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Launching a film processor, with Gary Wong, FilmNeverDie

January 06, 2023 Gary Pageau/Gary Wong Season 4 Episode 97
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
Launching a film processor, with Gary Wong, FilmNeverDie
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Show Notes Transcript

Gary Pageau talks with Gary Wong, co-founder of FilmNeverDie, a professional lab in Australia. As the film processing business continues, there’s a growing need for replacement processing equipment. Wong’s company developed its own rotary film processor, the CP800, first as a Kickstarter project and then as a product to sell. In this interview, Wong talks about the business, why they chose to build a film processor, and what it takes to build a film-oriented photo business.

FilmNeverDie, established in 2011, is a professional photo lab and retail store based in Melbourne, Australia, with sister stores located in Malaysia and China. Our creative team is united by one passion - film photography. Fostering the film community is their reason for being, offering monthly photo walks, black-and-white developing courses & professional photographer seminars. 

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Produced by Gary Pageau
Edited by Olivia Pageau
Announcer: Erin Manning

Erin Manning  0:02  
Welcome to the Dead Pixels Society Podcast, the photo imaging industry's leading news source. Here's your host, Gary Pageau. The dead pixel society podcast is brought to you by Mediaclip, Advertek Printing, and School Photographers of America.

Gary Pageau  0:19  
Hello again, and welcome to the dead pixel society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we're joined by Gary Wong the co-founder of FilmNeverDie in Melbourne, Australia. And he's got a very interesting story about keeping film going. Hi, Gary, how are you today?

Gary Wong  0:37  
Hi, Gary. I'm good. How are you

Gary Pageau  0:39  
Two Gary's taking on the world right now.

Gary Wong  0:42  
Come on.

Gary Pageau  0:43  
So tell me a little bit about your company. You've actually been in the film processing business for a long time. You know, since digital has been in the market, you've really said the film is where it's at. Tell me about how you decided you were going to go into the chemical processing biz.

Gary Wong  1:03  
Yes. Thanks for having me, Gary. So we actually only started developing the wet lab, kind of mini lab sort of thing since 2018. But the story of FilmNeverDie goes back to 2011. Right? Actually, the Christmas season of 2010. When me and my girlfriend back then now my wife way, we were living in a small apartment in the slightly northern part of Melbourne, Victoria city of Melbourne, in Parkville. And she wanted a Polaroid camera for Christmas. So I'm like, great. Let's get you a Polaroid camera from I think it was eBay or Gumtree, which is like quickly is in us. So I bought a Polaroid camera, which is a Polaroid spectra camera and wider for anyone. And then I realized I couldn't get any film. So I think 10 is when Polaroid just announced they were they announced that they were shutting our factories. And yeah,

Gary Pageau  2:05  
it was before impossible to get over. So during that period, you couldn't get anything. That's right.

Gary Wong  2:09  
So I'm all this Impossible thing happening. So okay, let's get some film from Impossible Project. I think they were in Austria, they're still in Austria. They obviously rebrand to Polaroid original and things like that now. So they did us a very good flavor, in the sense that they are, shipping was very generous, let's put it that way you can buy as much film as you want, and only pay $60 for DHL shipping across the world. So doing what I do, I bought the maximum, I could just be low the import duty or GST threshold of goods and services tax in Australia. So I bought 60 packs of film, just under $1,000. And I gave 10 to my wife, my girlfriend back then, and I resell the rest on eBay. And they sold very quickly in fact, so my arm there could be something there. So that's how essentially the business started from just buying feel about and start reselling them, and slightly go grow into Polaroid cameras, that if I may, just because once I get into this, I realized, wow, there's still a bit of market in definitely in Polaroid. But the lenses in the film cameras and the build quality are still so amazing confuse the fantastic photos from film cameras. And I do need to confess back then I was truly in the digital. That's where I started. Or except for my primary school photos that will bring upon a shoot to the class back in Malaysia. But I bought my Alpha 200 my Sony first one just a few years before and then I discovered this whole film thing and that then needs to come by film quite affordably cameras wise. And that's how business was born.

Gary Pageau  3:59  
So but it's kind of a jump to go from, you know, instant film packs where you don't have to do anything to starting a film lab, which is what you did. Yeah. Why did you make that jump? Because I imagined you know, there'll be a lot of people were saying, you know, the instance side was enough, there's no really no reason to create a film processor is there and but you went we went that route.

