Save VHS!

Left: Decomposing nitrate film, and, right, piles of VHS tapes set for destruction.

Twitter horror film fan Sluts and Guts recently tweeted about VHS recycling. I don’t know a lot about this: VHS video cassettes went the way of the pianola roll a long time ago (and I believe VHS recorders have ceased production?), and apparently there is now a push to get rid of old cassettes by recycling them.

Sluts and Guts commented:

Fact: There are tens of thousands of movies that were released ONLY ON VHS. There are no digital versions of these films and with #VHSrecycling happening now, many films may be lost forever. #VHSpreservation

This reminded me of another all-but-vanished era of cinema: nitrate films.

Invented in the mid-19th century, plasticised nitrocellulose, known as celluloid or nitrate film was the standard medium for motion pictures from the 1880s until the 1940s.

But there was a big, big problem with nitrate film: it was highly flammable. Numerous deadly cinema fires were caused by nitrate film (which is also the reason old projection booths were lined with asbestos). Eventually it was replaced by “safety film”: the cellulose acetate we’re familiar with today.

There was another big problem with nitrate – one which is haunting film archivists today: nitrate decomposes at normal temperatures. Today, old nitrate films are preserved indefinitely in temperature-controlled storage, but for decades, nitrate films were left to basically rot. Because of this, the majority of early cinema films have been lost forever.

Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had one of the most thriving motion picture industries in the world. The films of the Lumière brothers were screened in Melbourne in 1896, just a year after they were first shown in Paris. One of the world’s first film studios, The Limelight Department, opened in Melbourne in 1897.

Australia produced the world’s first feature-length movies. Some credit this to Soldiers of the Cross from 1901, but others dispute that its mix of projected slides and film segments qualify as a true feature film. The world’s first indisputable feature film was The Story of the Kelly Gang, which premiered in Melbourne in 1906.

The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906. The world’s first feature-length narrative film. Only 17 minutes remain.

But almost the entirety of early Australian cinema is lost. Only 17 minutes of Kelly Gang‘s hour-long running time have ever been found. No film segments from Soldiers of the Cross are known to have survived.

What happened? Mostly neglect. The Australian film industry collapsed in the early 1920s. Thousands of unwanted nitrate films were left to rot. Even worse, even more were deliberately destroyed: for the 1927 feature, For the Term of His Natural Life, the flammability of nitrate was put to use to film a ship-burning scene. Thousands of old nitrate reels were piled inside a ship hulk and burned.

The destruction of irreplacable cinema history actually captured on film.

So, what does this mean for VHS recycling?

As Sluts and Guts warns, tens of thousands of films were only ever released on VHS. Widespread recycling of VHS cassettes risks losing these films forever. While it’s tempting to regard old 80s straight-to-video, low budget films as of little worth, people once thought the same of old silent films on nitrate. Today, those few remaining nitrates are treasures.

As the old song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

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