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When Is It The Labs Fault???

Published : 20th August 2003


I shot a short film on super 16 film over a year ago. The producer has been getting the film processed and transferred piecemeal over that time. In fact its been processed in three different labs. We shot with all re-cans and short ends purchased from a reputable reseller.

We shot a mixture of 79, 46, and 77. Even though it took months for some of the film to get processed largely all of it came through with no damage. Except the next to the last batch to get processed and transferred looked horrible. The producer figured maybe she'd taken so long to get the film processed that maybe it was beginning to become damaged. She happened to get the last batch processed at a different lab than the lab where the ruined batch came from.

But the last batch came out fine. So she called me and asked me is there any way it could be the labs fault. So I sat down and looked at the ruined batch on a VHS dub. It looked like grainy, underexposed reversal from the 70's. A very odd look for negative film from 2000.

The peculiar thing was that each scene was in a totally different location, different time of day, some shots at day, some shots at night. It was a mixture of 46 and 79. It all looked exactly the same. I looked at the slate numbers, and most shots were on different rolls of film, and it all looked exactly the same no matter where it was shot, what time of day, the roll number, or on which type of film stock.

All of the rest of the film was fine, only this one batch from this one lab came back looking terrible. This particular film lab has awful customer service, they monopolize the area they are in, so you either use them or go out of town. I would rather send my exposed negative to the other side of the country. About a year ago I vowed to the owner of the lab I would never use them again.

But the producer of this short felt comfortable with this lab and used them any way. So after looking at all of the evidence the only thing I could conclude is the lab messed up in processing the film. Generally if you call a lab and question any of their work they will go out of their way to figure out what the problem is, was it their error, and how to correct it.

I already knew and told her this particular lab would not take responsibility for the film being ruined. She called to make an appointment to show them the film, and already without even seeing the film the lab was saying it was not their fault.

She took the film with a VHS dub to show. They looked at the negative and refused to look at the VHS dub, and told her the reason it looked like that is because the film was too old. When she asked them why didn't any of the other film from the other labs look like that. They told her this particular film was too old and their was nothing they could do about that. The thing is this batch of negative is made up of different film stocks manufactured at different times. So how could all of it be too old? They told her she could ship the negative to Kodak and have them look at it to see what's the problem with it.

She felt like they were brushing her off and became angry and demanded that they reimburse her the money for the processing and transfer. They told her she had no proof that they did anything wrong to the negative and refused to reimburse any of her money.

So now she's left with going to Kodak for proof that they ruined the negative. What do you guys think of this?

Tenolian Bell
Cinematographer NY



Tenolian Bell wrote:

> So now she's left with going to Kodak for proof that they ruined the >negative.

Send the film to Kodak. The emulsion number will provide the date of manufacture and the edge numbers will tell a great deal about fog, processing, etc. Just because the guys at this lab are obnoxious, doesn't mean they're wrong. They're certainly correct in only wanting to look at the negative and disregard the VHS.

The one factor you have omitted -- which may be key -- is how the film was stored while awaiting processing. If, for instance, the producer left it in the trunk of her car for only a few summer days, then it wouldn't matter if you bought the film the day of the shoot.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP



>The one factor you have omitted -- which may be key -- is how the film >was stored while awaiting processing.

It wasn't so much an omit as an over sight of the obvious. I was told the film was kept in the 'fridge most of the time, and that it was transported in a cooler to the various labs.

I'm not saying the lab was wrong, the stars and moon may have aligned correctly and several different rolls of film manufactured at different times that all ended up at this same lab may have been too old.

What I am saying is they spent more energy saying "it wasn't our fault", than trying to help the producer. Explain what are the characteristics of old film, and why this film is too old, explain to her what could go wrong in the processing of film and what the characteristics of badly processed film are. This way she would fully understand why it wasn't their fault, instead of them just saying it wasn't our fault in the face of evidence that it was.

