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Many of the questions we receive on film
preservation come from people wanting to initiate microcinemas in their own
communities. This page combines a guide for starting your own an informal,
inexpensive cinema venue, with real-world information on realistic film
preservation philosophy and strategies. For questions regarding US and EU
copyright issues, visit our Academic film Research Resources (Online)
section on our
Research Resources page.
Table of Contents
1) Film degradation basics
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Note: We recommend the book The Film preservation Guide: the Basics for Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ISBN 0-9747099-0-5), available from the National Film Preservation Foundation, (415) 392-7291, www.filmpreservation.org
1) On film degradation : since combustible nitrate stock was never used for 16mm film, and polyester stock (introduced in the mid-50s) has proven to be remarkably stable, we're mostly concerned with the tri-acetate film used primarily in educational settings until the mid-1980s (polyester can be distinguished by the greater amount of light passed through when viewing an entire reel held flat between you and the light source). The two most common forms of tri-acetate deterioration are a color shift toward the red spectrum, and the "vinegar" syndrome. This section addresses vinegar syndrome and storage issues. For information on color shift, see Film Stock Basics, below in section 4.
"Vinegar" Syndrome. In unfavorable storage --- i.e., high temperature-high humidity settings --- film will often take on the smell of vinegar as acetic acid begins to eat away at the film base. Eventually, the film will eat itself, its reel, and its can, by which time it has "traveled" to adjacent films as well. Probably the film genre with the largest percentage of vinegar is WWII training film, conveyed and stored in unfavorable war conditions. The good news is that vinegar, while not curable, can be stabilized so that little, if any further degradation takes place. The key is in identifying then isolating these films, then treating them with a product called "molecular sieve".
2) Film Storage and Preservation: Flawless film storage can be a beautiful thing for organizations fortunate enough to have exceptional funding resources. Barring that, all entities concerned with preserving their films can take basic measures, and can accelerate efforts as better resources become available. I have constructed a taxonomy of four levels of preservation, from the most basic to the most effective. Because my philosophy leans toward public showings on a regular basis, I view storage on plastic cores as an unnecessary measure, useful primarily for archives having little or no educational interest in increasing the public's knowledge and appreciation of film:
Some of the challenges we've addressed above were also noted by Penelope Houston in her book Keepers of the Frame (1994, British Film Institute:
"Archive costs… have the potential to go on rising almost indefinitely, as more material involves more complex, elaborate and expensive processes. And this at a time when all the pressure has been to cut back, and archivists are inclined to remind you of what it costs them to carry out such an elementary operation as replacing rusty film cans with new ones. All film preservation seems to become a matter of juggling a range of options and compromises, and there are many areas in which it is recognised that the difficulties are not of a kind which could easily surrender to more money. If the older archives know what they should be doing, but struggle to afford it, many of the newer ones are handicapped by a shortage of expert technical knowledge and of laboratories equipped to carry out highly specialised work. There are many places around the world where it is all too likely that films are rotting on the shelves, and will continue to do so."
More information: Freezing vinegar syndrome films can be done under archival procedures at home, using a small, commercially available freezer. Steps, including preparation, packing and sealing, and thawing, are described at http://www.filmforever.org (click on the "Home Storage" link). The Library of Congress has published a document that, while providing few answers, details some of the challenges and scope of the problem of film storage and preservation: http://lcweb.loc.gov/film/storage.html
Digital Preservation. We field a large number of questions on digitally preserving film, and the issues, as discussed by the archival community, seem to revolve around costs (expensive) and the longevity of digital playback devices. We advise you to read Jeff Rothenberg's fine article in Scientific American (1995, Vol. 272, Number 1, pp. 42-47), 'Ensuing the Longevity of Digital Information', which addresses important preservation issues, including obsolescence of playback devices: http://www.clir.org/pubs/archives/ensuring.pdf
A special note on CD-Ws. While our interest is in preservation of 16mm safety film, we recently began copying our library of morlam music VCDs onto CDs. We read with interest the potentially negative effect of felt-tip marking pens on the recorded data, as reported by Dr. Jerry Hartke of Media Science: http://www.mscience.com/faq508.html Not to deviate too much from our focus on 16mm film, but Tape Archival & Restoration Services' Jim Wheeler notes that some CDs and DVDs have a problem with "laser rot", where moisture gets through the "protective" layer and reacts with the reflective surface. Low humidity storage is advised (gold DVDs and CDs do not have this problem). To make matters worse, ozone and reactive oxygen cause the aluminum layer on CD’s to breakdown. When aluminum in a thin film oxidizes, it becomes clear and unable to reflect the laser pulse attempting to read the CD. One solution is Corrosion Intercept® , a product that replaces the black hubs in jewel cases. For more on this, visit: http://www.conservation-by-design.co.uk/sundries/corincep1.html There also seems to be some degree of evidence that Mitsui's gold CDs will last decades, and it appears that they are priced at roughly $1.50 each. Visit their website at: http://www.mitsuicdr.com for more information.
