Artist-run film labs : an historical perspective


At the very beginning of cinema, the absence of industrial labs meant that the filmmaker had to work on all stages of film production, including chemical development and printing. The Lumiere Brothers’ camera, which as we know was also a projector, was used as a printer as well, and the operators of the company at the time knew how to film, develop the negative, and expose, develop and then project a positive print. The Cinematographe’s instructions are very clear:

“The diverse operations of developing, fixing and washing films can be carried out conveniently with the help of simple buckets with a capacity of about ten liters. The film is then unwound very quickly and plunged in such a way that it unwinds in the developer. When all the film is unwound you move it, always very quickly, into the second bucket, taking care to let it pass between your fingers to make sure that the entire surface is well coated with a layer of developing fluid and to avoid any bubbles or incomplete development which might arise. It is therefore imperative that the immersion in the bucket and the movement from the first to the second bucket be carried out as quickly as possible.”

This cheering chapter ends, however, with the following words:

It is difficult to obtain very regular and uniform images along the whole length of the film when developing in buckets. In our work space we have a special material for developing films which allows us to obtain with certainty images of perfect regularity, and we offer to develop the footage which our clients have filmed at a very modest price.”

Little by little came the time of the “professionals” and with it the industry’s hold over things, so the position of the filmmaker/lab technician, who wanted to cover the stages of development and printing, became more marginal.

Nevertheless, it is still to be found, throughout the history of cinema and way beyond the Lumiere Brothers and Edison. For example at the beginning of the 1920s in amateur cinema it was common practise to develop the 9.5mm format yourself, much as it was then common to develop your own photographs. At this time, there is a famous example of a well known filmmaker developing and printing his film himself on the field: Flaherty, when filming Nanook of the North.

“My printer was an old English Williamson printer which was screwed to the wall. I quickly discovered while printing that the light coming from my equipment was subject to too many fluctuations. Also, I abandoned the electric light and used daylight instead, introducing a shaft of light of the same dimensions across the framing window and I adapted this light by adding to or removing pieces of muslin in front of the opening of the printer. It has always been very important for me to see my rushes. It is the only way I can make a film. But another reason to develop the film in the North was to project it for the Eskimos so that they could acknowledge and understand what I was doing and to work in collaboration with me.”

Much later, we find this practice of filmmakers doing the developing and printing themselves in experimental cinema, especially at the time when this cinema was structured across the distribution “Cooperatives” in the United States of America and then in Europe. The idea that you could create collective structures of post-production was concurrent with other contemporary experiences at the time like the Newsreels in the USA, the groups of militant filmmakers who joined forces with the workers, collectives in the theatrical and artistic fields, etc., but few were pushing the experience as far as putting the technical tools of development and printing into the hands of the filmmakers themselves. It must also be noted that at the time, materials for the cinema laboratory were very expensive to acquire.

Nevertheless, in 1966 in London, the London Filmmakers’ Cooperative was born, choosing to push beyond the New York example and to be not only a distribution and broadcasting tool for experimental cinema, but also a tool of production. A cinema lab run by the filmmakers themselves, as poorly equipped as they were in the beginning, was established. Quickly, an agreement with a patron facilitated the buying of more substantial machines (Debrie printer, black and white developing machine) and production grew to a larger scale.

In the 1970s, in France, many filmmakers were regularly going to London to work at the LFMC. In 1978, at a time when the Centre National du Cinema (National Centre of Cinema) decided to allocate help for “independent, different, experimental” cinema, they made a proposal to the filmmakers gathered by the CNC in Lyon to create a workshop/lab space for production, funded by the State. But the discussions between the filmmakers on whether grants should be collective or based on individual projects became a tug of war, and the opportunity was missed :

Guy Fihman: “I propose that those who think that the collective lab isn’t a solution to join together to discuss the real problems of experimental independent cinema.”
Dominique Noguez: “Ok, I propose that we do as we did yesterday - that we either pull together or against, that way there won’t be a problem.”

It was not until the 1990s that the idea of creating film labs resurfaced. In 1990, three students from the Arnhem School of Art in the Netherlands refused to accept that their school had got rid of all the film equipment to buy video equipment instead. They wanted to film on Super 8. They rescued the machines from a lab which had just shut down and started up “Studio Een”. In 1992 some students from Braunschweig created “Sector 16” in Hanover. This period proved to be a point of departure for a whole group of structures in Europe. One important factor had affected the costliness of materials: the development of video use. This meant that cinema’s materials began to be abandoned by the industry and therefore could be acquired at a low price.

At the end of the 1980s, the members of the group Metamkine had begun to do visual and sound performances notably associated with diapositive projectors, Super 8 and 16mm films. In 1992, in Grenoble where they are based, the group set up a lab space to be able to produce elements for their performances. In 1993, invited by a festival, they went to Arnhem and met Karel Doing from Studio Een. Similarly, Metamkine spread the word that they themselves were ready to welcome artists wanting to learn how to use these tools, at their workshop lab at 102, rue d’Alembert (Atelier MTK). Over the course of one year, an increasing number of filmmakers, from Belgium to Italy and through to Switzerland and France came, experimented, discovered. Finally inundated by huge demand, they organised a meeting in June 1995 to encourage those who used their lab and came from the same town (and often didn’t know each other) to organise themselves and establish similar organisations here and there.

