The scourge of film collectors
the world over!
Vinegar Syndrome has been making big news with film collectors
in all formats for quite some time. Any signs of this syndrome
within a collection is of paramount concern as it can spread
to every other film within near distance to it and effectively
destroy a whole collection within a short period of time. Many
collectors are put off by the very word Vinegar, without really
understanding what it is.
1 - Symptoms
The easy way to tell Vinegar Syndrome is by the pungent odour
that emanates from a film, and can only be likened to the acetic
smell of vinegar. Although Vinegar Syndrome varies in intensity
and smell, even the slightest hint of a smell that remotely resembles
vinegar is of concern to the film collector because it is an
indication that the film stock is in a state of deterioration.
Ultimately, the slightest of smells will deteriorate to extremely
unpleasant smells, and along with this the film will buckle,
soften and become un-runable.
To understand just what Vinegar Syndrome is we have to firstly
look at how the film stock is made. Modern 35mm Safety Film stocks
from the early 1950s, and 16mm film from 1938 (prior to 1938
they were mostly made from a "Diacetate" base) until
today, are made predominantly from a base called "Triacetate".
Triacetate is a polymer, manufactured from a chemical reaction
involving cellulose and acetic acid, just as Nitrate film is
made from cellulose and nitric acid. Because of the way the film
substrate is made, there will always be an inherent amount of
'free' acetic acid, generally trapped between the substrate and
the emulsion. This is normal, and under cool conditions of storage,
around 10 degrees Celcius, Vinegar Syndrome may never make an
2 - Causes
The trouble really begins with heat and high humidity. These
cause the film to start doing a back-flip by trying to break
down into the two main substances that formed the base material
in the first place, i.e. cellulose and acetic acid.
The area of the film that seems to be the most affected is
between the substrate and emulsion. A build up of humidity, combined
with heat will cause acetic acid to burst through the emulsion
as a gaseous substance, creating microscopically small holes
through the emulsion as it escapes into the air and gives us
the typical vinegar odour that exudes from acetic acid.
With time the symptoms will get worse, with acidity levels
rising sharply in relation to time, and film deterioration becoming
extreme within a matter of only a few months.
3 - Stabilisation
It is possible to stabilise Vinegar Syndrome in several ways,
but it is extremely important to isolate any affected film from
other 'good' film as soon as the syndrome is first detected.
Stabilisation is at best a short-term solution, often involving
some expense. Film may be placed in a humidity controlled refrigerator
or freezer to lessen the effect of deterioration, or a commercial
substance such as 'Molecular Sieves', may be placed inside cans
holding affected film.
There are also many ways to lessen the odour, but these will
not stop deterioration, and ultimately the film may not smell
so bad, but it will be guaranteed un-runable.
To date nobody has come up with a conclusive answer to repairing
film damaged by Vinegar Syndrome.
What has to be considered is finding a substance that acts
as a plasticiser on Triacetate film base, without effectively
laminating the whole film and making it un-showable because it
can no longer be focused, due to the additional thickness of
the film base caused by the plasticising agent
In several years of running a small film archive and theatre
in Queensland, where temperature and humidity vary dramatically,
the Vinegar Syndrome problem was certainly prone to damage prints
easily. Although cold storage was a viable option for us, it
did nothing about keeping the film in a useable condition.
After much experimentation on film that had the Vinegar Syndrome
and was not considered valuable enough to preserve, a solution
was found that not only halts the current outbreak of the syndrome,
but repairs the damage done to the film as well.
Experimentation was limited to treating effected film with
a substance that we were confident would act as a plasticiser
on the substrate, coupled with an agent to lessen the smell during
the healing process.
The early work was promising, but did not appear to be a
permanent solution, with Vinegar Syndrome re-appearing after
some 4 to 6 months of initial treatment. Careful microscopic
investigation of the emulsion showed that although old holes
caused by the acetic acid breakthrough had healed, new holes
had formed, seemingly next to the repaired holes.
Slight changes were made to the plasticiser base material,
ensuring a higher degree of purity in its manufacture.
Treatment is simple, effective and long lasting, although
it is not a permanent solution, with some prints reacting more
favourably than others in terms of how long the treatment lasts.
Certainly some prints, in fact the vast majority, showing no
recurring symptoms after periods of up to two years.
The treatment may be safely reapplied to films over long
periods without any damage to the film being caused by Liquid
'Liquid Film Plasticiser' is on the market in 25ml bottles
fitted with an eye-dropper for ease of application. Packed with
full instructions, the Vinegar Syndrome Elimination Kit will
have sufficient 'Liquid Film Plasticiser' to treat about ten
full length 16mm features, or ten 2,000' spools of 35mm film.
The cost of each repair kit is US$40, posted Airmail to anywhere
in the world, you can pay by Bid Pay, International Money Order
or Bank Cheque, or within Australia only, by personal Cheque,
Money Order, or C.O.D. Postage.
The kit is available only from:
The Redcliffe Picture Palace
151 Sutton Street
For further inquiries contact the co-ordinator, Peter Goed, on 617 3883 2392, fax: 617 3283
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