Gratispool ~ Means Free Films
Some Discussion Items

The following are topics of discussion which arose during the exchange of information bewteen Martin & Richard Stead, Farquhar McKenzie and myself while the Gratispool web page was being written. They do not readily fit into the main story, but are thought worthy of retaining for future reference.

Some "Firsts" as recollected by Farquhar McKenzie

Gratispool or International Photofinishing Laboratories had a number of "Firsts" in the photo' processing industry in the UK.

  • Finglas - Gratispool owned Dublin laboratory:
    A continuous process for 110 film
    The lab electrolytically de-silvered the bleach-fix (driven by lack of EDTA during an oil crisis). However, Gratispool had been recovering silver electrolytically from their normal fixer solutions for many years previously. One interesting anecdote concerning this activity occured during the 1970s when Geoffrey Stead suggested that Gratispool retain their recovered silver for over a year, instead of folowing the normal procedure of passing it on to a bullion dealer every 3-4 months. This idea to retain the silver was inspired by the actions of Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brother William Herbert who, together with some wealthy Arabs, tried to corner the world silver market, culminating in the silver price shooting up so much that that for a year Gratispool made as much from selling silver as from processing films!
  • Northampton (and its associated 150 mini-labs operating in Boots - incl. the former LRC mini labs) - Kodak owned:
    Became registered with BSI for ISO 9002 (Quality Control standard, now replaced by ISO 9001 2000)
  • Reading - Dixons owned:
    Commissioned a fully automatic "Maxi-Lab" for 135 processing from splicing to print finishing - normally 135 film was done via a batch process with about 100 films being spliced onto a reel which moves through the various stages. With a "Maxi-lab" it was a continuous process with the 'web' created at splicing moved continuously through notching and printing until it reached print finishing. This removed all the delays and significantly improved productivity. The Kodak Laboratories in Switzerland, Germany and Austria utilised this technology because the labour rates allowed faster payback on capital investment.

Some Points of Discussion
a) When was the end of roll film black & white film d&p?
b) When did the taking of Ektachrome transparencies on roll films go out of style in favour of 35mm?

Farquhar recalled that in order to allow St Margaret's Place to focus on 126 & 135 films and start to match the high productivity seen in the Finglas laboratory (post-1970), roll film processing was initially moved from Glasgow to Blackpool. Later (post-1975) as SupaSnaps stores opened and it became necessary to improve productivity at Blackpool, roll film was again moved, this time to the newly commissioned laboratory in Northampton (after acquiring Northampton Photofinishers). Subsequently, roll film processing moved out of Northampton and ended up in Cambridge, so that the other laboratories could concentrate on 135 and 126 processing that had the (SupaSnapS) "Fast or Free" promise to their customers.

Cambridge increasingly became the "Ancillary laboratory". Part of the logic for acquiring the Cambridge (Fencolour) laboratory had been its ability to handle the "odd-stuff", including reversal processing. The cost of roll film processing increased during this period of 'movement' from lab to lab, due to its variety of formats making it more labour intensive.

I suggested the answers to the above questions (a) & (b) might have a common answer.

The demise of 'snap-shot' roll film cameras would have been a continual process throughout the latter half of the 1960s and the 1970s, as colour print costs reduced to little more than b&w. When roll film camera owners (here I mean snap-shot cameras, not Rollei or Hasselblad etc) realised that they could have colour prints for only an 'acceptable' amount more than the cost of b&w prints, they put aside their simple roll film cameras and invested in a 'colour' camera, which would have taken 35mm film.

The definition of 'acceptable' in the above paragraph would have varied from person to person. A few 'die-hards' would have hung on to their simple roll film cameras into the latter 1970s, while others will have upgraded to 35mm as early as 1963, enabling them to enjoy the colourful delights of low cost 35mm transparencies (low cost compared to roll film Ektachrome) and ease of projection viewing.

The graph below (composed mostly of data taken from Amateur Photographer adverts, apart from the 1965 4x factor, which comes directly from a Gratispool leaflet) shows how the relative cost of colour and b&w prints varied over a 30year span, starting from the time that Agfacolor negative film first appeared in the UK (1951).