I spoke to a rep at Kodak and I was told that old negative would age differently and two different types of stocks would not exhibit the same image degradation, also if the film had been damaged by heat or radiation generally their would be patches, or blobs, or streaks in the image, which there were none. Lots of grain though.

Tenolian Bell
Cinematographer NY



While I understand that the lab did look at that negative in question, has anyone compared that neg. to the neg. from the other lab processing batches? You went to three different labs and got three different transfers. The only way to really know if the footage is damaged is to compare the different negatives. Maybe it was just a really bad transfer, which is far more likely than anything else. In the end there might not be anything particularly wrong with the neg.

Mitch Gross
NYC DP



Sam said:

> I fully understand "shoestring" budgets trust me

Agreed. When I'm shooting 16mm or S16, I pretty much 'insist' on only factory sealed stock. I'll take more chances with 35mm, but with 16mm you such lower margin for error.

Roderick Stevens
Az. D.P.
www.restevens.com
12 On / 12 Off!



Tenolian Bell wrote:

> What I am saying is they spent more energy saying "it wasn't our fault",

Tenolian, it seems to me the Producer spent more energy dealing with all this than she would have by buying factory fresh stock or stock of known source - origin and using a lab of known quality.

I fully understand "shoestring" budgets trust me, but when you're going S16 there's an imperative to take the working materials with a certain degree of seriousness, no ?

Sam Wells



Tenolian Bell wrote:

>I was told the film was kept in the 'fridge most of the time, and that it was >transported in a cooler to the various labs.

That's great; so if this is true, then you can eliminate heat as a possible cause.

I'm not saying the lab was wrong, the stars and moon may have aligned correctly and several different rolls of film manufactured at different times that all ended up at this same lab may have been too old.

You will only know this by checking with Kodak on the mfg. dates from the emulsion numbers.

What I am saying is they spent more energy saying "it wasn't our fault", than trying to help the producer.

Let's all agree that the people at this particular lab are not customer friendly.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. You say the lab should…Explain what are the characteristics of old film, and why this film is too old, explain to her what could go wrong in the processing of film and what the characteristics of badly processed film are.

I would suggest that this is really the role of the DP.

This way she would fully understand why it was not their fault, instead of them just saying it wasn't our fault in the face of evidence that it was.

What evidence? Has anyone else who processed film at the same time had similar complaints?

You seem convinced it was the lab's fault, yet the only evidence you have presented is the lab's insisting that it wasn't their fault and a VHS of a transfer that this lab didn't do.

As Mitch Gross correctly says :

>The only way to really know if the footage is damaged is to compare the >different negatives. Maybe it was just a really bad transfer, which is far >more likely than anything else. In the end there might not be anything >particularly wrong with the neg.

I spoke to a rep at Kodak and I was told that old negative would age differently and two different types of stocks would not exhibit the same image degradation.

Basically, that's true, but, a common transfer could eliminate these differences. I repeat my original suggestion, which was to have the negative examined by someone who knows what he or she is looking at. Also if the film had been damaged by heat or radiation generally their would be patches, or blobs, or streaks in the image, which there were none.

I have played around with some very old film and have had a different experience. Reduced speed, increased fog, reduced contrast, color shifts, greatly increased grain, but no patches, blobs, or streaks.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP



I'd like to add one more thing to this thread -

I'm assuming that the reason the director waited to process the film was because she didn't have the funds to pay for it. It's my understanding that most laboratories process film as soon as they receive it, and hold the processed material until it's paid for. So, she could have taken all the film to the lab immediately after the shoot, and then paid them in instalments. If this is the plan, perhaps I'd talk to the lab up front - they're in the business of processing film, and most will want all the business you can bring to them. This may sound like you'd be tipping them off to the idea that you can't pay and might make them want to avoid working with you, but I believe that any smart business person would realize that if they help make your film a success, you'll come back to them over and over again.

Just my two cents....

Ted "used to be in Nabet 15 too" Hayash
CLT
Los Angeles, CA



>If they help make your film a success, you'll come back to them over >and over again.

