Friday, March 18, 2011

A Whiff of Film

Feeding home movie film into a projector for a screening at
Home Movie Day at the Urbana Free Library in October 2008.
Photo courtesy of the Preservation Working Group at the
University of Illinois.

People involved with film preservation and restoration are well acquainted with the palette of odors common to film.  Most are bad.  You catch a whiff and you know there’s something wrong.  Film is not supposed to smell like that.

You don’t need to be professionally trained or overly sensitive to detect these smells.  Snowden Becker, co-founder of the annual international Home Movie Day event and the nonprofit Center for Home Movies, outlined four of the most prominent film smells for me:

1. Mold:  If the film has been stored in damp conditions, or exposed to flood waters, leaky pipes, etc., mold may be a serious problem for it and for you.  Soaked cardboard is an ideal environment for mold and mildew to grow, so you may see signs of it on film boxes, and even on the film itself.  Black spots, or whitish or grayish fluffy or crystalline matter on your film materials are warning signs;  musty or swampy smells are, too.  Inhaling mold spores can be a serious health risk, and moldy film probably needs professional cleaning before it’s safe to view or transfer.

2. Vinegar Syndrome:  This smell is particularly indicative of condition problems in older film – vinegar odor is one of the first detectable signs of vinegar syndrome, or acetate deterioration.  As safety film ages, especially in too-hot or too-moist storage conditions, it breaks down and starts to release acetic acid compounds that are not only harmful to the film but harsh on the delicate tissues in your eyes, nose, and throat.  A strong whiff of vinegar when you open a can or box is a good sign that it needs professional help, and soon!

3. Dust:  Dust from old cardboard boxes and crumbling pieces of paper that might be stored with the films gets everywhere – including your nose or lungs!  Sneezing is an occupational hazard for the film archivist who handles home movies. If you’re prone to asthma or allergies, be especially careful that you're working in a well-ventilated area if and when you examine your old films.

4. Wintergreen:  You may also detect mothball-y camphor or wintergreen odors in film collections, but those are often good signs – oil of wintergreen and oil of camphor were sometimes applied to paper inserts in film cans as plasticizing agents and can actually help stabilize the material.

© 2011 Lee Price

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