Collection Of Old Films Rescued For Preservation

Periscope Film owners [Doug] and [Nick] just released a mini-documentary about the rescue of a large collection of old 35 and 16 mm celluloid films from the landfill. The video shows the process of the films being collected from the donor and then being sorted and organized in a temporary storage warehouse. There is a dizzying variety of films in this haul, from different countries, in both color and black and white.

We can see in the video that their rented 8 meter (26 foot) cargo truck wasn’t enough to contain the trove, so they dragged along a 1.8 x 3.6 m (6 x 12 ft) double-axle trailer as well. That makes a grand total of 49 cubic meters of space. Our back-of-the-envelope calculations says that filled to the brim, that would be over 30,000 canisters of 600 m (2,000 ft) 35 mm movie reels.

When it comes to preserving these old films, one big problem is physical deterioration of the film stock itself. You will know something is wrong when you get a strong acetic or vinegary odor when opening the can. [Nick] shows some examples where the film has even become solidified, taken on a hexagonal shape. It will take months to just assess and catalog the contents of this collection, with damaged films that are still salvageable jumping to the head of the queue to be digitized.

Film Scanning Artist [Esteban] Performing Color Correction
Films are digitized at 4K resolution using a Lasergraphics ScanStation archival quality film scanning system, and then the restoration fun begins. One issue demonstrated in this video is color deterioration. In the Eastmancolor film technology introduced in the 1950s, the blue dyes deteriorate over time. This, and a plethora of other issues, are corrected in the restoration process.

We’re particularly jealous of film scanning artist [Esteban]’s triple-headed trackball. We learned from a quick Google search this beast is merely the entry level control panel from UK company Tangent — they make even larger flavors.

If you’re interested in doing this with 8 mm home movies, we covered a project way back in 2011 of a DIY home movie scanning project. We also covered one of Periscope Film’s restored training films about NASA soldering techniques from 1958. Kudos to organizations who focus on keeping these types of interesting and historical films from being dumped in the landfill and lost forever.

31 thoughts on “Collection Of Old Films Rescued For Preservation

  1. I’ll never understand why people dump this kind of thing – is it really beyond the original owners to reach out and find somebody who may want them? The same of course applies to all of the other items that end up as landfill on a yearly basis, from cell phones to household appliances, at least some of which could be repaired.

    1. Don’t think too hard about the moral reasoning of strangers. They had a pile of stuff they couldn’t use. How much time and effort are supposed to devote to “junk” in case somebody else may like? Some body we don’t know nor have met nor do we know if even exists.

    2. I definitely follow your reasoning – I’ve never understood how people can let tens of thousands worth of equipment or cars or whatever in storage get auctioned. Even if the owner went to jail or died, wouldn’t you at least offer to sell the contents to someone aware of the value?

      On the other hand, who is going to pay to store useful-yet-unused ‘stuff’ that I can’t afford to keep any more? I have, for example, several hundred pounds of midcentury slipcasting molds. Someone would certainly want them – but I can’t afford the time to seek out someone interested in restoring or using them.

    3. The economics of this are interesting. My wife worked for a big developer and they had a huge storage building full of high end furniture, office equipment and so on. Millions and millions of dollars just sitting there. New construction demanded new furniture (no one is going to buy or lease a brand new home or building with 20 year old furniture in it) so it just sat there. I think the company owned the storage building too, but even at that it probably cost a fair amount of money just to maintain such a huge warehouse full of, essentially, very expensive junk.
      When I built and outfitted a lab, we found a similar place and because of our shoestring budget were able to get some fume hoods and other major lab equipment stuff for relatively cheaper than new but it was still a gamble. No warranty, we had to pick up and move big heavy stuff ourselves, no expertise for install or after the sale support. Because we were so poor we just made due because we had to, but now that I’m officially old I would never want to do that again.

    4. Based on celluloid, nitrocellulose, being Highly flammable, so storage issues, liability might be part of this one…
      but yes so much usable “treasure” is lost to landfills and scrapyards. I daily use a couple of dark oak pantry cabinets obtained from craigslist free category, and have found other treasures there (1911 Brittanica set is one of my favorites) but being the “lister” can be a nightmare as well..