Gary Wong  4:21  
So we were very lucky to have a dwelling where there's a garage, that's a separate unit. So I did all my research, I ran my first shop of that garage that has a different entry as well. So when we were running were initially started with Polaroid and we started with film, the de facto film and camera. And back then the only kill will was starting up as is the film processing just focusing on film processing. So not until we were in 2018 where we move to different premises we thought hey, there could be something here. What about a more of a one-stop solution? For people that want to buy film, learn about cameras and processes as well, because we focus a lot on doing photo walks and offline events where we connect people and just give them an opportunity to learn about film and photography, really. We definitely see a market back in 2017-2018. And we said, hey, you can buy some film processor for quite affordably back then about $2,000. With a bit of trial and error, you can get it up and running. It's definitely not anywhere close to what they call prolapse. They're still like, well, like try and testing lab. Right. So we actually launched our first campaign, trying to raise money to get a space and a process. And we raised about $20,000, on our first Kickstarter campaign, Thanks to our supporters. And then we went off to start the processing business. But you're right, it's definitely a bit of a jam. Because actually, not until recently, then we realized how much of a jam it is because recently, we started to do more of the QC side or of what a pro lab would do. We're still learning but I'm trying to measure the chemistry, right? That replenishing site. Right. But to be honest, back then, in 2017 2018, as soon as you sort of got a ballpark of chemistry, right, a lot of the work is done on the scanners. As you probably know, the scanners would do all the color, that's

Gary Pageau  6:28  
I'm saying you could almost I mean, as long as you're getting something on the filmstrip, you could probably get it through and to be honest, a lot of people who are into that sort of read look, probably liked it that it was a little maybe off color a little bit.

Gary Wong  6:44  
Yeah, that's right. And the whole Lomography movement, definitely, yeah. That awareness as well. So I guess we are very lucky because if you imagine Impossible Project, when it first started, the color was way off. Yeah, you'll be lucky to get a photo when you first started, you need to make sure you showed it properly. It was not what you wish you and we create all sorts of different materials to teach our consumers or customer how to do it properly. So that was a bit of I guess that's a blessing disguise it because the main retailer would not carry that stock, because it's so experimental. Sure, as you probably know, the story about the blue dye was not in existence anymore. And because our Polaroid actually project this useful five years and buy all the raw materials in year one, so they can sell enough film for five years. But they saw everything in year four, if you remember the story, so shows that that's actually more of a demand and supply.

Gary Pageau  7:38  
So but then at some point, you realized you want to create your own processor. So talk about that. I mean, that's another big leap. I mean, there's been a lot of people who started photo labs who don't want to create a film processor, piece of equipment. So it started out as a Kickstarter project, right?

Gary Wong  7:59  
Yes, yes. So when we did our first Kickstarter, after doing some research, we realized a really good Kickstarter campaign doesn't start the product, a product in days zero, and start selling the idea of Vidocq. Before they have a product, right. A lot of successful campaigns already started the motions of creating and even having a product in supply chain, and just needed the support before they can write using Kickstarter, more like a marketing campaign, if you like, and make sure they can over deliver on their product. So once we understood that, we, but before that we because we were dealing with Fuji processes, and so Fuji scanners, we use the frontier system. And we know that's very hard to get parts and very hard to get qualified technicians to help out. So a lot of trial and error and we know it's just a fact that it's going to run dry one day we bought a parts and things like that. Yeah, I

Gary Pageau  8:55  
mean, no, I mean over here in North America, I know several people who have you know, Fujifilm processors, and they've got you know, two or three spares for parks just in the back just for that reason.

Gary Wong  9:05  
Destro that's what we did as well. We literally, for the past few months been salvaging paths from one to the other. We definitely have more ambitious goals from just a drum processor, but I guess it's always good to start somewhere. So we actually need to attribute this to one of our previous Staff, Mike Liu, who is a product designer. When he first came to us and film them with dye he actually wanted to do a camera 3d print the one for the camera and then realize it's such has such a plethora of experience and knowledge that he can actually design or recreate a processor based on the Super psychic if you if you're on the Super psychic from photo time before, which is amazing machine. So based on that design, he went to do some work and came up with the CP 800. But you're right it's definitely a big jump and I still kick myself on trying to do some It is because it's definitely very audacious especially being the photo market because film as it's the Sasha Valley, Kate, material and, I guess, media to play with. So it's actually very if you can say high stress sometimes because you're dealing with people's film, right? You could very easily Yeah. So sometimes, very often, like, Why do I want to do this?

Gary Pageau  10:29  
So you tried to do a Kickstarter on the original processor, and it didn't really work out in that iteration. So where is it now? Because now you're going to be producing it for sale? Correct? Is that works? So what is the difference between the two models? Is there a difference?

