Of all the things I encounter in the film world, vinegar syndrome is one of the saddest. It’s a deterioration that hits acetate film and turns it into a smelly dry plastic that smells of a rancid salad. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The film gets brittle and unusable.
The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable. It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable. Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable. I sometimes post about this in various groups and inevitably I’ll come across someone who just hammers me about it, calls me an idiot, and propagates the same untested beliefs. It’s gotten to the point that I get a little sensitive about the whole topic and don’t discuss it much. Lately, however, a bunch of people have asked me to cover it in a long blog.
Now, the problem with this is that film people, almost by definition, are not technical people. They don’t understand the technical aspects of why the film has started to deteriorate. There’s also a problem between the archival and the presentational aspects of film history, too. I’ll discuss that a little as we progress.
I have this problem, you see. I come from a technical background. I’m an engineer. I love to test things. I suspect that there will be a lot of controversy and some people will call me a blasphemer in the religion of vinegar syndrome. If it gets too nasty, I’ll just disable the contents on this post. I love blogs. You may notice a bit of hostility here, and I assure you that it’s because I’m really tired of having to defend myself. I’ve done the tests and shown the saved films in public.
Since I’m flying in the face of established religion, I’ll steal an idea from Galileo, a guy who flew in the face of established religion in 1632, when he wrote his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. He had a character named Simplicio advocate for a earth-centric model of the universe, while saner heads debated him. So I’ll do the same thing here.
Simplicio: What is vinegar syndrome? I hear it’s a disease that spreads from film to film and destroys them
Dr. Film: Vinegar syndrome is a problem associated mostly with tri-acetate film. As the film ages, it outgases a little bit of acetic acid, which is vinegar. As it accelerates, the film base becomes thin and brittle, and the film may buckle, tear, and become unprojectable.
Vinegar syndrome is not a virus, not a disease, not anything but simple chemical deterioration. It affects different films in different ways. If a film was developed poorly, stored in bad conditions, stored with things that caused it to deteriorate, or is on unstable stock, it will tend to go vinegar.
I have had prints go completely vinegar while sitting right next to other prints that have not gone vinegar at all. I therefore dispute the claim that it spreads… however, exposing prints to vinegar is not a great idea in general.
Simplicio: Why is that? Does that make the disease spread? Shouldn’t you quarantine the films that are vinegar in sealed cans?
Dr. Film: No, vinegar is an acid. In solution (that means the air around the film), it will tend to eat at the film base, like any acid would, which causes the film to outgas more vinegar.
Putting vinegar prints in sealed cans is a sure way to kill them. The vinegar builds up, and eats at the film, causing more vinegar to be expelled, but there’s no place for it to go, and it becomes an autocatalyzing process, meaning it gets worse and worse.
Is this tested? Sure. For many years I wanted to test the theory and I wondered if there was someone who’d accidentally done the test for me. In 1998, I discovered that someone had done the very test I’d wanted without knowing it. I went to an auction that had a bunch of 16mm films for sale. Many of these were films from the 1930s from Goodyear. They had been stored in a milk crate for 40 years or more, and the auction house hadn’t even bothered to remove them.
What did I find? The films that were in the cans, without exception, had some degree of vinegar syndrome decomposition. The films that had been stored in open air had NO vinegar decomposition. And the films without the cans, in many cases, were older than the ones in the cans. I realize that this is an anecdotal one-off answer, because it does not take into account that this particular set of films may have had a unique temperature/humidity range for storage that caused this reaction. However, in subsequent years, I have repeatedly found this same situation in collections from all over the world.
Simplicio: I was told by my favorite archive that you could put in Kodak’s molecular sieves and it will stop this problem.
