On Tuesday last week, the staff at Soho Film Laboratory were told by their new owners, Deluxe, that they were stopping the printing of 16mm film, effective immediately. Len Thornton, who looks after 16mm, was told he could take no new orders. That was it: medium eviction without notice. This news will devastate my working life and that of many others, and means that I will have to take the production of my work for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall commission out of Britain.
Soho Film Lab was the last professional lab to be printing 16mm in the UK. In recent years, as 16mm has grown as a medium for artists, the lab has been inundated with work, both from this country and abroad. Contrary to what people imagine, it is a growing and captive market, albeit a small one, with a new generation of younger artists turning to analogue technologies to make and show their work: Thornton says he handles work from more than 170 artists. Then there’s the effect that this will have on the BFI and their conservation of the many thousands of reels of Movietone news footage, television, documentaries, features and much else.
These last few days have been like having my bag stolen and remembering, bit by bit, what I had inside it. My relationship with the lab is an intimate one; they watch over my work, and are, in a sense, its protectors. I have made more than 40 films, and each one has several internegatives (a copy of the original negative). In the vaults of Soho Film Lab are racks packed high with cans containing my life’s work to date, including the negatives of films I never made. I order countless prints each year, as projecting my films on loop systems in museums and galleries inevitably means that they become scratched and exhausted. Thornton and his colleagues know the titles of all these films, and when I make a new film, I turn up at the lab and grade every colour in every scene. Film is chemistry: chemistry that has produced the miracle of the moving image. Decades of knowledge, skill and experience have gone into my saying, “I think that shot is too green, but the next one is too pink.”
Deluxe (who responded that they have “nothing to say at this time”) are, admittedly, ending only one tiny part of an ongoing process: they will not stop processing 16mm negative, and will continue to process and print 35mm. It is not as though they are giving up the chemicals and going dry. But they are stopping 16mm print because the cinema industry does not need it any more, and it is they who run the labs and are dictating that movies go digital and celluloid be phased out. Printing 16mm is an irritant to them, as it is time away from printing feature films, and features are the industry and all that matters. Pitched against this, art is voiceless and insignificant. My films are depictions of their subject and therefore closer to painting than they are to narrative cinema. I shoot on negative that is then taken to the lab, in much the same way you used to drop your photos off to be developed. The 16mm print I get back is called the rush print. The negative stays in the lab. Working alone on a cutting table over many weeks, I cut my film out of the rush print. Using tape, I stick the shots together, working as both artist and artisan. It is the heart of my process, and the way I form the film is intrinsically bound up with these solitary hours of watching, spooling and splicing.
When I have finished, I take my reel of taped film, now called my cutting copy, to a negative cutter, who cuts the original negative and delivers it to the lab, which then prints it as a film. My relationship to film begins at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics but something deeper – something to do with poetry.
Many of us are exhausted from grieving over the dismantling of analogue technologies. Digital is not better than analogue, but different. What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.
The real crux of the difference is that artists exhibit, and so care about the final presentation and presence of the artwork in the space. Other professions have their work mediated into different formats: TV, magazines, billboards, books. It remains only in galleries and museums that the physical encounter is so critical, which is why artists, in the widest sense, are the most distressed by the obsolescence of analogue mediums. But it is also in these spaces that a younger generation born in the digital age are taking up analogue mediums in enormous numbers. At the recent Berlin art fair, 16mm film projections outnumbered digital projections by two to one.
The decision to end 16mm print at Soho Film Lab, newly named Deluxe Soho, seems to be worldwide policy (they have already ended 16mm printing in their labs in New York and Toronto), so it is unlikely we will be able to reverse the decision locally. I spent my weekend writing to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who are both understood to care about celluloid film, even 16mm. I am also trying to make contact through the Guggenheim with the US owner of Deluxe, Ron Perelman, who, as a patron of the arts, might not have understood the devastating impact this presumably financially negligible decision might have on a growing group of contemporary artists, the galleries and museums that show them and the national collections that own their work.
In the end, the decision is more cultural than fiscal, and needs to be taken away from the cinema industry. What we need in the UK is a specialist laboratory for conservation-quality 16mm and 35mm prints, possibly affiliated to the BFI. This needs to happen quickly, before the equipment, technology and experience is irreparably dismantled, and Deluxe must help with this. In the meantime, I will look to the last remaining labs in Europe to print my 16mm films.