When video killed the radio star in the 1980s, it also did a number on Russ Suniewick’s business — processing motion pictures. Suniewick co-founded Colorlab, a film-processing firm in Rockville. When the company started in 1972, D.C. was a major film town, with several large labs — Bono, Capital, Byron, among others — cranking out miles of government, public relations and educational films. Each of the network-affiliate TV stations had film-processing equipment. The phrase “Film at 11” was literally true. News of the day was recorded by 16mm film cameras, and the film was rushed back to the station, developed, edited and images readied for broadcast late at night or maybe the next day.
The mad dash to digital has proved to be the knockout punch for many who lived by, and loved, celluloid. Kodak, the inventor and producer of most of the film that everyone and their great-grandparents exposed for the past century, is bankrupt. Hollywood has found a way to dance on its grave, forcing theaters to install digital projectors so that studios could stop paying for film prints. Except for the last Batman adventure — which celluloid purist Christopher Nolan insisted be shot on film — if you’ve been to the movies lately, you’ve probably watched bits and bytes. Even the AFI Silver Theatre is having difficulty getting actual film prints for its retrospectives.
Against this trend, Colorlab continues. It has an office in New York City, where nearby New York University students can drop off their shot-on-film films to be processed. True, processing film is no longer Colorlab’s main business, or much of a business at all. Asked how many labs remain to process film, Suniewick and his group begin a slow count. The historic rivals Technicolor and Deluxe were forced to merge, one handling negatives and the other prints. They list a lab in Seattle, another in San Francisco, one in the Midwest, a couple in Los Angeles and a few in Europe.
Today, Suniewick and his 20-person crew are innovators in the world of film preservation and restoration. “I am so old that we are actually preserving films that I worked on back in the ’70s,” the 66-year-old Suniewick says with a grim chuckle. “We had many, many good years with lots of film processing.”
Colorlab helped Forrest Gump mingle with dead presidents. For seven seasons, the shop was open around the clock to service TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Street.” (“It drove a lot of people crazy,” Suniewick says.) More recently, Colorlab processed footage for use in “The Avengers” and “Captain America.”
“We’re not New York, and we didn’t have a gaggle of people who were willing to stay up all night to participate in show business,” Suniewick says, somewhat dismissively.
And in that dismissal is one reason Colorlab has survived. Suniewick and his co-founding partner, Ernest Aschenbach, were not star-struck over Tinseltown. They preferred the independent, the experimental and the artsy over the glitz and the government work being pumped out of D.C.’s other labs. While Colorlab has done preservation work for many of the films on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, Suniewick is quick to point out that Colorlab handled “the important ones, not the Hollywood ones.” And the impetus to build the lab came when the pair noticed that some interesting filmmakers were being ignored by the system.