Slovenian Cinematheque, Vinegar Syndrome (On Problems of Film Tape Preservation)

author: Nadja Šičarov, Slovenska kinoteka
published: April 20, 2017,   recorded: March 2017,   views: 1317


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“Cinema is the art of moving image destruction,” says Paolo Cherchi Usai. Although he claims that a film is condemned to degradation due to the damage acquired during each projection, this judgement could also refer to the low sustainability of film, caused by its material form.

This appeared in various historical ruptures, which have proved short life-span to be an immanent characteristic of the filmic base because of its chemical structure. After a big number of archives burned in devastating fires due to the high inflammability of the nitrate base, the latter was replaced by the triacetate celluloid carrier as a more sustainable medium. However, shortly after the discovery, the triacetate base started showing signs of rapid degradation accompanied by emissions of acid fumes into the air that surrounds the degraded material. The resulting distinctive smell contributed to terming this process of decay vinegar syndrome or the illness of triacetate film. The process is irreversible and inevitable – at best, it can only be decelerated by maintaining the proper storage conditions in climate controlled vaults. The main action that can be taken is the timely evaluation of the state of the collection, which can be performed with pH indicator strips and followed by the optimization of storage conditions. Nowadays, when celluloid film on triacetate base represents the large-scale portion of moving image collections, the vinegar syndrome is a critical issue that is affecting a great deal of audiovisual heritage institutions. One of the solutions for the preservation of elements in precarious state lies in scanning and migration to the digital medium. However, this action should not be taken without being preceded by the appropriate conservation strategies. The long-term preservation of degraded materials can only be assured by the assessment of the degradation state and prioritization of elements based on their condition.

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