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How Can You Tell if Your Film Has Been Used?

By Christian Roemer

You came up with the perfect gift idea: you’re going to purchase Legacybox digitization for your parents. You’re gonna sneak over to their place and rummage through their old film reels. You want to find the home videos of you and your siblings making rice krispy treats back in the 60s and make them shareable on social media. It’s the perfect plan!

Except your parents have about 30 film reels, and some might be totally blank. What should you do? How can you possibly know which ones have recordings on them and which ones are a whole bunch of nothing? Let’s start from the beginning.

Step 1: If your film reel has unbroken tape on it, it’s never been used. You might be able to sell your antique undeveloped reel for some serious scratch. I call this first step the “midnight snack” step. When you’re looking for the ideal Snickers bar in the pantry, obviously you’d look for the one that’s never been opened. This is just like that, except the opposite. If the packaging is still intact, there’s nothing on it for us to digitize.

Step 2: If you don’t have the packaging shortcut to rely on, you basically have to give the film a once-over. That means you just look at it. Essentially, if film has been used, each frame will have little pictures in it. If it hasn’t been used -- whelp, you already messed up the film by opening the unused canister. Unlucky.

That’s really about it. Certain film formats have shortcuts to see if it’s been used yet or not. For example, Super 8 film has a nice little sticker on the end that says “EXPOSED” if it’s been used. Film that goes on reels doesn’t have little tricks. The only thing you can do is look at it to see if the frames have stuff in them.

I suppose there’s a silver lining. Most people who have film reels sitting around their homes are folks around my grandparents’ age. If your family is anything like mine, your grandparents are basically the best version of yourself. Meaning, they probably had the foresight to label and organize all their film reels in case anyone ever came snooping. You shouldn’t have to guess what’s on the film at all, because there’s likely a sticker or two with a date, year, main participants in the video, location, weather, humidity, and maybe even whether Aquarius was in retrograde or not.

My grandparents were awesome at organization.

So as you’re rummaging through the old film reels in your parents’ or grandparents’ house, and you’re wondering whether it’s been used or not, just look for a few things. First, look to see if the canister is labeled. If not, look to see if there’s still tape sealing it shut. If neither of those shortcuts are working, just take a look at the frames on the film. If there’s little miniature pictures in them, they’ve been used and we can digitize them.

Happy film hunting!

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