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How Can I Tell if My Film Reels Are Damaged?

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By Christian Roemer

Film reels were a little bit before my time. I’m an 80s baby, which means the closest I came to film reels were the little spools in my Little Rascals VHS tape.

Even though I don’t have first-hand experience with film reels, I’ve watched The Rock with Nicolas Cage enough times to basically be a reel professional.

While we’re on the subject of VHS tapes, one of the major advantages they had over their more naked film reel predecessors is protection. The plastic VHS casings that covered the film kept the film safe from debris, smudges, and dirty fingers. Film reels didn’t have that luxury, since the film was just out in the open for the whole world to see.


So how can you tell if your naked film reels are damaged? You gotta give them a good look over, that’s how. The tricky part is that you don’t really need to pay too much attention to the reels themselves. The valuable stuff is the film. There’s no surefire way to identify every possible scenario that would damage your film reels, but we do have some telltale signs to share. When you’re inspecting your film, these are the things you want to look for.

 

Rusty reels 

The reels are what hold your film. They’re usually made of metal. If there’s rust on the reels, you might be in for a world of hurt. Rust usually indicates water exposure, which opens up the possibility of a few issues on the film itself. Start your inspection with the reel. If there’s rust, you should have some alarm bells going off in your head.

 

Cloudy film 

The first sign of damage to look out for in your film is cloudiness. If film has been exposed to water or highly moist environments, it can grow mold. Mold on film usually doesn’t look like the furry mold on an old apple. Instead, it’s cloudiness on the surface of the film. Cloudy film is bad news.

 

Dirt 

I’m not saying you stored your film reel in a dusty church like Nic Cage in The Rock, but I’m not saying you didn’t either. If you, for some inexplicable reason, buried your film reels in your backyard like a pirate, you might be in bad shape. Dirt can cause abrasions, introduce mold, and punch holes in the film. Dirt isn’t good.

 

Nasty Fingers 

I have a three year old, so I know what dirty fingers look like. Once upon a time, those film reels of yours were probably viewed and used by people who weren’t incredibly hygienic. Nasty fingers put oil and smudges on the film that can get snagged in projectors and viewing apparati. Look for fingerprints and smudges and tell-tale signs that your film might have been mishandled.

 

Tears and holes 

This might not be surprising to most folks, but in case it is, here we go. Projectors aren’t gentle. In fact, with the most minor twisting and misfeeding, film can get crunched, ripped, torn, scratched, and any other number of things. That means, if you’re checking out a film reel that’s seen a bunch of use, there’s a decent chance that the projector messed up the film at some point in time. Over the years, those issues might have gotten worse, meaning micro tears could have become full-fledged rips. If you have a film reel that got a bunch of use, give it a thorough glance to make sure it’s not living with past injuries that may get worse with old age.


There you have it: 5 easy-to-remember tell-tale signs that your film reels might be damaged. Just remember RCDFT -- Rust, Clouds, Dirt, Fingers, Tears. On second thought, that’s a terrible acronym. Definitely don’t use that. But do remember that the film in film reels is fragile, and it’d be worth inspecting any of it that you fear might be damaged.

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