Why basements are not a good place for film

Posted by on Jan 22 2010 | Motion Pictures, Student Work

This week, the students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation had a lesson in working with reels affected with mold and water damage.  This material had been previously stored in a wet basement, causing the emulsion to swell, the image to distort, and mold to grow on the reel of nitrate film.  Unfortunately, the material had dried out too quickly, causing it to become brittle and the emulsion to remain stuck together in a solid mass. 

Amanda and Karin with moldy film

After donning the appropriate gear (approved mask, gloves, goggles, overcoat, and pulling their hair back) students Karin Carlson and Amanda Honeyman first wiped down all exposed areas of the reel with a mixture of approved cleaning solution and projector oil.  The cleaner is used to help remove the dirt and mold spores on the film, and the oil will assist in lubricating the film for gentle hand winding.  Working in the well ventilated area, Karin started by using a dull ex-acto knife blade to gently separate the layers of film.  With plenty of time and patience, Karin was able to separate the layers, while Amanda gathered the film for closer inspection.  Working together and trading off duties, the layers of film were slowly separated.  They found that some areas of the reel were harder to separate than others: perhaps water dripped on the reel?  

Separating brittle, moldy layers of film

Close up of bench work-brittle moldy filmBrittle film can be one the hardest materials to inspect by an archivist.  Light pressure on the material can cause it to break in many pieces.  Handling should be done with extreme care.  Quite often, the emulsion will crack, causing permanent damage to the image.  The sprocket holes are no longer able to support any equipment use.  Luckily, the title of this film was already preserved by the Eastman House, and this reel is kept for long term conservation and research purposes.  It is films such as this one that teaches new students, and reminds older archivists the importance of archival storage conditions-cool and dry.   

Brittle film

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    Deborah Stoiber is the Nitrate Vault Manager at The Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. She graduated from The L. Jeffrey Selznick School in 1998. After graduation, she spent time at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY working on their 16mm collection.

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