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The Last Film Lab?

CreativeCOW presents The Last Film Lab? -- Cinematography Editorial All rights reserved.

On February 15, 2014, the Academy will award its Oscar Statuette, for the Academy Award of Merit, to "To all those who built and operated film laboratories, for over a century of service to the motion picture industry." "Lab employees have contributed extraordinary efforts to achieve filmmakers' artistic expectations for special film processing and the production of billions of feet of release prints per year," continues the citation. "This work has allowed an expanded motion picture audience and unequaled worldwide cinema experience."

In a paragraph, the Academy has written an eloquent obituary for film labs, which are on the verge of extinction. Creative COW spoke to numerous film lab executives to create a picture of an industry on the edge. Even during the research for this article, another lab closed. Opened in 2011, the Glendale-based Technicolor film lab replaced a larger lab at Universal Studios that closed; approximately 100 of the 360 workers laid off as a result of that closure moved to the Glendale lab. Earlier in 2013, Technicolor closed its Pinewood film lab in the U.K. and, prior to that, in 2011, it shuttered its Montreal-based film lab.

See also:
Film Fading to Black
Film Fading to Black
"The release print business is essentially over as we know it," said a Technicolor executive. "When will the profits [in film labs] no longer be there? That's something that has to be looked at, not on a weekly basis but certainly on a monthly or quarterly basis."

In Film Fading to Black, I chronicled the end of film as an acquisition medium. With a huge install base of film cameras, Kodak film stock and film labs, however, the actual end of film as an acquisition and distribution medium was hard to predict.

Since then, however, Digital Cinema has made film distribution nearly an anachronism. The numbers of theatres worldwide that have transitioned to Digital Cinema vary, but they all point to an end game. According to NATO (National Association of Theatre Owners), "as of July 2013, 35,712 screens in the United States have been converted to digital, 2,951 screens in Canada have been converted, and 64,862 screens internationally have been converted." With regard to the worldwide installation of Digital Cinema screens, researcher Screen Digest reported that it "expects the digital format to be in use at 90 percent of screens worldwide" by the end of 2013.

What about film as an acquisition medium? Plenty of cinematographers still prefer film – and shoot it when they can. Although Kodak will not release the amount of film stock it still sells, the company does list the number of high profile films that shoot in film each year. Shot in film this year were an impressive number of big box office films: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Blue Jasmine; 12 Years a Slave; The Lone Ranger and even indies such as Fruitvale Station and Mud; and TV shows Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire; and the recently concluded Breaking Bad.

Kodak Film Lab and Studio Relationship Manager Christian Richter
Christian Richter
"It's not as much many as there has been," said Kodak Film Lab and Studio Relationship Manager Christian Richter. "I'd rather focus on the fact that there are a lot of films still being originated on Kodak film."

There is something poignant about a list of movies shot in film. Not long ago, it was the manufacturers of digital cameras who listed the movies shot with their nascent technology. Clearly, the ratio has flipped.

But how much longer will directors dedicated to film have that choice? Kodak's Richter reiterates the company's loyalty to its tradition of film stock. At the same time, even he cannot ignore how dramatically the business of processing film has changed. "Sixteen years ago you had big labs, huge facilities dealing with billions of feet of film, because that was pretty much the only medium used for theatrical distribution when you shot feature films," he said. "Those huge numbers are not there any more and they had to adjust to smaller volumes. The labs have had to change their way of working."


Just how many film labs are left? The numbers vary, depending on who's quoting them. According to Kodak's Richter, there are a total of 50 labs across Europe, Africa and the Middle East that handle 35mm negative; 30 labs in Asia; 15 in Latin America; and close to 20 in the U.S./Canada, for a total of 65 labs worldwide. Panavision Product Management Technical Liaison David Kenig noted, however, that some of the labs on the Kodak site "specialize in B&W, 16mm and Super 8 and do not offer full 35mm processing and printing."

The Association of Cinema and Video Laboratories has shrunk to a tiny membership: nine in North America (of which one has closed, said ACVL President Peter Bulcke) and four internationally (three in Asia and one in South America).

"By the end of this year, film will most certainly be dead for release printing," Bulcke said, noting that a mere 200 to 250 prints is struck for a "big release," down from thousands in the heyday of film.

Kenig quoted other statistics. "The Film Yearbook of 1924 lists 10 labs in Hollywood and 45 in the NY and NJ area," he said. "The Film Yearbook of 1930 lists twenty-two labs in Hollywood and fifty-one in the NY and NJ area. There are also more labs listed in almost every state." A listing of British labs from the beginning to today contains 146 entries. "Of these, seven labs are still in operation," he added.

At what point does it become economically impossible to keep a lab open? Bulcke estimates it as "fewer than 100 prints." "If you only make 100 prints, that's nothing anymore," he said. "It's not a viable model for any of the laboratories, especially for Technicolor and Deluxe."


On November 10, 2013, Sydney, Australia-based Neglab, a motion picture film laboratory founded in 1997 for processing 35mm and 16mm color negative, reopened its doors. According to founder/owner Werner Winkelmann, Neglab closed two years ago, due to lack of work. But when Deluxe closed its major Sydney film lab, those in Australia still shooting celluloid had no place to develop film and petitioned Winkelmann to reopen. "The response has been fantastic," says Winkelmann. "Everyone, especially the film schools and universities, have been keen that a local lab is available. They encouraged us to do it and we thought, why not."

