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Fading to credits

The DuArt postproduction shop, long a tech pioneer, is being passed by in a digital age.

October 15, 2003|Michele Willens | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Irwin Young, deep in his 70s, is a generally upbeat man. But as the elevator doors open onto the eighth floor of DuArt Film and Video, the company his father started in 1922, his whole demeanor changes. "This is the sadness," he says, as we enter the eerie silence.

Not a being in sight, it looks as if the employees fled during a fire and never returned. "This is where our film lab was," continues Young, DuArt's chairman. "That was the reception, there was the shipping area. They've moved to the digital department, such as it is. Boy, it used to be busy here."

This is a story about a good-hearted dinosaur -- a tale that's indicative of how the movie business is changing. It's about a company that started as a friend to the big studios and may end as one of the last great friends the independent film community ever had. DuArt, a legendary facility in Midtown Manhattan, has always rebounded from hard times, but this time it may take a miracle as the movie business shifts from film to digital, leaving DuArt -- a company that has long specialized in film postproduction -- struggling to survive.

DuArt serves many purposes. It's an East Coast facility for filmmakers who need a place to make prints from negatives, transfer film to video (and vice versa) and screen dailies, or who need equipment for online editing of commercials and programs.

DuArt Film and Video has had many incarnations over the years. In the late '20s, Al Young (Irwin's father) built one of the earliest continuous 35-millimeter processing machines. In 1950, DuArt processed the first film in Eastmancolor negative, which became the mainstay of the motion picture industry. Later, the company formed a key relationship with a television news operation, CBS, when it became the first to use particular processing machines that could develop and dry film quickly. In 1977, the company won a technical Academy Award for creating the frame-count cuing system, basically a better way for filmmakers to count film frames.

For many years, major studios used DuArt to process and develop its film: Universal's Newsreels were a lifeline in the '30s until Universal suddenly broke its contract to go to another lab in Fort Lee, N.J. Columbia Pictures also kept it going for years. "When I came into the company in 1950," recalls Young, "Columbia was 60% of our business. Then we lost that contract."

Next, CBS gave the company several years of life, but TV news soon discovered video, and the nature of that beast changed. But DuArt rebounded with innovations in the world of 16-millimeter film, the format favored by independent and documentary filmmakers. Suddenly a solid marriage was made: a perfect blend of the artistic, political and technical.

"I was attracted to independent filmmakers because of their spirit and because we suddenly had a lot of customers," Young says. "I come from a very political family, so I responded to a lot of their messages. We needed each other."

An indie champion

Over the last 40-some years, many of the top independent filmmakers working in New York -- including Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Susan Seidelman, Barbara Kopple and John Sayles -- have done their postproduction work at DuArt. (Check out many of their closing film credits and you will likely see a special appreciation for Irwin Young.) Much like European proprietors who once gave free room and board to Picasso and others in exchange for original artworks, Young was known for his oral or handshake deals, and his willingness to allow filmmakers to follow their dreams, even if it meant deferring their payments.

The care and feeding of the eventual print -- be it film or digital in origin -- is not unlike how parents feel about turning their child over to a caretaker. And by all accounts, DuArt has done it as well as anyone. "It's not a by-the-numbers thing," says documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, who, like his brother Ken, has used DuArt for 25 years. "It takes judgment, craft and experience. We put a tremendous amount of hope, time, worry and money into our work, and Irwin Young and company have given back just as much care and skill."

"Basically, Irwin Young is the mensch of the independent film world," says filmmaker Aviva Kempner ("The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg"). "He does not see working with us only as a business but also a joint artistic vision. He commiserates and networks with us when we are in that weary, will-it-ever-get-done stage."

It took Kempner 13 years to raise the funds to complete "Greenberg," but, she says, "Irwin always believed I would finish and allowed me to pay off my bills as the funds came through."

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