Gary Wong  10:45  
When we first raised money for Kickstarter, we wanted to want the race somewhere around $360,000, mainly to actually pay some of our staff in the r&d staff, and actually grow the team a bit bigger. Obviously, it's very different from having one product to having a ship ready product, the whole design manufacturing process, the supply chain, it's all a different ballgame. So we knew that from the get go. And we realized to actually get the masses of skills on economical skills, we needed to produce a machine that's quite affordable, we need to sell about 100 machines. So 100 times 3600. That's where we get the $360,000 from. So the original machines was definitely more ambitious, want to do a bit more automation and stuff like that. But once the Kickstarter didn't really go through, because we only raised about $50,000, which is still quite amazing. And the hindsight of it, because who would bet on a company that hasn't done it before and want to bring a product out? So we needed to scale back? A lot of a lot of the features, if you like, the product was 80% there. And last 5% or last 20% is obviously the tricky, very tricky. And the last 5%, as you know, is probably even trickier. Because,

Gary Pageau  12:10  
exactly, that's just how products work, right?

Gary Wong  12:13  
Yes, that's right. So I'm really glad that I like to say that we are probably at the last 5% of it, just trying to iron out a few more things. And just we need a bit more user feedback as well so that people can give us their input and things on it and how the machine can work with the real life in the real world. I guess so.

Gary Pageau  12:35  
So how many how many functioning units? are there out there? I mean, do you have inventory or using it yourself? Or what's the status of the I guess we should call it CSP 800? Right?

Gary Wong  12:48  
Yes, that's right. CSP 800. stands for compact processor. 800. We actually initially wanted to not launch a product, but actually design a system, right? Where support labs. And what I mean by that is we actually have we been leveraging on things like air table and Zapier to create automation for film logging system. If you know, the twin checks, we have barcodes so we can scan and make sure we tag them properly, and do some automation stuff at the back end wants the films already automatically sent out automatically asked for payments and things like that. So we create a bit of a system which which is where we try to license it out as well. And then with the hardware. So we've got a software side of things, and we have the hardware. And if we can do the hardware, well, we figured that we can license it as a bundle to support different lab. So that was the initial idea, obviously to to even start something like Oh, create something like a Kolento coutry machine, you need more than a few $100,000. So I'm like okay, let's let's put it out there, you know, does anyone even wants it you know, you never try until you put it out there to see if you can pass or learn fast. Right. Right.

Gary Pageau  14:03  
So I mean, you've got production units, probably yes film today. It's not just an idea on a napkin. So there are actual units in production. So what have you learned putting it into production?

Gary Wong  14:16  
Yes. So sorry, let me answer that question again. So we have one machine in our lab, and to a in the shop or r&d place, which is the shed in my house. being worked on and tried to improve and kind of see where we can improve, but we have one production machine, the track record of the machine, or the track record of how we've been using CPU and Android cameras, I'm quite happy to say we process at least 500 rolls of film through it. And that's definitely a few issues initially, but we slowly get the get the gist of it. I think it was June this year, we had a pop up lab in Darwin, Australia up in the northern end We did a pop up lab called troppo film lab with some of the local labs and the artists there in Darwin. And we processed about 200 rows of color film through that machine. For us in Melbourne is mainly a black and white machine, because our roller proved through machine. So as far as I know, there's one working like production, what cost model if you lie, but to be very honest, because it's such a new machine, and we do have a team of about five people in the lab. So it's still a bit of a training to get people learning and getting comfortable with the machine. So that's what I'm doing at the moment to try to get people on the team on using the machine more as well. But we have one, but we saw about I want to say a handful of machines so far. We have one in Australia, that went to a lab in New South Wales, we have one that we ship, but there was a bit of shipping issue. So that units coming back for a bit more repair. Before we send that out. That's actually one of the challenges as well, how you make sure you pack it properly. And the make all the stuff are good in terms of a production unit. So definitely the first prototype, this one in Belgium, which is sort of our sister lab in real life, that's not working that needs to be because of the first shipping issue that we have overseas, we didn't realize so much thing could go wrong when you ship stuff across the world. So and then I think that's we actually sold to to New York. So there's people from America buying a machine as well, which is fantastic. So we are getting those ready as we speak and we ship in a few weeks.