Neglab founder/owner Werner Winkelmann
Neglab founder/owner Werner Winkelmann

"We are very pleased by the response of the film community to Neglab," said Winkelmann on the website. "But also know that we need your support to keep the choice alive."

The opening of a film lab is a rare event in today's market. The news for several years has been about labs closing or shrinking their services. The two biggest players servicing the motion picture and TV industries – Deluxe and Technicolor – inked a deal in July 2011 that sub-contracted the work that remained, an acknowledgement of just how much the market had diminished.

In the deal, Technicolor subcontracted its 35mm bulk release printing for major studios in North America to Deluxe, and took over 35mm print distribution in the U.S.; the result is that all U.S. film prints are now struck at a Deluxe lab but distributed by Technicolor. As a result, Technicolor closed its Montreal-based film and North Hollywood labs.

Technicolor's Hollywood Facility
Technicolor's Hollywood Facility

Deluxe also subcontracted its 35mm/16mm color negative processing business in London to Technicolor, and shuttered its two London-based facilities. In another agreement later in 2011, Technicolor agreed to subcontract all its 35mm bulk release printing in Europe – as well as front-end services in Italy and Spain – to Deluxe Europe.

At the time, in 2011, Deluxe Entertainment Services Group CEO Cyril Drabinsky predicted to The Hollywood Reporter that the release print business in North America had "at least another five years" to go, and even longer in the European market.

He updated those opinions for the 2014 market. "The release print business is a fraction of what it was four or five years ago," said Drabinsky. "It's not a huge part of our business anymore. We obviously work on a monthly P&L and we do look at it. It continues to be a positive cash flow business and we'll continue to operate in locales where it is."

But, said Drabinsky, "over the next couple of years, we'll reach a point where there aren't many pictures shot or released on film." When will that happen? "No one knows the date,' he said. "But it's not ten years out and it's probably less than five. It's a question of how long we can keep it going. There are a lot of people who want to continue to shoot on film. The question for us is to keep the infrastructure as efficient as possible."

The Technicolor executive interviewed noted that "the figure you have to look at is not the number of screens that remain celluloid, but the great preponderance of revenue from digital screens. "Before it was 75 to 80 percent digital penetration," he said. "But those screens generated more than 90 percent of the box office. End of discussion."

"At the end of the day, if the studios aren't concerning themselves with the small percentage of the revenues, then why maintain the costs of film and digital with regard to exhibition and printing?" he added. "The labs that have the ability to do release prints will continue as long as the studios will make a commitment to it."

Both Deluxe and Technicolor have expanded deeply into digital services portfolios, replacing revenues that once flowed from film processing and film prints.

FotoKem Chief Strategy Officer Mike Brodersen
FotoKem Chief Strategy Officer Mike Brodersen
In Los Angeles, few labs have thrived as robustly as the privately-held FotoKem. Chief Strategy Officer Mike Brodersen's grandfather founded the small 16mm lab with some filmmaker friends in 1963 and – predicting that the media business would move to Burbank – moved it to the building it's still located in.

Today, FotoKem handles large format film as well as 35mm and 16mm and full-service post. "Obviously, the percentage of TV and feature work is tipping towards the digital side," said Brodersen. "Several years ago, file-based cameras started to rival the film image." FotoKem focused on digital processes and systems early on. "We created our NextLAB system," said Brodersen. "Getting into software development was the next thing to address the film-to-file transition, with tools modeled after telecine functions."

Brodersen reported that 90 percent of TV work is now digital, and, depending on the month, between 15 and 25 percent of the feature work is film. FotoKem VP of Sales & Operations Andrew Oran noted that the company sees 65mm work as well as "a lot of 2-perf and 3-perf" 35mm. "As digital cameras have gotten better, people have migrated away from 16mm and wanted the higher resolution of a 35mm gauge," Oran said.

But, both Brodersen and Oran agree that, "film is a gradually diminishing arena." "The people still shooting film are those for whom it's the right artistic objective," said Oran. "Our objective as a company is to still support those people. We've maintained a steady flow of film work, so we can give the turn-around for people shooting on film that we did 20 years ago." Brodersen reported that FotoKem also gets film from overseas and out of state. "There's been an uptick in courier work as a result of local labs going away," he said. "FedEx and other couriers are awfully busy getting us unprocessed negative."

Brodersen pointed out that major Hollywood studios are also clients, as are others who want to preserve films. "Part of our commitment to film-based services is to studios and film owners who need preservation and/or archiving," he said. "And we have a steady flow of that business."

The FotoKem building
The FotoKem building in Burbank, California


The move to Digital Intermediate finishes started a debate – as-of-yet unresolved – about how to properly archive finished films. Even today, each studio has its own process for choosing which elements to store, and the independents may not all be archiving any elements.

Historic films are archived at the Library of Congress, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as well as dozens of other archives, many of them housed at universities with film studies programs. As I detailed in a recent story on the restoration of a Mary Pickford film, film labs are crucial for preserving and restoring these historic films.

But nearly all of these specialist labs are hanging by a thread. Most recently, Alpha Cine in Seattle, a stalwart in film processing, ceased operations on October 31, 2013. ColorLab President Russ Suniewick, whose company worked on the Mary Pickford film, knows just how difficult it is to keep the doors open.