Call me a flinty-hearted jerkoff, but if I was the lab in that situation I'd be thinking quite the opposite. It's highly unlikely that any independent film will be a success with or without a good lab, and I'd be concerned about appearing to be a soft touch to any bunch of amateurs with a cash flow problem.

Phil Rhodes
Video camera/edit
London



>Call me a flinty-hearted jerkoff, but if I was the lab in that situation I'd be >thinking quite the opposite.

O.k. Phil! You're a flinty-hearted jerkoff. You've got to work on the name calling though…

Meanwhile - no he's right. Most labs will process the film right away. You don't pay for it until you pick it up. I'm always telling my fellow "poverty-stricken-filmmakers" this (notice I say 'fellow'). "Get your film processed right away!!! You don't have to pay for it until you pick it up and besides the fact that until you do, the film is continuing merrily (albeit slowly) down it's 'exposure-path' (what's that called again?), you don't want to risk anything else happening to the negative in the meantime!" (hence possibly this thread) I've had film sit at a lab for three months before I could do anything with it.

Roderick
Az. D.P. (trailer park filmmaker



>Maybe it was just a really bad transfer, which is far more likely than >anything else.

This was ruled out because the colorist told the producer the negative was severely underexposed and she had to do a lot of work to it. Actually, I didn't know the film was processed at three different labs until after it had been done, something I would not have endorsed.

>I fully understand "shoestring" budgets trust me…

Yes, but as we all know its not really the DP's choice. Of course if I'd been given a choice I would want fresh film. Hell I'd want to shoot 35mm. I shot this short as a favor for a friend, my only choice was to say yes or no to the conditions I was given.

>Explain what are the characteristics of old film…I would suggest that this >is really the role of the DP.


I did explain the serious danger of an unprocessed negative to the producer. I emphasised she get all of the film processed before she has any of it transferred. But alas it did not happen that way. Also I can explain the theory of what can happen to film under certain conditions, mostly from what I've read in books, and have been told. But I have no direct connection to processing film. So in my mind the lab is in a better position to explain lab problems.

> Get your film processed right away


Yeah, I laid out a plan for the producer to follow in the post process, and it wasn't followed. The message I get from you guys is that so many mistakes were made in the way this was done that you can't be too quick to blame the lab. We'll see after Kodak looks at it. Oh well lessons learned.

Tenolian Bell
Cinematographer NY



Tenolian Bell wrote:

>This was ruled out because the colorist told the producer the negative >was severely underexposed and she had to do a lot of work to it.

Most likely the colorist was describing a "thin" negative. However, without examining the negative, under exposure is only a guess. A thin negative may be the result of underexposure; it may also be due to loss of speed --a universal characteristic of old stock; the film may also have been underdeveloped, or any combination of any of those three.

Brian "Tommy Upshaw says "Hi" Heller
IA 600 DP



>So now she's left with going to Kodak for proof that they ruined the >negative.

Why do these lab questions ALWAYS come up over a weekend when I'm away?

In our part of the world, Kodak is often called in to act as an impartial referee in lab/customer disputes. The Kodak reps mostly have considerable lab experience themselves, as well as a close relationship with their own customers, so their verdict is likely to be well-informed and balanced - even though it is sometimes heavily veiled in prevarication where the evidence is inconclusive.

In Tenolian's case, the situation seems easy to analyse. Someone (either Kodak, or someone technical on the production crew) should examine the negative itself and compare it with the "good" negative itself from other labs for a start. Forget looking at the transfer until you know the state of the neg itself. Or they could send the suspect negative to another lab for a report, or to transfer a short section to see if they can make a better job of it.

Even if you conclude the lab has ruined the negative in processing, most labs will limit their liability to replacement of the stock, and free replacement processing. If you aren't re-shooting, then you are using the material, and the lab would expect you to pay for the work carried out.

There's usually room to negotiate IF the lab is reasonable..

Dominic Case
Atlab Australia


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