Rockville’s Colorlab finds future in film preservation as firms switch to digital

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the film “Tana” as “Cana.” Also, a photo caption

When video killed the radio star in the 1980s, it also did a number on Russ Suniewick’s business — processing motion pictures. Suniewick co-founded Colorlab, a film-processing firm in Rockville. When the company started in 1972, D.C. was a major film town, with several large labs — Bono, Capital, Byron, among others — cranking out miles of government, public relations and educational films. Each of the network-affiliate TV stations had film-processing equipment. The phrase “Film at 11” was literally true. News of the day was recorded by 16mm film cameras, and the film was rushed back to the station, developed, edited and images readied for broadcast late at night or maybe the next day.

The mad dash to digital has proved to be the knockout punch for many who lived by, and loved, celluloid. Kodak, the inventor and producer of most of the film that everyone and their great-grandparents exposed for the past century, is bankrupt. Hollywood has found a way to dance on its grave, forcing theaters to install digital projectors so that studios could stop paying for film prints. Except for the last Batman adventure — which celluloid purist Christopher Nolan insisted be shot on film — if you’ve been to the movies lately, you’ve probably watched bits and bytes. Even the AFI Silver Theatre is having difficulty getting actual film prints for its retrospectives.

Against this trend, Colorlab continues. It has an office in New York City, where nearby New York University students can drop off their shot-on-film films to be processed. True, processing film is no longer Colorlab’s main business, or much of a business at all. Asked how many labs remain to process film, Suniewick and his group begin a slow count. The historic rivals Technicolor and Deluxe were forced to merge, one handling negatives and the other prints. They list a lab in Seattle, another in San Francisco, one in the Midwest, a couple in Los Angeles and a few in Europe.

Today, Suniewick and his 20-person crew are innovators in the world of film preservation and restoration. “I am so old that we are actually preserving films that I worked on back in the ’70s,” the 66-year-old Suniewick says with a grim chuckle. “We had many, many good years with lots of film processing.”

Colorlab helped Forrest Gump mingle with dead presidents. For seven seasons, the shop was open around the clock to service TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Street.” (“It drove a lot of people crazy,” Suniewick says.) More recently, Colorlab processed footage for use in “The Avengers” and “Captain America.”

“We’re not New York, and we didn’t have a gaggle of people who were willing to stay up all night to participate in show business,” Suniewick says, somewhat dismissively.

And in that dismissal is one reason Colorlab has survived. Suniewick and his co-founding partner, Ernest Aschenbach, were not star-struck over Tinseltown. They preferred the independent, the experimental and the artsy over the glitz and the government work being pumped out of D.C.’s other labs. While Colorlab has done preservation work for many of the films on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, Suniewick is quick to point out that Colorlab handled “the important ones, not the Hollywood ones.” And the impetus to build the lab came when the pair noticed that some interesting filmmakers were being ignored by the system.

‘Boutique’ for filmmakers

“We opened because Charles Guggenheim couldn’t get his dailies processed overnight in the [George] McGovern campaign,” Suniewick says. Guggenheim, the famed documentarian who has a Silverdocs symposium named for him, was pioneering the cinema verite approach to political coverage, but his small, seat-of-the-pants productions took a back seat in the daily grind of processing news conferences.

Suniewick and Aschenbach were working at local TV station WMAL (now WJLA) as photographer and film editor, respectively, when they noticed Guggenheim sneaking into the lab late at night. “It motivated us to realize that there was an opportunity to service the upcoming independent film community in Washington,” Suniewick says. “And Washington became a really busy documentary film town.”

So Colorlab launched as “a boutique” for more adventurous filmmakers while grabbing as much government and educational film work as it could. “We thought the film aesthetic would keep us in biscuits for the rest of our lives,” Suniewick says. “The bar’s been lowered, aesthetically, so far, and everything is so content-driven that how things look has kinda flown by the wayside.”

Suniewick points to one of the refrigerator-size film processors, designed in 1920. Colorlab bought a new one in 1980 for $98,000. “Up until eight years ago, it was worth $98,000. Now, it’s worth virtually nothing,” he says, adding wearily, “Pretty annoying.”

