FLASHBACK: Behind the Scenes at CFI

A number of years ago, when digital was just being implemented, Robert Dennis gave us a tour of the CFI processing plant on the Universal lot.  It felt like winning a golden ticket – not only because we were seeing the leading production line for large format prints, but the IMAX prints for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were coming through the pipeline during our visit.  The following article first appeared on the World Enteractive website on August 8, 2005.

On the north side of the Universal lot stand two cubes composed of black glass, mysterious and enticing.  Like Charlie in the recently released film, few see what goes on behind these glass walls.  Yet, in each building, the heartbeat and pulse of American cinema is maintained daily.  It is here that the majority of film prints for the North American film market are developed.  One of the labs belongs to Technicolor, the other to its sister company Consolidated Film Industries (CFI).  On Monday, July 11, World Enteractive’s Editor, Amanda Gardner, and I journeyed to the CFI lab for a guided tour conducted by Robert Dennis, Technicolor’s Director of Sales and a former President of the Large Format Cinema Association.  He has been with the company for the past six years, joining CFI just prior to its acquisition by Technicolor.  A year later, both companies became Thomson subsidiaries.

Dennis explained the difference between the two labs, “CFI specializes in being what we call a front-end laboratory.  That’s the dailies’ processing, that’s printing dailies, working with the filmmakers through the answer print process.  Technicolor had a business doing that.  CFI had been doing that, but there was nothing targeted towards the studios.  We pretty much targeted independents and commercials.  When we moved here, they brought over our expertise and adapted it to the process.”  While Technicolor prints out the majority of 35mm release prints, CFI concentrates on 70mm product and select small-scale independent 35mm films.  CFI handles practically all prints for large format films produced in North America and works closely with both DKP/70mm Inc. and RPG Productions, the two major post-houses for large format, including Disney’s large format productions and IMAX’s DMR films.   Dennis explained that because of the massive amount of 35mm film processed by Technicolor, it would be impossible to examine every print,  a task that would take close to two years.  Typically less than 100 prints are struck for a 70mm presentation, and every print is considered a first quality show print.  70mm print must be considered as show prints because, as explained to us, a single speck of dust appears as large as several inches wide on screen.  Dennis compares the quality control for 70mm at CFI to Lucasfilm’s TAP (Theatre Alignment Program) program for maintaining quality in release prints and theaters, which he managed prior to joining CFI.

The first stop on our tour was the film recording lab.  Here we saw the 35mm and 65mm film recorders, including a 35mm laser recorder.  Film recording is often used when a digital version of the film is required for editing and color correction.  CFI’s 65mm film recorders in front of us were used recently by James Cameron for Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep.   Recording the film from a digital format allowed for easy integration of visual effects and image changes desired by Cameron.  From the recording lab, our tour took us into parts of the laboratory process that have remained fairly unchanged over the past 80 or 90 years.  Because of the care given each of the CFI prints, the process is very labor intensive, requiring much hands-on work.  We were joined by Bryan Recla, one of the lead technicians at the CFI lab, at our next stop – the color timing lab.  There are two kinds of color timing – one is for traditional film processing, the other for digital intermediates (DI).  According to Dennis, “when a director uses a DI, it can take quite a bit longer.  With film, we’re matching the color of each scene to the scene or shot before and the scene or shot that follows.  With a DI, information in individual frames can be tweaked.  A director can change the color of specific image elements, of buttons on a character’s shirt, of foreground or background elements.  Some directors take up to four weeks doing this.”  In the color lab, Technicolor uses a proprietary system called TONICS, or “Total Original Negative Information Collection System.”  The data is stored digitally and a code of the color scheme is recorded onto a 35mm magnetic tape to be used later in the process.

Then we viewed the negative development lab.  The actual developing of negatives and positives is a process that is time consuming.  With more care given to 70mm prints, each one is given individual attention during the development process.   To develop a negative, the technician carries film stock stored in cans into a dark room.  Since nothing was being developed at the moment, we were allowed to view the back room fully lit.  During development, the back room is kept in complete darkness – not even a red light is allowed.  Thus, the technician must learn the exact placement of everything, even himself, in order to perform every function flawlessly.  In complete darkness, he splices leader to the film and attaches it to the developing mechanics, which then autofeed the leader and attached film through a twenty-foot high looping mechanism.   The film runs through tanks with processing chemicals and then feeds through a drying cabinet, which looks almost identical to the looping cabinet for film-based attractions. 

After the negative process, we observed the positive process – the area where negative images are transferred to positive film stock.  Here, a powerful xenon light projects through various colored lenses.  The positive is run on the top of the machine, with the negative below.   Recla ran paper tape containing digitized color timing information from the color lab through one of the machines, showing us how it tells the shutter when to open and close and which color filters to run the light through.  These color combos then shine through the negative image and are printed as color images on the positive film stock.

Our final stop was the positive development lab.  The steps in the process are virtually identical to those used for negatives except that the film runs through the machine much faster and different chemicals are used.  Also, one other difference, as the prints wind up on takeup reels, the prints are monitored, allowing the technicians to examine the quality of the 35mm prints.  70mm positive development lacks the monitor as each print is individually screened before distribution.  CFI does not have a large format screening room on site, but most large format film prints can be screened at neighboring facilities with 8/70 and 15/70 screening rooms, such as DKP, RPG, or Iwerks.  

Film is not assembled on site, but is transported in canisters to the distributors or assembled onto platters at one of the local large format post production vendors.  For the DMR films, the 35mm elements  are image processed at IMAX’s facility in Toronto and recorded out at DKP, with CFI doing the film processing at their Universal location lab.  CFI then works with DKP and the studios, such as Fox or Warner Brothers, to ship and distribute the prints to theaters.

While we were touring the lab, technicians were developing prints of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Leaving, I understood the magical feeling that the children in the film had of discovering the hidden secrets behind their favorite pastime.

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