    5. So imagine this: You’re the relative of an obsessive collector of rather specific but obscure stuff. Be it (very) old film cameras, metal working equipment, old rolls film, sewing machines, stamps, you name it. The majority of it is unmarked and spread all over the place. This person passes away and you’re the executor of estate. Suddenly you have a house full of stuff on your hands that you’re now likely paying a mortgage on that you have to empty and sell. For some things you might be able to find a shop or trader that will give you a lowball offer for all of it and take the lot. Very likely however nobody is going to want to put in the work to collect it all, sort out the dross and move it out for the honor of paying your for it as well so all that work falls on you. Especially if it’s not something that you’re into yourself, you have no idea what any of it is or what it is worth. So you’d have to research each item, find what it might be worth, photograph it, list it somewhere (maybe even find where to list something so an enthusiast might actually find it) and hope the right buyer comes along that wants it soon-ish. Multiply by hundreds or thousands of items. It’s unlikely you’re going to find a collector that will want it all and able to pay for that. And you’re paying the mortgage on the house for months and months as you go through things. You’ll only ever do that if you know exactly how much the collection is worth.

      The alternative is you hire a skip for a week, load everything into it and as breathe a sigh of relieve as you wave goodbye to the truck driver as he pulls away after loading the skip before proceeding straight to the landfill.

      1. We talk about this in the model railroad world often. As with any collectibles, have a plan in place so your survivor knows who to contact (including museums) to take items away. When you think you’re slowing down or dealing with a manageable illness, it’ll be better to take the time to sell some items while you can.

      2. i just wanted to shout and jump in the air as i read “load everything into it and breathe a sigh of relief as you wave goodbye to the truck driver”! it is so fantastically liberating to resolve a big trash problem, and so climactic when it turns out all you needed was a rental dumpster and some elbow grease. $300 or so and your problem is a memory. woohoo!!! thank god almighty, halelujah!

      3. Motion pictures should be considered a special case. I’ve seen dozens of articles about the loss and preservation of old films, and it would be a particularly unaware individual who would let such things be destroyed casually.

    6. Selling old stuff you are not needing anymore can be tough, lot of scheduling and effort for not so much money. And giving something for free, oh boy, that’s completely different story. Thats difficult with bid D. Lot of effort, reserving for someone, scheduling, waiting for pickup, then advertising again when previous picker didn’t show up. Then listening complains about those free items when they are not new and so on. Often times just better to dump them.

        1. To be fair, I felt the same when MS wanted us to use Win 10 for free (free of charge) a few years ago.
          “Free” was still too expensive. I would gave rather paid a hefty price for a proper OS that doesn’t want my data and doesn’t feel like a beta version. But that’s another story. It’s just an example. Assuming that someone wants something, just because it’s free of charge is very arrogant.

  2. The vinegar odor comes from deteriorating nitrate film that is highly inflammable. Not storing those films properly is a fire hazard.

    (They are better in a landfill than near people, sorry. And I’m a film lover)

    1. I’m sure no-one at Periscope has thought of that, what with them being highly skilled and knowledgeable film restorers and all, I’m sure they just throw the cans in the corner with their oily rag collection and classic Ford Pinto display.

    2. No, nitrate films do not smell vinegar when degrading, only acetate films do (acetate -> acetic acid). But they are indeed highly flammable, and can’t be extinguished (they release oxygen when burning and can continue to burn underwater) and they release very toxic gas at the same time.

  3. Evaluating an old film of unknown condition by running it through any kind of viewer is bad practice. It can damage the film and/or the viewer. It should be done manually using hand cranked reels and examined with a magnifier when needed.

  4. No. Vinegar syndrome is unique to triacetate film, which breaks down into acetic acid. Triacetate film is safety film, and is not flamable.

    The flamable stuff is nitrate film, made from nitrocellulose, and it will not get vinegar syndrome. It has its own failure modes, but there will be no acetic acid.

  5. Correction, [Nick] pointed out to me that they don’t usually get 35 mm films. Most of the films in this rescue were 16 mm format, which was the go-to format for most educational, industrial, public relations, etc., films. Any 8 mm films they get are usually passed along to the Prelinger Archive.

  6. I just want to say that is fantastic what you guys are doing, saving all these treasures from landfill, I love this kind of stuff & if only I could be there helping you guy’s with anything but I am in Western Australia & have to say a big THANK YOU for all the hard work you are all putting in to this project, I can see just how big a task this is going to be but if you love what you do, it’s all worth it!

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