A Brief History of Ferrania, Part 3: 2012-2014
In this segment, FILM Ferrania founder Nicola Baldini relates his experience of the past two years.
Ever since I began working as a film director and amateur photographer, the name Ferrania was always associated with one of the major Italian companies and one of the few remaining companies to manufacture color film - but that was it. My partner Marco Pagni and I knew very little about what had become of the tiny factory town 300 miles away. Ferrania is rarely discussed today and its history has become shrouded in the fog of time.
Marco and I have been collaborating for years. I’m a filmmaker and he owns a motion picture processing lab. Marco has been an expert in the film industry forever, but I come from a more traditional background; I was a computer engineer for 10 years and then I decided to devote myself to cinema.
In the fall of 2011, Marco and I had an idea to create a niche business dedicated to finishing motion picture film in small sizes. “Small sizes” means 8 and 16mm, usually considered to be amateur formats. Even in 2011, supplies were beginning to run low because they were no longer financially viable for large companies like Kodak and Fuji to produce. Our plan was very simple, we would procure the machines needed to convert 8 and 16mm films from the standard 35mm, and we would establish a laboratory in an area of Europe where production is cheaper and worldwide distribution would be easier.
So, said and (almost) done: we created a business in Bulgaria and made an arrangement with Fuji to supply virgin non-perforated film.
These thee short films showcase this essential and highly precise machine that punches the sprocket holes into the film. You simply cannot produce motion picture film without it.
Use the arrows to navigate.
We were only missing the machinery to perforate film...
To explain it this way seems trivial, but a machine that can perforate film to a degree of tolerance that it can then be placed inside a different machine that snaps at least 24 "photographs" a second, is not an item you buy at the supermarket. The machine in question is so delicate and difficult to build that there are very few examples in the world and those that exist are usually in the hands of companies that have used them for years.
Marco and I realized this in the winter of 2011 after contacting people around the world to see if this type of equipment was available - and having no success.
The solution to our problem presented itself quite by accident. One day after visiting the Alinari Museum of Photography in Florence we spotted a splendid perforator that Ferrania had recently donated to the museum. The number stamped on the perforator was “86” and that led to the question, "Where are the other 85?"
Early the next morning, we headed to the town of Ferrania, three hours away.
After leaving the highway, we followed old signs saying “Ferrania" which lead us to the factory located practically in the middle of a forest. It wasn’t easy to find the property manager’s office in the midst of half a million square meters of buildings. Once we finally located it, it was closed. You may ask why we didn’t call first before driving to Ferrania? Simple, no one ever answered the phone!
Not being guys who give up easily we moved on to Plan B. I pulled out my business card that says "director and producer," and we went into the local auto body shop (the only place open) to ask how to contact someone at Ferrania with the excuse that we wanted to make a documentary on the old cinema era. Of course anyone who lives in Ferrania has a relative who worked in the factory and so after a few more visits to the homes of retired workers we were able to obtain the contact we were looking for, one of the last managers from Ferrania currently in charge of the disposal of the machinery.
"Do you still have machines for perforating small film sizes in the factory?"
"Ah, I remember seeing them when I was hired by Ferrania in 1985 but I only vaguely remember those machines because 3M stopped making cinema film around that time."
Marco Pagni is the real hero of this story. Since no one knew what we were looking for, we started to explore the immense production and finishing buildings one by one in January of 2012; thousands of square meters in complete darkness.
Only the eye of the formidable Pagni was able to locate the 85 missing perforators. In February, they were on a truck ready to be transferred to the laboratory in Bulgaria.
Mission accomplished. Or not?
The Early Walkthroughs
The images below were made during the early days when we first began exploring the many closed buildings at Ferrania. Click any image to launch a full screen slideshow.
"L’appetito vien mangiando ma bisogna fare attenzione a non prendersi un’indigestione." (...or, "Don’t bite off more than you can chew!")
Starting this business was risky and the news from Kodak and Fuji about the future of film production wasn’t exactly promising. We asked ourselves what kind of future we would have finishing Super 8 and 16mm film if those guys stopped making the stuff.
Marco, who is famous for seeing things from a different perspective, came up with what he thought was the “logical” conclusion.
"What if instead of bringing the equipment to Bulgaria, we leave it in Italy, refurbish it and make the film ourselves?”
Ferrania had everything we could need. The equipment was available and most importantly, the former staff, who had all the know-how, were eager to get back to work. It was enough to pick up the pieces and start again. The problem was the jewel of the Ferrania plant, the LRF building, was now owned by the local branch of the Italian government. In Italy, working with the government usually means you are in for a long, long project.
Fortunately for us, Regione Liguria was very interested in restoring the plant and, from the start, supported our plans for re-use. This is the real success story - the Italian government helping to restore an industrial facility based on the idea from a bunch of crazy dreamers.
The defining moment in our story was a meeting in the summer of 2012 during which we had to officially present our business plan to people who’d been listening to ten years of ideas with no concrete solutions. Our business plan, which at first could be seen as based on the idea of just doing what the old Ferrania had done, ran the risk of being shelved along with all the other ridiculous proposals if not presented properly.
The strategy was to present Marco’s ambitious plan which of course turned into a two-hour powerpoint presentation (sigh). We felt like it was important that they didn’t think we were waging a war on digital, so I brought my RED ONE camera as well as my Super 8 and 16mm gear and lots of film. This was a good move, having the cameras and film on hand for our audience to touch and feel struck a chord and the meeting was a big success.
The Converting Machines
"Converting" is the process of turning large spools of filim into individual rolls that are ready to sell. The gallery below, shot by Nicola Baldini during an early 2012 visit, gives you an idea of the sheer size and complexity of this machinery. Click any image to launch a full screen slideshow.
Unfortunately, it took an entire year before the whole process was put in motion.
There was a lot of government red tape but we also had to design a system of enormous complexity that had to be subjected to an extreme "slimming cure" without disrupting the most important parts of the production process.
Hence we decided to focus initially on the development of a single product, Scotch Chrome color reversal film - last produced at the old Ferrania film factory in 2003.
Why did it take us a year longer than originally planned? Very simple, first because the complexity of the system didn’t allow us to estimate the exact timing of the restoration of the various components left in the LRF building after it was closed in 2006. Secondly, we faced a major hurdle because the former chemical division of Ferrania Technologies had been converted to produce pharmaceutical products therefore preventing us from acquiring the components we would need to manufacture film. Sourcing these components would be hugely expensive job so we decided to design a self-contained factory.
Some may call this a bit of industrial madness in these times of globalization and outsourcing, but we are confident our factory will ensure the future of the film for the next 100 years.