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