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Film Preservation Basics

Film Preservation Basics

If you have some old films, they deserve the proper care to save them for future generations.

Of course, most of the films we have were meant to be shown and shared.  A film sitting on a shelf doesn't serve its purpose.

Deterioration symptoms:
The most common kinds of wear are perforation damage, base scratches. emulsion scratches and breaks.  Perforation damage is usually caused by either a malfunctioning projector, a misthreaded projector, or a projector that has lost its loop.  Base scratches appear as black lines and are on the side away from the emulsion.  When duplicating a film, base scratches can be minimized by wet gate printing.  Emulsion scratches are green or white lines scratched into the emulsion.  There is no cure for emulsion scratches.

Color Fading
The most common problem with long term storage of film is color fading.  With B&W film you only need to worry about base degradation (vinegar syndrome).  Some film stocks fade very little, and others fade severely.  Generally, cyan (blue-green) goes first, followed by yellow, ultimately leaving only magenta. Eastmancolor from the about 1953 through 1982 is the worst, though it can be quite variable.  See my film stock identifier page (link).  Heat is the main accelerating factor. The quality of processing also affects it, prints from some labs always fade severely, others hold up much better under the same storage conditions.

Vinegar Syndrome
Vinegar Syndrome is a breakdown of the acetate base.  When deterioration occurs, acetic acid vapors are produced, creating a distinctive vinegar aroma.  The acid produced accelerates the process.  Keeping the film in a sealed can traps the vapors, accelerating it further.  Vinegar Syndrome causes the film to warp, shrink and become brittle.  High humidity and high temperature speed the process.  I suspect that residual processing chemicals are a significant factor.  Polyester base film is immune to vinegar syndrome.  The earlier diacetate film (before the mid 1940s) is less prone to vinegar syndrome, but often emits a camphor or "mothball" smell due to the plasticizers used.  Agfa stock emits a peculiar odor, which should not be confused with vinegar syndrome.

Enemies of film:

Always keep the film path on your projector squeaky clean.  Naphtha, Filmrenew or alcohol on a cotton swab work well for this purpose.  When you acquire a projector, run a loop of blank film through the projector several times to be sure that there are no burrs that might scratch the film.

Heat is the main contributing factor to color fading, and accelerates Vinegar Syndrome.  Keep film as cool as possible.  Never store film in an attic.  I try to keep most of my films below 60 deg. F (15 C) as much as possible.  At the extreme, freezing film will preserve it almost indefinitely, but care must be taken to prevent condensation on the film.

Humidity is the main contributing factor to Vinegar Syndrome.  Never store films (especially acetate) above 50% RH.  Air conditioning units help reduce humidity, and stand-alone dehumidifiers are readily available.  Extremely low humidity isn't good either, storage below 20% RH can make the film brittle.

Cleaning film:
Never clean film with water or a water based cleaner.  It is best to use a cleaner made for film.  I usually use Filmrenew which is a cleaner with lubricant and conditioner.  It is relatively cheap and can help warped or brittle film.  Naphtha can also be used, as can pure alcohol, avoid rubbing alcohol as it often contains water.  All of these cleaners must be used under adequate ventilation, as the fumes are hazardous.  Film cleaner can be applied with a clean soft cloth such as an old T-shirt.

Film preservation resources:

The Home Film Preservation Guide, an excellent resource for the novice in film preservation:

Conservation On Line at Stanford University, a great list of articles on film preservation:
Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology:

National film Preservation Foundation:

Home Movie Day, dedicated to the preservation of home movies on film:

Video transfer resources at Home Movie Day:

Urbanski Film,  source of film cleaner, editing supplies and Molecular Sieves in smaller quantities (Larry specializes in providing supplies to the amateur as well as to professionals):

Eastman Kodak's recommendations for film storage:

Please contact me if you have any suggestions for improvements to this page.

Copyright 2004-2015, Paul Ivester.  Please do not copy without permission.

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