Updated: May 27, 2020
While working at Richard Photo Lab I felt very much like I was coming full circle since my film school, Columbia College-Hollywood, used to be a few doors down at 925 N. La Brea Ave. in Hollywood. Working in the film prep department was a great experience, but it was a temporary position. It was very nostalgic handling film again. I didn’t think I would get another chance to work with film directly again. After being out of work the first few months of 2015, I was starting to hit the streets with my resume…literally. It seemed like an outdated way of seeking work. I walked into Fotokem Film and Video Services and filled out an application even though the company wasn’t hiring then.
About ten days later I got a call regarding a film vault position. The pay is low, but there are opportunities to move into other positions there. In my last post, Handling Film Then and Now, I mentioned filming a short film, “The Turnaround” on 16mm at Columbia College-Hollywood. Well, I still have elements from some of my films, “The Turnaround” and feature film, “Rubbernecking“ vaulted in one of Fotokem’s vaults in Glendale. So I’m not only an employee, I’m also a client. “The Turnaround” was filmed in 1995 and some elements have been vaulted all this time.
The film industry has changed so much in the last 20 years. Like Richard Photo Lab is for still film, Fotokem is one of the biggest remaining motion picture film labs remaining in the film industry. All the motion picture studios dropped their involvement with film and Fotokem picked up a lot of the film work and preservation projects.
Fotokem buildings in Burbank
There’s about 700 people that work at Fotokem. Beyond the main campus at Burbank are vaults and post production facilities in Glendale, Santa Monica and around the United States; New York, New Orleans and Atlanta. Some filmmakers are still shooting on film. At Fotokem, dailies get synced up. Older films still have work done as newer formats are being created. My job in the film vault is to pick up and/or drop off film elements or hard drives from one of the 3 buildings in Burbank to another building. The Burbank location has three buildings. The position involves a lot of walking. My feet were aching in my first month working there. My left foot was so bad I had to see my doctor. My doctor recommended getting insoles as he himself uses them. I found a store in Studio City called Road Runner that custom fits insoles to your feet. Road Runner has a machine right there in the store that molds insoles. I highly recommend this service. Costs about $70, but my left foot is worth it.
The job also requires some heavy lifting. Often we use dollies to move stacks of 16, 35 and 65 millimeter reels. The 65MM film cans are very heavy. Between the walking and heavy lifting film vault people get a great workout. The position involves preparing elements to be delivered, shipped or taken to will call. We box up items and print up receipts that give a written record of what’s in the boxes. Sometimes we get requests to destroy film elements. (My favorite task!)
There are full circles within the bigger full circle. I’ve come across films I’ve worked on such as “Wicked” and “Return of the Living Dead III.” Every day I handle big commercial films that are currently or recently in theaters. It’s exciting at times when you’ve got some of your favorite films in your hands; “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Schindler’s List.” Filmmakers and actors hold screenings at small theaters at Fotokem. Sometimes huge stars are there to attend a screening or screen dailies. Halle Berry was there one day. I didn’t get a chance to see her, but I walked right by Christopher Nolan one day. (Not as sexy, but total movie geekness!)
Julian (middle) says goodbye to film vault.
Julian, my 30 year-old trainer, was moving on to his new position at Fotokem, in the uploading files department. A group of us took him out for a goodbye lunch. The Glendale vault made him a graduation cap out of film trim boxes.
Most days are very busy, but they go quickly. It is a tough position. I hope to move into a different and better-paying position at the company. Because of landing this job I was able to move out of the house I was sharing with four people and have my own apartment again in North Hollywood. Fotokem is only a 10 minute drive. Recently, I started a new shift starting at 7am. My work day is over at 3:30pm. It gives me time to do other things; writing, doing laundry, or taking a nap on my brand new couch.