ColorLab President Russ Suniewick and wife, Nancy McLean, Colorlab's Comptroller

"We started out as a motion picture lab in 1972," he said. "Sands shifted when video chips camera long and, about 12 years ago, we repurposed our skillsets and applied it strictly to film preservation." He lamented that, "there are very few preservation facilities remaining because of all the labs going out of business."

When he made the switch from full-on film processing to the preservation niche, Los Angeles and New York were still teeming with film-based TV and features. ColorLab's switch to acting as a preservation/restoration lab saved 25 jobs. But, as anyone in the preservation business knows, the money to work on films isn't easy to find. "Especially 12 years ago, these weren't films that could get preserved without a sure-fire revenue model," said Suniewick. Located near Washington, D.C., Suniewick ended up focusing on films that had historic or cultural value, with funds from the Library of Congress being disseminated through the National Film Foundation in San Francisco.

Suniewick said that, although there are hundreds – if not thousands – of films that need restoration and preservation, the funds to do so are far from a given. "There is not that much money flowing," he said. "It's doled out, or at least that's the way it seems. We don't get [much] money in any given year, but we do have projects that can go on for more than one year."

The lab technicians at ColorLab haven't had a raise in years, said Suniewick, and he can barely pay for healthcare. "If we were true business people, we would have closed in 1986," he said. "But the people here are extraordinarily dedicated. That's why we're so anxious about the future."


What about the other labs and other territories? In June 2013, David Hancock, Director, Head of Film and Cinema for Screen Digest came out with a report on the global cinema exhibition sector, which "is now approaching the endgame as far as the conversion of projection equipment in cinemas is concerned." The report stated that, as of January 2012, 35mm became the minority cinema format and that, by the end of the year, 89,341 screens were digitized globally, a growth rate of 40 per cent over the previous year.

Although I was unable to interview lab owners in destinations that might still be strongholds of film distribution, I did speak to some labs outside of the U.S. Nigel Horn, co-founder of i-dailies Ltd., has spent much of his career in the lab business, and opened this lab in March 2012. "I was aware that Technicolor was going to close," he said. "We took a leap of faith into the unknown, to increase capacity to meet the demand," he said.

i-dailies provides a full film deliverables service.

The film lab focuses only on producing negatives and doesn't aim to offer bulk release printing. "This is a boutique and specialist lab," said Horn, who said they have the capacity to handle 100,000 feet of negative a night. "We're passionate about keeping film. In a way there's never been a better time to shoot film and process it in the U.K.: the people, machines and chemistry are all here."

In Montreal, Vision Globale's Director of Operations Paul Dion spoke of his company's unique status. "The film lab is self-supporting, mainly because we're the last man standing now in Canada," he said. "There's a small lab near Toronto that does mainly 16mm and not on a regular basis, so they can't support the demand of a full feature with a large amount of film to process."

Vision Globale also offers restoration services, with its proprietary GeneSys software; the lab is currently doing work for the Biblioteca de Mexico. Dion estimates that 15 percent of the company's work is for restoration, and it's increasing. The company also relies on doing Digital Intermediates for between 30 and 50 features a year.

See also: Film Labs: What History Tells Us
Film Labs: What History Tells Us
"I think we need everything to stay open," said Dion. "It used to be that what was driving all the labs was 35mm prints. Now it's gone to only processing for the front-end lab and doing some Digital Intermediates. We have contracts to keep the lab alive for 2014, but after that, I don't know."

To stay alive, said Dion, the lab has been stripped down to its "bare minimum." "We have to be able to accept the clients who come up with up to 1 million feet a year, and deal with the DIs also," he said. "The only reason we're still up is because we're a boutique lab, a small footprint, and we don't have the overhead of all the others."


In projecting the end of film, we've been looking at labs and how close they are to the tipping point of unprofitability. The answer is, very close. But what if film stock disappears first? It's not out of the realm of possibility. The three biggest film stock manufacturers globally were Kodak with a 55 percent share, Fuji with 35 percent and Agfa with 10 percent. Fuji and Agfa have exited the film stock manufacturing business, leaving Kodak the sole provider, 100 percent of a dramatically shrinking market; between 2007 and 2011, worldwide demand for film stock dropped a precipitous 70 percent.

What if Kodak ceases producing film stock before the labs all close?

Although that might seem anathema to even mention (and Kodak would publicly deny any such possibility), it's a subject that was brought up by some of the experts I interviewed. "Kodak has to look at the same factors we're looking at," said Deluxe's Drabinsky. "Do they continue providing stock in a declining marketplace? At what point is it no longer profitable for them to do so?"

The good news is that Kodak recently exited Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But that's just the beginning of the march to profitability and stability. Companies successfully exit Chapter 11 all the time. But up to 32 percent of them go back into bankruptcy, often called Chapter 22.

Edward I. Altman, Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business, New York University, developed the Z-Score for predicting bankruptcy. He noted that "studies of post-bankruptcy performance find that while many companies restructure without the need of further remedial action, a striking number require that the reorganized business needs to restructure again through a private workout or a second – or even a third – bankruptcy."

The day that Kodak either goes out of business permanently or ceases to produce film stock will be a tragic day for film lovers everywhere and a somber one for U.S. industry. I certainly hope that neither scenario takes place.

But let's look at the facts. CEO Antonio Perez, who came from a background focusing on printers at HP, has been pushing an inket technology-centric recovery plan. Kodak has created Alaris, its film-centric division but it's not aimed at the professional film/TV industry.

