Film Inspection and Preservation

Before CFMDC sends out physical films for screenings, we always do a film inspection in our vault to make sure it’s in viewing condition. Last week, Jesse (our Distribution Coordinator) agreed to bring me up there so I could learn how to inspect film. If you’ve ever been on a tour of our workspace, you know that the vault is filled with videotapes, 16mm, 35mm, and Super-8 film reels. It’s also got two inspection benches where we can keep tabs on their quality.



Film comes in two different kinds of materials: acetate and polyester. Polyester is a more modern stock that doesn’t break or shrink as easily. Acetate, on the other hand, is an older type of stock that degrades and gets “vinegar syndrome”. An advantage to acetate film though is that it’s better to shoot on directly – if polyester film ever gets snagged in the camera machinery, it will break the camera before it breaks itself.


Film can also be printed on black and white stock (silver) or colour stock (layers of magenta, cyan and yellow). Just because a film is shot in black and white doesn’t mean that it has to be printed on black and white film stock. There are many black and white films, or films with black and white sections, that have faded to a pinkish-orangish colour overtime because they are on colour stock (and the cyan layer fades first).


In addition to unwanted colour changes, film can also degrade from shrinking and warping. While it shrinks naturally overtime, it doesn’t always do so evenly, causing some areas to warp. This poses a problem when it comes to running film through the projector.


Film is also prone to scratches. Small scratches don’t matter as much, because they are barely visible and only appear on screen for a fraction of a second. However, deep or frequent scratches can cause an unpleasant viewing experience. Deep scratches will often appear green on colour stock, because magenta (the top layer of colour) has been stripped from the film.


If improperly projected, films can tear! In this scenario, we just put the two pieces back together with cement or tape. This process is called splicing. Cement splicing involves stripping a small portion of the image and then using film cement to join the two pieces back together. At CFMDC, we tend to use tape specifically designed for film because it better preserves the original integrity of the film.


Once we are done inspecting the film, we wind it back onto the reel carefully, making sure it’s not too loose or too tight. The reason why film can’t be wound too tight, like a hockey puck, is because it needs breathing room – a tiny speck of dust in a too-tight reel can cause scratches. A properly wound reel will also be perfectly flat on the sides, making storage more archival.


We try to take good care of all the films in our collection through frequent inspections and proper storage in a temperature-controlled vault. However, some of these changes are difficult or impossible to prevent, which gets me wondering about the longevity of these artworks, and the balance between preservation practices and handling/renting films for people to see.


CFMDC’s film collection is a sort of living archive. While we do work hard to preserve films, our priority is getting eyes on the work and renting films out to programmers, researchers, and educators. Doing inspections and sending work to screenings technically degrades the film, making it less and less watchable with each use. But what would the benefit be of having such a vast collection of films if nobody (or just people in the “know”) can watch anything? The advent of digital distribution and filmmaking methods challenges these barriers to access. We can’t be too precious with good things if we want other people to experience them too.


by Lina Wu with information from Jesse Brossoit.

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