Gary Pageau  16:45  
So what are the processes that it supports? The black and white collared can you do these six slides certified as well is a program that I guess is there's

Gary Wong  16:57  
less right at the moment is programmed to do C 41. And a few process of black and white eight minutes 11 to 14 minutes and 80 minutes based on the 76 chemistry one to one and the e6 process as well. So the six pre program software or program or processes in there. But obviously you can program it yourself as well if you like to get it up and do whatever you want. Because the chemical or sorry, the temperature control is at a separate bath using a survey machine right now. So that's one of the feature we need to cut out from the original proposed model we wanted initially wanted internally controlled heating system, but that just prove a bit too challenging because you can regulate more power and temperature. So a $50 sui machine does a fantastic job. I'm not sure if you know that's blew my mind away how how good it is. So

Gary Pageau  17:57  
$50 a watt machine or su V machine.

Gary Wong  17:59  
You know, the it's like a temperature bath control thing, where you can set the temperature and hit a bath of water. Normally people vacuum seal their food.

Gary Pageau  18:09  
Yeah, I was gonna say you're talking about the one like you'd cook vegetables in?

Gary Wong  18:14  
Yes, that's right. Yes. Yes.

Gary Pageau  18:18  
That's what I thought you said I wasn't sure if we're having a language barrier. Or if I was just misinterpreting what you said. But you're actually talking about our Suvi machine. Like it cooked vegetables in.

Gary Wong  18:28  
Okay, that's okay, that's that pronounce it properly. So we know

Gary Pageau  18:32  
you did it. I just want to make sure I heard it properly.

Gary Wong  18:35  
So we would definitely cooking film as we speak. So that's what we're doing. But yes, so so we machine to temperature control in a water bath with a chemical. And you can program how long you want the film to be rotating inside the tank. And what chemical did come in and go out that six channel for chemistry. So five for chemistry, one for water. And that's the corresponding out while for the as well. So yes, you can program them to whatever process you like, really?

Gary Pageau  19:09  
Well. This is kind of cool. So you're actually in production out? Do you have inventory? Are they built to order? How does that work?

Gary Wong  19:15  
Yeah, at the moment, they are built to order in a factory in Malaysia. And the factory was quite a story how we got in touch with the factory and the factory is actually ISO 9001 approved factory meaning that they're actually quite well setup factory is made to order at the moment. So that's why if you go to a website it says shipping in 30 days or shipping in 60 days. That takes about two weeks to make sure we can put all the parts together and that's the main things so it's made to order at the moment. Yes.

Gary Pageau  19:45  
Wow. So can you custom paint jobs like racing stripes or anything are

Gary Wong  19:51  
not quite there? We would love to eventually. I believe if you want to pay a lot, a lot more you can definitely do that for Are you?

Gary Pageau  20:01  
Well, obviously something like this, though? I mean, I mean, just, I guess you're just getting out there. What is the cost for somebody to buy one of the machines?

Gary Wong  20:11  
Yes, the machine is a retail at 4350 Aussie dollar Australian dollar, which equates to just under 3000. US dollars. So that's how much we're selling it at the moment. There's about 30 days of Made to Order on my mate to ship date that we're doing at the moment. Yeah. And if anyone's interested, go get one.

Gary Pageau  20:35  
Get to them. So obviously, something like this, you know, at $4,000 Australian, a pop, you know, you're not looking to get rich from this. I mean, I can't imagine there's that much profit margin in a piece of equipment. Plus, I imagine you have to do some support and training and overhead. So I'm just I'm just as a person who admires entrepreneurs, I'm just amazed that you're taking this on, and what do you think your next project is going to be?

Gary Wong  21:02  
Thank you, Gary. It's sort of we need something like this in the lab ourselves as well, because we, we can actually, me myself was able to process 75, black and white and 7.5 hours day shift with two machines. So I was able to process 75 rows of black and white film in a day. That's what this machine can do. But the next project, which we are very excited about is to eventually having our own scanner, because now we have our own film processor, if you can't have our own scanner, which you know, is also the how many parts I can find in the world kind of game at the moment. If we can tie them together, I'm very excited to eventually be able to do something that based on all new technologies, and there'll be a very exciting venture, I guess, once we have that together, and we can offer services and say, Hey, we are definitely doing it all based on new technology. And we have parts we have support. We have trainings and things like that to make sure that we can bring it to offer good quality.

Gary Pageau  22:09  
Great. So where do people go for more information about your film processor? Yes,

Gary Wong  22:15  
they can go to C stands for compact P stands for processor 800 Number 800. And you can see all the details on there as well.

Gary Pageau  22:34  
Well, thank you, Gary for your time best wishes on the future success of the CP 800 and looking forward to hearing more.

Gary Wong  22:42  
Thank you Gary.

Erin Manning  22:45  
Thank you for listening to the Dead Pixels Society Podcast. Read more great stories and sign up for the newsletter at www the

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