Kodak has branded itself as a "global technology company offering breakthrough solutions and professional services in the packaging, graphic communications and functional printing markets."

Having just relisted on the New York Stock Exchange in November, the company has publicly branded itself as a "global technology company offering breakthrough solutions and professional services in the packaging, graphic communications and functional printing markets." No mention of the professional film/TV market. Furthermore, shareholders who don't have a shred of nostalgia or personal interest in the film industry will be scrutinizing Kodak's bottom line. The upper management will make whatever decisions they deem necessary to keep Kodak from falling into a second Chapter 11, or worse.

Will film survive this perfect storm of digital replacing analog? Yes, it will, in archives everywhere. Will it survive as a current medium of acquisition and distribution? The Magic 8 Ball says, "Outlook not so good."

If and when that day happens, we must, as an industry, put our voices and efforts behind preserving our film history, ensuring funding for every bit of valuable celluloid. Losing the future of film doesn't have to mean losing film altogether.


Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Douglas Bowker
I won't accuse you of "wanting" the death of film as another did (which is both unkind and unfair) but I do think the article misses the opportunity to be more balanced by focusing too much on Release Prints.

I personally am a great lover of the use of film. The directors and cinematographers I follow the most all, whenever possible, use film. Christopher Nolan has taken it to a whole level further by pushing to use as much Imax footage as possible. And the results pretty obviously speak for themselves. So I think the debate should really be more centered on acquisition than final projection. That is where things are obviously not so grim.

We can also reasonably hope that by the time film just can't be viable anymore, digital will have caught up. Certainly my prosumer DSLR camera now can take better images than my old consumer SLR 35mm camera,and especially when you factor in how rare it used to be to actually have a decent local lab even when everyone used film.

That being said, I rarely get to see release prints or any kind of film presentation, and you know what? I'm OK with that. I did get to see Dark Knight Rising on a real Imax film print and it was just stunning! But that is rare. Just about every theater in my area has upgraded to 4k projection though, and it by in large looks excellent. And more important, it stays that way.

You just don't have "professional" projectionists anymore. The comparison between LP and CD is relevant here. On a well-designed and maintained turntable (ie not one for teens or DJs) a new or well-cared for LP trumps a CD every time. No compression, no conversion: real music. But I also understand, 90% of the public is either too lazy or not interested in the extra care it takes, so CDs work. Or they don't care at all and are happy with lossy MP3s!

The one theater around here that still projects film doesn't do a great job of it, nor do they carefully maintain the projectors. The last movie I saw there had noise, dust, and some serious scratches on the print, so any possible benefit you might derive from it being on film was completely lost. So in that case it's easy to see why the switch has been made so quickly in the realm of projection. But I think more than 50% of the movies I enjoyed the most in the last 1-5 years have all started on film, including many that won Oscars for Best Picture. That doesn't sound like the End Is Near.

Doug Bowker

Motion graphics, video and 3D Animation for the Medical and Technical World
@Douglas Bowker
by Debra Kaufman
Thanks for not accusing me of having a horse in the race- which I don't. I'd be perfectly happy if film endured another 100 years. I'm just reporting the situation as it presents itself. I do talk about film as an acquisition medium. The reason I focused on release prints is because of how they contributed to the positive economics of film labs. With the absence of film release prints, labs have lost a huge money-maker. Can they exist strictly with the handful of directors that acquire in film? That's the issue I"m looking at. I'm not pitting film against digital in any aesthetic or practical way. I'm looking at how external economics are leading towards the end of film labs and the end of the wholesale manufacture of celluloid. That said, film itself won't die, if nothing else because there is so much of it out there. We'll be restoring, archiving and maintaining it for many, many years to come.
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Pavan Deep
In many ways this is another example of a sensational piece of writing which perpetuates the popular myth and raise attention and heighten drama with a catchy title and cliff-hanger ‘… What if Kodak ceases producing film stock...’ The real thing is that there is a huge change with the way films are shown in cinemas, it is the end of an era and for many it is a very sad time as many skills will be lost, a projectionist is a skilled craft, whereas as whoever operates a digital projector is only really pressing a few buttons, the only winners are the corporates, many individuals, small cinemas, the drive–ins lose out. It does seem that the price of progress is to loose real talent and skills, cause a lot of misery while the very few, the capitalists make heaps of money. Digital projection is cheaper, I wonder if the cost savings of digital projection be passed on to consumers and whether cinema ticket prices will go down, obviously not, because someone has to profit in all of this. As for the future of film that’s slightly different debate as some here have pointed, film is ‘organic chemistry’, I know people who make their own film emulsions and process their films at home and as long as people can do this film will not die.

Pavan Deep
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Tara D. Kelley
Hi Debra,

We at the AMIA Film Advocacy Task Force read your piece with interest. (Thank you, by the way, for acknowledging the Association of Moving Image Archivists and the outstanding work of AMIA member Grover Crisp.)

We've been tracking the status of labs as well: our current list, available at, indicates in excess of 159 operational commercial film laboratories worldwide. A list of artist-run film laboratories worldwide (maintained by increases that total.

Undoubtedly, the move away from 35mm bulk release printing and the increased use of digital video in acquisition and exhibition has led to a reduction in the number of laboratories, but it is incorrect to paint a picture of total obsolescence. Even as we write this, there are new lab positions posted on the AMIA listserv which require film-specific skill sets in projection, timing, and repair.