3) On Film Repair: To secure the end of the leader to the film, use only the "paper tape" you buy from film supply houses. Never use any other kind of tape when securing your leader: this includes cellophane "scotch" tape, masking tape, or strapping tape. All of these will either destroy the frames to which they're adhered, or gum up the transfer path in your projector. Do not tape the end of your film to the core or reel, a practice which will tear sprockets when the last bit of film snaps off the reel. When repairing torn film, use only the proper slicing tape, again bought from film supply houses. More films have been damaged by violating these rules than I can guess, and spending the money for the right supplies will be your best long-term investment. No splicer? Look on the the open market for a used one (I like the double bladed "Special" made by Construzione Incollatrici Rapide). I've been asked about "hot" splicing", and have found that these splices tend to separate under stress, after several years.
stock basics: The most common film stock complaint among 16mm
film enthusiasts surrounds the fact that most of the print film sold by
Eastman in the 50s - mid 1970s has a tendency to lose blues and greens, thereby
shifting toward the red end of the spectrum, a problem that has occurred in 35mm
as well as 16mm prints. There are unsubstantiated rumors --- we've heard them
from at least two independent sources --- that Eastman was aware of this
tendency and yet continued to sell the stock anyway. Cynics might suggest that a
possible reason for this might be that it would force customers to continually
buy new prints to replace degraded footage. We further understand that a
threatened lawsuit by Martin Scorsese forced Eastman to eventually discontinue
the practice, but meanwhile, a significant portion of our film legacy has been
degraded. There is no cure for "red" film, but we at the AFA
suggest you keep red prints of good films until you ---- in piecemeal fashion
--- can replace them with other stock, if available.
Also, film dyes are more stable at low temperatures, therefore temperatures of
50 degrees Fahrenheit have been recommended for long-term storage (films are not
harmed by thawing and re-freezing, but allow at least a one-hour thaw at room
temperature before showing.)
Glossary of film stock types
Agfa Color: Generally stable; Agfa may occasionally be listed as AG, S1, or S2 between sprocket holes. AGFA doesn’t shift color, though some of the older prints lose saturation.
Eastman 4b: Made from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, held by some to be generally stable, but John Pomman writes: "Actually the (4b) on the edge of Eastman "4b" print stock is a slitting code. The stock is the same as ordinary Eastman color print stock and susceptible to the same fade. There was an urban myth floating about that 4b had better non-fade color characteristics. It's just a myth."
Eastmancolor: The print film of choice for most companies selling 16mm film from 1953 - 1982. Extremely prone to magenta-shift.
Eastman LPP: Produced in the beginning of the 1980s, stable, nice color, but occasionally leaning somewhat to green.
Eastman Reversal and Kodachrome: Reversal was the camera film of choice for many when shooting the original picture, and has beautiful colors which do not fade. Most prints of the era were, unfortunately, made on Eastmancolor.
Eastman SP: Eastman's first response to magenta shift, and made from the mid-to-late 1970s. Still unstable, now turning orange or yellow, in addition to magenta. Marked “Kodak SP”, and fades toward brown.
Ektachrome: A reversal stock,, not as long-lasting as Kodachrome, but stock from the 1960s is still holding up well.
Estar: Refers to a non-acetate base, rather than an emulsion. Estar is Kodak’s trademark for polyester base. Can’t get vinegar syndrome.
Fuji Color: Stable, but slightly shifts toward blue. Made from the 1970s, its dates are coded between sprockets by year, not Eastman symbol. Older Fuji tends to turn purplish.
I.B. Technicolor: Imbibes yellow, cyan, and magenta dyes onto a latent black and white image. Will not fade, and is the most stable of all color processes.
Degradation characteristics of various films stocks: Richard W. Haines author of "Technicolor Movies", contributed the following information...
