A current snapshot of Union Labs and the Still Lab Technicians of Local 683

Tell me if you’ve heard this one. When unit stills shifted from film to digital capture, an independent producer contacted Danielle Straughn, then VP of the Hollywood-based lab, Studio Photo Imaging. He was irate about a bill and demanding answers. Straughn, a veteran customer service rep, calmly explained that the production received sets of proof sheets, printed from RAW file conversions of the unit photographer’s work. “But,” the producer stammered, “this is digital. It’s free!”

It’s easier to find humor in such stories now that the era of digital photography is marking its 10th anniversary.  But when the change from film to digital first arrived, no one at IATSE Local 683, Laboratory Film/Video Technicians and Cinetechnicians, was laughing.  Ironically it was the speed of distributing images digitally (irresistible when dealing with deadline-driven news and media outlets), and not advances in digital photography that started it all. How ironic, then, that the front end of the process, acquiring the images, appears to be stabilizing while the dilemma of what to do with the images after capture continues to remain in flux.

And since Hollywood’s best Union photo labs work with photographers (for digital capture) and publicists in film marketing departments (for digital distribution), they were and remain ground zero for the many changes shaking this part of the film and television industry.  As both a unit publicist and freelance photo editor, I have tremendous respect for the way our Union labs continue to moderate, support, balance and strengthen these dual roles.  And the labs are speaking up, too.

Shifting Tools—Maintaining Value

Perhaps the best barometer of change has been in the distribution of press kit images – those key publicity shots seen mostly in magazines and newspapers that help to sell audiences worldwide. Black & white prints and color transparencies were replaced by digital files (scanned from color negative and early digital photos) and sent out on CD, which were then accompanied by graphics in a CD-ROM press kit, which then migrated to on-line distribution with no physical component at all. And guess who used to make a living at providing all those physical photographic materials?

“When I go into a lab now,” observes Scott George, Local 683 business representative, “there are no longer as many people, they aren’t processing film and I don’t smell any chemicals. All I see are large screens and wires. But the good thing is these labs have evolved and survived the change. Local 683 members went and got the necessary training – sometimes with their own time and money – and kept themselves relevant. They found their niche and now work in technology at a very high level.”

George says there are currently six labs signatory to Local 683: Kimaging, Paramount Pictures Photo Lab, Studio Photo Imaging, The Lab @ Film Solutions, Warner Bros. Photo Lab, and West Coast Photo. Out of the Local’s 1,100 members, approximately 4.5 percent are still lab technicians. Perhaps one of the most unsettling things about the digital revolution in photography is the prolonged period of reorganization that followed.
And in this new cost cutting era, Union labs have had to become more assertive in demonstrating their intrinsic value to both photographers and film marketing professionals. They’ve had to dispel misconceptions and demonstrate how they strengthen relationships; how they add value, keep costs down, safeguard investments, help shoulder the workload and partner in these innovations. Thankfully, many in our industry are understanding all the ways they can benefit and profit from their interaction with Union labs.

“Last year was horrible, so everybody pulled back, not spending as much, or looking at ways to not do as much,” remarks Greg Dyro, Director of Warner Bros. Photo Lab, which, like Paramount Photo Labs, is situated on the Company’s studio lot but does work for outside clients as well. “We are constantly having to ask, ‘How can we do this more efficiently?’ because that’s what clients are demanding. In the digital realm, we have systematically lost staff because it requires less people to do things.”

But going it alone, without the assistance of a Union photo lab, inevitably spells trouble, according to Pam Lord, General Manager of West Coast Photo, who says that, “people experiment with doing it themselves, and then they realize that they don’t have the manpower with knowledge and expertise, the equipment or the speed.”

“Paramount Pictures Photo Lab is growing and thriving,” says Ellen Showalter (left) Supervisor, Photographic & Digital Imaging Services, pictured here with Dony West (right), Senior Digital Technician. In a 20-year career in the lab business, Showalter has been at Paramount for three years, and West has been there for six. Though the lab recently moved into a new structure, it has been on the Company lot since the mid-80s. “The Camera department was very busy supplying film to the set and they realized there was a business in processing.”

Or as Ellen Showalter, Supervisor of Photographic & Digital Imaging Services at Paramount Pictures Photo Lab describes: “You’ll have 20,000 images shot, with 1,000 routed for approvals that boil down to 200-300 for the key set of images. You still have the remaining 19,000 unapproved images that need to be securely stored. And that’s 19,000 times two since there is a RAW file and a JPEG.”

Showalter says history proves the remaining images retain value. “In the three years I’ve been here,” she adds, “we scanned images from The Godfather 8-9 times since there was a need for more images of Francis (Coppola) directing or sets and props images for licensing. We said, ‘Let’s scan everything instead of this hunt-and-peck method,’ because you can never tell which ones of the extra stills you’ll need.”