We would add that film production is not limited to or defined by 35mm mass bulk release printing or restricted solely to the commercial domain. Filmmakers have the right to choose motion picture film in all phases - from production through to exhibition and preservation - and are making a stand for that right.

We're encouraged by the comments posted here by practitioners and welcome informed, objective discussion in this area.

Elena Rossi-Snook, Chair
Tara D. Kelley

AMIA Film Advocacy Task Force
@Tara D. Kelley
by Debra Kaufman
Thank you, Elena and Tara for your response. I'm a big fan of AMIA and attend your annual conference in Hollywood every year. There is no doubt that the number of labs has decreased, in some places quite dramatically. I'm reading a thread on CML about someone wanting to shoot film in the Middle East -- and being told that the last film lab there shut down a year or two ago. I'm not predicting total obsolescence, and I hope that was not your take-away from my article. As I point out, film will continue to exist - if nothing else - in our immense archive of filmed movies that will need to be archived, maintained and restored. It will be interesting to see if any (additional) boutique film manufacturers emerge if/when Kodak ceases film stock production. We need at least a handful of film labs to survive and thrive. This article was intended as the spark to a conversation on how to make sure that happens.
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Alessandro Machi
While your intentions may have been to do a factual accounting of film and its future, I feel your article has a "concern troll" mentality to it.

If your goal was to give a fair assessment of the future of film, why not also mention all the prior digital proclamations that film was dead that have been going on for over 20 years.

No mention was made of the film to tape or film to digital file transfer business, which is how the labs are actually able to survive, even as prints dwindle in number.

Nor was any mention made of how of film shot thirty years ago can still continue to look better each time that digital recording technology improves by simply retransferring the film with the improved digital recording technology.

And the insinuation that Super-8 and 16mm labs don't count further shows a decidedly one sided viewpoint. There are images I have shot with a super-8 film camera via time-exposure mode that most modern day digital photographers could not guess how they were created. And if you found one who could figure them out, they probably had a background in film.

You also make no mention of the danger of an all digital world in which apps control what we can use, and how digital tools can be taken out of our hands in a moments notice by the simple dissolution of an ap.

The Kodak rep said it best, focus on what is going on with film, rather than produce a concern troll article about film and it's premature demise.
@Alessandro Machi
by Debra Kaufman
Hi Alessandro: I'm not sure what a "concern troll" is but it doesn't sound good!

Perhaps you can put this story into context if you read my first story on "film fades to black" about the end of manufacturing film cameras and a two-part story on camera rentals (very few film cameras). Yes, some labs do make money transferring film to tape/file, and I think this will continue to some degree as will Super 8 and 16mm production/post. But labs used to processing film that now have to rely on digital transfers and the occasional film restoration are in a quite precarious state.

The preservation of all the vast amounts of existing film will also, I hope, continue. I've done a lot of coverage of film restoration of some great films, as well as the possible alternatives to film archive and the dire need to come up with a good way to archive digital files.

Yes, film transferred to 4K definitely looks better than film transferred to HD and it will look even better transferred to 8K....if the funds exist to transfer it. That, indeed, is one of the unresolved issues and one of the reasons why so many classic films continue to be released in very poorly transferred old versions -- if at all.

That said, the studios will never pay for a movie shot in Super 8 or 16mm although a handful of indie films have been able to use 16mm. Increasingly, indie filmmakers shoot digital because it is less expensive and offers the benefits of immediate playback/same-day dailies, easy integration of digital VFX and many other factors.

None of this also changes the fact that, as the studios stop releasing film prints, labs lose yet more business. And if Kodak shareholders decide that they are no longer interested in producing film, then celluloid itself becomes a niche commodity.As the number of labs diminish and if celluloid becomes a niche product, fewer people will shoot film.

I have no horse in the race, so I have nothing invested in propping up film or cheerleading for digital. I just report it as I see it, based on months of research and many many conversations with people in the industry.

If that makes me a "concern troll" (whatever that is), then I'll buy the T-shirt.
@Debra Kaufman
by Alessandro Machi
Concern troll means your perspective is not neutral, but you have presented a version of film in this article that sounds like you are being neutral.

I have yet to read an article on a digital production site that simply mentions why film has continued to shoulder against all odds for so many years. An underdog sort of story.

Super-8 Vision 3 negative looks shockingly good because of the improvement in digital capturing technology. The fun angle to take, rather then the typical concern troll angle, would be to marvel at how the very thing that should eliminate film, the ongoing improvement of digital capturing technology, has been harnessed to improve the look of film on digital mediums.

Check out The MIddle on ABC every Wednesday night at 8PM. Shot on 35mm film stock, the everyday colors rock beyond any digital manipulation.
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Mark Suszko
If I had to guess, I'd guess that we'll see conventional, current-style film production, ...what remains of it, move offshore from the U.S. into China and Asiatic countries.

Reasons would include the installed base of film gear there, huge national consumer demand, but also the dirt-cheap labor costs, lower environmental and workplace safety standards, and a "relaxed" understanding of international IP law for both the programming and the media to convey it.

