Sign of the times: closing of Filmworkers Astro Lab

It was only a matter of time.  Filmworkers Astro Lab, one of only five remaining independent film processing labs in the entire country, has closed its doors, after more than 50 years — the last 12 as part of Filmworkers Club services to the local industry.

The lab’s last run of 35mm dailies last week was for MK Films, director Mark Klein’s tabletop company. 

Operated for years by a small but dedicated staff of six, three now remain during the transition of disposing of the processing equipment and returning elements to clients. 

Filmworkers Astro continued in the original Astro tradition of 16/35mm film processing of dailies for commercials, music videos, corporate films, locally-produced indie films and features. 

Hung is especially proud of their having sold several big Hollywood productions on processing their films here instead of sending it back to L.A. for processing.

A large part of Filmworkers Lab business came from film schools, Columbia College in particular, notes Hung, along with School of the Art Institute, Northwestern, University of Wisconsin, and schools in Nebraska and Iowa. 

“We were committed to keeping and helping students,” Hung says, but this business, too, has dwindled with the onset of digital cinema. 

Astro Lab a fixture in Chicago film production history

Filmworkers had operated Sanitary Labs, built by Hung in 1993, when it acquired Astro in 2000, a lab that dated back at least to the 1950s and was the last of the big union labs in Chicago.

Tom Carey, Adrian Rodriguez, Feli Lofradez and Manuela Hung after the lab’s last runAstro had a rich history of processing features, more than 100 that includes the hits of loyal customer, writer/director John Hughes and classics “Risky Business” and “The Blues Brothers.”

At the time Filmworkers acquired Astro, the lab’s ownership was entrepreneur Bob Dellendorf of San Francisco, and it was capably managed by the late Bill Scheer. 

Filworkers Astro continued to operate out of Astro’s original building at 61 W. Erie St. Purchased by Alan Kubica, owner of Filmworkers, CRC, Vitamin and other film-related companies, the building is now up for sale. 

Filmworkers Astro was the last film lab in the Midwest, notes Hung.  “The only independent labs left are the ones in Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle and we’re keeping our small lab in Dallas, where we hope we can keep the indies and maintain it as one of the last film labs in the country.”

Confessing that she has “a major attachment to the lab” due to her long association with it, Hung finds it sad that no one wants or can use the equipment. 

She is hopeful it might find a new home at an historical society or Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications.