The assessment of the film's condition is key to predicting the remaining useful life of the film. Already degraded or damaged films require even more stringent climate conditions than new film to achieve the same life span. Determination of shrinkage and damage is necessary for the prevention of further damage. In cases of serious damage or deterioration, contact the nearest film archive, or consult one of the professional organizations listed in the Resource section.

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Materials list for film handling and repair:

  • Lint-free cotton cloth
  • Film cleaner
  • Splicers (tape and/or cement)
  • Splicing tape or film cement
  • Cotton gloves
  • Acetate or polyester film leader (new)
  • Archival cores and cans
  • Split-reels
  • Razors
  • New pair plastic handled scissors
  • Acid-free paper tape (artist or museum tape)
  • Loupe or magnifying glass (or old projector lens)
  • Light table and rewinds
  • A-D strips
  • Perforated tape
  • Molecular sieves
  • Dust mask


Before you begin:
You will need a clean work area. A light table is very useful and fairly easy to make or procure. You should work on an uncluttered table with rewind shafts and plenty of light. It is a good idea to cover your work area with a clean towel to avoid abrasions caused by the film coming into contact with the tabletop. Clean your metal equipment (splicers, etc.) with 100% alcohol, available at hardware stores. Don't use alcohol solvent. If you have to, use 90% (the other 10% is water, available at pharmacies), making sure to clean off the metal parts so as not to invite rust. Counters and plastic equipment may be cleaned with distilled water.

When handling film, wear cotton gloves and wash your hands often. Gloves may be problematic if the film has many tape splices (they may leave fuzz on the tape) or damaged edges (they may tear the film). Handle film only by the edges. If you need to touch the image or soundtrack area, put on gloves. Your skin produces oils that you don't want to get on the film. If you do touch the film, you will leave fingerprints. Always remember that film is easy to tear, and you should take care when working with it.

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Before unwinding any film, look at the edges. Mold sometimes attacks film, especially if it has been stored in a damp environment. If mold appears on the edge of the film, clean it off by putting film cleaner on a soft cloth and wipe gently with the direction of the film. If your film is moldy throughout, you may consider having it cleaned at a lab. Some types of mold eat the emulsion, and will take the image off your film. Be careful not to inhale the mold spores, as they can make you sick. If the film is quite moldy, you should consider wearing a dust mask. Hardware stores often sell disposable masks with specific filters for different problems (mold, fumes, etc.). Be sure to wipe down all your equipment after dealing with mold, so it will not spread to your other films.

It is a good idea to clean the edge of the film, even if it isn't moldy, before winding through it and to remove all the dirt you can before it gets on the picture area.

Smell the film. An odor of camphor (mothballs) is common to di-acetate film from the 1920s & 1930s and is not an indication of decay. Camphor may also have been used to keep tri-acetate film from drying out and becoming brittle. Decaying acetate film smells like vinegar. If a vinegar smell is present, deterioration is well underway, and the film should be segregated from other "healthy" reels, and be given top priority for cold storage or film-to-film preservation. A more accurate assessment of acetate decay can be determined using A-D Strips, which are dye-coated paper strips designed to measure the presence of acetic acid off-gassing in a roll of film (like litmus paper).

In the case of vinegar syndrome, the film can be hand cleaned as described previously and stored with molecular sieves or silica gel. Molecular sieves are similar to packing desiccants. The packets are stored along the outside circumference of the film reel (inside sealed film cans) to absorb moisture, acetic acid and other contaminants.

More information about molecular sieves can be found in the Kodak publication Molecular Sieve Acid Scavenger from Kodak for Moisture Free Film Storage and Extended Dye Images, which is available online.

If the film is stored under normal room conditions, providing colder storage temperature should be considered. Colder and dryer storage conditions would efficiently postpone further decay such as vinegar syndrome and color dye fading.

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Wind through the film slowly, keeping the tips of your fingers on both edges of the film, so you'll be able to feel any perf damage. Carefully remove any foreign objects such as masking tape, scotch tape (non-archival tape contains acidic glue which will react with the film and initiate deterioration), paper clips or staples. Clean any glue/sticky residue off with film cleaner on a lint-free cloth and replace the splice, using clear, professional splicing tape. Make sure the edges are cleanly cut. Use your new scissors or a razor to trim the edges of the tape splice. If you are not sure if the old splice was made with professional tape or not, go ahead and replace it. Taking apart old splices (and especially old masking tape) is sometimes difficult, and film cleaner may be used liberally to loosen the tape.