Dr. Film: The idea behind the molecular sieves is to neutralize the vinegar in a sealed can. Whatever chemicals are in the sieve react with the vinegar and take it out of the air surrounding the film. In theory, the molecular sieves are a wonderful idea, but they don’t work out so well in practice. If you have a huge supply of them and you change them every 6 months to a year, then great. It’s perfect and it will help. Otherwise, the sieve and the vinegar end up completing their reaction, and you have a full (now essentially chemically inert) molecular sieve and the vinegar syndrome marches gleefully on.
Simplicio: So when a film gets vinegar, we should just throw it away, right? There’s nothing that can be done. That’s what my friend told me.
Dr. Film: You can do what you want, but there are things you can do to slow down the progress of vinegar syndrome, regardless of the conventional wisdom.
Knowing about these various methods and working with deteriorating old film, I wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t. I decided to do a control study. That’s where you make a test and change only one thing in the test to find out if it helps. Several years ago, I bought a 35mm print of She Couldn’t Say No (a 1950s movie with Robert Mitchum) which was affected by vinegar syndrome and warp. I bought this because I didn’t particularly care about the film, and I figured that I could use it for control tests: one reel left alone, and each reel treated with something else.
There are these things that I have personally tested:
1) Vitafilm: this is a film cleaner that is quite nice in some circumstances. It has a STRONG pine smell, enough that some people gag at the first whiff. No one is entirely sure what is really in Vitafilm, so I can’t answer for what it does chemically. I can say that in tests, these things happen:
a) The film becomes more pliable and warp tends to flatten out (this may require rewinding several times, but it does work.
b) Tape splices (other than Kodak tape) loosen and must be reapplied.
c) The cleaner will dissolve most other plastics, including reels, cores, and a lot of projector rollers. Do NOT project a wet print; it could destroy your projector. (Take it from someone who has learned this!)
2) Glycerin: this is a plasticizer that evaporates into the air around a film within a can. Again, it does take vinegar out of solution and it does make the film more pliable. Since it’s liquid, it gums things up, and it cannot be put in direct contact with the film (it makes the film mooshy). However, I have successfully used this on a number of films. It was particularly helpful on a trailer for The Robe which was so stinky that it would knock a normal human down at 30 paces and was actually getting sticky from base melt. Glycerin stopped it in its tracks and the print is still around.
3) Camphor (solid). Camphor is used as a spice in Southeast Asian cooking, and it still used (in small quantities) in cough syrups. It is a plasticizer, but in people it is also a vasodilator, which means it causes a person’s blood vessels to dilate a bit. This is great for sinus conditions and coughs, which we associate with camphor’s strong smell. Unfortunately, it is possible to “OD” on camphor (look it up) by ingesting too much of it, so it’s now on the FDA’s bad list. Fortunately, there are a lot of Asian grocery stores that still stock it, and it’s wonderful stuff. Why?
a) Camphor works, like glycerin, as a plasticizer, but does not affect the film if in direct contact!
b) It does not dissolve splices, affect other plastics, etc.
c) It’s self-limiting, which means that you can throw camphor in with your prints and the camphor will vaporize and be absorbed to just the level that the print needs. A desperate print will suck it up faster than a print with no problem.
Simplicio: My friend at the archive told me that camphor is just a stunt and it will reduce the long-term stability of the film. It really isn’t good for the film at all, and it doesn’t stop vinegar syndrome.
Dr. Film: This depends on how you define “long-term.” An archive isn’t in the same business I am. I am in the business of saving and sharing films. An archive is in the business of saving films. The archives were charged with the responsibility of saving copies of films for future generations, not particularly with making them available for anyone to see. (That’s not a criticism… that’s what they were intended to do.)
Archives are also notoriously underfunded, so a print may languish in storage for years until someone gets around to inspecting it and getting it ready for preservation. This means an archive is understandably nervous about any chemical coming in contact or proximity with the film. They don’t know what it is, they don’t know what the long-term effects are, and the whole thing is just very, very scary.
