History of the Film Lab
A look at the history of the film lab – which many say reached its zenith in the late 1970s through early 2000s – gives an idea of just how much the business has wound down. According to Panavision Product Management Technical Liaison David Kenig, early filmmakers such as Edison, Lumière, Paul, Pathe, Méliès and Hepworth all had their own laboratories. "The first film stock came in rather short lengths and processing was done by the rack and tank system which required winding the film around a frame or drum and hand developing in special tanks," he said. "The orthochromatic film could be inspected under a red safelight during development for proper density. After development the film was wound on a drying rack. Early printers were hand operated and did not allow for much exposure control."
In the 1910s, film stock improved and cameras could take up to 400' rolls, so manufacturers supplied the first continuous processing machines. New motorized printers with greater exposure control were manufactured for US and overseas markets. Laboratory science was a growing field of investigation.
The film poster for the Lumière brothers' screening of L'Arroseur arrosé in 1895.
By the 1920s, major feature film studios maintained their own labs, although independent labs sprang up in many major cities to handle the non-theatrical market of industrial and amateur film. "Laboratories also kept pace with technologies such as improved tinting and toning of release prints, early color processes, and, towards the end of the decade, the introduction of B&W panchromatic stock," said Kenig. "The introduction of 16mm in the U.S. and 9.5mm in Europe required labs to purchase new processing equipment for these formats in addition to the new reversal development procedure." An interest in wide film for major features also blossomed in the 1920s, and some labs were equipped to handle both processing and printing, even though several wide features were released in standard 35mm prints.
The introduction of sound in the late 1920s and early 1930s saw labs accommodating variable density and variable area optical soundtracks. "Sound also accelerated the need for automatic developing machines since longer reels without splices were required for release prints," said Kenig.
With the onset of WWII, labs increased their output due to the demands of the military for training films and combat footage. "Large numbers of 16mm reduction prints of feature films were required for entertainment of the U.S. armed forces," said Kenig. "Many branches of the service had their own production units which included laboratories." In fact, said Kenig, the U.S. Navy was the first purchaser of the new Acme Dunn optical printer. Color processing increased after the introduction of Kodachrome stock for both professional and amateur use.
i-dailies in the UK focuses only on producing negatives and doesn't aim to offer bulk release printing.
In the 1950s, labs added color-processing machines for the new Eastman color negative. "Eastman and other manufacturers introduced many new color stocks for image capture, duplicating and printing," said Kenig. "Labs adjusted their chemistry and printing methods to keep pace. Eastman also introduced new B&W emulsions. Nitrate film base was replaced by triacetate. The resurgence of 65mm for major productions required processing and printing facilities. 35mm reduction prints were needed for venues other than the major road show theatres." Also in the 1950s, Technicolor opened a facility in France and another in Italy.
"The following years brought a refinement of color processing and printing techniques," said Kenig. "Color timing, wet gate printing, ultrasonic film cleaning, additive color printers, increased processing and printing speeds and computerized control replaced the old handcraft methods of earlier days."
As the multiplex theatre became a staple, the demand for large print orders grew rapidly. Labs used high-speed panel printers to meet distribution needs. "With the kind of expanded release print scenario that came from Jaws and Star Wars, you created the event movie thast was not just an event on one or two screens or one or two A markets, but an event opportunity in 800 venues around the world," said a Technicolor executive, who said that "at the height of release printing, Technicolor printed in excess of 15,000 prints for the 2007 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
The advent of the Digital Intermediate began to eat into the number of film prints, as an increasing number of films were finished and distributed digitally. Likewise, digital cameras improved dramatically and went from being a novelty to being accepted by nearly all cinematographers. Digital capture erased the need for film dailies.
The death knell for film release prints came when the motion picture studios and struck an agreement with exhibitors, to ease the transition to Digital Cinema by the mechanism of a Virtual Print Fee. "The Virtual Print Fee (VPF) is a financing mechanism for funding the first purchase of digital cinema equipment in the replacement of film projectors," said Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting. "The VPF is a method for redistributing the savings realized by studios when distributing digital prints in place of film prints. It is an effective mechanism, but it is not a perfect mechanism. First run cinemas benefit the most from the VPF, as that's where print savings actually occur."
The first set of VPF agreements were inked in November 2005. Since then, the number of North American theatres to transition to Digital Cinemas has reached 85 percent.
The Lumière Brothers' First Films (1895)
Panavision Product Management Technical Liaison David Kenig contributed his research and writing on the history of labs to this article.