Fujicolor has the tendency to degenerate into 'fujirot' which are colored dots
that appear all over the emulsion. Cause is unknown but it might be either bad processing and storage or an
inherent flaw with the stock itself since the
same phenomenon is rare on Eastmancolor stock.
5) Acquiring film: paradoxically, your least expensive means
of getting the films themselves is also the most expensive. We encourage you, as
preservers of the art of film, to contact your own local school districts and
ask them when they plan to sell off their film libraries. Typically, you'll get
a hazy response about some time in the future. This is your best time to
cultivate a friendship with the film librarian by letting him or her know about
your repertory cinema, and why you should be considered the first resource when
films go up for sale. We started ciné16 by buying
individual titles for between $10 and $20, but later realized that we should
have made an offer for the whole shootin' match. How much should you pay? It
varies, but buying a whole collection for fifty cents to one dollar a title is
about right. Negotiate the rights to the film racks as well, as you'll need
them. You'll undoubtedly get duplicate prints, which allows you to choose the
best prints for archival purposes, and also will give you something to trade
with other film institutions as you begin growing your library in specific
directions. Needless to say, this whole process might cost you $5 - $10,000. Am
I suggesting taking out a loan? You bet. Films are incredibly inexpensive right
now, and it may not stay that way for long. In the ensuing years, you'll be
congratulating yourself on a wise and no-longer-affordable financial decision.
6) Projectors: For showing films in presentations, you'll need two so you can make quick switches between reels, and you'll want a third as a backup. Choose one type of projector, such as Bell & Howell 552 (tube) or 2592 (solid state). We use 2592s here, as we've found that they're overall less buggy than 552s. These, however, are "autoloaders", which can chew film mercilessly when out of adjustment, or use by an unskilled operator. A slot load projector, such as the Bell & Howell 2580, can be more forgiving, but we found the 2592 to be less jumpy, overall. Do find a local repair person who is reasonable and familiar with your type of projector --- you'll become good friends in the ensuing months. It may not be such a bad idea to identify this person before buying a projector (call your local school district & ask who does/did their repairs), get his or her recommendations which unit to buy. Pay no more than $100 for a used projector in running condition. Paul Ivester has put together a pretty good list detailing the characteristics of various Bell & Howell projectors.
For documentation of films, we use the Bell & Howell 2592, because it has a nifty device called "Directamotion" consisting of a lever that stops the film when depressed, then continues the film when released. This allows us to briefly scan a frame to determine if we want to use stop-motion to take notes on the data listed on the frame, much easier than using the stop-motion switch. They're hard to find, but Bell & Howell also made a cable-connected switch box that launched the Directamotion capability and was connected to a socket on the rear of the projector.
15 minute projector test check: before buying a projector, run a 400 foot (10 minute) film on it first, to make sure the picture isn't jumpy, and sound is OK. Run it all the way through. Then rewind it, to ensure that rewind mechanism works.
7) Venue and admission charges: we like bars and coffee shops, because seating is already there, there is usually a blank white wall you can use as your screen, and owners of these establishments love having events that will draw people. Some owners will request that you charge a small fee. Explain that you can't, as detailed under #3, below. Indoors or outdoors? Outdoor showings are terrific, but if you'll be showing in areas abundant in ambient light, you'll need a projector with a carbon-arc light source, roughly $2500. 16mm film comes with the cachet that each print may be shown in an educational environment without remuneration to the distributor provided that no admission fee is charged. Once you charge admission, you're fighting two battles: a) fees may be more than you can recoup at the door, & b) you've got to find the distributor/copyright owner, which can be extremely challenging.
8) Cultivate cheap, pervasive, publicity: unless you can deal with the expense of postage and printing, consider making weekly email postings your modus operandi. An extra benefit is that you can change programs on the fly without having to re-mail (you will find dozens of people who don't yet have email, so encourage them to go to a public library that offers computer access to patrons, and ask them to open free email accounts through Hotmail or Yahoo. You will also find at least one local film or entertainment critic that will think your idea is terrific, so get in touch and ask that your schedule be mentioned every week, free. And contact all local professors of film/media history, and ask if you can make a ten-minute presentation to their classes every quarter/semester. Free cinema is loved students on academic budgets.
Contact us with your questions. Part of our mission is to assist individuals to take on the task of 16mm educational film preservation. Note: please do not contact us with film collection appraisal questions, thanks.