Before we had all the digital video recording devices today’s technology has to offer, people were shooting home videos and movie shorts on film reels to be viewed on a projector screen. And, even though we are now capable of filming hours at a time and storing lengthy data on massive hard drives, or transferring film to DVD, a few filmmaking enthusiasts still prefer the old film stock.
Whether using the medium for present film projects, or holding on to past memories and family keepsakes, film reels need to be stored with care to maintain the film’s integrity. There are three basic popular film stocks – 8mm, 16mm and 35mm and three types of film bases – acetate, nitrate and polyester, but not all three film stocks used each base. Acetate and polyester were used for all three, but nitrate was only used for 35mm.
The first motion picture camera, invented in 1889, used 35mm nitrate film and until the 1950s, this stock was extremely common. Nitrate, however, turned out to be highly combustible and the hazardous material was no longer used in the making of film stock. But, since 35mm was the film stock of choice for most big motion picture movies and many home movie makers, you may find it in your collection. Nitrate film should be stored in a well-vented can and kept as cool as possible, preferably in a freezer.
More popular among the amateur or independent filmmakers is 8mm or 16mm film. The acetate film doesn’t have the combustible qualities that nitrate film has, so, back in the day, it was marketed toward the home movie maker, since it was safe. These are the most likely long forgotten film reels to be discovered in your grandparents’ attic or basement. And, if not already done, 8mm and 16mm films should be stored properly to preserve the fragile images they house.
The best way to store old film reels, like 8mm and 16mm acetate film, or any new format film like polyester, is in moisture proof and corrosion resistant containers. They should be kept in a room with a relatively constant low temperature and humidity. The reels should be stacked horizontally and make sure they are ventilated, film needs to breathe.
And, while it may have been found there in the first place, film, typically should not be stored in an attic. Heat increases the rate of decomposition. Also, avoid contact and close proximity to chemicals, paint or exhaust fumes, so the garage is out too.
Acetate-based film is susceptible to ‘vinegar syndrome,’ decay due to acid emitted by cellulose triacetate film as it ages. This reaction causes the film stock to shrink or shrivel, separating the base from the emulsion, the thin layer of gelatin where the photographic image is captured. There is a vinegar scent when this occurs, so it is easy to spot and smell. To preserve film that has already been exposed to ‘vinegar syndrome,’ move the film reel to a cooler location.
By taking the time to handle and store your film reels properly, you can increase the lifespan of your most precious memories by decades.