I can also foresee a niche of "artisanal" film labs remaining in the U.S. for some time, but they'll be using different chemistries and substrates than before. Nano-technology suggests possible advances over anything silver-based, and we may see an archival safety-type film standard emerge based on these up-and-coming technologies, as a bridging technology on the way to all-digital, everywhere.
@Mark Suszko
by Debra Kaufman
Yes, we will see niche artisanal labs remaining - many for restorations/archival purposes I believe. I think film will actually go away quickly in China and elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Computers - in the form factor of smartphones and tablets to laptops and desktops - are more widespread than film cameras and film labs and will quickly replace distribution and acquisition. Those traveling cinemas in India are already using inexpensive digital gear to project movies, a poorer form of "digital cinema."
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Robert Houllahan
I am writing this from Boston's film lab, Cinelab. We are actually about 40min south of Boston in New Bedford only a few miles away from the site of the giant plant Polaroid built in the 1980s to manufacture film.

We have five film processors and run 8mm,16mm and 35mm in B&W and Color including prints. We are small and have a small staff and low overhead. We have Grit.

Ironically I am working on a test for a feature and the last of a short film project which were both shot on a film stock from Germany which seems to be unmentioned in this article, Orwo. One of these films is all 35mm and the other is a mix of 35mm and Super-16mm.

I think the story of Polaroid holds some interesting lessons for what the future of film and motion picture film holds. Polaroid was the Apple computer of it's day and after the companies spectacular fall an interesting thing happened. The venture capitalists expected demand for the stock of Polaroid film to drop to zero and that they would sell off the last of the remaining film and that would be that.

Demand for Polaroid never did drop to zero and now the world has Impossible Project film. I would argue that the engineering required to produce instant film is quite a bit more involved than what it would take to make ECN from scratch. Film is an old technology and it's made from bones and silver I cannot imagine it ever ultimately being unavailable or undesired. As Paul said it might not be wise to underestimate the lengths people will go to to have film and continue to use it as a medium.

Film cameras last forever and I am sure the last 416 or X-Prod to roll of the factory line will be capable long after today's digital cameras are just part of the ewaste stream. But if that is not enough there is a New Super-8mm camera coming to market... and I can't imagine that if that works they won't take a crack at a 16mm one.

So yes things are dark in the "Film" business and Lab business but I don't think we will all be gone by the end of 2014. In fact I don't think the digerati will ever get the closure they crave from the end of analog mediums.


Robert Houllahan
Director / Colorist
Cinelab Inc.

2X Resolve With Titans, Wave and Element Panels. Telecine and 4K Film Data Scans 8mm,16mm,35mm film lab.
@Robert Houllahan
by Debra Kaufman
You are completely correct that, as dark as days are for film, not everyone/everything will be gone by end of 2014. I believe even if Kodak stops producing celluloid that boutique companies will (one reader mentioned Italian company Film Ferrania). But the economics of wide-spread film distribution are already winding to a close. Will the existence of 1000s of film cameras keep it alive? Hard to see how without film labs. At the height of the market, there were over 1 million U-matic recorders in the world, and I can't imagine that more than a few of them are still in use.... ONE big exception to all of this is the vast libraries of film that exist on film. A global cultural heritage is at stake and there are no really good solutions for digital archiving.
@Debra Kaufman
by Robert Houllahan
I see what you are trying to say but I think it is a false equivalency. Building a helical scan video recording system and the vapor deposited tape that goes with it takes the large scale resources of a company like Sony or Panasonic. Also those systems are not in use anymore because they are very hard to keep running. I know I have a few U-Matic decks for "Archiving" old tape.

Film is something that can be made without a giant infrastructure. I had a photographer at the Lab last week who makes his own emulsion. This is what film companies like Orwo or Impossible Project are doing. It is Organic chemistry.

Also film handling equipment and cameras are basically sewing machines. The New super-8 camera is being made by a few engineers with 3D printers, etc. Also there are now more film scanners available using the newest technology the digital world has to offer because it is easy to make complex machines. Look at the RED or Digital Bolex, they were both basically garage projects.

Finally the reason I feel that the crazy people of the world will keep film alive is because unlike video tape (which film arguably has out lived) you can hold up film to a light as see a picture, a beautiful one.

We are about to see a franchise which was the forerunner of the Digital cinema movement go back to film when J.J Abrams brings the next Star Wars to the screen.

We are a LAB and I think it will take an apocalypse for us to go away.


Robert Houllahan
Director / Colorist
Cinelab Inc.

2X Resolve With Titans, Wave and Element Panels. Telecine and 4K Film Data Scans 8mm,16mm,35mm film lab.
@Robert Houllahan
by Debra Kaufman
Believe me, I am not cheering at the demise of film or film labs. In fact, I'll be at the Academy's Scientific & Technical Awards which is giving the Oscar statuette to all film labs and film employees. Film may indeed continue onward, but not for major commercial distribution. It will be a niche industry kept alive by people who love it. How niche? I guess that depends on whether or not a younger generation is drawn to it.
@Debra Kaufman
by Robert Houllahan
I think that is true, and time will tell. We have allot of younger people who send us film so perhaps that is a sign. The future may be stranger than we think it will be.


Robert Houllahan
Director / Colorist
Cinelab Inc.

