Chicago’s last film processing company shuts down

After 45 years of processing major films, from 'The Blues Brothers' to 'The Dark Knight', Chicago’s Astro Labs has shut down.

May 28, 2013

Chicago has lost a major piece of its filmmaking history. Astro Labs was the last film processing company in the city and one of just a few left in the Midwest.

But after 45 years, the company’s doors are closed.

In its heyday, this place was major. Every movie John Hughes ever made was processed here. So were films like “The Blues Brothers”, “High Fidelity”, and both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”.

For Manuela Hung, who along with Reid Brody took over Astro in 2001, the Batman films were a big deal.

Hung says director Christopher Nolan wanted daily rushes – but only of certain scenes. So that meant Astro wouldn’t just process a working print of the film. They’d have to cut the actual negative.

Trouble was, most people who knew how to do that were retired or no longer around. Desperate, Hung reached out to some students at Columbia College.

Yes, students cut the original negative shot by Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister.

Hung says she’s not sure how they did it - their semester hadn’t even ended.

“We were working around the clock,” Hung said.  “But they did a beautiful job, and everybody was happy.”

Reid Brody says that’s how Astro competed against the major film labs on the East and West coasts: They were always willing to hustle.

“We always managed to get to someone, either through our friends at Kodak or someone at Chicago being connected to the production,” Brody said. “It was a just a lot of fun, a lot of excitement.”

But those days are long gone. The last feature film Astro handled was in 2010.

These days, most features shot in Chicago no longer use film. The commercial work Astro relied on has also dried up - advertising companies too have switched to digital. That left local independent and student filmmakers.

Hung says that’s been their primary business for the past year.

“It’s wonderful to be able to do that,” Hung said. “But that doesn’t sustain a whole entire lab. It just doesn’t.”

So earlier this month, Astro shut down. And these days, Hung’s main job is overseeing the dismantling of Astro.

That’s a huge job. The machines are massive contraptions. Their color printers are about six feet long, covered in shiny steel gears and sprockets.

In another room, a chemical lab for mixing developer is full of small glass pipettes and giant steel tanks.

Further along, inside a glass-encased machine, the negative is processed – dipped in multiple solutions and then hung up to dry, sort of like laundry.

All of this equipment is in a series of interconnected rooms, covering about 12,000 square feet in total.

But walking through the now dormant lab is like walking through a graveyard.

“They have absolutely no value to anyone,” Hung said. “Nobody wants them. The deconstruction of the lab, especially because everything was working, is what makes it really sad.”

Hung says they’ve reached out to people They’re willing to give everything away. But the size of the equipment is prohibitive in most cases. So most of it will be broken down for scrap metal.

Other members of Chicago’s film community are also mourning the loss of Astro.

Danièle Wilmouth is an independent filmmaker and film teacher. She’s been taking films to Astro for about 15 years. She says the biggest loss is not just the machines, but the people who ran them.

“Not having their expertise that we could call on, just you know, for some advice or a question about something," she said. "And of course for our students, being able to go their first hand and talk with technicians. That was really invaluable. So, yeah it will be a huge loss. I’m really sad about it.”

Meanwhile, though Astro Labs is gone, Manuela Hung and Reid Brody aren’t leaving the film business entirely. They’ll continue to operate Filmworkers Club, a post production house in Chicago. And they run a small processing plant in Texas.