Vinegar Syndrome

What on earth is the “Vinegar Effect” or “Vinegar Syndrome“?

All cellulose motion picture film deteriorates even when stored in a clean dry and cool place over time, while this can take years to deteriorate it would be prudent to regularly inspect the film stock condition as complacent may result in an unexpected fall off in the condition to the extent that the film could need specialist attention for restoration or preservation.

Super 8 & 8mm film as well as 16mm film stock are made from tri acetate cellulose and over time the chemical compound can react and cause the start of decomposition which gives off a “Vinegar Smell”, hence the name “Vinegar Syndrome“.

The aptly named vinegar effect is characterised by the strong odour given off by the film, the strength of the smell is not an accurate way to determine the overall condition of the deteriorating films.

Do not be too discouraged if 8mm 16mm or super 8 film smells of vinegar as the smell could be in the early stages of film breakdown but can still be used. However it is best not to run the film through a projector rather an editor will be quite safe unless the film stock is warped or deformed.

If film is warped or shrivelled, brittle or is coated with a powdery coating or feels greasy or oily, you may wish to get advice from an expert to decide what action if any you can realistically take with preservation or recovering what can be salvaged.

Damaged or warped film should not be sent to transfer houses that use projectors or telecine machines with gears or sprockets for the film transport as such equipment will ruin your films.

A specialist transfer service can clean and cement splice films in poor condition, the transfer should be with a telecine that uses no sprockets or gears to transport fragile film stock. Avid Tech has such telecine equipment that uses only pin frame advance and capstan tension drive which will not place any load on the film during capture.

Frame-by-frame telecine equipment varies enormously, Avid Tech use a specially modified film gate that can accept deformed film within limits and is your best and safest option for transfer to digital media.

Kodak films carry advice that dyes change over time and this is a proven fact which can accompany the vinegar effect. Having said that, we have had a lot of early standard 8mm film that has been quite successfully restored using editing and colour enhancement processes to receiver films others have given up on as lost causes.

Your family history and nostalgic memories are at risk of being lost forever due to film deterioration and now is the time to take positive action to hand down your family trust and knowledge in a medium that will last for a very long time. DVD or blu-ray are appropriate digital mediums for safe archival storage of older media and film stock.

Take action to stop Vinegar Effect before films are lost

The chemical breakdown will occur over many years unless film is stored in a cool dry storage and can be arrested by refrigeration of affected film stock.

If my film stock smells strongly of vinegar is it too late?

Most probably you still have time to recover and transfer the film stock from film deterioration due to the dreaded Vinegar Effect.

However, if there is clear evidence of shrinkage or warping you will be limited in your options as there are a few things that can be done depending on the level of damage.

In most cases, film stock of Super 8 will be fine and usually can be converted to DVD or other digital format for preservation of films.

8mm & 16mm film stock can be much older and the amount of film stock deterioration will vary. Most film would be considered unfit for transfer by traditional projection methods however a Frame by Frame telecine should be considered as the only safe method for fragile and old film stock. Avid Tech Telecine has no gears or sprockets with only light capstan tension which will protect your films during capture.

In some cases film restoration and recovery works will be needed to recover useable film by washing and neutralize the acid process plus repair broken splices and then transfer the film using the safe frame by frame FXF method.

Fragile Film Handling of deteriorating film stock

Cautionary Note:

Projectors should never be used on old fragile film stock, nor any transfer method that uses sprockets for the film advance transport. If you need to see a film use an editor and hand wind the film, for safety use gloves and work in a well ventilated area. The smell given off is harmful for long exposure can cause dry eyes, itchy skin or breathing difficulty, if you wear contact lens do not attempt to handle film stock in poor condition, you nay injure your cornea.

These operations are best handled by trained technicians in controlled work areas and safety protocols in place. Exposure to large quantity of vinegar affected film stock requires additional safety considerations.

Do not attempt to clean old film stock which smells of vinegar, leave this to the experts. There are several methods to safely cleaning films depending on the state of vinegar syndrome and surface condition. Trying to do this yourself may causes more damage even when using cleaning fluids designed for film in good condition can actually de laminate the emulsion from the cellulose acetates film base. Identifying the film base material condition will determine how acetates are treated.

First Steps:

Vinegar effect – vinegar syndrome, don’t let it happen to your films.


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