By the end of the 1970s the ratio of the cost of a colour enprint to a b&w enprint (including the cost of the film) had declined to only 1.5 and advertisements for processing b&w roll film are becoming hard to find.

By the early 1980s, laboratories advertising to process b&w films are numerous again, but the emphasis has changed. The processors are expecting 35mm films, not roll film, and are treating b&w as a 'new' art form rather than a cheap alternative to colour. The introduction of chromogenic film (XP1) by Ilford in 1980 may have helped this trend.

The result is that, by 1982, although a straight comparison between colour and b&w still shows colour to be slightly more expensive, specialist b&w processing (especially the chromogenic C41 colour negative process) is noticeably more expensive than mass produced colour printing.

I suggested that Gratispool would have continued to receive occasional 'snap shot' roll films, b&w or Ektachrome, throughout the 1970s; possibly to the time when the business was sold in 1981. The number of such films would have dwindled considerably, but the Cambridge laboratory presumably continued to process them, albeit at a price (for b&w prints) that was only marginally below the price for colour.

The question remains unresolved as to whether Gratispool ever formally declined to receive roll films for processing or simply let market forces gradually encourage snap-shot customers to go over to 35mm as the cost of colour prints tumbled to a price that was virtually at parity with b&w?

As a corollary to the above, in Camera Weekly for Feb.1987 in the 'Comment' column, Bob Hall, Managing Director of the London International Group, encompassing Colocare & sharing Boots d&p business with Kodak, members of the Association of Photographic Laboratories, claimed nearly 33,000 colour films were being processed per day in the UK! He mentioned 400 mini-labs being in operation around the UK, 90 in Boots branches alone. He emphasised the low cost of colour d&p by comparing it to the cost of putting petrol into a car's tank, viz. 20 years previous (early 1967) colour film d&p cost the same as putting 18 gallons (82litres) of petrol in the tank whereas in 1987 it cost the same as only 2 gallons (9 litres).

In mid-2007, with petrol costing over 90p per litre (say £4.30p per gallon), a typical colour film d&p now costs only 1 gallon of petrol.

c) When did Dynachrome / Kodachrome movie film (the process was identical) give way to video tape?

Farquhar confirmed that Dynachrome did share the same process as (the original) Kodachrome, the K11 process.

Before working in the Finglas laboratory, Farquhar had worked in St Margaret's Place as Assistant Works Chemist to Tom Madden and became very adept at mixing Kodachrome K11 solutions, recycling solutions, tank analyses and process control. Farquhar then rejoined Gratispool at the Finglas laboratory about 7 years later working on colour negative processing of 126 / 110 & disc films - a much easier process. Kodachrome (by then the K12 process, until 1976 when it became K14) used a first developer and then cyan, yellow and magenta developers - so plenty of variations to control, whereas the colour negative C41 process only had a single developer (C41 was intended for 'substantive' films which have their three coupler layers already incorporated into the emulsion, whereas Kodachrome & Dynachrome were non-substantive films).

I found a Kodak web site which made the announcement on June 30th 2006 that "Final sales of Kodachrome Super 8 film occurred in May 2005. With the exit of the Renens lab in Switzerland, Kodak is no longer able to offer certified processing for Super 8 Kodachrome cartridges."

Kodak introduced the Super 8mm home movie film format as an improvement over Standard 8mm in mid-1965. Gratispool's business suffered from this new format long before home video cameras even started to become available. Gratispool's movie business was founded on Standard 8mm, a format where 16mm double run film went through the camera twice, exposing in turn each 8mm half of the 25ft 16mm wide film. Even this 16mm wide film format gave headaches due to the film snapping in the middle of the Dynacolor-built processing machines and Super 8mm film, being only 8mm wide, was even more fragile. But Gratispool's biggest problem was that they were initially unable to provide their own-label film for customers who bought Kodak's Super8 or Fuji's competing Single8 format cameras - though this was overcome by 1968 when Super 8 (Kodak format) was made available in 'own brand' Gratispool 2 (Dynachrome) emulsion. As the Standard 8mm market declined, Gratispool stopped processing all non-substantive reversal film and this (later) assisted the move to Clydeholm from St.Maragaret's Place in 1979. Gratispool had considered moving to that very same building several years earlier, when the Corporation of Glasgow wanted to acquire the St. Margaret's Place property. However, at that earlier time no compensatory financial agreement was reached with Glasgow Corporation and so Gratispool continued at St Margaret's Place.

