BAPTISM BY FIRE: The Birth of Celluloid — A Documentary
BAPTISM BY FIRE: The Birth of Celluloid — A Documentary
A feature length documentary on the history of celluloid film including nitrate and acetate films which are quickly fading away.
A feature length documentary on the history of celluloid film including nitrate and acetate films which are quickly fading away. Read more
About this project
For years I’ve heard the film community speak in cautious tones about nitrate film. There’s a whole mythology of danger that surrounds this much maligned film stock and it always seemed somehow mystical and forbidden.
From the late 1800's through the 1940’s almost all movies were shot and released on nitrate film. That’s a LOT of our favorite cinema history. But, with nitrate’s high silver content and its incredibly rich rendering of blacks and grays, these are still some of the most stunning and glorious motion pictures ever made. But nitrate has a dark side — it is ferociously flammable.
The story of nitrate continued to draw me in. I just knew there was a movie there.
If you’ve seen the films “Cinema Paradiso” and “Inglorious Basterds” then you’ve got an inkling of the aggressive nature of flaming nitrate film. These are not inaccurate representations. Nitrate does indeed burn at a ferocious heat and speed and, once ignited, it simply cannot be extinguished. It actually generates its own oxygen, which means nitrate even burns underwater.
Talk about a bad rap. Yes, nitrate has an unparalleled hostility when provoked, but at the same time, it has been wrongly held to account for crimes it did not commit. This documentary will be diligent in its representation of nitrate’s true behavior.
To me, it seems the perfect dichotomy of art — on the one hand, nitrate film has rendered the most unbelievably beautiful and emotionally stirring images in cinema history; and yet, if you don’t treat it with respect, nitrate will absolutely kill you.
As someone who works in Hollywood film archiving professionally, I’ve had the privilege to learn about its properties, good and bad. Handling Nitrate first hand gave me a fast education and a lifelong respect for its power — both photochemical and emotional. I began to read, research and investigate as much as I could, and I quickly discovered a wealth of misinformation about it.
I also found a lot of truth.
I’ve spent the last three years speaking in earnest with film historians, chemists, labs, preservationists and archivists, as well as representatives of Hollywood studios, universities, and the Library of Congress nitrate collections. At every turn I met with a universal enthusiasm to get this story told.
It’s true that far too many people have died from nitrate vault explosions and cinema fires over the years — more I’m sure than the authorities would care to confess. That story alone would make a highly dramatic tale. But I am not out to sensationalize the subject. The simple truth is compelling enough.
As I began to immerse myself in the details of nitrate and set all sensationalism aside, it soon became clear that nitrate was only the first part of a larger story. Acetate film stocks, as well as videotape and digital cinema — each with its own fascinating and checkered past — are equally important chapters in the story of how our first century of cinema has evolved.
It could not be ignored that each of these newer mediums was similarly unstable in its own way — a type of film cancer in acetate films called ”Vinegar Syndrome”, along with shrinkage and color fading; videotape's nasty penchant for peeling, curling, and resolution problems; and now our latest dilemma — digital deterioration where the digital files of entire feature films have simply daisy-chain corrupted and spontaneously disappeared. Each generation of cinema format has wrestled with its own shortcomings.
So, that is how an idle bit of curiosity about nitrate evolved into a full-blown dedication to make a feature length documentary on the history of celluloid film; and what film has evolved into. It’s simply too fascinating a story not to tell. My own enthusiasm for this material has been tempered with the reality of producing an uncomplicated and simply told story about something exhilaratingly close to my experience that also happens to matter to thousands of film aficionados.
I am not out to execute a technical treatise on celluloid. There are a good number of fine books available on many scientific aspects of the subject. Instead I intend to tell an elementary but very engaging, visual and human story.
From February through June of 2012 we filmed our first interviews with film professionals and historians as well as capturing footage of restricted film vaults, archiving facilities and private collections. The resulting quality of those sessions (glimpses of which appear in the video above and these stills from the film) gave me the confidence to pursue this project all the way. But I cannot do this alone.
Our hunger for storytelling on film has driven an entire industry of professionals, and has influenced the emotional and cultural landscape of human history like no other medium. This is the story behind that story and I humbly invite you to become a vital part of this thrilling production.
This is What You’ll Help Make Happen
While the initial goal we’ve set here will help us kick this production into full swing, the lion’s share of filming is still ahead of us. These funds should see us through the next ten months of production requirements including insurance, permits, media cards for filming, hard drives on which to store footage, equipment rentals, crew hires, travel, lodging, and expendables — all crucial to the making of a documentary film.
If we surpass our initial goal, we intend to put additional monies toward post production costs like scoring, animation, effects, sound mixing, color grading, legal and licensing fees, and any additional shoots required to stitch together gaps in the narrative.
A film production of this caliber typically costs $300,000.00 to $500,000.00. And while we cannot begin to ask for such a hefty amount, every penny of the goal we’ve set here (and then some) will be on the screen. The more we raise, the more we can accomplish.
While we are shooting both digital and film (including standard 35mm and VistaVision), additional funding will allow us to afford film processing and 4K scans of that film for the finished project. We have access to a working VistaVision camera, and the kind folks at Panavision in Woodland Hills, CA have agreed to provide us with a 35mm motion picture camera package for film-specific shoots and high-speed work.
The original music for our Kickstarter video was composed and performed by Bryan D. Arata, who will also be creating a full score for this film.
We have only just begun this considerable undertaking. Shooting a feature length film demands a lot — not the least of which is a dedicated team of craftspeople with an uncommon passion for a common goal.
We invite you to add your name, and your passion, to this team through your ardent support. With your generous assistance, together we will tell the true story of celluloid; from its noteworthy beginnings in nitrate, through acetate films, on through the era of videotape, and into the digital age.
Why Are We Burning Nitrate?
I became a film archivist precisely because I wanted more than anything to see all our valuable films preserved. But the unfortunate nature of nitrocellulose (nitrate) film is such that, once it begins to deteriorate, it becomes exponentially more dangerous. So not only are the images it contains eroding irreversibly, but the film stock itself has become unstable to the point of being a very real danger.
While it breaks my heart to see any film “put to sleep”, please be aware that every single millimeter of film stock being burned in the making of this documentary (to demonstrate the behavior of nitrate on fire) was determined unequivocally to be in an advanced state of deterioration and had already been scheduled for destruction by its owners.
No joy whatsoever is taken in a film's demise. However the one saving grace of this process is that we are able to preserve most of these images through scanning and then record on film the hostile nature of nitrate in its most aggressive state.
As this production progresses over the next year we will continue to take high quality art photographs during our filming. These still photos of classic movie hardware will then be edited and assembled into an impressive art book of classic film machinery such as motion picture cameras, period projectors, filmmaking devices and film reels. This limited edition book of art photos is one of the many incentives we're offering for your kind participation in "Baptism by Fire".
Additionally, we have been privileged to gain access to a limited number of actual nitrate film cans that held many of Hollywood's most precious feature films. For a few lucky backers, one of these rare film cans will be theirs as well.
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