End of an era

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/10 18:23:39

Shanghai’s last cine-film processing department to close in October

Shanghai Film Technology Plant (SFTP), established in 1957 and now affiliated with Shanghai Film Group Corporation, is one of the earliest professional studios to process and print cine-films in China. Recently, it announced it will close its cine-film processing and printing department - the core department of the plant - at the end of October.

It has almost become a cliche to now talk about the death of photographic film following the decline of Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, and the advent of digital photography and video.

Before SFTP announced their closure, Changchun Film Studio in Northeast China and Beijing Film and Video Laboratory had already shut down their film-processing and printing lines.

Now it seems that cine-films are very likely to completely disappear from China.

Indeed, in recent years more and more filmmakers across the world have abandoned cine-films. In the Chinese-language film scene, only a few recent productions were shot on film, among them The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-wai, The Assassin by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Judge Archer by Xu Haofeng and Crosscurrent by Yang Chao.

SFTP, located in the birthplace of Chinese film, has produced a number of outstanding films as well, such as Final Decision in 2000 and 2046 which was nominated for Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 2004.

According to Chen Guanping, the current director of SFTP, the plant also did film processing, printing and copying for many imported productions.

Established in 1957, Shanghai Film Technology Plant is one of the earliest professional studios to process and print cine-films in China.

The boom years

The golden era for SFTP, according to Chen, was between 2002 and 2010, when it witnessed more than 100 workers operating on eight production lines at the same time.

Sixty-year-old Qian Shun'an has been working for 39 years in SFTP and is very excited when recalling the studio's booming period.

"It was around 2009 when we had a huge number of orders. The studio almost worked 24 hours in three shifts, we worked on weekends as well and sometimes I had to work 12 hours per day. Everyone was bustling to meet endless deadlines."

The sharp decline in orders started in 2012; now, there are only three workers in the film processing and printing department, according to Qian.

"The orders are not cine-films anymore but some reversal films used for toys manufactured by privately owned companies. When we use up all of our stocked films, it's the end of our work here," said the senior.

The last workers will be taken good care of by the studio, according to Chen, who said that SFTP will give them a decent severance pay to honor their decades of work here.

"We can do nothing to reverse the decline of photographic films," Chen said. "Only if we could make 20 to 30 million yuan ($2.98 million) per year as we used to, it would be possible to maintain this department, which runs on the high cost of labor expenditure, equipment deterioration, resource consumption and environmental protection."

Compared with the old-fashioned photographic films, digital movies are more budget-friendly for filmmakers. And the constant advancement of digital cameras has made it more and more competent in capturing small details.

Yang Chao's latest work Crosscurrent, depicting a man's journey tracing back to the origin of the Yangtze River, was named "China's last film shot with photographic film" during its publicity campaign.

It cost 35 million yuan, which is quite a lot for a Chinese art film. The high cost had something to do with its traditional way of shooting.

Unlike digital cameras, which enable the director instantly to see what he has captured through a monitor, shooting on film holds great uncertainty as the crew must wait to process and examine the films in a lab.

"Compared with the final 4K imagery shown in the cinema, we could see only 1 percent of it through film during our shooting. This uncertainty left great expectations in the heart of each of our team members. It produced a ceremonial sense that it's god who decides the result of our work," Yang said.

Shooting on film also demanded a highly professional team for Yang. For instance, the lighting designer should be a veritable master of photometry, the person who changes the films during shooting should be very careful in case unexpected light sneaks in and destroys a shot, and film should be kept in refrigeration and be sent for professional processing as soon as possible.

As fewer and fewer productions are shot on film in recent years, it seems that cine-films are very likely to completely disappear from China. Photos: CFP and IC

Regain our glory

Contrary to recent lore, Crosscurrent was not completely shot on film, however, as 20 percent was made with digital cameras.

"We used up our money during the first period of shooting, so we had to stop to seek more investment. A year later the processing and printing plant that worked for us had already closed down. So we had to change to digital cameras," Yang said.

He also noted that digital technology in 2016 is as good enough as photographic film. But back in 2012, when he started his project, film was still very much superior to digital devices as far as its sensitivity to capture multiple layers of transitional colors.

Digital projector technology is also much cheaper and can reduce 90 percent of expenditures of a film's distribution process, from copying and storage to shipping.

A 90-minute movie usually requires 3,000 meters of filmstrip and must be copied five times for producers and editors. Each can of film weighs 25 kilograms, though an IMAX film can be as heavy as 400 kilograms. However, a digital copy can be stored on one average USB thumb drive.

Although SFTP will discontinue processing and printing film at the end of October, it will continue working on old film restoration.

Hu Yu'e is a veteran worker at SFTP. Over the past three decades, her job has changed roles, from cutting and editing film to restoring.

"Although my duties have changed, I won't change my attitude toward my duties. I will work wholeheartedly to bring old films back into the public vision," Hu said.

Old film restoration has a huge market worldwide. Shanghai International Film Festival started to curate a showcase of restored films in 4K resolution three years ago, and has cultivated an increasing number of old film fans through their annual film fest.

Chen also demonstrated his ambition for the future of SFTP. "The era of photographic films may be over, but we have accumulated great craftsmanship and credit over the decades, and we're still looking forward to regaining our glory someday in the future through our professional work."

Translated by the Global Times based on an article in thepaper.cn

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, City Panorama

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