The NFSA collection holds over 135,000 individual cans of film; of this number more than 100,000 cans are preservation or original material.

Our film services team repairs, cleans and copies motion picture material. This includes films of all gauges, from 8mm to 35mm. Damaged, shrunken or brittle film in particular requires specialist treatment and equipment.

Work on both Nitrate and Acetate based films includes:

  • comparing copies of the same motion picture film to see which is the most complete and in the best condition for preservation
  • assessing and repairing damaged motion picture film
  • researching footage to identify its content or origin.

Many films are also copied or duplicated in our printing and processing laboratory. This involves:

  • grading film to correct variations in exposure
  • printing film to copy the original image and sound on to new polyester stock processing to develop film
  • processing to develop film
  • quality checking all duplicated material.

Types of film 

Motion pictures started in the late 1880s, and many film gauges (sizes), ranging from 8mm to 75mm, were used, but most are now obsolete.

Over the last 100 years three main types of film base have been used: cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate and polyester.

Cellulose nitrate was introduced in Australia in 1889, and was the main type of 35mm professional film stock used by filmmakers until the early 1950s. Nitrate is highly flammable and from the moment of manufacture it slowly decomposes, going through various decomposition stages (pictured). Decomposition can be slowed down by maintaining controlled storage conditions. We have many nitrate films that are nearly 100 years old that can still be viewed as they have been stored under good conditions.

A film reel showing crystalline decomposition

Film services decomposition crystalline

Cellulose acetate-based material can be separated into two distinct types, Diacetate and Triacetate. Diacetate-based films were used between the 1920s and 1950s. Triacetate replaced both nitrate and diacetate films early in the 1950s and was labelled 'safety' as it is not flammable. Acetate film also decomposes, experiencing ‘vinegar syndrome’; this can be triggered by several causes, including storage in high temperature/humidity environments.

If vinegar syndrome films are left untreated, the film can develop a grey/white crystalline deposit, and ultimately completely disintegrate. While cool and dry storage conditions significantly slow the chemical decomposition reactions this is not the whole solution to film preservation. The NFSA further protects the film collection by copying the image and audio of films that have the greatest risk of deterioration.

Collections Conservation

Our conservators are highly skilled in assessing a film’s content and condition and undertaking necessary film repairs to enable the safe transfer of film for access purposes.

Film identification

Films can arrive at the NFSA with little or no information and much time can be spent researching and identifying a film’s title, origin and production date. 

Technical selection

The NFSA examines film of all gauges – from 8mm to 16mm to 35mm. Original material is often damaged, very fragile and beginning to decompose. Technical selection involves examining and comparing various copies of the same film to determine which is the most complete and in the best condition for preservation and future access.

Film repair

showing film repair film services damage

Film repair film services damage


Film can suffer many forms of physical damage. All films need to be carefully examined and repaired to ensure a film can be safely copied or projected. Repairing film requires great attention to detail to repair broken perforations, rips or tears and splices.


Printing and processing laboratory

Copying, or duplication, is an essential part of film archiving. When fragile material is copied the NFSA produces a new preservation copy to ensure the film’s survival. In addition, making duplicate or access copies allows public access without endangering the preserved copy. Preservation copies are now made on polyester-based materials for archival permanence.


When film copies are made, faded images in the original are corrected by adjusting the contrast and density range of the new copy. The grading process is a careful assessment of the film’s photographic image. Scene-by-scene exposure settings are determined then punched into a tape to control the film printing machines. This process is done by sight by an experienced technician or on an electronic analyser.


Copying damaged, shrunken or brittle film requires a slow printing speed. During printing, the image on a negative, or intermediate positive, is copied onto new polyester film (called raw stock) by passing light through one onto the other. The NFSA’s printers expose the film one frame at a time and the printer’s speed is adjusted depending on the film’s condition. Film can also be printed under a special liquid to help eliminate scratches. 


Film is then developed in one of the NFSA’s continuous processors. Film is carried through the machine laced around a series of rollers on racks immersed in various developing solutions.

Quality control

Duplicate film material is checked many times before it is put into the collection, or returned to the client. Visual assessment of picture quality is checked during the process and is supported by sensitometric tests and chemical analysis.

Services available

Film Preservation Services at the NFSA may also assist people and organisations with specialist archival needs, provide technical expertise and advice and maintain contemporary and obsolete equipment to support the NFSA’s film work. Services include:

  • Film identification of motion picture materials
  • Film repair of motion picture materials
  • Film cleaning
  • Optical (VA/VD) sound prints transferred to 16mm or 17.5mm full coat magnetic
  • Production of VA sound negatives 35mm or 16mm
  • Film rewashing
  • Black-and-white motion picture:
  • 35mm to 35mm duplication
  • 35mm to 16mm reductions
  • 16mm to 35mm blow-ups
  • 16mm to 16mm duplication
  • 8mm to 16mm blow-ups.

For further information on how to care for your film collection please contact us.