After 90 years of motion picture film processing in Detroit, Grace & Wild Studios has ceded to the increasing dominance of the digital world and closed its FilmCraft division in favor of handling file based workflows and film archival work.
Jeff Wanless, FilmCraft’s lab manager for 13 years, says FilmCraft will refer processing requests to Chicago’s Filmworkers Astro Labs. With the closing last year of Minneapolis’ and now FilmCraft in Detroit having ended, Astro stands as the Midwest’s sole 35/16mm processing lab.
Full article here.
The motion picture film processing industry is admittedly somewhat of a dying industry. Each year, digital video and HD filmmaking continue to take a bigger and bigger bite out of film sales which leads to a motion picture film lab closing every six months or so.
I'm well aware of these closures and the pressures that induce them because I work at one of the last motion picture film processing labs still standing on the east coast.
However, this particular quote in this article caught my attention:
Two factors led to the closing: the inevitable and increasing transition from film to digital capture and the killing of Michigan’s top-rated film incentives by Gov. Rick Snyder this year, which vastly reduced the amount of film the lab was processing.
“Thanks in part to Michigan film incentives, in the last four years the lab processed film for over 20 features — 500,000 feet for the feature ‘30 Minutes or Less’ alone,” amounting to 1.5 million feet of film,” says Wanless. That amount sunk to 100,000 feet this year.
Ladies and gentlemen, your "pro-business" republican policies at work.
Here's a little bit more background about FilmCraft and the Detroit film industry:
FilmCraft was one of the oldest and most durable labs in the film industry. It dates back to the earliest days of motion pictures when it was founded as Detroit Film in the 1920s, Wanless relates. It became General Film with new ownership in the 1930s and FilmCraft in the ‘50s. Grace & Wild purchased it in 1988.
The heyday of film lasted from 1970-1982, says Wanless. “Detroit’s film industry employed thousands of people at that time. We had three big labs — Producers Color Services, Allied and FilmCraft — putting out industrial, educational and religious films and commercials for ad agencies and the auto industry. Then video came in and killed the lab business.”
Detroit’s film industry was revived a few times since then, especially during the three years of tax incentives when Michigan enjoyed $300 million in production revenue.
Most people don't really know much about the film industry so I would also like to point out that there is another Midwest film lab in Kansas called Dwayne's Photo, but they mainly process 8mm and 16mm Ektachrome film, which is I guess why they weren't mentioned in the article. In fact, Dwayne's was recently notable for being the last film lab on Earth to process Kodachrome film, that memorable film line that was responsible almost all of America's amateur home movies from 1935-2010. Kodak itself discontinued Kodachrome production in June 2009.
The photographer, Steve McCurry, was actually allowed to be the last person who processed the last roll of Kodachrome at Dwayne's Photo in December 2010, such was his affinity and professional success due to the medium.
I'll also mention this other memorial of Kodachrome by Paul Simon
Anyway, back to article. Film as a medium is particularly susceptible to a destructive cycle in that it is expensive to produce and to process, which means that it only becomes economical if you produce and process it in large quantities. Kodachrome, in particular, serves as a good example of this vicious cycle in that where it once enjoyed a dominant share of the amateur and professional market until about the 80's and 90's when it really started to decline due to competitiveness with video and other easier to manufacture and process filmstocks.
Kodachrome is actually unusually complicated to process in relation to other filmstocks, which was partly designed to discourage amateurs and independent labs from competing with Kodak for processing it. It was actually the subject of court decision in 1954 called United States v. Eastman Kodak Co. where Kodak's monopoly over Kodachrome processing was declared anti-competitive and other labs were allowed to acquire the chemicals and machinery needed to process it.
However, with dwindling sales overall, Kodachrome processing at labs began to dwindle, leading to less demand for chemicals, which made it more expensive for Kodak to produce the necessary chemicals and for the remaining film labs to purchase those chemicals, thus driving more labs to close Kodachrome processing and so forth.
In short, due to the high expenses associated with producing film and processing it, the film lab industry really depends on having a high volume of work in order to be sustainable.
And that appears to be what happened with FilmCraft in Detroit. Under Democrats, Michigan offered important incentives that helped revive Michigan filmmaking to the tune of $300 million in revenue, a byproduct of which helped maintain enough demand for a small business like FilmCraft to stay in business.
Then after the 2010 tidal wave, Republicans are swept in to office who proceed to kill off these important incentives to allow millionaires and wealthy corporations to keep more of their money. It's a prime example of the shortsightedness that embodies conservative ideology that all government spending is inherently wasteful unless it's going to people at the every top of economic ladder. Instead, they ended up killing off an industry that Democrats had, years before them, spent a significant investment reviving.
Finally, I'd like to end with a little piece on Film vs. Digital in general.
Don't get me wrong, I don't have a particular grudge against video or HD. Film, video, and digital are all tools by which they can succeed or fail depending on the skill of the artist who wields them. In fact, I think it has some very notable advantages over film in certain situations, especially in documentary-type settings where you can't tell the world to stop everything while you download, can, and reload an 11-minute magazine of film.
However, I feel that there are some important advantages film has over digital that should be mentioned:
First, it's by far the best medium by which to learn motion picture storytelling. This may seem counter-intuitive because most people might think of film as an archaic, expensive, and cumbersome mean of production. It's actually these qualities that make it a good teaching medium because it forces a student to fully understand technical principles like exposure, lighting, frame rates, and shot composition as well as basic management and pre-production skills to plan ahead and really think through all of aspects of making a film. In short, you really have to imagine and see in your head how the technical decisions you make now will look on film a week from now after it's been processed. Do you think the average student with a digital camera will put that much thought into their production on their own if all they had to do was flip a switch and turn on a digital camera that chooses an exposure for them?
Second, film has the advantage of being "human-readable." What do I mean by "human-readable?" I mean that if you take a roll of film, all you have to do is unspool it and hold it up to a light to see the images that have been recorded on it. A film shot back in 1909 is just as accessible to the human eye as anything shot on film today. From personal experience, I can say that it's always remarkable to unspool a 90 year old film and reveal a bright, smiling human face etched into the silver halide crystals. Can't quite say the same thing about a DVD or a video tape.
And finally, how well do you think that video tape will hold up 90 years from now? Or that digital video file? Could you say with 100% confidence that you could find a machine 50 years from now to play back that tape with working, usable parts and the incorporated software to know how the tape has been encoded to play it back? Has anyone ever had a hard drive fail, become corrupted, or erased? Has anyone migrated an old file to a new computer only to have the new computer not be able to recognize it?
From an archival standpoint, I find it hard to think of any medium that will ever surpass film in terms of longevity and human-readability.