Duart For Art’s Sake?

     |    Friday April 13th, 2012

By Andrew Horn
A week or so ago, a friend of mine sent me an email about one of the few remaining film labs in New York, called Duart. It said,
“They’re now cleaning out their film vaults, which means they’re looking for the owners of film that has been there for, potentially, decades. If there’s anything you’re looking for, get in touch with Steve over there.”

Duart had already stopped developing film in 2010 so I guess it was inevitable that they would eventually get around to clearing out all their storage areas. God only knows who’s still got stuff sitting there. God only knows who’s still got stuff sitting there and they don’t even know it. Me, I can’t imagine that I have anything over there, but now that I think of it…

My film, The Big Blue, was blown up from super 16 to 35mm by Duart, but as far as I know the negative was removed decades ago. The fact that I have no idea where said negative is today, is another story. So maybe it’s worth checking them out.

Or then again, maybe not. I remember stories from years ago where someone would go to reclaim an old project from their vault, only to be handed an astronomical bill for a few years’ storage. If this were the case here – some 25 years down the line – I think it would send me out the window screaming.

As a film student you had two strikes against you, no matter what lab you were dealing with. Number one, you were an ignorant wiseguy, number two you were in film school. Nowadays, being a film student is the norm. In those days most people who got into the business were those who worked their way up. And suffered the abuse of the people they worked for, who were turn were taking their pleasure in getting even for the abuse THEY had to suffer when THEY were starting out. To the guys in the lab, this meant that as a film student, you were getting away with something. The feeling seemed to be that we were a bunch of arrogant freeloaders. Ok maybe, sort of. But not really.

Actually we had three strikes. We were small-time customers. In order to be treated with any kind of respect, you either had to spend a lot of money or owe a lot of money. We, of course did neither, and seemed to me that at Duart we were just tolerated because Irwin liked us. Or the idea of us. Because Irwin also had a so-called “evil twin”. This was a man who had an office several floors down (it felt like it was in the basement, or sub-basement, although it probably wasn’t). His name was Howard and if there was ever any trouble with the bill, you were sent downstairs – basically the equivalent of being thrown to the dogs.

Upstairs at Irwin’s, it was friendly, bright and airy, but downstairs it was florescent, claustrophobic and tense. Irwin was a dapper, congenial guy. Howard was rumpled, pasty, and put on a show of being merciless. And he had the worst toupee ever. No one ever came out of a confrontation with Howard undamaged.

My first experience there was as a student doing my junior thesis film. It was an experimental film that relied on what I imagined to be a cheap way of creating special color effects from shooting in black and white and cleverly exploiting the usual color printing process. I’d figured it out myself and make up a test roll try it out. Logic assured me that it would work. Duart assured me it would not. And they smugly proceeded to prove it. To great expense – even including my discount.

But Duart – bastion of independent cinema that it was – was by no means the only game in town. I had a bit of an advantage in my knowledge base in that my brother was a film editor for commercial spots, and I had worked for his bosses for a few weeks over a Christmas break before entering film school. I used to have to go pick up and deliver at various labs all over town, so I had some idea of what was out there.

My favorite was Manchester/AFC which was on the extreme west side of town. It was low building that kind of looked like an auto repair garage, inconveniently located far enough away from all forms of public transportation that it involved a lot of trudging through snow and slush to get there – and those cross-town blocks were long! But the woman who ran the service desk had this incredible voice, sort of a nasal-y Brooklyn whine, and was always on the loudspeaker summoning all these heavy Italian sounding guys. “Phil Sadano to SER-vice! Phil Sadano!” and “Tony Grabino! Tony Grabino to SER-vice!” I don’t recall ever actually seeing anybody, but their names were always flying around the aether.

But this lab probably would have never given me the time of day. They were specialists in mass producing the 16 mm tv commercials and were just into bulk. I ended up going to a place called Lab TV which was just north of Times Square, across the street from Popeye’s All You Can Eat Fried Chicken, and upstairs from the Café Metropole topless go-go bar. It was literally a hole in the wall – the elevator opened onto a hallway with a big window cut out of the wall where you could talk to the person who took your stuff, and that was it. I did somehow manage to get inside to talk to the color correction guy and he seemed to understand what I was asking for and told me to come back on Tuesday. No discount, but no attitude – and they were a lot cheaper than Duart in any case. And of course it totally worked.

