Reels and Reels of Film: Assessing the AV Holdings in SCA

The following blog post was written by Lukas Foerster, FSU Special Collections & Archives Fall 2021 Intern.

As an intern at FSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives department, I took part in a number of preservation and cataloging projects during the fall term, most of them centered around audiovisual material. A wide variety of moving images in various formats are sprinkled throughout the vaults of the department, but since the bulk of the collection is still made up of text-based media, they often tend to fall to the wayside.

One project I worked on was an inventory and preservation assessment of the film archive of Seminole Productions, the production group responsible for FSU’s visual communications efforts. More specifically, the archive, stashed away in a backroom of the department’s storage facilities at the Claude Pepper Library, consists of about 1700 roles of 16mm film mostly devoted to FSU’s football team, the Florida State Seminoles. College basketball also features in the collection, but the bulk of it consists of recordings of Seminole football games – stretching as far back as the late 1940s and forward into the late 1980s, the first part of the Bobby Bowden era – as well as training sessions, highlight reels and so on. 

Rolls and rolls of film

Or, more precisely: the bulk of the archive is supposed to consist of material of this kind. Because the films stashed away at Pepper’s have not been properly accessed for years, if not decades. This is a common issue with moving audiovisual media: while (physical) text-based media and also paper-based images usually do not require additional prerequisites for access, av media do, and often quite specific ones. Consequently, technological progress has rendered multitudes of moving images all over the world virtually invisible. Most modern laptops do not even feature DVD/BluRay-drives any more – good luck trying to locate players for some of the more obscure historical video formats, like U-matic or 2″ Open Reel. Analog film, too, despite supporting a multi-billion dollar industry as recently as 15 years ago, has become an obsolete medium from the perspective of the marketplace, and equipment for replay is increasingly hard to come by. Indeed, Special Collections & Archives currently does not own a Moviola or other means of accessing analog film in an archival setting.

This also means that I, while working on the football collection, did not get to lay my eyes on a single touchdown or interception. What I did see, though, were lots of rolls of film, in all shapes and forms. You never quite know what to expect when opening a film can that has been stashed away for decades. Sometimes the film strip will be rolled perfectly smoothly on a spool, all clean and shiny as if just had been sent over from the laboratory. And sometimes you will encounter a patched together, sticky, crumbling mess that hardly is recognizable as motion picture film anymore.

Two film rolls from the 1950s. One in near perfect condition…
…and one not so much.

Which is to say: not all films are the same, especially the ones one might encounter in an archive. Each film strip tells its own story, and you will not be able to tell it before you actually open the can. As a photochemical medium, film is subject to all kinds of deterioration. However, the extent and nature of deterioration widely differs in real life, for a number of reasons. For example, a strip of film might have been handled badly and projected on faulty equipment, resulting in mechanical tear. Or it might have been stored under less than ideal conditions, in rooms without air circulation and sufficient cooling. This leads to moldy film rolls, a problem I encountered quite often while working on the Seminole Productions Archive.

Another important distinction is related to the film base, the transparent strip of fabric the emulsion – the actual carrier of the visual information – is founded on. 16mm film basically comes in two forms: with acetate base and with polyester base. While polyester film is, when handled properly, an extremely stable and durable medium, acetate film is not, at least when, see above, stored improperly. The greatest danger is the infamous vinegar syndrome, an acrid odor omitted by the film strip that signals the onset of photochemical deterioration. Vinegar syndrome is irreversible. Once detected, it will only intensify, and sooner or later the film will start start to shrink and deteriorate, until all visual information is lost. What’s worse, vinegar syndrome is contagious. Films affected by it can, when not properly sealed off, transmit the disease to their peers stored in close vicinity.

This was one of my tasks when going through the archives of Seminole Productions: to identify, based on previous existing documentation, film rolls that should be physically separated from the rest of the collection and / or subjected to additional preservation efforts. To do this, I rated each roll of film on a four-point scale, with 1 indicating no or minimal issues and 4 almost complete deterioration. Luckily, the bulk of the collection still gravitates towards 1 rather than 4.

So, what’s next for the Seminole Productions Collection? Special Collections & Archives will begin to research AV grants in order to start digitizing the collection, so that an important part of FSU Athletics’s history may truly become visible again.

Published by Hannah Wiatt Davis

Hannah Wiatt Davis is the Preservation Librarian at FSU Special Collections & Archives.

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