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Anna McDonnell

Chemistry in Film
As an artist and avid movie fan, I am seeking a career in Animation in the film business.
Film has come a long way since its birth in the 1880s, and in the early days chemistry had a key
role. Whereas today everything is digitally captured with a camera, up until the 1950s
cinematographers used nitrate film, also known as celluloid film. However dangerous it may
have been, the development of celluloid played a major part in the dawn of the motion picture
industry.
Credit goes to Alexander Parkes who created the first man-made plastic in 1855, known
as Parkesine. Parkesine was made up of cellulose, nitric acid and a solvent which created
cellulose nitrate (or nitrocellulose); an extremely flammable, moldable plastic that was in later
years used as the first flexible film base. Initially, Parkesine was used for forming objects and
even to water proof clothing, though it was too expensive to mass-produce and the business
ultimately failed. In further experiments done by Parkes himself as well as other scientists, the
cellulose nitrate was mixed with camphor and renamed as xylonite and eventually celluloid
in 1872. Inventor John Wesley Hyatt was able to patent and successfully manufacture celluloid
and in 1878 discovered the simplified process that created the celluloid that was later to be
used for photographic film.
Celluloid was used in photography and motion pictures up until the 1950s when
cinematographers began using acetate film, which was much safer. Nitrate film was notoriously
dangerous in the motion picture industry, and a number of films and even lives were lost
forever because the film easily caught fire due to too much heat from the projector. Over time,
the nitrocellulose in the film would also release nitric acid causing it to deteriorate into
flammable powder if it is not kept at a low temperature, and so thousands of early films have
been lost due to deterioration or fires in the studios storage areas. Cellulose acetate film
replaced nitrate film as a sort of safety film base in the 1948. This, however, could still decay
over time due to heat, moisture, or acid. With nitrate film, preservationists have discovered
methods of keeping the film stabilized in storage, but there are no known ways of preventing
the degradation of acetate film.
I would have liked to have been around to work with real film stock in the old days.
Using nitrate film was a dangerous, but it having a main part of the origins of movies makes it
interesting. I would like to be able to look at a film reel in this day and age where everything is
done digitally. There is a certain charm to it and it connects you with the past.


Works Cited
Celluloid. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Apr. 2014. Web.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celluloid>.
"Cellulose Acetate Film." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Apr. 2014. Web.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulose_acetate_film>.
"Nitrocellulose." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Apr. 2014. Web.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrocellulose>.
"Parkesine." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Mar. 2014. Web.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkesine>.