On Site—The Minilab Scene
Slippery When Dry
Digital Now: New Player in Dry Film Processing
By Jerry Lansky
It was just a year ago, at PMA in Las Vegas. I started to pick up the buzz at the PMDA Man Of The Year dinner. The following morning, in a formal presentation made by then-Gretag CEO, Peter Fitzgerald, some vague references to it were made. A tidbit here and another there and it didn't take long to fit the pieces of the puzzle together that evolved into a rather remarkable picture:
Applied Science Fiction had invented a system to develop a roll of negative film without the use of conventional wet chemicals. In other words, a Ôdry' film process (DFP).
Contacting top management people around the hallways at PMA for comment then, I got responses ranging from "it will never work" to a glazed stare from someone who wondered if this writer, finally, had fallen into a roulette wheel. Both sides of the aisle were wrong — though I suspect there may still be some doubting-Thomases to each view.
ASF subsequently showed a laboratory version of its system to the press and it indeed worked. At Photokina, the ASF folks prepared a demonstration of its system right at the booth — still using a rather large setup, maybe 5-6 ft. sq. — where they had people take photos right there with a 35mm camera. Within three minutes of loading the film into their black box, ASF displayed the image on a TV monitor.
According to Dan Sullivan, ASF's new president, there were some skeptics who felt that ASF was using sleight of hand: it was not real 35mm film, but rather a camera that had a camouflaged digital back. Not so. But, ASF has been dealing with industry skeptics from day one and had been prepared with the answers.
What they probably weren't prepared for, however, was that they wouldn't be the only kid on the block at Photokina with a dry system.
Another Dry Guy
Quietly tiptoeing into Photokina with its own dry processing system (they call it DFT for dry film technology) was Digital Now, Vienna, VA. Until now this firm has been best known in the minilab trade as the supplier of the Digital Photo Factory, a $12,000 backroom system introduced at PMA's 1998 convention, designed to scan negatives and output to a CD-ROM, floppy disk, index print, upload to the Internet and other things. Hundreds are installed in minilabs as well as wholesale labs in this country and abroad. The leader in this category is Kodak's PictureVision system.
All of a sudden, Digital Now is a player and sharing the spotlight with ASF in matters relating to dry processing. ASF's Dan Sullivan said that Digital Now's entry was not a surprise, though I had been told not so long ago by ASF that they knew of no one else pursuing a dry system. Dan said, "It legitimizes our concept."
Not only does it legitimatize dry processing, it creates a competitive arena that puts everyone on a fast track. Coming in second is to be last in this race — unless there are still others to be heard from.
No doubt there are many technical matters that make the two systems very different from one another. From a practical aspect, there is one very significant distinction that could make an impact in the marketplace: what happens to the negative in the course of the dry processing.
The ASF system, as I've described in the past, essentially destroys the film. Once it has been processed and the image digitally captured, the film is useless. Dan feels that delivering the images back on a CD-ROM at the price of regular processing will not be a problem in our digital era. Personally, I feel that people have been used to getting their negs back with prints for eons and to try to explain that this process eats the film will be a tough sell for the counter person. In defense, Dan said "we can digitally output back to film and deliver negs to the customer — at a cost. All the customer has to do is check the box on the order envelope and we can mail out the neg."
The Digital Now process, according to Gary Mueller, exec. VP and COO, does not destroy the negative. Once the film has gone through the process and had the image digitally captured, it is dried and returned to the consumer. Gary said, it won't look like developed negative as it will be exceptionally dense. Though it has already been treated with developer it can be inserted in a traditional chemically-based film processor at the stage beyond the developer tank for all of the normal processing. The final result is the negative we know and love.
Gary said that so long as the film is kept dry a consumer could wait as long as six months to have the partially processed neg returned for the final step. This, too, could be a counter clerk's headache when someone comes back two years later for a reprint order and has only the partially processed neg in hand.
New Doors Swinging Open?
That one major difference aside, neg vs. no neg, and without getting into the technical side of it, the ASF and Digital Now systems have this in common: they process negative film without the use of wet chemicals, opening up a new market for servicing the conventional camera user in locations that previously could not or would not deal with a chemically based system.