This was the starting point for what is know as the “Ebouillanté” (1) network and for the labs in Nantes (Mire), le Havre (Elu par cette Crapule), Paris (L’Abominable), Strasbourg (Burstscratch), Geneva (Zebra Lab), Marseille (Labo de la Belle de Mai), etc. In 1997, the first meeting of these then-called “independant” labs took place at the Cinema Spoutnik in Geneva. At the time, exchanges were intense between all the organisations, but nearly all of them adopted a mode of working similar to that of Atelier MTK: not offering service, but as a place without selectivity for projects and where people must learn to do the work themselves.  These had even been the functioning principles of the LFMC beforehand, in 1966. The different labs were differently fortunate, according to the availability, commitment and technical proficiency of those who managed them, as well as the equipment they could get their hands on.
In 2000, members from Grenoble organised a Meeting of the Labs called “Pellicula, et basta!” (“Film, and that’s it!”) which was a great chance to explore the film productions that had been completed in the first years of these labs’ existence. Most of the films had been picked up for distribution by the cooperatives of experimental cinema, Light Cone at the forefront, and there were also performances and installations.

Meanwhile, Atelier MTK had moved twice: in 1996 to a big space given to them by the City of Grenoble where an attempt to grow and develop was thwarted by a crisis, followed by another move and the creation by part of the people involved of the lab “Ad Libitum”, away from the city itself, with the aim of developing other activities like the restoration of films and a service for filmmakers who didn’t want to learn how to do this type of work themselves.

At this time, experimental cinema became somewhat fashionable in France, which culminated in 2000 with the retrospective Jeune, Dure et Pure at the Cinematheque Francaise. A new generation of filmmakers, in particular those who discovered experimental cinema through their education at university, emerged. In 1997 the association Le Cinema Visuel was founded in Paris, and the activity of the collective workshop later became L’Etna and a little lab for developing.

During this time in London, the London Filmmakers’ Cooperative regrouped with London Electronic Arts, an association of video-makers who suggested that they share their tools of video production and together the two convinced the subsidisers of the National Lottery to house them in a brand new building in the centre of London: the Lux Centre. There you could find support for making work on both film and video, support for the distribution of films, an exhibition space and a cinema. Unfortunately, the project fell into dire financial straits and in 2001 everything stopped, so after only four years of life, Lux was closed. The distribution of films emerged again soon afterwards but we had to await the initiative of no.w.here lab (which succeeded in getting hold of the Coop’s equipment in 2004) before London could once again have a cinematographic lab for artists.

Also, at this time, Sebastjan Henrickson began the Niagara Custom Lab in Toronto, Canada, a lab specifically for the work of artists. Toronto is at the same time an important centre for the North American cinematographic industry and one of the focal points for Canadian experimental cinema, with the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and also LIFT, an important association of filmmakers providing materials for filming and editing. Sebastjan provided the missing piece: a cinema lab with real machines for film developing which were rescued from the industry and put to work servicing artists’ projects, demanding attention for works outside the norms of the industry.

The collective use of developing machines initiated by the LFMC at the end of the 1960s became a palpable reality in London and Paris and gave new perspectives to artist film labs in the sense that, emancipated from the constraints of only developing with a film spiral, new opportunities became apparent: 35mm, more extensive footage, optical sound, etc.

In 2005, a new Meeting of the Labs was organised by the Cinema Nova team from Brussels. They reached beyond the network already in place in Western Europe to invite filmmakers with similar practises in the Czech Republic, Greece and Portugal. Other experience was brought to the mix in a radically different context: the Bela Balazs Studio, created in Budapest just after the insurrection of 1956, has since then been regrouping Hungarian filmmakers into a collective. Also, several filmmakers from Seoul, South Korea were present while on the brink of creating an organisation of this sort, baptised “Space Cell”. The meeting takes place at the very time when the Brussel lab sets up. While several filmmakers in that city had the practice of hand-processing film, they didn’t have a common space to work in. As often, the question of a permanent place is crucial for the setting up and survival of such structures. In Berlin, after two attempts in two different places that were successively lost, the project of a lab picked up speed again in 2008-2009 with new energies and led to the opening of LaborBerlin in 2010.

Again, a lab meeting was organized by Klubvizija in Zagreb in 2011 and the European network of labs could meet the operators of Nanolab who came from Australia to attend the event. In a small village of Aveyron in Southern France, Florent Ruch installs the machines from a full army film lab he bought as as a block at an auction. Everywhere, initiatives of that sort pop up. As the moving picture industry gradually abandons the film medium, the equipment, the knowledge, the practices migrate into artists’ hands.


Nicolas Rey
April 2009 (updated in April 2012)

(1) From the name of the fanzine published as a link between the labs at the time.