Patrick Loughney considers his offices in the Library of Congress’ Moving Image Section as a triage center for aging films. Mr. Loughney, head of the Moving Image Section’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, says it’s an archivist’s job to determine which old films require immediate care and which ones can wait a few years before getting a face-lift.
Film — be it the theatrical motion picture variety or homegrown reels stored in the family attic — is made of a plastic base topped by a thin layer of emulsion with silver particles and color dyes, or, in the case of black-and-white images, simply silver particles.
Any of these elements can break down, forcing archivists to improve storage or attend to them should degradation occur. The enemy is “father time,” or, more specifically, excess or fluctuating humidity levels, moisture or high temperatures.
Mr. Loughney estimates that “over half of films made in America are lost or survive in badly degraded form.”
Films made before the 1950s are much more of a concern, and not simply because of their antiquated nature. Film in those days was made of nitrate cellulose, a highly flammable substance with sulfuric acid as one of its building blocks. The material also was susceptible to shrinkage and brittleness.
In the early 1950s, Kodak introduced a “safety film” made of cellulose acetate plastic that didn’t have the flammable properties of the old film. The new film did, however, feature unstable color dyes that could fade over time, as well as shrinkage.
The cyan, or blue, and yellow dyes used in the color process reacted to heat and humidity, he says, and would leave behind a red tint after years of damage.
Ken Wlaschin, vice chairman of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation with the American Film Institute’s Hollywood office, says the newer film also suffers from “vinegar syndrome,” which some say makes it not so much better than the pre-1950s films.
The syndrome, named after the sharp smell the film emits, involves a slow chemical deterioration that makes the film buckle and shrink over time when exposed to unfriendly storage atmospheres.
The Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, N.Y., part of the Rochester Institute of Technology, created and sells A-D Strips, dye-coated paper that detects the level of deterioration in acetate photographic film collections. The strips can tell how extensive the damage is to a particular piece of film and whether it should be duplicated.
Film manufacturers in recent years have improved their products so color fading is much less of a problem.
The best way to avoid deterioration is to store older films properly. Generally, films are kept in a cold storage area with steady humidity. An ideal temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 35 percent humidity level, Mr. Loughney says.
Dwight Swanson, archivist with Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine, says while major film studios are storing films properly, many homeowners still are not.
“Moisture really is a thing that does the most damage,” Mr. Swanson says, particularly if the films sit in rusty metal cans.