Moved by Film Preservation

Figure 1: Audio and video film in the same can.
Figure 2: Sections of film rolled up together.

I received an internship in the Missouri History Museum's Moving Image and Sound Collections rather unexpectedly—though happily—after spending the last 14 years working in the field of film preservation and archiving. It is a unique profession, one that has offered varying degrees of training and experience while working in rooms without windows and in basements and cold storage vaults. Each experience, whether it be in a school, a stock footage house, or a 24-hour film processing lab while working with clients from major studios, led me to the Missouri History Museum to prepare actively decomposing film for freezer storage. For this task, all film requiring freezer storage had to be removed from metal cans and reels and placed onto plastic cores. Each roll found within the can would be tested for vinegar syndrome (an affliction of film manufactured before 1955 once the it begins to decompose), wound, and cleaned from head to tail, emulsion in, tails out. Leader would be added if needed, and the correct identification written on both the leader and the can. Once this process was started, condition inspection forms for each can needed to be filled out for inventory and cataloging purposes.

Professionally speaking, this internship has exposed me to film in conditions of varying degrees and given me the opportunity to improve upon my problem-solving skills. It reminded me how truly surprising the mere act of opening a can of film can be! For those unfamiliar with this process, I quote the film Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” One never knows what to expect upon opening a can of film! Between 50 and 70 percent of the time, what a can label reads on the outside is not what the film turns out to be on the inside, due to previous mislabeling. Nor is the film necessarily in the best condition. For instance, the can could be filled to capacity with multiple rolls (figure 1) in various stages of decomposition, mixed in with picture and magnetic audio tape, rolled up in section upon section (figure 2), infected with white mold spores, torn (figure 3), or excessively curled (figure 4) and with a heavy odor. Years of storage in basements or warehouses without climatization prior to being received by a museum or archive can lead to film committing what some like to refer to as celluloid suicide. This means a roll of film, regardless of size or gauge, can and will decompose over time, giving off strong odors of vinegar, as in the case of acetate-based film stock, or of decay if composed of older nitrate-based film stock. Conservation in a cold and dry freezer, like the one used at the Missouri History Museum, helps to slow down and in some cases stop further decomposition in its tracks!

Figure 3: Torn film.
Figure 4: Curled film.


Figure 5: Warped film due to excessive heat.

During my internship the first can of film I opened was severely warped (figure 5) due to excessive exposure to heat. The film was cupped and crinkled to such a degree that it simply did not want to wind off the reel. I looked at the roll with concern but started to wind through it anyway. It was slow going because the film was brittle. While I was winding, splices came apart and the film broke, twisted, and wound itself in the wrong direction. These problems happened so fast there was barely time enough to think. Try to imagine holding a dried-out, brittle, mostly brown leaf in the palm of your hand while trying to see the finer details of the leaf through a magnifying glass. Turning it over to inspect it in its entirety without causing any breakage or further damage would be a delicate procedure.

There were also aspects involved with this internship I had not dealt with since my school days. With supervision and guidance from Klara Foeller, the Museum’s Moving Image & Sound Collections curator, one of the first days we spent in the vault taught me how important the edges at the end of a film roll can be when doing repair. In a museum setting, the edge of a film, whether broken or misshapen, taught me to ask myself what, if anything, was missing. At this point the edge becomes an artifact that could be used, if what was missing is found. I like to think of this process as putting pieces of a puzzle together, and the refresher course from Klara reminded me of one of the biggest differences between working for a large film lab and a museum dedicated to preserving history.

In the few remaining weeks I also had the opportunity to train with what may prove to be the next generation of film preservationists. I have been studying and working as a film preservationist within the archiving community for 13 years. It took a little while for me to figure out that wanting to preserve film wasn’t just about the desire to save what remained of motion picture history, but any history that reflected our national heritage. I am lucky my passion for film is work that I find highly rewarding. Getting dirty, wearing a filtered mask in order to handle the decomposition, identifying unknown material, and bringing attention to film where little, if any, has been paid to it in the past is something I live for. However, I also know that film is by nature self-destructive. Nitrate- and acetate-based films are unstable, but modern, polyester film base will last indefinitely if stored in climate-controlled conditions. The Image Permanence Institute gives polyester films, properly stored, an estimated life span of at least 500 years. As someone dedicated and determined to stop this destruction in its tracks, I remain hopeful that my actions to this collection have been as useful to the Museum as the internship was to me.

—Josephine Sporleder, Eugene Carroll Intern