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March 1997

Official Publication of Photo Marketing Association International

Rocky Mountain Film Lab
Out-of-date film processing in great demand

Word-of-mouth recommendation is often cited as the best type of advertising. At Rocky Mountain Film Lab in Aurora, Colo., it's the only kind of advertising. "I would probably advertise if I knew where to reach our type of general customer," says owner Steve. Rocky Mountain Film Lab specializes in outdated photographic processes, such as E-2, E-3 and E-4 Ektachrome developing; K-11 and K-12 Kodachrome processing; Kodacolor and Orwocolor (an out-of-date East German film using pre-World War II Agfa technology) negative processing and printing; and other unusual services.

The lab also handles a number of formats that conventional photo labs do not: 110, 126, 127

Steve at RMFL
 (both square and rectangular), 620, 120 (both square and rectangular), half-frame, stereo and a variety of 70mm sizes. Then, too, the wisdom of standard advertising may be questionable because the majority of the lab's work flow comes from one-time-only customer. "At most labs it gets busy just before Christmas," Steve says, adding. "Here, business picks up just after Christmas after everyone has gone home and found an old roll of undeveloped film in a camera or exposed-but-undeveloped film in Grandma's attic."

Occasionally, a professional or advanced-amateur photographer might shoot some E-3 or E-4 film, but usually it's by accident - an old forgotten roll or two lurking in the back of the freezer among newer emulsions. "The current E-6 films are so much better in terms of grain and color rendition that pros don't shoot the old films on purpose," Steve explains.

Almost all work at Rocky Mountain arrives via the mail. Because the lab is located in a prime recreational area, however, some people hang on to their film until they are vacationing nearby and drop it off in person. They shouldn't expect to pick up the results before they head for home, though. The normal turnaround time for Kodacolor processing is 8 to 12 weeks; 6 to 12 months is standard for Kodachrome movie film; and a mere 3 to 6 weeks for E-2, E-3, E-4 and E-6 films.

Service is slow - by conventional standards - for several reasons: First, most of the chemistry is mixed by hand in small batches; and special agents are added to help compensate for age fog. Second, film is usually developed in small quantities in dip-and-dunk and basket lines or in old cine machines. Finally, and perhaps most important, many orders require special handling (even by Rocky Mountain norms) to salvage an image.

The multi-week turnaround time for E-6, for instance, isn't designed to discourage orders for developing current emulsions. Most newer film the lab sees has been subjected to horrendous exposure errors or dropped in water and allowed to dry.

Because much of the lab's equipment isn't programmed, Steve is able to offer push/pull processing extending greatly beyond the capability of automated processors. Film that's been exposed to water before processing is given a careful presoak treatment. And simply handling a roll of film that has been partially wound in a camera for perhaps 20 or 30 years mandates a time consuming level of care, as it can be quite brittle. Though he has invested in several pieces of custom equipment, the older and largely manual nature of the lab's machinery gives him an enviably low overhead. "It is nice to not feel pressured to buy every new piece of equipment that comes along," he says.

Excluding the post-Christmas rush, the work flow is gratifyingly steady, not only from month to month, but from year to year. "I thought it would have tapered off by now or that we would be seeing less of some old films, but it hasn't happened," he says. "When I compare 1996 with 1995 and 1994, 1 see a fairly constant supply of old films." There's never a problem keeping his five full-time and two part-time employees busy. Orwocolor film is one exception. American tourists used to bring back the film from Europe. "People would take a trip to Bulgaria and find that over there a roll of Orwocolor cost 99 cents, while a roll of Kodak film cost $7.00," Steve says.

"So they'd buy the cheap film only to discover their lab at home couldn't process it. We have the formulas and equipment to handle it. But now the company has gone out of business and we're not seeing much of it any more. We'll probably eliminate the service from our price sheet this year."

Opened in 1971, Rocky Mountain Film Lab didn't begin by specializing in outdated processes. "It was kind of a fluke in a way," Steve explains. "During the transition from E-4 to E-6, we had a machine that would process both. So, we continued to run E-4 after a lot of other labs had stopped. First, we had (and still have) a lot of requests for E-4 aerial film developing. Then we began receiving requests for other out-of-date processes that we could do with equipment modified for each purpose."

Initially, a substantial part of Steve's business also came from processing motion-picture film, and from doing original photography for local businesses and making the prints afterwards. Many clients eventually switched from film to video, however, and others simply retired. Processing out-dated films gradually increased from 10 to 20 percent of sales to the current level of 80 to 90 percent.

Most Rocky Mountain customers first try unsuccessfully to have their old film processed by a minilab or through a drug store. Many photo salespeople are knowledgeable and can refer these people to his lab.

Other major referral sources include the Kodak, Fuji and Agfa hotlines. Manufacturers have been helpful in other ways, too. "Kodak, Fuji.... everyone has been wonderful keeping us up-to-date with any changes in the old formulas and, whenever possible, will supply us with substitute chemistry," Steve says, adding Kodak still supports its E-4 aerial film products. One challenge is processing old Kodachrome. Kodak supplied the formula for the first developer, but the dyes are no longer available.

He plans to experiment this year or next with newer dyes. For the time being, however, old Kodachrome is developed in first developer only, which results, in effect, in unreversed black-and-white negatives. Rocky Mountain transfers the images to videotape and uses a special-effects generator to create positive images from the negatives.

Digital manipulation, on an out-source basis, is also available to "colorize" black-and-white negatives. "They don't look bad - a bit like an autochrome," Steve says. Processing old film is not a foolproof operation, though; and each item on the lab's price sheet includes a paragraph concerning what kind of results can normally be expected.

"Bring me any Kodak product from the '50s, '60s or '70s and I usually can get an image for you," he says. "If we do a run of 100 rolls of Kodacolor from all over the world and a variety of storage conditions, 30 rolls will look as good as if they were developed in the 1960s. Twenty or 30 more will have fair-to-good images."

The lab still prints on EP-2 paper, as it has several older printers that handle the color correction for C-22. The paper also features slightly less contrast than new stock, which works well with the majority of old negatives. Steve plans to begin experimenting with RA-4 paper this year. The lab moved to new quarters in 1995, to consolidate its offices and darkrooms onto one floor, and permit individual 10-by-10-foot spaces for each piece of equipment, rather than a large joint work area.

A crawl space runs under the floor for easy access to plumbing. Older films and papers relinquish slightly more silver than their newer counterparts, and the lab conscientiously recycles. It's especially careful with old Ektachrome bleaches, which are environmentally unfriendly.

What does the future hold for Rocky Mountain? "That's a good question," Steve says. "We don't see too many changes in our business. But we do sometimes wonder if business will taper off and we'll have to look to new services, such a processing Cirkut film."

There are the special enjoyments. "Our most unusual order came from the children of a man who was killed in a plane crash on a Mountainside in Washington State 15 or 20 years ago," Steve remembers. "His now-grown kids visited the site, where parts of the plane are still strewn about, and found some film. We processed it and there were shots of their father and his companion, which were taken at the airport just prior to their ill-fated flight.

"We also get a lot of nice letters from people who brought in old film and we were able to give them a picture of a deceased spouse. That sort of thing is very satisfying."

--By Larry Thall

© 1997 Photo Marketing Association International