When VHS tapes killed the market for educational film distribution, Colorlab added film-to-tape transfer machines, which “kept the wolf away from the doors for a decade,” Suniewick says. “And then 12 years ago, I thought, ‘Why don’t we play to our strength and start preserving films?’ ”

Pam Wintle of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Studies Film Archives in Suitland — which is sitting on 8 million feet of historic film, not even one of the larger collections — has been working with Colorlab since 1978. “Colorlab,” she says, “is certainly one of the key players in preservation now. That’s because Russ really embraced the whole notion of preservation.”

Regina Longo, a film archivist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who is working with Colorlab to save “Tana” (described as the “Citizen Kane” of Albania), echoes this, noting that “there are very few labs left that can do this kind of work.” She praises Suniewick for being “in an art place. He’s not about the money, it’s about preserving films and making sure that they get seen again.”

In her recent book, “The Past Is a Moving Picture,” author Janna Jones says that 20th-century humans are the first people who could view their past as a moving image. But the problems film archives face today is: What to preserve and for how much?

Wintle laughs at the notion that “everything’s out there on the Internet already, right?” Because, she says, “what’s online is just a fraction of what exists. And what’s been preserved is just a fraction of what’s waiting to be.”

A deterioration problem

A problem with much of what is left in archives and basements around the world is that the film has deteriorated beyond the point where normal preservation is possible or cost-effective.

Fortunately for Colorlab, there was an in-house solution: Tom Aschenbach, son of the co-founder. The younger Aschenbach calls Colorlab his grade school, but he graduated college with a computer-science degree. He’s put his knowledge to use updating the century-old chemical and hands-on method of filmmaking — digitally.

The Achilles’ heel of film has always been the sprockets — the holes by which it is pulled through cameras, projectors and processors, wearing it down over time. It’s labor-intensive to repair or replace torn or missing sprockets on hundreds of feet of film. Like face-recognition software, Tom Aschenbach’s system calculates the image’s precise position in the machine so that it may be photographed onto a hard drive; his algorithms can eliminate the shakiness that was caused by the original cameras.

Another common problem with old film is shrinkage, which prevents film from fitting into the machines, sprockets or no. Aschenbach’s process can restore film that has withered as much as 12 percent, a tenfold increase in what was previously possible.

Tom Aschenbach also developed an audio system to reclaim lost soundtracks and, most stunningly, ways to restore faded color, a problem with a much of the Kodak film from the ’70s and ’80s. That Instagram look that all the kids love? That’s the look of damage.

Tom Aschenbach shows a presentation he and Suniewick made to the Association of Moving Image Archivists last year. In a side-by-side comparison of an old Country Music Hall of Fame promotional film starring “Harper Valley P.T.A.” singer Jeannie C. Riley, the left side image is a dull, faded orange. The right side looks as if it had been shot the day before.

The demo includes 1930s footage from India, a 1914 drama starring Native Americans shot in New Mexico and a 1950s European travelogue shot by an amateur enthusiast in 3-D — which Aschenbach’s tools can also restore, in case “Avatar” somehow falls into disrepair.

“No one has this product, this combination of hardware and software,” Suniewick says. Tom Aschenbach has started his own company, Video and Film Solutions, to further market his preservation tools.

Modernization

And so, Colorlab remains a busy place, with many specialists making sure things look just so. In one small room, Chris Hughes is checking his restoration of a “color” film from 1910, “A Modern Cinderella.” With its alternating blue-, green- and red-tinged scenes, it looks as crisp and new as if it were modern. Suniewick pulls out a 1923 Kodak manual detailing tinted and toned film stocks, available years before Dorothy landed in Oz.

Elsewhere, Steven Spielberg’s money is preserving all of the Holocaust testimonial footage that didn’t make it into the 91 / 2-hour film “Shoah.” Videotapes from the Nixon Presidential Library — such as Maury Povich interviewing Martha Mitchell — are being preserved. Colorlab is a partner in the project to restore 120 silent films unearthed in New Zealand. Films are being received from and sent to Japan, Korea and France.

The switch to preservation mode from simply processing film has been “a great place to be to transition myself out of the company and give it off, trade it off, sell it off, whatever, to a younger generation of people,” Suniewick says. Last year, he had a stroke, but he has recovered.

Pondering the future, Suniewick notes that the swift advance of technology means that his ability to restore films will increase but also that digital “movies” will become better-looking. The result, he worries, is that “people will just flat-out not spend any more time or money thinking about [old films] anymore.

“You never know what’s going to happen in our business. Who would have thought people would ever accept things on video? But now it’s, ‘Why spend the money on film?’ ”

Nuttycombe is a freelance writer.

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