Film and Video

Film and Video presents many of the same issues as photography and audio materials. It is very important to pay careful attention to temperature and humidity, and most film is best stored at a slightly lower temperature. Because many film and video formats are open reel, it is important to be extremely careful in handling and storage. Open reel should be stored in containers specifically meant for the materials, as the film will be significantly more secure. Like photographs, the emulsion should never be touched with the bare hands, although film is better handled using nitrile gloves than cotton gloves which can scratch. If you can make an access copy of your a/v material on a newer format, that will protect the originals from damage in handling or by the machine. It is also important to keep the players clean and in good order.

Film canisters from the Vision Maker Media Vault before processing
Film canisters from the Vision Maker Media Vault before processing

Nitrate film is a particular concern for many archives, as cellulose nitrate was widely used as the base for film until 1952. It is highly flammable at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, particularly if it is stored with a lot of other nitrate film and without proper ventilation. If you have nitrate film, it is recommended that you take it to a professional preservation studio, but if you would like to keep the film, make sure it is stored properly. Cellulose acetate (safety film) replaced cellulose nitrate as a base, and while it does not have the same flammability, it can deteriorate very quickly. The deterioration of this film is called vinegar syndrome for the smell that the film produces as it breaks down. Once a film has vinegar syndrome that is severe enough that it can be smelled, it is very difficult to reverse Film from the Vision Maker Media collectionthe damage that the acid erosion has caused.

Video is more stable than film, particularly video in cassette formats, as the cassettes protect the film from dirt and debris. The Texas Commission on the Arts has a helpful guide to different types of video materials with images of each type for easier identification, Videotape Identification and Assessment Guide. Once you have identified what kind of videotape or film you have, it is best to move it into cool and stable humidity storage and then consider digitization as well as other types of preservation. Broadcast formats tend to have slightly better long-term stability than home video formats, but that is not necessarily true for all formats, so after you have assessed what you have, seek of guidance for each individual format.

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Like audio, playback obsolescence is a major concern for the long-term preservation of film and video materials. It is unusual to find players for many older formats, and in many cases the people who have these machines cannot find qualified people to repair them. Formats that were popular in home video are particularly in danger from this problem but were not widely adopted, although many broadcast and ubiquitous formats are similarly problematic. Some examples from the Vision Maker Media vault are the 1″ open reel tape (seen left), which is in very good condition but can only be played on one machine in the building. When we took another tape to be played the tech said he could not remember the last time he used it.

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Above we have an example of at 3/4″ U-matic tape, a very high risk format with similarly rare players.

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VHS tape from the Vision Maker Media collection

While many people still have VHS players in their homes, and institutions can still use their machines, this is a format that can be found in many personal collections and is nearing the end of its lifespan.

Digitization is often used as a preservation tool for video, and while we have addressed the problems with digital files in other areas of this guide, the obsolescence of playback equipment and the problems of analog formats in video are substantial. Additionally, because playing a film is inherently dangerous to its preservation, it is a good idea to make access copies that can be used for viewing. This article looks further into digitization as preservation and provides a good template for larger institutions, Digitizing Video for Long-Term Preservation.

Film preservation and particularly digitization is an area that requires a lot of technical expertise, but is an invaluable resource. There are a number of resources available that can connect you to local, national, or international groups that can assist with these types of projects.

For more information:

Association of Moving Image Archivists 

Film Preservation Handbook-AMIA

Film Preservation Handbook-National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

National Film Preservation Foundation

National Film Preservation Board

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