2X Resolve With Titans, Wave and Element Panels. Telecine and 4K Film Data Scans 8mm,16mm,35mm film lab.
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Rick Markovitz
sad to see this reality sinking in. i was teaching my daughter photography basics this weekend and got bolluxed up between film and digital capture methods. i wondered if at some point we will stop talking about film altogether and yet, isn't it the aesthetic foundation to cinematic imagery? one of the things i'll miss is the smell. one of the things i won't miss is schlepping around heavy film canisters from screenings. thanks for the landscape.
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Steve Zimmerman
Should have made mention of Film Ferrania, boutique film manufacturer.
Why Film Must Never Die > Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Keoni Tyler
A great follow-up to your 2011 article - thank you!

Acquisition and Emotion

When Allen Daviau, A.S.C. first came to us at the Directors Guild of America's first DIGITAL DAY more than 10 years ago, he had a test with him. It was the early days of Sony's CineAlta 24p on HDCAM 1/2-inch tape, and he showed 10 clips projected via 2K, asking which originated on 35mm film and which on digital videotape.

Getting 8 out of 10 right, I felt pretty good about my aging eyes. But frightening to me was what I did not feel while watching digitally acquired clips: lack of attachment due to a sense of "flatness" (and I'm not speaking about depth of field here.)

Similar to the early days of the Compact Disc - where vinyl albums' tape masters were simply transferred and not carefully remixed for the CD - a sense of what makes any artistic work lasting -- human emotion -- seemed to fall flat.

Sure, scenic shots of mountains, sunsets, trees, flowers and animals were all nice in this new format, but humans talking and acting took on a different look and feel. I hated the term "film look." I preferred "un-video look."

Had digital cameras come first before film's analog, would our psychology be different?

My father, an electrical engineer and not a creative said "only you people in the Hollywood industry notice."

"Not true," I countered. Take two rooms, identically decorated by a professional interior designer. In room #2, I, a decorating novice, change the color of the ashtray and seat covers. Visitors may not notice the change from either room, but they may leave feeling more comfortable or had a better time in Room #1, but don't know why.

In "Field of Dreams," if a scene got a 95% emotional impact shot on the 12K NHK experimental camera in the lab, would the same scene with the same actors score 110% on an emotional scale if shot on film - which we have grown to identify with great story-telling, nailing it out of the park?

I recently processed a lot of media for Participant Media and their new t.v. network, Pivot, and so many shows shot digitally are well acted, but got me only 95% moved. Friday Night Lights, now on Pivot, was shot on film and mastered on HD, and gave me that "feel" - hitting it out of the park, or past the goal post, I should say.

Maybe when you had a digital camera original and had to project digitally in a theatre, if you could do a 35mm transfer and then telecine back to digital projection, you would gain back some of the malleable tangible "tangent analog" which we humans identify with.

There are so many factors for this invisible "feel" that no post-production plug-in filter has convinced me it can replace film. After all, all of our human senses are analog. For humans to hear, see, touch, and feel our medium - there has to be an analog-to-digital in the camera and later digital-to-analog for viewing, as it must be analog light and sound vibration for us to experience our medium.

Archival and our Children

The archival argument in preserving our cultural heritage via stories with film can not be under-estimated. In an excellently written study, "The Digital Dilemma," (A.M.P.A.S. link below), an important point is made: Broadcast video formats come and go; and computer hardware, interfaces, storage medium; and computer software codecs, formats and operating systems are in constant flux.

If "Gone With The Wind" or "The Wizard of Oz" was done in a hypothetical 1K resolution with a Mac using an OS-9 operating system with 8-inch floppy drives with parallel interface connections with a QuickTime wrapper requiring a third-party codec, would future generations be able to play the movie? There are QuickTimes I authored just 4 years ago that sometimes will not play correctly or at all on today's computers because some add-on or incompatibility or version upgrade has rendered it useless.

There is a harbinger in television video: We've thrown away Ampex and RCA 2-inch Quadruplex machines (many in landfills, sadly), and while the format lasted the longest in videotape history - 30 years - un-transferred 2-inch tape pops up all the time in warehouses (a lost HONEYMOONERS episode was found in someone's basement on 2-inch tape.)

Can we play that tape and preserve it for the future? Ampex and RCA stopped making parts in the early 1990s. More sad is that the engineers who could make those machines sing are all retired and dying. Some have adopted machines in their garages to keep up the passion and practice, and they form clubs that show-up in dwindling numbers at NAB, god bless them.

Today, Panasonic and Sony will obsolete formats within 5 years. 3/4-inch U-Matic cassettes could have lasted past 1999, but Sony killed parts for repairs in favor of 1/4-inch DVCAM, thus 3/4-inch lasted 29 years - almost as long as 2-inch Quad. Sony reported in 1995 that there were a million more 3/4-inch machines than there were 2-inch Quad VTRs - so imagine the cassettes that will turn-up in 25 years that did not get transferred.

Why can't we train a new generation of 20-somethings to embrace older formats and school them on maintenance? Can we get a foundation to fund development of old format playback machines (they won't need to record, just play), telecines and projectors and teach a new generation to care for these?

I told a college film student that the garbage truck you see today with just 1 operator on your street still did the job that 5 garbage men did on old trucks, yet a 2-inch tape will only play on a 2-inch machine; any new video machine or computer will not play the tapes or films of our landing on the moon. Ditto a 35mm film telecine/projector.

We know that motion picture film - especially recent stocks and YCM separations - can last 100+ years.

If we find a lost 8mm, Super 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, 65mm, 70mm, VistaVision film, we can still access the film in some fashion around the world. We can hold it up to our eyes and see the frame.

