DuArt: The End of the Film Era

After 88 years, DuArt Film Labs in New York City recently announced they are abandoning motion-picture film processing for an all-digital business. It’s not only the end of an era for DuArt and for film, but also for those who have been part of the DuArt team over many decades. As a DuArt alumnus, I owe a great deal to Irwin Young, Paul Kaufman and Bob Smith who ran DuArt when I worked there in the 1970s, so I’ll take this opportunity to tell a bit of my own story in the DuArt context.

After working in motion picture sound in the San Francisco Bay area, I moved to New York in 1971 to attend the NYU Graduate Institute of Film and Television. My goal was to get beyond being just a “sound guy” and learn the other aspects of filmmaking: cinematography, editing, writing, etc. After grad school, producing and directing two quite forgettable documentaries and spending a year covering events like the U.S. Senate Watergate Hearings for NBC/Visnews (now Reuters), I went back into the motion-picture sound business with a full-time gig at DuArt. The company has always supported young, up-and-coming filmmakers on low budgets, offering discounts and terrific technical advice. Both of my own films were processed and mixed at DuArt, and I was very comfortable there. Not only did I get to spend hours at the mixing console, I also was exposed to every aspect of motion-picture post production. I was able to dabble in such esoteric fields as color correction, negative cutting and film chemistry. It was a tremendous learning experience.

When you’re an in-house sound guy, you take whatever jobs come in the door. And one day I found myself recording the English-language ADR (dialog-replacement “looping”) for a series of films by Lina Wertmüller including Swept Away and Seven Beauties. Well, it wasn’t just one day. It was weeks of 8-hour/day sessions in that darkened room with actors in the booth going over and over the same lines while on-screen were some of the most depressing images of World War II concentration camps, a favorite setting for Wertmüller’s films. It wasn’t a creative process. It was dreadful.

A year before – we’re talking maybe 1974 – I had taken a course in the PL/1 programming language at the New School on a whim. This was just before the MITS Altair 8800 came on the scene, and I had a sense the world was about to split into two groups: those who understood computers and those who didn’t. I wanted to be in the former group.

So in the middle of recording take 12 of some scene from Seven Beauties, we took a break. I bumped into Irwin Young, chairman of the board of DuArt in the hallway, and we struck up a brief conversation. He had started a project to computerize certain aspects of motion-picture color correction and duplication, and I asked him if there was any way to get involved. (I didn’t add, “and to get out of this studio where I’m going crazy!”) Irwin asked if I knew anything about computers, and I replied, “Well, I took this course…” To my great surprise, he decided to put me in charge of the project. Irwin was always like that. He gave young people (techies and filmmakers alike) opportunities for tremendous growth, and he supported them along the way. An amazing guy who makes DuArt the very unique place it is.

I was made Director of Computer Services at DuArt. Although I was the only in-house employee of the department, I was actually working under the tutelage of Fred Schlyter, an eccentric electronics engineer who until then had single-handedly designed the hardware and written the software for DuArt’s cutting-edge projects. Fred was a truly brilliant engineer, and his attitudes about the efficiency of software and hardware design shaped my own work for the rest of my career.

Over the next few years, Fred and I did some rather amazing things. We created a network of about six Data General Nova and perhaps a dozen PDP-8 clone minicomputers. This was before the days of Ethernet, and Fred designed a remarkable scheme based on twisted-pair optically isolated wiring. It proved to be fast, inexpensive and 100% reliable in a very noisy industrial environment. Fred designed the custom controllers for the Novas and PDP-8s, while I wrote the operating system, drivers and application software. (Fred wouldn’t dream of using the manufacturers’ operating systems!)

Fred invented frame count cueing, which was the basis for all of our work and which revolutionized – I’m not exaggerating! – motion-picture post production. In 1979, Fred was given a Technical Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (ie, the Oscar folks) for this work.

While Fred was crunching out state-of-the art hardware, I was doing my best to keep up with the software. Initially, everything was written in assembler language. Fred’s hardware was “sparse” to say the least. We didn’t even have hardware keyboard debouncing. Fred figured (correctly) that we could do that in software and thereby save a component or two. Likewise, we didn’t use chips to control seven-segment plasma displays. He gave me a seven-bit output device for each digit, and I turned each segment on and off in software. Not difficult, but certainly very low-level.

After a while we had built up quite a collection of code, and I was looking for a higher-level programming language for the Data General Novas. Not finding one to my liking, I decided to create my own process-control Algol and a complimentary real-time operating system. Together they ran all aspects of DuArt’s color correction, negative handling and film printing processes including the numerical-control programming of the Oxberry optical printer.

DuArt rolled out a vast array of similar projects such as the computerized transfer of Eastman Color Negative (ECN) directly to video using a Rank-Cintel flying-spot scanner. Prior to that, one had to first make a print or interpositive. Being able to get video directly from the original negative or internegative yielded a much higher-quality image.

Ultimately, I fell in love with the art and science of compiler writing. I found the challenges of compilers more exciting than the applications themselves, so I left DuArt to start my own compiler-writing company, Rational Data Systems (RDS). And when I did, who offered to rent me cheap office space and stay on as my first customer? Of course it was Irwin Young and DuArt Film Labs.

When RDS moved out of the West 55th Street DuArt building around 1979, I lost touch with Irwin, but Fred and I worked on another project until 1984, when RDS relocated to California.

My memory of these times, 30+ years ago, remain clear as a bell. I still have source code listings of that first compiler and operating system, and I look at them every time I pretend I’ve done something cool since then. I owe a great deal to Irwin Young and the culture of opportunity he created at DuArt Film Labs. I don’t bemoan the passing of film at DuArt, as I know they’ve been advancing video and digital and supporting innovators ever since I left in the late 1970s.

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