If you’ve ever worked with a traditional film reel, the kind of film that goes in round metal canisters when stored and needs a motorized projector to be viewed, then you’ve eventually come across the fact that over time film develops a unique smell. That smell frequently referred to as being similar to vinegar is a result of a continuous chemical process that film goes through even after being exposed and fixed. Overtime, the effect can be dramatic, as the film starts to degrade, otherwise known as Vinegar Syndrome.
The Shift from Nitrate to Acetate
Originally, the film was made from nitrate. It worked well, but nitrate is extremely flammable. That made it a serious safety risk and hazard when stocked together in large libraries. By the 1950s the industry had changed and switched film to an acetate base material instead. This solved the flammability problem, but it also introduced a new issue with acetate degradation.
Archivists are very familiar with vinegar syndrome, as well as photographers and historians who deal with negatives that have been stored for a long time, also made from similar film products. The specific degradation is a result of the acetate in the film starting to lose its molecular structure. At first, nothing is noticeable, but as years go by the effects become real. As film breaks down it becomes physically weak and even brittle. The film itself will shrink and off-gas the chemical reactions taking place, putting out a noticeable vinegar type smell, especially when stocked together as archived film usually is. Cold dry temperature tends to stall this condition considerably, but warm, humid environments help speed up the process.
Acetate is Dangerous to Handle
The gases coming off of old film are not harmless. When concentrated and really bad, they can trigger health reactions in people directly exposed to or touching the old film when it is really bad. Because acetate in film is actually an acid, the gas form and physical form can burn skin and do similar damage to the lungs if sniffed closely. There are easy-to-use tools such as A-D Strips that can function like canaries in a coal mine and turn colors to show whether film has become dangerous to handle. Many archivists put a strip in each can, to be able to determine which film reels are in danger and which are still okay.
Symptoms of Vinegar Syndrome
Severely degraded film will be impossible to view on a projector. The outer parts of the film will be warped and curled with physical change. The overall size of the film roll itself will also be far smaller than the canister it is stored in, having literally shrunk in size tremendously. Many have noted conversion into a fused hockey puck description that becomes hard in form. Badly damaged film can still be saved and transferred to a more modern format such as digital, but special project equipment is needed that gently handles the film as the fixing base has separated and the images themselves can be easily lost otherwise. In the worst cases, the film literally breaks off and cracks, essentially becoming totally useless.
In many cases, film reels stored correctly and carefully tend to have very minor vinegar syndrome symptoms. Ideally, film transferred to STiL containers tend to do better because these cases are designed to vent the off-gassing effect as well as provide far better barrier protection for the film instead of tin film cans or paper boxes. More than likely, reels that suffer the most tend to be those stuffed in boxes with other materials and not archived correctly in the right environment. The physical tell will be a shrinkage of the size of the film as well as noticeable weakness in its physical form, i.e., being very brittle. However, the film can be kept for decades when stored correctly and kept in cool environments.
Unfortunately, there is no reversal or cure for acetate degradation. It is an eventual process that just gets worse over time. All one can do is work to slow it down considerably. The alternative is to take traditional film while still in good condition and convert its content to a far more permanent format like digital form. In some cases, the film is beyond the point of immediate saving, and it can only be stored hoping for a better rescue technology in the future.
Getting Professional Help
If finding yourself in the above situation with home movies or company archives that need better care and help, then it’s time to call in a professional film reel to digital conversion service. Without the right experience and equipment, film can be damaged very quickly and become entirely useless or destroyed. As mentioned above, recovery often means the transfer of the content to a better format, which also requires special equipment and training to perform.
ARS Video can help, as we can take film material in all types of form and restore or transfer them accordingly as needed. We are able to handle most stages of vinegar syndrome as well, helping your recovery film that otherwise could begin rapidly deteriorating if left to its own devices. A number of restoration processes we can provide include transfer to DVD or full digital storage format, backup tapes, card, or drive. We also handle numerous transfer formats, and few film sizes are out of our technical reach. Give us a call to find out more and how to save your old film before it destroys itself.