It’s a Catch-22. Because fewer films are shot on film, film processing labs are closing around the world. With fewer labs available, the range of services offered – from creation of prints, to processing of rushes and dailies – becomes less efficient and more expensive, thus encouraging productions to go digital, which, in turn, provides less business for the remaining labs, etc.
But John Tadros, Apha Grip managing director, saw an opportunity in this seemingly hopeless situation, and, in the last week of March 2015, unveiled the Alpha Mobile Film Laboratory at a ceremony hosted by the British Society of Cinematographers at the famous Pinewood Studios. The lab – officially known as “Alpha 1” – is a state-of-the-art full-service film processing facility entirely housed in a 44-foot-long mobile trailer.
Rather than directors shipping movie film and waiting for it to be processed, which can be a time-consuming process, the Alpha Lab can sit quite literally next to the director and begin post-production without delay.
Having been packed up in England and shipped to New York, The Alpha 1 is currently in the midst of a tour of the United States. Its first week saw trips to Kodak headquarters in Rochester, followed by Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NY. It was on display the West Village in Manhattan on Monday, June 16th, where workers from Deluxe and Postworks labs were able to inspect and tour the new mobile lab. The Alpha 1 will soon hit the road for a visit to Atlanta, Georgia with some stops for some production work along the way.
Tadros believes that the lab’s mobility is its greatest advantage. “A mobile laboratory can follow the work. It has no rent, no rates. If it has no business, it’s then parked in the lorry [truck] park,” he told Indiewire.
While productions used to be able to count on having a reliable lab in nearly every city of any size, the decimation of that industry has left many location shoots without an easy means of processing rushes at the end of the day. Alpha 1 aims to solve this dilemma. “We are able to accept film for processing as they are shooting,” said Tadros. “A DOP is able to review his dailies during the day. If there is a take he is unsure of, he can review it in the lorry two hours later.” Since a main advantage of digital production is the ease and speed in which footage can be reviewed, cutting into the processing time of film might once again make 35mm production an attractive option.
Tadros is also the owner of Alpha Grip, which has serviced many recent productions, including “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It was while working on “Interstellar” that he first talked about the idea of a lab on wheels with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who said that both he and director Christopher Nolan would be interested to see if such a thing could be accomplished.
The idea for this kind of service has actually been around for some time. The first truly mobile lab was housed in a rail car in 1917, and serviced the entire east coast of the United States, from Boston, Massachusetts to Jacksonville, Florida. However, the notion of a lab in a motorized trailer is somewhat more recent; indeed, Tadros based much of the design for Alpha 1 off of plans that had been drawn up (but never brought to life) by UK film-processing service Photomec.
One major reason why a mobile lab had never been built before was because the film processing equipment necessary to the operation would have been too expensive as an initial investment. It is, ironically, partially due to the fact that places like Technicolor and Deluxe were closing up that Tadros was able to find such material on the cheap. “The original film processor [on Alpha 1] came from a film laboratory in Paris that went bust, along with the essential elements of equipment such as joiners, film cleaners [and] densitometers,” said Tadros. “Being able to purchase the lab equipment cheaply was critical, as putting the lorry together was expensive.”
But more recent advances in processing technology were equally as essential to the construction of Alpha 1. Tadros cited the Blackmagic’s 4K Cintel as an example, as it is able to scan film in real time, producing 4K Ultra HD images and including Thunderbolt connections; it is also thin enough to mount on a wall, thus taking up very little space. Nearly every part of Alpha 1’s operation, from the water pumps to the mixing of necessary chemicals, is automated to some degree, and Tadros said that the entire lab can be run by just one person (though he employs three). All of this gives Alpha 1 the flexibility necessary to function and survive in a modern film-based production environment. As Tadros put it, “A fixed lab is like running a cotton mill in the Victorian age.”
Tadros will be beginning construction of a second mobile unit in Atlanta later this summer, using equipment he has scavenged from Deluxe’s defunct film lab. To be based in the United States, this new trailer will offer all of the services of its British counterpart. The construction will occur partially in the U.K., but will be completed in Atlanta, where an Allen film processor owned by the company will be installed. Tadros will even be modifying some of the machinery to handle many different types of production. For example, plans are in the works to adjust the lab’s main processor to be able to take on 65mm and 70mm film, which, Tadros said, will make the new Alpha unit “the only other laboratory that can process this format.”