Tutorial: Vinegar Syndrome

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Problem Footage: Vinegar Syndrome and more
in Standard 8mm movie , Super 8mm movie , and 16mm movie film in storage.

A Note of Warning:

Chemical breakdown is destroying the world's movie film libraries and archives at an alarming rate. Technically "cellulose acetate decomposition" this self-catalyzing degradation of the movie film backing is more commonly known as "Vinegar Syndrome".

Once movie film has vinegar syndrome starts , there is only a small window of time, months, before the movie film starts to physically morph -- curl and stretch and then shrink. Once the movie film shrinks, it becomes brittle, and bowed. In some cases movie film may be treated with chemicals (reportedly camphor, etc.) that will temporarily allow it to run through a projector -- with much distortion in the images -- one last time. This process is profoundly expensive and performed by only one or two labs in North America. Results are not guaranteed.

Vinegar Syndrome is contagious: Other movie film can be "infected" -- through the air . If you can" Smell your movie film " -- any smell like vinegar -- you are losing it, fast! If YOU can smell it, then chances are that ALL your other movie film -- stored with the movie film that you CAN smell -- already has it, too. Run, don't walk, to digitize your movie film. Once Vinegar Syndrome starts, there is no way to reverse it.

Notice : film with vinegar syndrome does NOT necessarily have an odor of vinegar. In many cases, physical morphing of the movie film -- causing it to curl and ripple, like the edges of macaroni -- can be seen without any odor.

Storage: My observation is that movie film that has not been allowed to breath -- that has been sealed tightly in canisters -- is more likely to "break down". Stagnate gases9, that continuously seep from the movie film itself, seen to catalyze the chemical reaction in the first place. However, prolonged exposure to the vinegar syndrome gases will catalyze a reaction in ANY movie film -- no matter how it is stored. Once movie film has vinegar syndrome detected, all reels sharing common air space should be quarantined individually -- and digitized immediately. Digitalization is the only way to salvage the images on the movie film.

Super 8mm movie film is not immune: We are starting to see Super 8mm movie film with vinegar syndrome, too. For years this was not the case. Based on limited observations, when Super 8mm movie" Starts to go", it goes fast!

Other Problems with movie film : I also see a lot of Super 8mm movie film go bad due to "bad baths" during the original processing -- with a crystalline" Snow flake" build-up with in the emulsion of the movie film -- which was not washed / rinsed properly at the time of development.

Aging and Mold: film is made of plastic tape (backing) and an organic "film " on the tape -- the "gelatin emulsion". Made from plant and animal foundation-products, all color and black-and-white information is stored in the gelatin emulsion, which cracks with age. Even the color dyes "get tired". This "organic" media is vulnerable to mold that grows in dark damp places. film that "gets wet" will contact mold that will literally "eat it up". This appears a as blue-green mosaic in your movie film and occasionally as "black specks". Also, mold can grow in the scratches in the emulsion of your movie film, which discolor over time.

The gelatin emulsion: Moisture from the air on this organic material, stored in the dark, creates an environment for destruction -- by mold! Virtually all old movie film is at risk of, if not already infected with, mold. We see it all the time and we have to tell the families the bad news. Ultimately all old movie film is in crisis and your memories with it.

Also, the plastic "tape" itself on old home movies is becoming brittle -- easily damaged by old movie projectors. Once the "pull-down holes", along the edge of the tape are damaged, the "home movie" is dead. Only one bad run through an old projector -- purchased for $2 dollars at a yard sale -- could destroy your priceless "home movies".

Saving movie film Vs Saving Memories: The broader view of preservation is to save the visual memories of "your life and times" -- not just to magnetic media. Once you have technically re-produced your visual images, then you can focus on getting "the story behind the pictures" -- from family members who are still around -- who enjoy good health and are willing to help all generations remember .

After you digitize you movie film, I recommend using your videos to make video interviews with your loved-ones -- to preserve the story of their life and times -- as the video tape stimulates their memories of people, places, and things.