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Fun Facts about Film Reels

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By Christian Roemer

Film reels were the main medium for video recording for about a hundred years before digital took over. Where most movies are just downloaded these days, huge canisters of film used to be the only way to watch movies for decades. Are you curious about what film reels are all about? What they’re made of? How long they are?


Good. Here are 5 fun film reel facts that you can use the next time Jeopardy happens to have an entire category about history of video capture.

 

 

1. Film reels are made out of plastic and...silver? 

That’s right, film is a wild combination of plastic and a gelatin emulsion made out of silver halide crystals. When film is being recorded, the lens of the camera shines light on the film, and the light causes the silver crystals to darken. That’s where negatives come from--when light darkens the silver, the result is a frame that’s totally opposite of real life. Nifty.

 

2. The standard length of a theatrical film reel is 1000 ft.

Back in the old days, when you went to a movie theater, movies were actually shown by running really long film reels through a projector. Each one of those film reels were about 1000 ft long. If my math is right, that means each reel of film is almost ¼ of a mile long. Speaking of...

 

3. The average run-time of a standard reel was about 11 minutes.

If you were thinking that a single reel of film was long enough for a whole movie, think again. In reality, a reel of film only actually contains about 11 minutes of a movie with sound. That’s assuming that the frame rate is 24 fps. If we do some math again, the upcoming Avengers movie would have required about 18 reels of film for a single movie. Except.. 

 

4. Most films were shipped as two-reelers.

Two-reelers is basically exactly what it sounds like. Instead of using a single, standard, 1000’ reel of film, two-reelers doubled the amount to save on shipping costs. Since reels are already pretty big, and watching a single movie would require a projectionist to switch reels in the middle of movies, reducing transitions by half cut down on potential human error which helped improve the viewer experience. Don’t ask what Tyler Durden did in the reel transitions...

5. An average movie would weigh about 60 lbs.

That’s right. Every single movie that used to be shown in theaters weighed around 60 pounds in total. According to my research, each 1,000’ of film weighs around 5 lbs. Since movies average around an hour and a half each (90 minutes), and 1,000’ of film is good for 11 minutes of sound film, that means most films use around 9 film reels. 9 times 5 is 45 lbs. Add in the extra weight of the reels themselves, and voila! 60 lbs.

 

 

Nowadays, films are all digital, flying around the world in digital instantaneousness. Back in the day, movies were captured on film and literally flown all over the world. If I was a physicist, I’d be able to calculate the amount of greenhouse gasses saved in transportation by transitioning from film to digital, but alas, I’m not. But it’s probably a not-insignificant amount.


Even though film reel facts are fun, it turns out that film reels were probably bad for the environment. All things considered, it’s pretty good that everything’s digital now. Next time you watch a digital film, you can pat yourself on the back for going green.

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