My Nitrate Experience

Hello readers!

My name is Miranda Barnewall and I am a senior at The Ohio State University. During my sophomore year I was fortunate enough to participate in the STEP program. STEP gave me the opportunity to travel to Rochester, NY to attend The George Eastman Museum’s first ever Nitrate Picture Show. Categorized under the Artistic and Creative Endeavor experience, my project consisted of me learning about nitrate film and experiencing the medium itself (a very rare treat). At the festival I watched nitrate films, attended different book talks, met other attendees of the festival, as well as the staff at The George Eastman Museum.

Before I continue, I should state that my interest in film resides in film preservation and restoration. It is this interest that has led me to pursue a career in preservation after graduating from The Ohio State University. Before the festival, I had heard a lot about nitrate and its luminous glory. I am a firm believer in the usage of film rather than digital; I see a clearer image with film that I do not get with digital. I naturally assumed that nitrate would be just like seeing regular film but with a wider range of tones. Instead nitrate literally changed the way I see film.

I was not prepared for what nitrate film had to offer. In addition to the films’ range of tonal qualities, I was struck by nitrate’s life-like quality and range of depth. This was my initial impression, the thing that struck me the most. Was I wrong? Was I not having the correct nitrate experience? Shouldn’t I be more impressed by the colors? Nitrate film brings a physical sensation to the screen: in Samson & Delilah, as DeMille tracks up Samson’s wool coat, I could feel the scratchy texture of the wool against my back, in Leave Her to Heaven, when Stahl shows a close-up of Gene Tierney digging her blue satin shoe into the rug, I felt the cool slickness of the blue satin. Nitrate’s range of depth is absolutely incredible. I have never had an experience during a film where I thought I could walk right into the film, in this case, into the hallway of the nun’s convent in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus. It was that real. If I had one statement about my thoughts on nitrate, it would be that it really brings the movies to life.

Nitrate film was undoubtedly the main force in my transformation in this project. I count each film I saw on nitrate as what led to that transformation. One can talk and talk about nitrate, but the thing that changes you is what you see. What I saw was its depth. That was something that took me some time to come to terms with.

The transformation was not just this new visual perception, but also a transformation in my confidence. The beautiful thing about art is that every person brings his or her experience with her into the medium. For film, this is especially true. In such a visual driven medium, some people are taken with one image while others are captivated by another. Throughout the festival, I kept reminding myself of this. Everyone has a different experience, even in when experiencing something like a different bases of film.

Embedded in the festival were talks hosted by some of the film preservation field’s highly regarded, such as the silent film connoisseur Kevin Brownlow. To any silent film fan, Brownlow is an A list celebrity. He has made the silent era his life’s work, starting from his early teenage years to, now, at age of 77. It has always been a dream of mine to meet him, and at the festival I finally did. I must admit it wasn’t the actual event of meeting him that was life changing, but it was to seeing his enthusiasm for silent film that made an impression on me. He could talk about it for hours on end and not mind. He reminded me what is necessary for the field of film preservation and saving its history: passion.

At the conclusion of the festival, I felt confident about my experience with nitrate. My opinion is valid, for it is exactly that: my opinion. Any experience we have cannot be right or wrong. I am extremely lucky that I was able to attend the festival. The festival itself not only allowed me to experience nitrate, but also helped me in my professional career by networking with other cinephiles and meeting the staff of The L. Jeffery Selznick School of Film Preservation. After graduating from The Ohio State University, I plan to attend The L. Jeffery Selznick School of Film Preservation to pursue my certificate in film preservation.

Viewing nitrate film was a significant change in my understanding film as a medium and art form, but the festival itself was a significant change in my understanding of the world after college, a tasting of what I can expect when I attend The Selznick School and work in preservation. Overall, the festival was a success!

I cannot stress how grateful I am for the STEP program, as it allowed me to expand upon my area of interest and future study. For any potential STEP participant reading this, I urge you to think outside of the box! This is a rare opportunity. I would have never thought that any school would have funded me to go see nitrate film. Just the thought would have been out of this world! But now here I am saying that I did, in fact, get to do that.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my nitrate experience! I have included some photos from the festival for you to enjoy.


*If you would like to read the Nitrate Festival post I wrote for my blog (not in any way shape or form meant for the STEP project), click here!

This is me in front of the George Eastman house! It was absolutely beautiful that day.

This is me in front of the George Eastman house on the first day of the festival!

This is the picture that my mother took of me with film preservationist hero, Kevin Brownlow!

This is a picture of me with my film preservationist hero, Kevin Brownlow!

A poster for Black Narcissus (1947). This was by far one of my favorite films.

A poster for Black Narcissus (1947). This was by far one of the most visually stunning films I saw that weekend.