Better to Degrade than to Ignite
The film that our home videos are stored on is almost always cellulose based Safety Film. This is the non flammable film stock that was created after too many Nitrate based film reels caught on fire. The problem with the Cellulose Acetate Plastic is that is not the most stable material to store images on and over time it falls victim to Acetate Film Base Degradation. This process is known as Vinegar Syndrome because of the acetic acid (vinegar) that is created when this degradation occurs.
The unfriendly smell really wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also destroy precious memories and cinematic history. The physical state of the film changes so much that it can become impossible for the film to pass through any video equipment without breaking. This is largely due to shrinkage of the film in length and width and the loss of flexibility. Once the film is bent it usually wants to buckle or break due to a curvature along the width of the film. If an image can be pulled from the film it could likely be shrunken down, partially out of focus and erratically shaky.
Preserve and Protect
This process takes a long time to occur and can be postponed with cool, dry storage conditions. Regions of the world that have higher temperatures and humidity have a much greater problem with vinegar syndrome than others. Once this process has been detected it is best to get the film to a preservationist as soon as possible to make sure that the film can be digitized before the condition worsens.