Motion Picture Film Guidance: Determining Condition of Materials
How Do I Know If My Materials Are In Good Condition?
Motion Picture Film: Condition Assessment
- Common Problems and Remedies
- Collections Assessment and Preservation Priorities
- Life Expectancy of Materials
- More Information
Over time, motion picture film ages. The condition of a film is affected by how well the stock was manufactured, how the film was developed, and whether it has been stored properly.
Film in good condition will be flexible, have little to no odor, and will not have faded or exhibit other optical defects. Film in poor condition may be brittle, shrunken, give off an unpleasant odor, or exhibit muted or faded color.
Smell the film: The first way to assess a film is by smell. The odor of a film can help identify the base type and suggest issues of chemical deterioration.
- Does the film smell like old sweaty socks? You may have nitrate film
- Moth balls? The film is diacetate, an early type of safety film. It likely has issues with shrinkage and brittleness
- Vinegar? All acetate film stocks are susceptible to vinegar syndrome, which means that the film base is breaking down. If you smell vinegar, the film is in trouble and should be assessed by a professional.
Look at the film. A visual assessment of the film in its container will alert you to physical problems.
|Flakes or shards of film are present in the container.||Film is brittle and should not be handled. Consult a professional.|
|Film is covered in white residue, may be stuck together and impossible to unwind.||Film was wet at some point in the past and has mold. Consult a professional.|
|Film has appearance of "spokes" in the roll.||Due to advanced vinegar syndrome, the film has lost flexibility and does not lie flat in a roll, causing spoking.|
If the film does not exhibit these characteristics and you have the proper equipment, you may gently wind through the film to see how it holds up. Do not project the film or run it through any equipment until you know whether or not your film is stable enough to withstand playback on mechanical equipment. As you wind through the film take note of optical defects that will alert you to other types of deterioration. Some examples of common issues are included below, although this chart is not comprehensive.
|Film is magenta.||This is a film that has experienced color fading. The cyan and yellow dye layers have faded, leaving magenta as the dominant color.|
|When turned against the light, there is a silvery sheen to the emulsion side of the film.||The film is silvering out. The silver in the film is now exhibiting a metallic sheen that makes duplication more difficult.|
|The film has been damaged. There may be scratches, tears, and/or broken perforations.||Tears and broken perforations must be repaired before the film can be safely run on playback or transfer equipment.|
For institutions or individuals with more than a handful of films, prioritization is necessary. Preservation decisions might be made based on the content of the film; a comprehensive assessment of the collection is also helpful in assigning priority for preservation funds. Conducting a more detailed condition assessment of film collections will require A-D strips to test for vinegar syndrome, a shrinkage gauge, and equipment to wind through each film.
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's Motion Picture Preservation Lab uses the NARA Motion Picture Condition At-Risk Assessment Guide in risk assessment.
If stored properly, a new film can last hundreds of years. A film with vinegar syndrome or other deterioration should be copied as soon as possible to prevent loss.
See the Image Permanence Institutes Storage Guides and Calculators to find out how long a film will survive under varying conditions.
Chapter 3 of the National Film Preservation Foundation Film Preservation Guide contains detailed information about how to perform a full film inspection, including necessary tools and supplies.