertitles. I managed to finally identify the film by searching for a French translation or equivalent of the German title of the copy and based on the resemblance of the description in the Pathé catalogue to the text (such as the French translation of the names of trees and flowers mentioned) in the intertitles. This was also immediately my favourite film I have encountered so far during this viewing process: a registration of spring, tinted pink with stencilling in the most luscious colours and showing beautiful flowers, trees, as well as lovely children, creating an overall visceral look and timeless attraction.
More information and a complete list of the (identified) films in the Manshanden collection will follow once we have completed the process!
Other archival encounters and oddities
Also strange ‘in-between’ projects or little things arise during my internship, such as when someone brought in some cans of nitrate film he bought of a seller and donated to the archive. We went through the cans in two afternoons, and it consisted of all kinds of (seemingly unrelated) bits and pieces, all rolled together in one big reel. We quickly went through it and took everything part, hoping to find pieces that might belong together. We took notes on edgemarks, colours and content and then put the post-its with the information on the small reels. This also gave me an insight on how, next to projects like the Manshanden collection (which was donated in 2013, so took 4 years waiting to be processed), the archive deals with small donations in-between all the other work and how we, on a Friday afternoon, in a few hours took apart and reassembled all of this material for it to be shelved.
A similar occurence of ‘on the spot’ dealing with something that comes into the archive happened when we received a carton box filled with reels wrapped in newspapers, some of them soaking wet. It was like a horrible Christmas present gone-wrong and as we unwrapped them, most of them turned out to be in a dismal condition and in an extreme state of decay, incredibly smelly, sometimes even muddy and breaking apart as we touched it. Not much was to be seen, except for some text on the intertitles, but as EYE’s policy is that "if there is image to be seen, we have to try to salvage it", we unwrapped them, cleaned off the worst dirt and mud and laid them in the nitrate cabinet to dry, hoping that something is still visible later on.
Next to this ugly side of decay that it is evidently horrible for the film, as objects these decayed reels can be aesthetically very interesting to look at. The reel in the pictures below looked quite disgusting and beautiful at the same time we unwrapped it, but as we touched it, it completely fell apart because of all the rot. It was fascinating to see how a reel in its final stage of decay can be so pretty, yet so fragile.
Similarly, though these films hardly carried imprints or ‘traces’ of reality themselves anymore, as objects they did show traces of their own ‘lives’ as decomposing artifacts in a very aesthetic way. One of the wet films wrapped in newspapers left beautiful circular traces of colours, the dye of the film tint leaving traces/rings on the newspaper it came in. And next to that, one of the films we lifted of the newspaper turned out to have a circular carton stuck to it (presumably it had been stored in a carton box), which showed the traces of the film reel touching the carton, leaving rings almost like a cut-out of a tree.
Ilse van der Spoel, intern at EYE Filmmuseum, Collections.