RISE OF THE SUPER LAB!
FIVE YEARS AGO, USING FILM TO MAKE MOVIES, TV OR COMMERCIALS WAS SEEN AS ALMOST ARTISAN BUT THE COMPANIES THAT BELIEVED IN ITS LONGEVITY ARE NOW REAPING THE REWARDS
People who perhaps should have known better were eagerly giving film, as a production medium, it's last rites five years ago. The promise of digital Cinematography was huge, and still is, but the appreciation of celluloid ran deep. There was never a shortage of people wanting to shoot on it, but thought it was too expensive - maybe that was part of what we call now 'fake news'.
Looking back you can understand the excitement around digital, with it's almost limitless take ability, film-like imagery and cheap media. How could the old stager 'film' compete with myriad, cost-cutting workflows that connected digital capture with digital post, broadcast, movie distribution and now streaming? Yet it takes more than a digital revolution to resign a 100-year-old technology to the ash heap of history.
"We believed that we only had two or three years of people shooting on film!"
Cinelab opened it's film lab in 2013 in a large building in Slough, which is under the flight path of Heathrow Airport, west of London and, perhaps more importantly, less than 30 minutes from the Pinewood, Shepperton and Leavesden studios. Productions that were shooting abroad didn’t have far to go to get their film processed and to enter the post-production workflow without travelling into central London.
At the time, joint founders Adrian Bull and John Mahtani were witnessing the entrenchment of film from companies like Ascent, Deluxe and Technicolor who were racing to detangle themselves from the business of film processing and distribution. Fujifilm had already left the film manufacturing business and even worse news was that Kodak, the only other large company still making celluloid was entering Chapter 11 – the US version of bankruptcy but with the lifeline of continued operations under certain circumstance.
Maybe ironically Bull still saw this time as a business opportunity for a new type of film lab. “Five years ago the labs were typically photo-chemical lab operations so concentrating on the processing of film and photo-chemical printing,” Bull explains. “If you looked at the big post facilities of the time with these lab capabilities, certainly Deluxe and Technicolor, the creative elements like telecine and scanning side of things and restoration in terms of digital restoration weren’t necessarily co-located with the lab. So, if you like, the interface to the rest of the post-production world were relatively limited at those main locations as the film post-process would be transported into town to one of many post facilities for dailies, telecine, sound synching etc. So what we focussed on six years ago was the belief that if we packaged as much of that digital interface around film to make it easy for people to shoot film, so that they wouldn’t have to deal with multiple vendors for a project. If it’s processed with us and we do telecine dailies, sound synching and that gets it to editorial so when they’ve completed an edit they send us an EDL, we can then do the final scans. We then deliver back the high res uncompressed 2K or 4K data that allows them to conform and grade their job. If they then need film deliverables at the end of it, they can send that data back to us for us to record it back out to film for projection or archive purposes.”
[Wonder Woman 1984 - Processed by Cinelab London]
This type of one-stop-shop approach was nothing new to post-production. In fact, over the last 20 years it has been a traditional business practice to ring fence budgets this way. But the challenge around the film side of things was that there were very different skill sets for the people who were involved in processing film compared to the more understood post-production services of telecine, scanning, restoration and grading. “Really it was taking those two components and bonding them together when there wasn’t a real crossover of skills
between the two,” adds Bull.
On one level, the story of this film resurgence hinges on good business practice apart from the love of the medium. Cinelab got up and running and started marketing themselves to productions that were eyeing digital acquisition to predominately save money. “There are two
elements that are probably most relevant. One of them, which is always sensitive, is budget. There was an element, however, of us being able to provide some assurance that it can’t get out of hand as it’s one company dealing with all of the work,” says Bull. “The second thing that goes hand in hand with that is the reliability of the delivery, the quality and turnaround. Having a single contact for everything means you are not chasing maybe three companies for news and updates on processing, scanning or telecine.”
Cinelab wasn’t entering the film processing business hoping that film’s popularity curve would suddenly turn upwards, they had a plan. “It was the middle of 2013 when we established Cinelab,” says Bull. “In our business plan back then, we believed we only had two or three years of people shooting on film on any sustainable level. But realistically we knew we would have to transition the business to primarily an archive one around digitalisation and restoration. But what’s happened almost exactly is that we’ve seen a doubling of business year on year since then in terms of film processing.”
In any business, this represents an extraordinary turnaround. Bull’s initial pitch was based on showing clients the different between film and digital and, in his own words, “they had their eyes shut and weren’t interested”. Most of this reaction was based on budgets. You may have the cinematographer and director wanting the film option, but line producers would say no as they thought it would be too expensive; everyone knew that right?
"We've seen a doubling of business, year on year, in terms of film processing"
“For the first few years, we were constantly being challenged with digital capture budgets while we were trying to make film look comparable to digital budgets. Normally this was around controlling the shooting ratio, how much a film project’s cost is directly proportionate
to how much film you shoot. The cameras are relatively cheap, so if you can control that shooting ratio and you’ve got a really good script and team with actors who know what they’re doing, then you can control that ratio and make something that at 10:1 or 12:1 on 35mm 3-perf looks comparable to the cost of shooting digital. Film depends on the discipline of shooting, because every time you pull the trigger, it’s costing you money,” Bull explains. “I think what’s happened over the last two to three years is that people have started to see and look
more closely at the difference between film and digital and they’ve started to recognise that film does look different and it’s not just about resolution and dynamic range.
“I have no doubt one of the biggest attractions of going back to shooting on film has is the technical requirements of delivery of 4K and HDR, which suits most multi platform content delivery requirements.”
In conclusion, what the new type of film labs like Cinelab has changed is the preconception that you can’t afford film. They have returned the option of shooting this way and are always looking to make the process more efficient using the latest technology surrounding one of the oldest. Movies and commercials have made up most of Cinelab’s client list – and what great movies and award-winning commercials, too:
The Last Jedi, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Phantom Thread, Wonder Woman 1984.
Having said that, Bull has had ongoing discussions with Netflix and other streaming companies who are known to design and adhere to extremely tight production guidelines. Shooting on film is not out of the question for them.
Credit: Julian Mitchell, Definition