Film and Audio Recordings

filmcareCaring for your old Recordings

Your typical Cinefilm, video and magnetic tape sound recordings are mostly made of quite fragile polymers (plastics) and, as such, have a finite life span. Some will take longer than others to decay and this usually depends upon how well they have been stored and looked after. If you have not already transferred these recordings to a digital format, now is definitely the time to do it as these items are likely to be coming to the end of their stable life span!

If you want to try to keep these items safe for a bit longer, they will need particularly careful handling and storage, but digital copies should be made as soon as possible and a copy stored which is for archive use only and should not be used for general viewing/listening.

Where to store orignal recordings

It’s advisable to store film and sound recordings in their original containers in a dark, cold and (not too) dry environment, which is as constant as possible year round. Generally inside the house in the top of a wardrobe is a suitable area as long as you do not smoke and there are no en-suite showers playing havoc with the humidity. They should definitely be stored away from pipes, heaters, radiators, sinks, windows, electrical appliances and concrete floors or anything magnetic (including electrical motors)!
Lofts, basements, garages, sheds, bathrooms, kitchens, utility rooms and conservatories are not suitable spaces as they all contain hazards of one sort or another. Excessive temperatures, humidity and dirt can destroy films and sound recordings, as of course can fire, flood and contamination from smoking, insects and rodents.

Reasonable temperatures for long term storage are in the range of 10-16°C (50-60°F) within a low relative humidity of 50-55%; Generally, the same kind of conditions most of us prefer in our living environment. Over 65% humidity will allow mold growth to occur and may trigger other problems like ‘vinegar syndrome’. Also, most color films will eventually fade, but if you keep them below 2°C, this will halt the process almost completely.

Signs and causes of trouble

Sticky tape Syndrome refers to tapes which ‘squeal’ or stick when played. This is where the binder between the magnetic coating and base has been affected by damp and migrated to the tape surface. It may be chemically deteriorating and require specialist conservation treatment before copying (we have the facilities do this)

Light – the ultraviolet end of the spectrum can cause breakdown in polymers, so film and sound recordings are best protected from light if possible when kept in storage.

Pollutants like dirt, dust, fingermarks and atmospheric pollution. These can be reduced by clean storage, careful handling, good packaging (but not totally sealed), no smoking, eating or drinking nearby, or use of sprays such as air fresheners, polish etc.

Shedding tape coatings – often shows as missing signals when playing tapes (called ‘drop out’ on video tapes), or a build up of oxide on tape heads and guide rollers, and may be caused by the tape itself or the replay equipment. Some tapes have been affected after just a few years from manufacture, so this is not always due to old age.

Shrinkage – a sign of old age, but not the only one: central heating can dry out film and sound recordings, for example, and this often causes other problems like warping, cracked surfaces on discs and splices which come undone. Careful repairs and conservation treatment are needed and affected items should not be played or projected, because of the damage that may result.

CDs & DVDs – the recordable variety are particularly vulnerable to pollutants and light. Never use adhesive labels or marker pens on CD’s & DVD’s as this eventually destroys the backing of the disk. To keep the contents for archival purposes, use discs with a gold metal reflective layer, store on end not flat, and use ‘jewel cases’ or special conservation grade envelopes. Best conditions: 18°C at 40% relative humidity.

Initial signs of mold

Initial signs of mold

Cine Film issues

Cinefilm on a cellulose nitrate base – 35mm film made before 1952 – is unstable and highly flammable. Chemically it behaves in a similar fashion to gun cotton and is particularly dangerous when decaying, especially in the final powdery state. In extreme cases it can self-ignite, and burns with a very fierce flame, giving off highly toxic gases. It should not be stored in a private house, museum or library, but should be duplicated onto safety-base film and the nitrate original lodged in a specialist store, disposed of by a licensed firm or taken to the ‘hazardous household waste’ container at certain managed waste facilities.

Health Hazards

Other cinefilms are on safety bases and are fairly stable chemically, unless damp conditions trigger mold or acetic acid decay. The latter is better known as ‘vinegar syndrome’, because of its distinctive smell*, and affects films on acetate safety bases but not polyester and it can also affect audio tapes. Magnetic film soundtracks are particularly vulnerable, as they readily absorb moisture from the air, and this includes ‘striped’ film. The noxious gases given off are hazardous to health and can ‘infect’ other films and tapes in the vicinity. Remove immediately and seek specialist advice.

Mold is also a health hazard and should not be touched by hand or its spores breathed in, as this may trigger allergies or asthmatic attacks in some people; wear gloves and dust mask when handling. Mold will readily grow on film and sound recordings, attacking emulsions, tape binders, plastic reels and cassette housings, gramophone discs and wax cylinders. The growth looks like dull spots and is encouraged by enclosures like plastic bags and sealed containers, which do not allow the plastics to ‘breathe’. If caught early, specialist conservation treatment can help correct this problem, but copies need to be made as soon as possible thereafter. (call us for details)

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