I am far less confident about future access of any digital medium.

Keoni Tyler

Keoni Tyler is a Film & Television Director-Writer-Editor/Preditor;
and a former Post Production Supervisor of film clips for The Academy Awards®.

He met Sony founder Akio Morita as a kid, and started editing at 11 years old, becoming an assistant editor for HBO at age 15. He would see Sony's first attempt at HD in 1982.

Keoni has built an all-format machine room in an apartment and is trying to get a 2-inch Quad machine through the doorway. He eagerly takes time to talk to anyone under 30 about old format video and film.

Keoni intends to gift all machines and written documentation to the Motion Picture and Television Academies upon his passing.


AMPAS - Digital Dilemma -->

AMPAS - Long-Term Management and Storage of Digital Motion Pictures -->

A 2-inch and 3/4-inch edit session in 1979 annotated by Keoni Tyler -->

# # #
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Steven Bradford
Wonderfully thorough article. We still use film for instruction at Seattle Film Institute, and it was quite a blow to lose Alpha Cine. It has very useful instructional purposes-- it really forces the student filmmaker to focus and pay attention. Thankfully Kodak, Fotokem and Pro8mm are there for us, I hope enough others see the value in using film to keep the lines open.

Steven Bradford 3D company I've worked with since 1990 my personal home page, find my greenscreen page there. the school I teach at.
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Paul Korver
Thanks for this Debra. Great research done here. Most articles we see on this subject don't differentiate between film prints going away and the thriving film-as-an-acquistion-medium market. For example the recent article in Variety tantalizingly titled "End of Film" which actually just discussed Paramount's announcement that it will stop distribution film prints and made no mention of acquisition film's enduring impact on many of the most creative images we see year after year.

For instance, a beautiful Super 16mm film we worked on called "Low Down" just won Best Cinematography at Sundance 2014 amidst a sea of digital imagery. The DP Jeff Blauvelt and director Jeff Preiss sat in our theater and compared S16mm HDR film scans to test images from the Alexa. Regarding the test, Jeff provided this quote for another press outlet: "It was immediately apparent that film had all the atmospheric advantages. The comparison showed an organic painterliness nested in the image that's just not in digital's vocabulary". I think you'll find that a lot of people feel that way and I would not discount how far those folks would go to preserve acquisition film as a creative option.

We're actually excited about digital distribution and being able to skip the traditional photochemical OCN->IP->IN->Release Print process which introduces 4 generations of photochemical artifacts and resolution resolution loss. We can now scan film at highest resolution and dynamic range, and digitizing celluloid in it's purest form (original camera negative) and putting that image straight up on the screen via high-bitrate DCP.

Here's to another 20 years of film production by Kodak or whomever would come along and buy their patents should they exit, film acquisition by cinematographers who enjoy the immediacy, intimacy, and humanity it provides, front-end processing by Fotokem or whomever carries the torch after Deluxe and Tech throw in the towel on the technology that put them on the map, and post production by companies like ours, who are committed to keeping film alive as an award-winning creative option for filmmakers.

Viva Celluloid.

Paul Korver

President - Cinelicious
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Tim Wilson
Studios are doing almost all the work along these lines, and they're doing an amazing job with it. This is something of an obsession of mine, so we've run a TON of these stories, most recently, Restoring Orson Welles' Classic Lady From Shanghai.

We've run stories on other studio projects both great (Lawrence, Taxi Driver, Jaws, Bridge On The River Kwai) and small (Enfants du Paradis and Mary Pickford's lost film, Their First Misunderstanding). (Sorry I'm not adding links for these. Look 'em up in the COW Library.)

We've also run a couple of stories featuring the derring-do of preservationists at the Library of Congress (one of my all-time favorite COW articles), as well as the National Film Registry.

Did I mention that this is an obsession of mine? I can comfortably say that nobody on the web has come close to Creative COW's coverage of this.

So I don't think that preservation is as dire as it could be. In fact, the only film that Fuji is still manufacturing is for the preservation business, where, for now, film is ironically by far the best medium for preserving film.

My only hope is that studios can make as much money from Netflix as they were from DVD and Blu-ray sales. THAT's the thing that scares me. The business model is pretty easy to justify as long as there's money to be made from SHOWING and SELLING restored films, but if miniscule digital royalties undermine that, well, things could get hairy after that....

Tim Wilson
Creative COW
@Tim Wilson
by Debra Kaufman
AGREED - as long as audiences show an interest in classic films the studios will have the impetus to preserve them. Shout out to AMIA (Association of Moving Image Archivists) and Sony's Grover Crisp who has really been generous in telling us stories of his successful restorations.
Re: The Last Film Lab?
by Mark Suszko
Even as the labs are going out of biz making and printing new films, we have a crisis in OLD film restoration and preservation that requires transfer and archival, before it erodes away. My hope is that some of the talent and infrastructure we see leaking away from the print business, can adapt to a new role in preserving the images they have brought us. The big question of course is: who will PAY for that? AFI can't do it alone; the Academy could do more to preserve this trove of past celluloid as its gift to our cultural future.
@Mark Suszko
by Debra Kaufman
Absolutely Mark - that is my plea at the end of the story. I've read that there are still millions of feet of NITRATE that hasn't been transferred. There has to be a concerted effort to save and restore old films!

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