Film colour labs pay price for mismanagement

Film colour labs pay price for mismanagement

Manikkam started his career with analogue cameras and continued documenting several movies with them till 2005. A digital one would have been a quirky choice for his style, unable to deliver the same precise results he was used to after taking up various photography assignments.

As the years rolled by, Manikkam watched the ecosystem of film rapidly change around him. “I was out of the picture,” he says, recalling the huge camera kit he would unpack in order to capture several shots in Tamil movies.

A revolution has taken place in the world of cinema with films going digital, heralding a change which not only rendered people with knowledge of old world “reel” technology redundant but also labs which failed to make transition consigned to history.

He said:“The shift to digital distribution promises to save the industry several crores of rupees but it comes at a price. Not many saw this transition coming... not even professionals who were comfor­table with the work in labs providing traditional services for movies shot on reels.”

But when the change to digital occu­rred, it was rapid and all encompassing with labs and people who relied on old world charm disappearing at an alarming pace turning to shreds decades-old careers built painstakingly and machines purchased for lakhs of rupees broken down into pieces and sold for a song.

It is quite evident when the 56-year-old last surviving film processing laboratory in Tamil Nadu, Gemini Color Lab, closed its door recently, indicating an end of an era. With this, it also marked an end of analogue film-making period, handing over the reins completely to its digital alternative which began in 2005 with actor Kamal Hassan’s – Mumbai Express.

Apart from Gemini there were two more labs -- L V Prasad Film Lab and Vijaya Labs -- that processed and printed motion pictures which had already shut leaving thousands of workers joblesss. “It was a very difficult decision to close our lab. Entering into digital world will be better choice for the future,” said an official of Gemini Lab, who was one among the persons to steer the company to the latest technology.

Film industry sources said that some of the other labs’ recent bankruptcy was a result of decades of mismanagement. But it was also the victim of rapid technological change for an industry based on chemistry and large-scale production of obsolete goods. A company imported film processing equipment from the US spending several lakhs in 2009. A couple of years later, they were of no use as film makers opted for digital technology.

“Sadly, the machines were dismantled and sold as scrap. It fetched only a few thousand rupees,” Vijaya Bhaskar, once a maintenance engineer of a lab, said.

“Many leading south Indian actors, including the legendary Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Hassan, gave us warning that the cinema world will totally change into digital. We took it lightly and paid the price now,” Sakthivel, a film processor, who worked in Gemini and some other labs, said.

He claims several hundred lab technicians, cinematographers and others lost their jobs. “Only those who learnt digital processing have survived,” he said.

According to a report, employment in South India’s analogue movie and video industry, especially in encompassing production, post-production, and lab technicians reached its peak in 1992. But,  employment declined to 40 per cent in 2005 and nearly cent per cent in 2014.

Sakthivel claimed “digital technology is not built to last long” and says chemical film will stay safe for several decades if stored at proper temperatures and
humidity. “Digital formats can become corrupted, ” he pointed out.

Now, the big question is who will preserve master negatives of films, in which some of them were 50 years old. “There are more than 10,000 master negatives in different languages including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam in several closed labs. Who will keep them safely,” Raghavan, a leading cinematographer, asked. “One has to spend several thousands of rupees to secure just 100 negative rolls,” he said.

A former employee of Gemini Industries and Imaging Limited, who was maintaining several master negatives, said that the company has decided to return the original film rolls to the respective producers. “Even some collectors are interested to buy them,” he said.

“Many directors, for instance, prefer digital cameras because of the deftness they allow,” Ramanathan, a digital photo­grapher in the film industry, said. It is very difficult to take heavy 35-mm film cameras to hilly terrain and cramped places, especially in the slum areas for shooting. He says digital special effects and animation are big business in India.
S Venkatesan, a leading art director in Chennai, said cinema viewers and professionals ditched film first. Then health sector, especially diagnostic centres, which used it for X-rays, shifted to digital scans.

According to him, photo films have nearly completed its transition from the mass market to the craftsman. “Even retention of analogue films fade each year. In every sector, old things make way for newer ones”, he added. C Sekar, who has developed a course for young photographers, said :“Students are thrilled when they work slowly with their hands instead of in front of a digital screen.” Sekar has collected more than 5,000 old analogue cameras.

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