News Column

Curtain drops on Astrolab's filmmaking role

June 22, 2013


June 22--Vince Vaughn was a huge fan. So was Wally Pfister, director of photography for the Chicago-made Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight." "Barbershop" producer George Tillman swore by the work, insisting that his films get processed there. They were all advocates of Filmworkers/Astrolab, a motion-picture-processing facility located in Chicago's River North neighborhood for almost 50 years.

At one time, the majority of Hollywood features shot in Chicago were processed here -- from "Risky Business" to "The Blues Brothers" to just about every comedy from writer/director John Hughes. In addition to feature films, Astrolab was a favorite for advertising agencies, corporate filmmakers and producers of music videos.

"It was a feather in our cap that we could always rely on," said Illinois Film Office director Betsy Steinberg. "When Hollywood productions would shoot here, we could always point to Astrolab as a facility which could quickly process film."

But those days are over. Due to the digital revolution in media, shooting on film has become a rarity in Hollywood and among commercial and industrial filmmakers. As a result, Filmworkers/Astrolab -- the last remaining film-processing lab in the Midwest -- has been forced to close its doors for good. The lab's last film-processing gig was in May, when it processed film for a Wendy's commercial.

"There's just not enough work with film, and that's the main reason why we are closing," said Manuela Hung, the general manager for Filmworkers/Astrolab. "Digital acquisition has become the wave of the future."

The building at 61 W. Erie St., which has been the home of Astrolab since the early 1960s, is still occupied by Hung, vice president Reid Brody and two remaining lab technicians while the company tries to find takers for its film-processing equipment.

But they will all leave by July, when a developer who bought the property will take over and probably demolish the building, according to Brody.

The transition from film to digital among Hollywood studios has been going on for more than 10 years, beginning with landmark movies like Robert Rodriguez's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (2001) and George Lucas' "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (2002).

In fact, employees at Filmworkers/Astrolab haven't worked on a feature-length motion picture in five years -- its last processing job was Alfredo De Villa's "Nothing Like the Holidays" (2008), which was shot in Chicago and starred Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo and Debra Messing. Brody served as executive producer for that film. But Astrolab managed to survive by processing commercials and student films from the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College, Northwestern University and other Midwestern universities with film schools.

"The schools were great, but we couldn't support ourselves with student films alone," Hung said. "It became a killer to pay property taxes to support this (12,000-square-foot) building with what we were taking in."

Astrolab was one of the last remaining independent film-processing labs in the U.S. With its closing, there are only a handful of film-processing labs left -- including small, boutique labs in Atlanta, Seattle and Boston. Astrolab's parent company, Filmworkers, also continues to maintain a small film-processing facility in Dallas. "Even (former film-processing giant) Technicolor doesn't process film anymore," Hung said. "DeLuxe (a New York- and Los Angeles-based lab) is still around, but they've been taking away business from the smaller, boutique labs. Soon, there's only going to be one or two labs left in the country, and that's not a good thing."

That scarcity wasn't the case when Astrolab opened in the early 1960s. Back then, there were up to 14 film-processing labs in Chicago, servicing commercial and industrial filmmakers and even the local television stations, which shot remote reports exclusively on film. Even the makers of educational filmstrips -- companies like Coronet and Encyclopedia Britannica -- relied on facilities like Astrolab to process their content.

By the early 1980s, Astrolab was attracting new business from the West Coast after former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne's administration began wooing Hollywood studios. Filmmakers like John Landis and Paul Brickman were showing up to screen dailies of "The Blues Brothers" and "Risky Business," which were processed at Astrolab. Ultimately, more than 100 Hollywood features were processed at Astrolab.

Nancy Watrous, now the executive director for the Chicago Film Archives, worked in the 1970s and 1980s as a production assistant on many feature-film shoots and remembers Astrolab as a hub of activity for those in the film community.

"One of my jobs was to deliver the carefully prepped, exposed film to the lab at the end of the shoot day, since the camera department was often the last department to wrap up the day," Watrous recalled. "There was a small lobby at the entry way (on Erie Street) with a sliding window into an office where someone would accept the film rolls. Because it was usually dark and well into the night, there was always something illicit-feeling about it. I remember sometimes there would be a rush to get the film there in time for the final 'bath' cycle at midnight."

Astrolab's fortunes declined somewhat in the 1990s, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2001. But business improved when Filmworkers, a postproduction facility on nearby Ohio Street, bought the business in 2001. Hung and Brody were Filmworkers employees who were installed to manage Astrolab. They had experience with both film and digital and brought the facility into the 21st century.

"The old ownership couldn't compete anymore because you needed high-end telecines (machines that transfer motion picture film into video) and tape machines on the video side," Brody recalled. "We had all that, and the previous ownership didn't."

The two began bringing Hollywood back to the Erie Street facility, starting with producer Tillman's "Barbershop" in 2002, starring Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer, and filmed primarily on the South Side.

"The studios were insisting that everything that was filmed go back to LA," Hung recalled. "So our job was to convince the directors of photography that we could give them excellent quality. We made ourselves completely devoted to their projects and were flexible to accommodate schedules. After we processed their dailies, they could come in and screen at any time. Usually, we only did one feature at a time."

This personal touch sold Tillman on Astrolab -- he also brought "Barbershop 2" (2004) to the facility. Soon, Astrolab was attracting features like "The Break-Up" (2006), with Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston.

"Vince Vaughn became a major supporter of ours after he saw what we could do during 'Break-Up,'" Brody said.

These are all now distant memories for Hung and Brody as they dismantle the Astrolab operations. The two are trying to find takers for the equipment, which includes huge film printers, chemical film-developing tanks and negative processors.

Because so few companies need film-processing equipment, the company has been forced to donate equipment to not-for-profits like Mix NYC.

Watrous has accepted some of the facility's film splicers and split reels.

"What really broke our heart, though, is that in the end we could not find a way to accept the 35 mm projector that Astro offered to donate to us," Watrous said. "The expertise that is required to break down and rebuild this beautiful machine, the cost to build a booth to house it and to care for it was just not practical."

Hung and Brody will remain in Chicago, where they still are employed at Filmworkers, which specializes in visual effects, color correction, motion graphics and other services for digital productions.

But they both remain sold on what they call the superior visual quality of film.

"Even though Astrolab won't be around, I hope people will continue to shoot film," Hung said. "It's beautiful and has a depth that video doesn't have."


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