Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

And the Academy Award goes to...

Monique Fischer, AS '94M, made movie history when she accepted her Academy Award for Technical Achievement at a lavish dinner ceremony held in February at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Her award marks the first time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has honored technical achievement in film preservation.

Fischer received an academy certificate for her development of acid detector strips (AD strips), which detect acetic-acid vapor in acetate-based film. Acetate-based film was used in the film industry primarily from the 1920s to the 1940s. Since then, filmmakers have used polyester film, which does not have the same tendency to deteriorate.

Acetic acid causes bubbling between the emulsion and acetate layers of the film, causing channels to form that disfigure the image, Fischer explains. Although the acid gives off a distinct vinegar smell, by the time it is detectable, the film image already may be lost. Early detection allows librarians and archivists to duplicate threatened films or to put them in cold storage before it is too late.

While enrolled in the UD/Winterthur Program in Art Conservation, Fischer studied photograph conservation and conducted specialized studies in paper conservation. She developed the AD strips while serving a graduate school internship at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1993-94.

"When I first came to the institute, my adviser, Jim Reilly, handed me a list of projects to choose from. Working on the AD strips project just appealed to me. I never dreamed it would come this far," she says.

Fischer shares her Academy Award with Reilly and Douglas Nishimura of Rochester's Image Permanence Institute. Following Fischer's success in the lab, Reilly and Nishimura developed the strips into a product that could be used on a large scale. AD strips are now used by the Library of Congress and preservationists and archivists at movie studios, universities and museums.

Fischer was one of only two women to receive scientific and technical Academy Awards this year. Sixty awards were given, most of them for engineering achievements in such areas as computer animation and special effects.

"I didn't think I would be so nervous when accepting the award," Fischer recalls. "When you're up on the stage facing the audience, it's just a sea of black with so many lights glaring at you. But, I also felt very proud."

Before Fischer researched the problem, numerous film preservationists had tried and failed to develop a method of detecting the acid given off by film. Traditionally, pH or litmus papers are designed to work with water, so the challenge, Fischer says, was to find a way to read the pH of acidic vapors. It took about seven months of trial and error before Fischer hit upon the right indicator (an organic compound that changes color with a change in pH) and the right formula to make the strips work.

Fischer brings a unique background to her work as a preservationist. She earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry and had worked for several years as an analytical chemist for pharmaceutical companies before deciding to pursue a new career.

"I was always interested in art," she explains. "While working as a chemist, I lived close to New York City and I was always going to museums and taking art history and studio art courses. Art conservation seemed like the ideal field for me."

Her current position as photograph and paper conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass., allows Fischer to unite her artistic and historical interests, while working to restore precious pieces of the past-everything from Mom and Pop photos to Matthew Brady daguerreotypes.

-Theresa Gawlas Medoff AS '94M