As for when video might have taken over from home cine film, this web site relates that JVC announced its CR-4400 U-format portable videocassette recorder on January 8th 1974. But such units were barely portable as they comprised two large separate units, the battery powered recorder and the attaching camera. Apart from their unwieldy nature, they were very expensive so would have had hardly any impact on the 8mm and Super8mm film market.

According to Wikipedia Sony released its Betamovie for consumers in 1983, the first domestic camcorder (a combined camera and recorder). The unit was bulky by today's standards and since it could not be held in one hand, was typically used resting on a shoulder. It was the emergence by 1985 of two new small tape formats tailored to the application of portable-video, VHS-C and the competing 8mm, that really sparked the mass interest in camcorders and the obsolescence of Super 8mm film (not much use of 8mm by that time).

From the foregoing, it was Super 8mm rather than video which impacted on Gratispool's movie film processing business. Their relocation at the Clydehome premises in 1979 marked an end to Gratispool's cine film processing. By 1990, cine film processing must have been dwindling for everyone in the processsing trade and would have largely disappeared by 2000, with the advent in the late 1990s of the miniature digital camcorder.

I've recently (June 2007) found the following on the website of the National Museuem of Photography Film & Television, now renamed (after 23 years) the National Media Museum (located at Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK).
"By the end of the 1970s it was estimated that 10% of British households owned cine cameras. In 1978, Polaroid brought out the Polavision instant movie system that produced a processed colour film ninety seconds after exposure. It was not commercially successful and, in fact, during the 1980s interest in amateur cinematography waned. Sales of cine equipment amounted to less than a fortieth of the total UK photographic market; film purchases also dropped dramatically. Dedicated amateurs and their clubs continued to make films but the majority of "snapshot" cine camera owners ceased to shoot home movies. Since the late 1980s, many people have taken to home video with the advent of small portable video camcorders."

In Practical Photography magazine for November 1985, in the regular Jack Schofield column, Jack talks about the change from home cinephotography to video in the context of the likelihood of still photography being eventually supplanted by electronic imaging. Criticising the low quality of home video (at that time) compared to Super 8mm, he says "....that didn't stop the amateur cine industry from being wiped out, did it?"

d) When did 35mm slide film processing decline because the amateur market for transparencies dwindled in favour of colour prints?

Martin suggested this must have been before the Glasgow Gratispool laboratory moved from St Margaret's Place (1979) as there was no transparency processing facility in the new lab. at Clydeholm Rd.

Farquhar said SupaSnaps grew initially on the popularity of 126 cameras but that quickly moved to 35mm because of the plethora of 35mm cameras (incl. half frame). Kodak, Agfa and Gretag had also developed improved automatic colour negative printers with much higher printing speeds and better first time print quality (certainly compared to the US Pakos used originally in Finglas). The use of Agfa printers (7560 / 7565) that could produce 4 inch prints automatically helped SupaSnapS grow quickly.

The Clydeholm laboratory was commissioned for colour negative only and (residual) reversal would have gone to the ex-Fencolor lab. at Cambridge.

I commented that the snap-shot market must have originally preferred colour transparencies because they were much cheaper than colour prints (at that time, early 1960s) and the quality of early colour prints was more variable. As the sophisticated automation of colour printing resolved both these issues, colour prints would have been preferred. The graph (above, previous) shows how, as far as the price of colour prints is concerned, the steep decline relative to b&w ceased around 1970 and began to flatten. To some degree this must reflect the take up of colour prints by the mass market, so 1970 might be a reasonable guess of when the taking of colour transparencies by snap-shot photographers had seriously declined in favour of colour prints. This is before the start of the SupaSnapS era (1975) but the Sept 1967 experiment by Ron Houslip (Free Film Services) had already shown that there was a large and growing colour print market waiting to be 'tapped' if price and quality were right.

This page last modified 10th June 2007