Cellulose nitrate film, more familiarly known as nitrocellulose, became popular in the late 1880’s because its physical properties made it ideal for photography. At first, cellulose nitrate film was used mostly for still photography, but it was also used for x-ray film and motion picture film into the early 1950’s. Museums and photographic archives are often faced with the problem of safety in handling and storage of nitrate film. Cellulose nitrate film is highly unstable and presents a very serious fire risk. It burns quickly with an intense flame. The rate of combustion for cellulose nitrate film is about 15 times that of wood. In the early days of the motion picture industry, movie houses and even film studios had devastating fires with many fatalities. Dry cellulose nitrate can explode when subjected to heat or shock. While decomposing motion picture film has been known to self-combust, still-camera negatives. Has not Cellulose nitrate contains chemically combined oxygen in sufficient amounts to allow burning and decomposition without the presence of air. Toxic and flammable gases formed during burning or decomposition may be produced so rapidly that dangerous pressures may occur in building structures. The burning of cellulose nitrate film releases highly toxic gases, including nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. In one fire, these toxic gases were responsible for the deaths of 125 people not directly exposed to the fire. Since 1951, motion picture film has been produced with a “safety” base of cellulose acetate or other slow burning esters or polyesters. The fire hazards of these materials are similar to those of thick paper. When these films burn, there is no release of toxic nitrogen oxides. Lower levels of heat will result in damage to “safety” film than paper records, therefore special protection is needed to prevent fire damage.
In a big building between the studios of Famous Players and R-K-0 in Hollywood a man was running a spool of film through a polishing machine. Something went wrong with the machine. A spark flew from a whirling gear and set the film on fire. A few seconds later every film in the room was on fire. Burning gas exploded and blew out the door, the flame rushed into other rooms. People staggered out of blazing doorways. Some were taken away in ambulances. One man died of his burns.
The use of nitrocellulose film for motion pictures led to the requirement for fireproof projection rooms with wall coverings made of asbestos. The US Navy shot a training film for projectionists that included footage of a controlled ignition of a reel of nitrate film, which continued to burn when fully submerged in water. Unlike many other flammable materials, nitrocellulose does not need air to keep burning as the reaction produces oxygen. Once burning, it is extremely difficult to extinguish. Immersing burning film in water may not extinguish it, and could actually increase the amount of smoke produced.
All day the building—a laboratory of Consolidated Film Industries, Since bringing colour to motion pictures 90 years ago, Technicolor has evolved into a global and diversified corporation that is now considered the preeminent worldwide provider of services to the media and entertainment industries. Headquartered in Camarillo, California, Technicolor is part of the Services division of Thomson (Euronext Paris: 18453; NYSE: TMS). In addition to being the world’s most prolific processor of motion picture film,
I was also fortunate enough to land a part time job working as a darkroom accent for, Consolidated Film Industries. Consolidated Film Industries was a film laboratory and film processing company, and was one of the leading film laboratories in the Los Angeles area for many decades. CFI processed negatives and made prints for motion pictures industry, where I worked for four years. I was just 16 years old went I started.
Gladys Baker, the mother of Marilyn Monroe, worked for Consolidated as a negative film cutter; Marilyn Monroe’s biological father is believed to have been fellow consolidated employee Charles Stanley Gifford. I would see Norma Jeane Mortenson at the gate of the film laboratory waiting for her mother sometimes we would site down on the kerbstone and she would talk all the time never stopped talking. She was just 18 years old.
Consolidated Film Industries film laboratory on 959 Seward St, my old company. The original CFI building at 959 Seward Street in Hollywood had been the company’s home for more than 60 years. The structure was demolished and lay vacant until 2014.