Monday, November 8, 2010

Metropolis, and Vinegar Syndrome

I was flipping through the channels on the TV machine last night, looking for something to keep me company as I labored on my quilting project. Wouldn’t you know it, the restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was on TCM.

I just about plotzed with joy, until I realized that I had already missed the first hour. I’ve made a point of not watching a film that I’ve already missed a significant portion of, unless I’ve seen it before. While I’ve seen Metropolis - several times, actually - this near-complete version, with nearly a half an hour of previously lost footage, might as well be a completely different film.

That film and I have a history. It was one of the first films I obsessed over. An influential science-fiction masterpiece of the silent era, the original cut lost shortly after its original release? It seemed so romantic, mysterious and alluring: I pulled my first all-nighter in my early teens just to watch a blurry, incomplete print on a fuzzy UHF channel. (Only rich folks had VHS machines back then.)

I didn’t see it again until college, when an electronics company gave a presentation about their latest newfangled video player, using the Giorgio Moroder version. I had only seen snippets of that version in the video for Queen’s Radio Ga Ga, one of my favorite music videos then or ever.

That song eventually inspired Lady Gaga, and then Lady Gaga inspired me at this year’s BreyerFest.

Let that be a demonstration of my ability to weave Breyer into virtually any conversation about anything.

Actually, there’s a much less roundabout reason here for discussion old films and the restoration thereof: vinegar syndrome. The topic of shrinkiness and ooziness came up again on Blab a few weeks ago, and much mention was made of "vinegar syndrome," which is the term that film archivists use to describe the breakdown of film stock. Film stock that’s made of almost exactly the same stuff that Breyers are made of.

"Almost exactly" is the operative phrase here. While the base materials are the same, the manufacturing processes and plasticizer ratios are different, as are the conditions each product is subjected to. Even the most banged-up of carpet herds lives a far more genteel life than any given film print.

I know from personal experience: I worked in a movie theatre for several years. That whole "frame melting on screen" thing? Saw it live, ladies. (We had old projection equipment, so I got real handy with the splicer.)

The irony of it all is that acetate film stock was invented as a more stable and less explosive alternative to nitrate stock, which had a habit of spontaneously combusting. (Metropolis's original negative was on nitrate stock. The fire that destroyed it, however, was not spontaneous.)

Breyer shrinkiness and ooziness are undoubtedly the effects of a form of vinegar syndrome, but it’s also obvious that the Shrinkies of the late 1980s were outliers, rather than the norm. There are far more models that are just fine, and will continue to be for some time to come.

We don’t really know what the shelf life of an average Breyer model is, or will be. It took about 25 to 30 years for vinegar syndrome to become a problem in the film industry, but it hasn’t been all that much of a problem with Breyers - yet.

Some of that can be attributed to the fact that hobbyists are already doing everything "right" in terms of mitigating acetate degradation - storage in cool and dry places, away from extremes of heat and light. We’re only about 60 years out on this product, and only time will tell if vinegar syndrome becomes a more widespread problem.

For what it’s worth, I’m not worrying too much about it.


Anonymous said...

Here's a question for you: Ever seen a Stone shrinky? Because I seem to have one. My dark grulla ISH is about 1/4" smaller all around than my newer light grulla ISH. It's probably just a different plastic batch, but the discrepancy is noticeable enough that non-plastic-horsey mom commented on it.

Little Black Car said...

Oh, no! I missed the movie!! Drat.

Carrie said...

Dang it dang it dang it!!! When TCM does things like that they need to run a headline in the papers beforehand. Poopies.

On a more model-centered note: Yeah, like in the 1st comment, are shrinkies known to occur in other brands? Not so much Stone as those're relatively new, but how about old Hartlands? I don't have any I'd term a shrinky, although Fitch's guide does list general height differences in molds produced in both 'modern' & 'old school' eras.