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VPMA film collection: preservation first…movie night to come!

By Lisa Glandt, VPMA Archivist

Did you know that the VPMA's archives are not just boxes of paper documents?

Until recently I had an intriguing and mostly unknown stack of audio visual records piled up on the shelves outside my office. Some of them, 16mm films, had titles that looked very promising and I hoped to find some film treasures enclosed within the dusty and banged up film cans. How could you not be curious about labels that say, “Hot Cards”; “Barricaded suspect, officer survival part 2”; “VPD Royal Visit 1959”; “Crime: It's a Matter of Time – Residential”; and “Presentation of Colours VPD 1966”?

Dating from the 1950s – 1990s from various sources, the collection of 121 16mm films were used by the VPD for training, crime prevention and public safety awareness, with others capturing VPD events and milestones. However, before I could start popping popcorn and pull up a chair, I needed to undertake a preservation assessment of each film.

Preservation, access, and use of this type of record format has gotten more difficult over the

years due to limited playback equipment, advances in technology, and the use of modern

digital formats. Film stock has a notorious lifespan and once chemical reactions start, the

quality and playability of a film reel can be dramatically affected. Due to their age, I was

worried that many of the 16mm films would have already started to degrade.

Here’s a quick archives lesson for you…from the 1920s – 1970s, acetate cellulose “safety” film was commercially produced by companies like Kodak. This film was more robust than its predecessor, nitrate film that proved to be unstable and highly flammable as it aged. However, over time and under poor storage conditions of fluctuating humidity and high temperature, acetate film base also begins to break down and off-gas acetic acid, which smells like vinegar. This is called “Vinegar Syndrome” and it is very easy to identify when you open a film canister! As the film base continues to break down, you lose picture and audio quality and the tape itself shrinks and buckles and becomes virtually unplayable in a projector. Since many of our 16mm films are over 50 years old, I suspected that some may be in poor shape, even if I couldn’t visually see or smell damage.

In order to assess the condition of the films, I used an archival product called

“A-D Strips” that were developed by the Image Permanence Institute. A-D Strips are dye-coated paper strips designed to detect and measure the level of acetic vapour that is being produced. The indicator strips react and change colour which, using a colour-coded reference guide, allowing you to assess the level of deterioration on a scale from 0-3.

I was pleasantly surprised that 101 films are in Stage 0/1 - fair to good condition, however deterioration is starting and it is recommended to monitor the films.

15 films are in Stage 1.5 where rapid decay is starting, 2 films are in Stage 2 of actively decaying, and 3 films are in Stage 3 which is the most critical and where immediate copying is recommended as film shrinkage and warping is occurring and it can be a hazard to handle them.

Having this condition assessment complete is a valuable step towards the next part of the process - the appraisal. There are many important questions to answer such as what important or unique films are we going to keep? Are there any copyright issues to be aware of? What films should we digitize immediately based on their condition? How much will this cost? Over the coming weeks my appraisal research will continue, along with the task of finding a working projector to load and safely review some of the films.

Wish me luck and I promise to invite everyone for an official movie night when the collection is ready!

1 Comment

Petina Musselman
Petina Musselman
Oct 06, 2023

If you haven't found a projector already, try looking at universities, VPL, and any of the numerous prop houses that supply the film industry.

If they don't have working 16mm projectors for their period projects (Man In The High Castle being a prime example), they'll know where to find one.

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