Now, again, I’m not in that business. Sure, I collect rare films, and in most cases these are films that are beneath the notice of the major archives. They archives are so busy preserving mainstream history that they miss the little rivulets of the story that fascinate me. This is not intended to slight them: I’m glad they’re out there, and they do a wonderful job of what they do. It’s just not what I do.
For me, if I have a film that cannot be shown, then it’s not of much use. If it’s too shrunken, brittle, or ripped to run, then it may be saved but not necessarily shared. These are the kinds of films I may donate to an archive in the hopes that someday they might be duped or something…
However, if I can do anything to extend the projectable life of a film, then I’m on board. Does that mean it might be projectable for another 10 years but it will shave 10 years off the longevity of the print? If that’s so, then I’m still on board.
Let me give you an example: I have a print of The Ford in Your Future, which is a really cool short that promotes Ford’s new 1949 cars. It’s a Technicolor print, and a real stunner in Technicolor. It shows off the process well, and shows why it doesn’t look the same as it does on video. I also am well aware that this is not the only print in the world (in fact, I’m sure it’s on YouTube in a highly compressed, muted color version). When I got the print, it was horrible: warped, vinegary, shrunken, etc. Some careful treatment with camphor for a few months, and the whole thing was vastly different.
It was, in fact, so different, that my lovely assistant, Ms. Greiff, said, “When did you get a new print of this? It looks so nice!” I informed her that this was the same print that has caused focus flutter and heart failure in a projector just a few months before.
If that takes ten years off the overall life of the film, then it’s fine in my book…
On the other hand, I don’t think it probably will. Again, I don’t know for certain, because we don’t have tests, but…
Camphor has been known about as a plasticizer for years and years. In fact, when we get old 1920s prints on diacetate or single acetate film stock, it was commonplace for a projectionist to throw a chunk of camphor in with it. Some cans even had a little holder built in for a chunk of the stuff.
So we know that camphor has so far not particularly hurt the longevity of 1920s safety film. We also know that camphor was used on nitrate.
Does it hurt triacetate? I think probably not, but I don’t know that. I’m not going to contribute to the hoodoo nature of this by speculating without tests.
Several people have told me that camphor, glycerin, and Vitafilm don’t help because the overall acidity of the print doesn’t change, given that they’ve tested them with A/D strips. These are little strips of paper (I think… I’ve not seen them) that test the overall acidity of a print.
I have not tested this, nor do I know of a good place to get A/D strips. I know that from personal experience that I’ve gotten years use out of warped, brittle prints, and I can absolutely state that several have lasted 8+ years with camphor. Some have graduated to not being with a piece of camphor all the time and they live out in the open air again.
I know that some people are very nervous about vinegar and so test everything with an A/D strip before purchase or sale. If someone would point me to a source of these, then I can test them.
Again, I say that the base deterioration may continue, but the print is useful for a long period, and so this is still a good call for me. My untested “gut reaction” is that in some cases the base deterioration slows or stops, but I have not tested this to find out.
Simplicio: There’s a new film cleaner on the market that says it stops vinegar syndrome. What do you think of it?
Dr. Film: I haven’t tested it.
Simplicio: So you’re advocating against the use of film cans and for the use of camphor, just the opposite of what the archives do. You must hate the archives.
Dr. Film: No, I love the archives. I also love the safety of what film cans give you, because I’ve had films ruined by external factors that cans could protect against. However, it’s been my experience that films need to breathe and dissipate their vinegar vapors, and so I don’t use cans.
And I’ve explained why I do use camphor. A few little blocks of it in a film can works miracles. I do use film cans for camphor treatments.
Simplicio: Has anyone reported problems with any of these treatments?
Dr. Film: Some people report a white powder that forms on the film. This is probably a residue of wax or anti-line treatment that is dissolving. I would advocate a good cleaning if this occurs. In no case has this damaged the film.
Simplicio: You’re a radical, mean guy who is dangerous to the world of film and all it portends. You scare me.
Dr. Film: I’ve heard that a lot. Don’t believe it. Test it first.