FRI family photoWho are these people? Film Rescue International is revealing the secrets of the past with their ability to develop old rolls of film that were once lost or forgotten.
There is something compelling about finding an unexposed roll of film, even if it’s a roll you shot but can’t recall the details of having done so. There have been discoveries of celebrity snapshots, historical scenes thought lost, and even claims of the supernatural—ghostly images credited to troubled spirits, for example.
For the most part, rolls of film—moving pictures and stills—are discovered in closets and under beds by people delighted to find an unexpected link to their past. There is only one hitch in such a discovery: the necessary chemicals required to process expired film is getting harder and harder to find. There is also a significant set of skills involved in processing old film.
Enter Film Rescue International located in Indian Head. During the 1990s, Greg Miller was running a company in Toronto attached to the motion picture industry. As film began to be replaced by digital capture in the world of still photography, Miller’s knowledge of film processing was becoming quite unique. The corner labs that processed film in an hour were disappearing but world-wide there was still a demand for processing old rolls. Rescuing old film as a full time career held the promise of an escape from the high-pressure world of the motion picture industry.
“I’ve always felt that Saskatchewan was home,” says the Minneapolis-born Miller. “My dad is from here. My wife and I imagined that we could come here and have a lot less stress. When we first set up in 1999, I would be out fishing with my dad at Katepwa Lake taking phone calls for the business. We were taking work from Europe and the United States and larger Canadian cities. Then, the Kodak information centre found out we were able to process very old, expired films. They called and the next day a ton of work came in.”
Being a mail order business meant that FRI could be anywhere in the world. “It makes the business more interesting if we can travel to Europe on business. There is also a lot of opportunity to grow.”
It seems counterintuitive that in the age of digital everything that there could be growth in processing film. “There are millions of rolls of film out there,” says Miller. “There is more than enough to last my lifetime.” The fact that FRI is the primary company doing this work in the world means that it can expect the lion’s share of those millions of rolls.
“When we were figuring out how to do this we did a lot of testing,” says Miller. He bought large quantities of chemical that he knew was going to be discontinued. “You can throw pretty much anything at us and we can do it.”
“People go to Wal-Mart and are told to throw their film away. But we get pictures out of film that goes back to the 1920s. First we process film to black and white and then we move to colour.”
The final process is to scan images so they can be digitally archived.
“We don’t really know what we’re going to get off the film,” says Miller. “We’re very careful to let people know that. Considering that we process from 400 to 600 vintage films a month, we have very few disappointments.”
It seems that there are, in fact, many more pleasant surprises than disappointments. FRI was commissioned to process films found in the estate of the late Beatle George Harrison. “Unfortunately, I can’t really say anything because we signed non-disclosure agreements before we did the work,” says Miller. The company has processed lots of rare films from the Vietnam war and rescued film for police investigations.
That this kind of work is carried out in a small Saskatchewan town is surprising to many people. Miller relates one such incident. “A friend in town owns the antique shop and has many people come in from Highway 1. A Toronto guy came in with some film cameras and said no one could process the film. There we were right across the street. He was shocked.
“I never really expected to be a world-expert on something, “ Miller says humbly.
The company has identified another niche that it will try to fill in the next few years. Photographers everywhere have boxes of slides that they would like to have digitized. FRI has streamlined a process to do that scanning quickly and affordably.
The core business, though, remains those neglected films that have expired in a closet or secreted away in a disused camera.
“Sometimes,” says Miller, “an old film represents that last chance to glimpse a loved one.”
Contact Film Rescue International, visit their website at www.filmrescue.com or call (306) 695-2300.
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