She offers the example of a photographer who might do a crop, slight retouch, or color correction on an image and save it out as a JPEG, even though the RAW version is right next to it. “A year later, that photographer is on another film,” Showalter explains, “and the ad agency wants the RAW file of the image. We have to know that it does or doesn’t exist and locate the differently-named original RAW.”

“We’ve been in business for 10 years and I would say we’ve reinvented ourselves at least three times,” says Kim Neelley, founder and CEO of Kimaging, pictured here (left) with Chris Neelley (right). “Efficiency, speed, professionalism… that’s what we pride ourselves on. Using a union lab eliminates the worry that you are going to have to wait and then double-check everything that was done. Our automation advances efficiency and accuracy even more.”

Kim Neelley, CEO of Kimaging insists it is better to have one central repository for the large files, with knowledgeable people who can provide efficient service. “When money has been spent designing the one-sheet and getting it approved,” Neelley notes, “there’s frequently a deadline situation with 30 to 40 designers standing by, waiting for 200 RAW files so they can work through the weekend.  I’d make the argument that it’s a good investment to rush file transfers because what you’d pay us is much cheaper than what you’ll pay for an hour of the agency people drumming their fingers. The vendor may not bill that directly, but the cost will be passed along one way or another.”

The Photographer-Lab Collaboration

Longtime Local 600 unit stills photographer John Bramley (I Am Number 4, Secretariat) says his relationship with Union photo labs hasn’t really changed since the days he shot on film. “The shift basically involved working out a system where you could download reasonably quickly,” Bramley explains. “You just send them the work in a little box now, a hard drive, instead of chasing around 40 rolls of film, and it still comes back from the lab in the form of proofs. You need to know that the images will be downloaded satisfactorily, safeguarded and backed up. But I have total faith and trust in them to do the work well, and to do it quickly.”
Unit photographer Scott Garfield (Priest, Love Don’t Let Me Down), who made the jump to features and digital simultaneously, says the demand for instant access to his images has increased ten-fold. “Almost on day one they want to start releasing first-looks,” Garfield states. “People tend to think the minute they call ‘wrap’ I should be wrapped, but they don’t take into account that it’s anywhere from an hour to two hours to download, edit and email out sample photos people want to see.” Garfield feels labs are even more valuable in the digital era. “I’ve had cards that crashed, and the people at West Coast have always been able to recover stuff that I thought for sure I’d lost.”

“Our goal is to solve niche issues in the film industry through the use of technology,” says Kevin Matossian (left), CEO of The Lab @Film Solutions™, seen here with veteran still lab technician John Eakin (right). The Company became the newest union lab, joining Local 683 at the end of May, 2010. Matossian has worked in film production since he was a kid, founding SilverCrest Entertainment, which has produced several features.

Lord posits that most unit stills photographers, after shooting for 16 hours, simply don’t have the time to return to their hotels to download, convert and color-correct thousands of images. “They’re shooting so fast, moving quickly from one side of the set to the other where lighting is changing, especially in action movies,” she describes. “The files have to be balanced out and color corrected. We can get a hard drive with 8,000 images on it and I guarantee you we’ve looked at every single frame.”

“If everybody was using a point-and-shoot to grab some JPEGs,” says Kevin Matossian, CEO of The Lab @ Film Solutions, which joined Local 683 in May, “maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But we’re talking about unprocessed RAW images that will be used to market and publicize your film from beginning to end. It is a major misconception to think that one person can handle all aspects of that process.”

How Union Labs Add Value

Here’s a sampling of voices demonstrating why Union labs remain intrinsic:
“When I first entered into this part of the industry, I was the first to say, ‘I don’t understand why we can’t just automate conversions,’” says Matossian, who came from a producing background. “I won’t say that we can’t solve things through automation, because that’s what we do. But I absolutely know that you cannot remove the human element. Especially when it comes to color corrections, decision-making or relationships.”

“You can’t trust the camera to get exactly what you want,” Neelley adds, “because it’s just a computer. There’s no human judgment or artistic involvement. I don’t think anyone on set would say, ‘Let’s take the imagery right out of the digital camera and project it in the theatre…it’s digital, it’s perfect.’”

Dyro observes that when a photographer and photo editor have a different vision, “we have to help mesh the two. A lot of times, what a photographer would pick to hang in a gallery is not the shot that reproduces very well in, say, People.”

“I think in the lower budget world,” Matossian notes, “there is a misconception of how important still photography is. And that’s tragic because it is the least expensive component for advertising such an expensive investment.”

“(Labs) are unique in the business,” Neelley chimes in, “because we’re involved with the images from the day filming begins until the DVD comes out. By doing conversions upfront, they remain on our server and the advantage is consistency, from proofs to prints to online. If you put images on a DVD and open it up to make a print, it’s like going backwards to the days of using negatives and an enlarger when the quality of the print depended on the mood of the guy making it that day.”

