Safety film deterioration leaves its mark…

On the Marx brothers

safety film deterioration

When working with a collection of legacy analog photography, curators and handlers will almost certainly encounter safety film deterioration, and its ravages, as a commonplace occurrence. The results are always startling in that their discovery may represent the permanent loss of a unique asset.

We come upon exactly this type of find regularly, more often than we’d wish, while processing a studio collection including original photography on nitrate base film stock from the 1930’s which was duped onto its successor, cellulose triacetate, or “safety” base film stock in the 1940’s or ‘50’s. Our curation goal in accessing the images is driven by a best practice care-taking agenda including the inventory, archival re-sleeving, rehousing and select digital scanning of them for the creation of a new dual posterity, preserving and protecting the original while creating a new asset in the digital realm.

Most recently we came across some 8×10”, black & white negative Ad Art and Key Art images for a 1939 motion picture comedy starring the Marx Brothers. At first glance, we were dismayed by our discovery.

Here are two very stylized pieces of motion picture advertising art utilizing comically expressive caricatures of brothers Groucho, Chico and Harpo and attention-grabbing graphic fonts, which were now compromised by the intrusive layer separation typical of safety film deterioration. That degradation comes about when the film base, independent of the stable emulsion coating, begins to shrink. In doing so, the emulsion layer peels up and away from the base to compensate for the contracting and squeezing base. The end result is that such negatives can take on a spider-webbing look of emulsion channels and buckles compromising the ability to clearly see and read the ad art.

Marx Bros Damaged Banner At The Circus
Damaged Marx Bros at the Circus posters from 1933.

You might think, “Photoshop to the rescue” and to some great extent, with extensive labor and time invested, you could bring the resultant scans of these images shown here back to a near-perfect state. However, the decay of the acetate original is still ongoing. Over time, the layer separation will continue and the base may become brittle and crack and break as it loses its plasticizers. The emulsion, now raised and unanchored, may flake away. The base will also begin to weave and curl as it becomes more and more unstable. Resultant scans of these same negatives at that stage will result in morphed imagery, as the focal plane is no longer uniform across the negative. Good luck making out which caricature is Chico at that point, or reading the “Marx Bros”, or even the title. Negatives such as these are no longer eligible candidates for scanning.

Oh yes, and there’s a smell to all of this. Or there isn’t. The off-gassing of acetate film that is actively decaying, it’s so-called “Vinegar Syndrome”, so named because the film begins to release acetic acid, just as you’d find in common vinegar. The smell is often pungent and omnipresent, as bad as any pair of smelly old tennis shoes ever were.  Likening it to vinegar is being kind. But the smell, of course, may not initially affect the image quality or its ability to be perfectly duplicated. The onset of the smell precedes the most obvious degradation of the acetate. Flat sheet triacetate may only be beginning to curl slightly when the smell is strongest. Often, by the time the image begins to show layer separation and, certainly, by the end of the cycle, when the negative has lost its dimensionality and is severely curled and wavy, the odor may have lessened or become only marginal. The two negatives encountered recently in our scans below had a diminished odor, what we recognize as the post-peak deterioration odor.

Fortunately, for these examples, we discovered a previous scan of each had already been made 17 years ago, and those images were pristine. These intellectual assets were not lost, due to the wise digitization of them in the past.

Marx Bros Pristine Banner At The Circus
Pristine scans of Marx Bros At the Circus.

Have you begun scanning your legacy safety film still photography collection? You will no doubt encounter the same deterioration surprises we have with your priceless assets. Let’s hope you don’t lose your only copy.

Randy Gitsch

Randy Gitsch

Randy Gitsch is the Operations Manager for LAC Group’s Still Archive operations. With a workforce in place on site at one client’s locale and working on select images from other studios, he oversees the inventory, archival re-sleeving, re-housing, scanning and QC of Hollywood’s priceless legacy, analog photography.