But then sometime after that they went under and I wound up at a place called Cinelab. This was back over on the extreme west side, near Manchester/AFC, which in the meantime had gone under as well. Cinelab was run by a guy named Marvin, who we all suspected was really in the porno business (like who wasn’t at that time?) but he was connected to a more fringe element of the NY independent film scene than Duart (Robert Downey Sr. had been one of their big customers) and he was a really sweet guy.

This time a friend of mine and I were doing a not-so-experimental film, but we shot it in black and white and wanted to have it printed in monochrome – with different scenes in different colors, like a old tinted silent movie – and it relied on a similar idea to what I had done before.

The color correction guy there was of the old school. While the bigger labs were using video scanners to adjust the color, he was still working with strips of color gel and doing it all by eye. He and I did a whole bunch of tests on a short sample roll I prepared, and by the time we were done testing, the first print came out totally correct. Right after that, he took some sick leave and just never came back. A few weeks later we heard he had died of heart failure. We were sure we had nothing to do with it, and yet…

Then Marvin decided to expand, and moved even further west into some big warehouse type of building. The place was spacious and modern and they did some good work for me. And then they went under. It seemed like he had overextended himself with the new place, but we all suspected this coincided with the porno business switching over to video.

So now I went to a lab called TVC. They only offered a 5% discount instead of Duart’s 20% but they were very nice, particularly the head sales person, Roseanne, who took a real motherly attitude to all of us and really seemed to love helping us out. And better yet, she had no “evil twin” hiding out on the lower floors. In fact I was able to open up a revolving credit account which made it really easy to get things done.

In the meantime I was getting on a lot better with the lab people in general. I always liked to go in the back and take part in the stuff they were doing for me, and me being as interested as I was in whole process, made everyone a lot looser, and ultimately friendlier. What made it even more friendlier was that I was now out of NYU and had taken a job as a teaching assistant at a college in New Jersey called Montclair State, which was nominally a teacher’s college and had a big athletic program.

But they also had an art department which had a lot of teachers who came in from New York City and things had become pretty active and interesting over there. This included a film program which admittedly was not as active or interesting as the rest of the department, but they had a lot of new equipment and nobody was using it. Except for my two predecessors, and then me. NYU was the big hot shit film school, but being now part of Montclair State I had an infinitely better caché. While, as I said, the NYU students were looked at with suspicion, it seemed like everyone working at the labs had either gone to Montclair State, or had a son or daughter or niece or nephew, or whatever, that went to, or was going there. I was in.

And TVC was great, and there I was doing my first feature, Doomed Love, there. And I would probably still be there to this day (aside from the fact that they too eventually went under). But on the eve of my finishing my film, and in preparation for my big premier at the Independent Feature Project’s (then) new film market (which, I might add, turned out to be where the Berlin Film Festival was to first discover me), the lab technician’s union went out on strike. I got a call from Roseanne’s assistant who asked me to come in, where he explained – as humanely as he could – that they just flat out wouldn’t be able to deliver my job. And this was not just the problem at TVC, the union was all over.

So what they did was to set me up at one of the few non-union labs, Cineffects. This was an incredibly nice and altruistic thing because Cineffects just seduced me away from them. I went in and explained to the guy there that I had no cash to pay them and I needed the movie color corrected and printed – usually up to a two week job – immediately. They were very friendly, set me up with a time-payment account, without asking for any deposit, gave me a better price than TVC, and did the film in two days. And basically got it right (or right enough) on the first try. And shortly after that, they moved into the old/new space that Cinelab had vacated – so I was home.

But unfortunately for this relationship, my next feature was going to be shot in Super 16 for a blow up to 35mm. Cineffects didn’t do that. Duart was THE big name in blow-ups, and had been for several years, but TVC was moving into that area and I was all for working with them again. We did the tests, they offered me a good deal, were incredibly nice, but I have to say when all was said and done, Duart’s test clearly looked better. (Plus it turned out that both Phil Sadano and Tony Grabino had in the meantime landed there and were once again appearing regularly in the loudspeaker system) So we did it.

So now here I am, still looking for my negative for The Big Blue. Somehow it never occurred to me that it would have been at Duart all this time. Clearly I’ve been blocking something out.

So maybe I better give them a call.

And then steel myself for a massive storage bill.