“From day one, our focus has always been on customer service,” says Steve Loverro (left), CEO of West Coast Photo, seen here with Pam Lord (right), General Manager. “A certain level of quality is always expected, but it’s our level of service that makes us stand apart,” says Lord. They were colleagues at other industry labs in town and when Loverro founded WCP in 1989, he asked Lord to join him.

Neelley says the bulk of the income at Kimaging still comes from dailies, even after the switch to digital. (Every one of the labs profiled here has an in-house printer for producing the sets of proofs that are requested in addition to prints that may be needed for autographing or personal uses.) “We’ve been watching as things move online to make sure the revenue offsets the change,” Neelley adds.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about Union labs is that they’re more expensive than somewhere else. “We’re a commercial lab and our prices are just as competitive as anybody on the outside,” Dyro states. “It’s not higher just because it’s Union wages and it’s Union people.” In fact, Lord notes that when digital came in and cut off a big chunk of the lab business, West Coast Photo raised their level of service to help facilitate the Studios that were also getting their departments cut. “We decided to ask, ‘How can we help?’” Lord recalls. “We have many highly trained staff members on our payroll available pretty much around-the-clock. It’s cost-effective.”

Dollars and Sense

Speaking of costs – to streamline workflow these days, unit still images are required to be accessible throughout established Studio systems, which have their own proprietary conventions.  This is where multiple versions of digital asset management are popping up. Every studio and lab has its own variations, in various stages of development and usage; experts estimate there are some 1200 companies vying for a part of this technological convergence space.

“Images take two paths after they are converted, corrected and uploaded,” Matossian explains. “An online approval and digital asset management scenario, and the traditional printed method for whatever proofs or prints are needed. (The former) has definitely reduced the amount of printed materials, which saves money and the environment.”

“For 30 years, Studio Photo Imaging has continued to be an icon of the industry; we have been able to handle whatever work is thrown at us in a professional, high-quality way, and deliver it on time,” says Don Weinstein (pictured), a 30-year industry veteran who previously owned Photo Impact for 28 years before being asked to oversee Studio Photo Imaging. “The people here are loyal and know the work like the back of their hands, having worked here for up to 25 years. They do it all with a sense of urgency, caring and an understanding of what the Studios and photographers need.”

But advances in tech can also be a double-edged sword.

“Everything in photography is consumer-driven,” Neelley describes. “Companies like Kodak lost money on producing large machinery for labs that would help to drive the sales of Kodak paper, film and chemistry. We’re now transferring to a new library that takes 800GB tapes and won’t support the old 400GB ones.  By the time I’m done, I’ll have $20,000 worth of tapes and a $10,000 library that’s obsolete after only 2 ½ years.”

Don Weinstein, who owned and ran other labs before coming to Studio Photo Imaging, says labs spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new technology, “and in this digital age, each of our high-end technicians is getting the most out of this equipment. Now, you can take the same machine and put it into different places, and it’s the people who are actually doing the work who are making it as good as it can be. But, that’s still an expensive overhead, so it takes volume to make it function.”

“We are at the cutting edge of digital in town, that’s been our thing,” says Greg Dyro (pictured in the lab’s reception area), who has been Director, Warner Bros. Photo Lab for 11 years and has a background as a fine art photographer. “There was a year between 2001 and 2003 when 80% of what we did was film and then the next year it flipped and 75% of what we did was digital. For the purposes of advertising and publicity, digital is far superior for cleanliness, color and sharpness.”

Dyro says that like all other photo labs, WB is diversifying in order to boost income. “As part of the WB shops,” Dyro notes, “we’re also selling images out of the archives at wbphotocollection.com that we are producing and doing.”

Studio Photo Imaging is addressing the regional production boom by placing sales reps in New York City, Albuquerque, Boston and New Orleans. “There are people who send us hard drives from around the city by FedEx, so it follows that we can also service films shooting out of town,” Weinstein says.

In addition to going after more off-the-street business, Lord says West Coast Photo is running more B&W film and doing more fine art printing than they have in years. “Many directors of photography and actors are shooting film for fun,” she points out. “We’re processing film, scanning it, and giving them digital images. But many of them like the results of film and they want custom fiber-based prints. Instead of adjusting an image on color paper to view as a black and white, we’re doing lots of true black-and-white printing again. The fiber-based paper and resin-coated paper that we print on has a shelf life of at least 100 years. With digital prints, nobody yet knows for sure.”

In fact, everyone in this industry is trying to gauge the future, with prints and with workflow models, and still lab technicians are partners for all of us in that search.

“The still lab technicians are a good group of people that deserve our support and the support of Local 600,” George concludes. “When I took office, I felt very strongly that it was important to focus on their needs. By redirecting work being sent to nonunion labs, and through a joint educational effort to reinforce that lab work needs to be done at labs so that people in both Locals get paid and stop losing jobs, I feel that everybody has done the right thing. It’s better now than it has been in a while.  Labs are now coming to us to discuss joining. I think that’s as a direct result of work that’s been done by many people. Tough times and more changes may come, but we keep moving forward.”

 By Braden Wright