Nia­gara Cus­tom Lab first opened its doors to the pub­lic in the ear­ly nineties on the out­skirts of the fash­ion dis­trict of down­town Toron­to on Nia­gara Street. There was a feel­ing in the air dur­ing that time that the film indus­try was on the verge of col­lapse and any­one who cared about work­ing with film in the future start­ed to get antsy. The notion of a new kind of indie lab was born as a solu­tion of the impend­ing doom. Aimed at serv­ing the ana­log film enthu­si­asts who refused to give up the medi­um they loved, a cus­tom film lab which catered to their needs seemed the answer. How­ev­er, in order to build some­thing that could with­stand the strains of the ever-chang­ing uses and demands for film, a new busi­ness mod­el need­ed to be hatched.

The big com­mer­cial labs relied on print­ing all the fea­tures that in those days were required by the­atres across the coun­try. It was not that long ago that every movie the­ater in the coun­try pro­ject­ed real film, so it was a busy indus­try to be in at that time. The inde­pen­dent labs each had their niche mar­ket that kept them fair­ly busy, but there had nev­er been an inde­pen­dent lab that attempt­ed to func­tion like a com­mer­cial lab while cater­ing to the needs of inde­pen­dent film­mak­ers. Nia­gara set itself up as the miss­ing link for film­mak­ers, attempt­ing to run every sin­gle for­mat and stock, process, print and ser­vice, every aspect of motion pic­ture film.

For a film lab to func­tion out­side the main­stream with no sol­id con­tracts and no way to pre­dict the sup­ply and demand of film, it would need to be flex­i­ble. It was a chal­lenge and took the lab through sev­er­al loca­tion moves as it got pushed out of the city cen­ter, requir­ing many staff changes and many alter­na­tive fund­ing sources to keep it going. Stub­born­ness played a large part in its sur­vival, as well as turn­ing a blind ear on those who said it would nev­er work. After many years on Nia­gara Street it was forced to move over to Duf­ferin street and then over to the Lans­downe area, always being pushed fur­ther away from the city core by gentrification.

No one could have pre­dict­ed how quick­ly the film indus­try we all knew and loved would crum­ble as the via­bil­i­ty of com­mer­cial film took a nose dive all around the world. But by the time this came to pass Nia­gara had already estab­lished itself as a force to be reck­oned with. Few labs were left untouched by the Nia­gara cleanup crew, who through­out the years, either called upon or not, would show up to load the back of a truck with valu­able film pro­cess­ing gear either sold for cheap or left for scrap by labs call­ing it quits. It was sad to see our com­rades pack it in and fright­en­ing to con­tin­ue on as the sole sur­vivor, but it was also some­thing that was inevitable somehow.

The his­to­ry of the lab is a sto­ry of hard­ships and vic­to­ries that has many bends and bumps along the way made pos­si­ble by the needs of a stub­born few. Those who work as part of the Nia­gara team today take great pride in their place in his­to­ry and the work they have done and will con­tin­ue to do pre­serv­ing film as a viable medi­um for what’s left of the old guard, as well as all the new punks com­ing out of the wood­work who would take their chances with real film.

Sebast­jan Hen­rik­son, Own­er and Founder

the film lab for artists