Record of a Homecoming: Preserving Interviews with Doug Clower and John McCain

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

Sometimes you just never know what you’re going to find in a can, or in this case, four cans. What I did know is that it wasn’t going to be good, at least physically, because I could smell it from several feet away – that telltale smell of vinegar syndrome. Encountering vinegar syndrome is a lot like having a bag of salt and vinegar chips explode in your face, or getting an unintended tour of a vinegar distillation tank. The smell is merely a symptom, however; vinegar syndrome causes a whole host of preservation issues that can sometimes be fatal to a record.

Luckily, in this case, we were able to preserve the reels before they fully deteriorated. The reels contained interviews with former prisoners of war John McCain and Claude Douglas Clower, recorded after their release from North Vietnam. The two men were shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese in the fall of 1967 and spent more than five years as prisoners of war under horrific conditions. They were released as part of Operation Homecoming on March 14, 1973. The interviews are unedited accounts of their experiences as POWs, their return journey, experiences with the press, and their gratitude at being brought home.

John McCain waiting for the rest of the group to leave the bus at airport after being released as POW. (Local Identifier: 428-N-1155665)

There are many reasons why vinegar syndrome happens – oftentimes it’s because acetate based film and soundtracks have been stored in hot and humid conditions, but it’s also kicked off by films with vinegar syndrome that are stored in close proximity. Vinegar syndrome is auto-catalytic meaning that the process is continuous, irreversible, speeds up over time and, for lack of a better term, is contagious to the films around it.

In addition to being incredibly stinky, vinegar syndrome can cause the film to become brittle, soft and sticky, or as hard as a hockey puck. The film is also likely to shrink horizontally and vertically, the emulsion may separate from the base, and plasticizer crystals can form.

A magnetic soundtrack with vinegar syndrome. This films is shrunken and curly, and therefore difficult to handle. The film’s plasticizer has also created a crystalline pattern on the surface and will shed during transfer or handling.

On this day, all four of the magnetic sound reels in front me were a level 3 on the Acid-Detection Strip Scale. There are three levels with three being the worst – this means that the reel is facing imminent loss through shrinkage, warping, and handling issues, and should be copied right away.  These reels were severely warped and had a shrinkage level of 2.2%, so it was going to be a challenge to preserve them.  

I inspected the reels–a mix of full coat magnetic track intercut with single stripe magnetic tracks– while wearing a respirator. The respirator wasn’t just to prevent the smell from reaching me – it protected me from irritation in my nasal passages, throat, and lungs while I was working on the soundtracks.

In order to save the content of the film I was going to need to transfer the reels on our Sondor OMA E and ingest the output signal into our digital audio workstation where we capture a WAV file using Wavelab. After that step is completed we create a new optical track using our MWA LLK5 optical sound laser film recorder printed out onto new, stable, polyester film stock.  You can learn more about this process in detail from a previous blog post.

Listen to the preserved interviews here:

This item is sound-only. Although there was likely a picture, we do not have it in our holdings.

3 thoughts on “Record of a Homecoming: Preserving Interviews with Doug Clower and John McCain

    1. Hi Richard!

      Yes, the interviews are sound only, which is certainly a less common thing to see with motion picture film–usually soundtracks accompany a picture element. In this case, you can hear a clapboard at the beginning, so there definitely was picture at some point (the clapboard is to set a sync point). Unfortunately, we did not receive the picture. I’ll add a caption to make that clear. Thanks for your question!

  1. Thanks for the blog post! Interesting and well-written. I’m looking forward to your talk with colleagues on “Favorite Films of the National Archives Motion Picture Lab” coming up May 19.

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