Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Movie that came from the cold

Thousands of pre-1951 movies captured on volatile nitrate film are kept in frigid, low-humidity vaults in a modest cinderblock building owned by the George Eastman House Museum on the piney outskirts of Rochester. Cold storage saves them from rotting away within a lifetime or, worse yet, burning up.

In most cases, these are original camera negatives from the first half-century of motion pictures, classics such as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind," the silent era's top-grossing "Big Parade," Lon Chaney in "The Phantom of the Opera" and Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 version of "The Ten Commandments."

While even the best-kept vintage reels are starting to buckle with age, a beloved movie's master negative is a sacred object that would cost untold millions to replace.

Much of that value lies in its power to produce the finest-quality copies, be it on 35mm film, Blu-ray DVD or some dazzling format that pops up in, say, the early 26th century.

"I really hope that 500 years from now people can still look at this because it's wonderful stuff," Deborah Stoiber, vault manager at Eastman's Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center, said during an inspection of one of 12 dark vaults kept refrigerated year-round at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent humidity.

On the shelves of this climate-controlled celluloid nursing home are prized Technicolor films such as "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Little Women"; silent gems starring Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo; a Lumiere brothers' chronicle of President McKinley's inauguration parade in 1897; and "Olympia," a Nazi propaganda feature on the 1936 Berlin Olympics shot by Adolf Hitler's filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl.

The magical way in which a chilly, dry setting retards shrinking, fading or "nitric melt" inevitably raises concern about the long-term survival of other vulnerable pieces of the world's film heritage, from safety-based acetate stock adopted in the 1950s to television recordings to flimsy digital-video cassettes.

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