As part of my SALC placement module, I was fortunate to be given a placement at the North West Film Archive as an Archival Assistant. The NWFA is based in the 1930s art-deco Manchester Central Library in St. Peter’s Square and is part of the Archives + team. The archive began initially in the 1970s as a project of the History department at MMU who aimed to catalogue the city’s extensive cinema history. This was especially important as many of these cinemas were being closed at this time and their buildings were being left in disrepair. However, now the archive is ‘the professionally recognised public home for the moving image heritage of the North West of England’, and seeks to represent the lives and experiences of those from the North West through all range of archival film. My project was to work on the BBC North West Collection of documentaries from 1966 to 1983 and make them ready to be deposited in the viewing pods in the Archives + hub on the Ground Floor of Central Library. This involved viewing, editing faulty footage and film leaders out of the documentaries, and writing engaging synopses.
However, one of the elements I found most fascinating during my time at the NWFA was the preservation work for the film that they do on site. The archive has its own vaults especially for the holding of film, video, DVD and archival items, and these vaults are meticulously temperature controlled to ensure that the film does not deteriorate. The NWFA’s film collections range from 1897 to the present day, and so much of the archive’s collection were originally on nitrate film. Nitrate film was the primary type of film until safety film was created in the 1950s and is highly flammable. It also decomposes over time and becomes toxic – in the early stages of deterioration, it is still possible to be copied, but as it decomposes further it is unsalvageable and results in the film breaking down into an explosive powder. The NWFA does not tend to handle these films often due to the danger involved in handling them since most of the existing films are over 60 years old.
However, the NWFA does a lot of work in digitising and preserving safety acetate film, which also comes with its own issues of degradation over time. One example is that of vinegar syndrome – this affects film by making the film warp and gives it the distinctive acetic smell, which is also present in vinegar, hence the name. This happens to the film naturally over time due to the chemical nature of the plastic used for the film, however it is expediated by warm and humid environments. As a result, some of the films taken into the archive are affected by this syndrome and the NWFA assesses the film and tests for vinegar syndrome and sees if it possible to copy the film. Then, the film is placed into their specially controlled Vinegar Syndrome vaults to prevent further deterioration to the films, but also so that other films are not contaminated by the syndrome as it can spread from film to film.
My experience at the NWFA has been fantastic, particularly as a History student who knew very little about film and film-handling before! The collections at the NWFA are fascinating snapshots into life in the North West, and I would recommend a visit to their viewing pods in Manchester Central Library!
Charlotte Taylor is a Master’s student in Film Studies at the School of Arts, Languages and Culture.