Outcry over lab’s decision to stop printing 16mm film

Tate Modern curator and leading artist head protests


The decision by a US company to stop printing 16mm film at a laboratory in London has been heavily criticised by artists and a major film curator. Soho Film Lab in London has been taken over by the US firm Deluxe, which has decided to discontinue printing the format there, though it will continue to develop negatives.

“To suspend 16mm printing at a lab with a healthy business and highly respected staff seems a pointed rebuke to the thousands of artists worldwide for whom the medium provides a cherished way of working,” says Stuart Comer, curator of film at Tate Modern in London.

The development has forced Berlin-based artist Tacita Dean, who relied on the lab to produce 16mm prints, to rethink her Turbine Hall commission at Tate Modern, which launches in October. “I’ll have to start from scratch with another laboratory,” she told The Art Newspaper.

Deluxe will continue to develop 16mm negatives. However, halting the production of prints is the problem, says Dean: “I shoot on negative film that is taken to the lab, in much the same way as you drop your photos off to be developed. The 16mm positive print I get back is called the rush print. The negative stays in the lab. Working on a cutting table, I cut the shots I want in the final film out of the rush print and stick them together with tape. When I have finished I take my reel of taped film, now called a cutting copy, to a negative cutter, who cuts the shots I want from a copy of the original negative and delivers the new edited negative to the lab, which then prints it as a film.”

According to Ken Biggins, managing director of Deluxe Europe: “Printing of 16mm film is available at two laboratories in London, PresTech and Film & Photo, and also from Deluxe in Los Angeles.” But Dean argues that the US firm has a history of taking over independent labs and halting the printing of 16mm. “To my knowledge, this has happened, for instance, in Spain,” said Dean.

A wider issue is how to conserve footage made in 16mm, and the impact Deluxe’s decision will have on the thousands of Movietone newsreels and documentaries owned by the British Film Institute. The BFI declined to comment but some UK film specialists say that one option for preserving 16mm films would be to convert them to digital format.

The saga has thrown the spotlight on the fraught relationship between digital film-making and celluloid film projects. “Digital is not better than analogue, but different,” says Dean. “What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film be allowed to remain an option for those who want to use it.”

Stuart Comer agrees: “Even the highest quality digital image will never come close to the sumptuous colour and texture produced by 16mm celluloid,” he says, pointing out that several recent commercial films have been shot on 16mm, notably Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008).

A recent petition of over 5,000 signatures is calling for Ron Perelman, the US investor who owns Deluxe, to keep Soho Film Lab as a specialist venue “printing conservation quality 16mm and 35mm prints”. Signatories include artists Rodney Graham, Douglas Gordon and Thomas Demand. As The Art Newspaper went to press, Tacita Dean had requested a meeting with Perelman.