If a mag track film has been stored in a damp environment, when you wind through it, do so VERY slowly. The mag stripe can peel off and stick to the opposite round of the reel. If you wind through too quickly, you can split the film right down the middle. If this happens, use splice tape lengthwise to repair the damage. Don't tape over the sprocket holes except at the point where they are torn. Tape both sides of the film. Store the film tails-out.

Check all old splices for strength by rotating the splice in opposite directions to see if both sides of the splice hold. Old cement splices can remade without losing any frames, but if you are not sure you can do this, tape splicing is acceptable.

To remove old splice and tape residue, film cleaner can be applied using a lint-free cotton cloth or cotton swabs. Torn frames may be repaired with splicing tape. Lining the pieces up on a light table and taping them down, punching out the sprocket holes on a splicer later, may be the best way to avoid seeing the tear on screen, but it is difficult.

Sprocket hole ("perf") damage may be repaired with small pieces of splicing tape, on just the edge of the film (don't tape over the image if you don't need to), and punched out with a splicer. You may also use perforated tape, which only goes on the perforated edges of the film. Pre-punched perforation repair tape is available for 16mm and 35mm film. Tapering the breaks with a new cut in the edge of the film is also a good way to avoid further damage.

Visually inspect the image for signs of color fading. This is irreversible and due to improper storage conditions, inferior film stock, or poor processing. Color film manufactured in the 1970s is notoriously prone to fading and may not be a sign of storage problems or deterioration. It is wise to consider all chromogenic color films, including the apparently most chemically stable, as fast decaying materials. Poor storage conditions will ultimately lead to color fading at an unacceptable rate. Providing proper storage should be a priority to preserve film.

Organic film base often shrinks with age and deterioration. It is not always easy to tell by looking at it whether or not it is shrunken (although severely warped and curled film is a tip-off). One indicator of shrinkage is that the perforations will not match properly with the registration pins of a splicer. To get a more accurate measurement of a film’s shrinkage, compare some new leader in the gauge of your film with the original film. If the holes do not line up perfectly, your film is shrunken. For 8mm film it is easy to use a strip of 100 frames--if the original film is short by one entire frame, the film is shrunken by 1%. Film shrunken by more than 1% should not be projected, as the projector’s sprockets or claw will damage it. Shrinkage gauges are available, but they are expensive.

If your film is too deteriorated or shrunken to project, you will probably want to save it for copying. If you don't have the money to get it printed soon, consider freezing it (see section 8.2) to slow down the decomposition process quite a bit, giving you time.

Hand-painted or artfully scratched films should be treated with extreme delicacy and labeled clearly to ensure that no film cleaner will ever be used on them. This is very important if the film is to be sent to a lab for copying. If the lab doesn’t know what they’re dealing with, they could inadvertently destroy the film.

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4.4 CLEANING (only after a full inspection)
If the film is dirty or moldy, it can be cleaned gently by hand using a lint-free cotton cloth and professional motion picture film cleaner. Don't use this method if there is perf damage. Put the film cleaner on the cloth and run the film between the folded cloth, holding it firmly with your fingers. Wind slowly through the film so the film cleaner has evaporated before it is wound onto the take-up reel. It is important not to use water or any other fluid on film, as they could remove the emulsion. Use the film cleaner cautiously: wear clean rubber (not latex) gloves (dishwasher style, not powdered medical gloves), and clean the film in a well-ventilated area. Use only a clean soft cotton cloth that will not scratch the film. Replace the cloth as soon as there is a noticeable build-up of dirt on it.
Film can also be cleaned by use of particle transfer rollers (PTRs). These are polyurethane rollers that either come as separate units or as parts of other machines (such as 35mm projectors). The rollers have a tacky coating that removes larger particles of dust and hairs from the film surface, and can be washed clean with water. They are expensive and probably not sensible for small collections.

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