If you haven't seen the film "Inglorious Basterds," you may not want to keep reading.
The 2009 film, directed by Quentin Tarantino, ends with an epic, counter-factual spectacle in which nitrate film stock is used as an effective weapon to gain Jewish revenge on the Nazis. Hitler perishes in a confrontation in a French cinema that burns in a climatic inferno.
The movie's ending may be fictional, but nitrate film stock's flammability certainly is not.
Nitrate film is extremely flammable as well as very susceptible to decomposition. Fire risks associated with nitrate film stock are widely known, but our understanding of the relationship between nitrate film decomposition and combustibility remains weak.
Though discontinued in the 1950s, much of the early 20th Century’s still and moving image content is stored on nitrate film base. Thus, a large portion of America’s media heritage is at risk of deterioration or complete destruction by fire. In addition, very little empirical research on nitrate film decay and flammability has been conducted.
A $200,000 Preservation and Access Research and Development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will fund a a new project at UW-Madison to study nitrate film stock and create guidelines for handling and storage.
The project --“Investigation of Cellulose Nitrate Motion Picture Film Chemical Decomposition & Associated Fire Risk" -- will test cellulose nitrate film stock with the goal of creating guidelines for the handling and long-term storage of this highly unstable medium.
The funding was secured by Heather Heckman, former interim director of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research (WCFTR) and the proposal’s author. The project is being led by Principle Investigators Professors Vance Kepley (Communication Arts) and Mahesh Mahanthappa (Chemistry).
The study will be completed over 30-months and will bring together the WCFTR, the Wisconsin Historical Society and the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry’s Mahanthappa Research Group.
Project results will be published in a white paper and translated into improved best practice guidelines for the handling and long-term storage of nitrate film.
Moreover, this project will provide archival institutions with better information for cost-benefit analyses of preserving nitrate film holdings, as well as clarify contradictory information circulating in current standards and serve as a model for future collaborations between the archival, chemical, and safety communities.