Peter Christopoulos was there 31 years ago. "I was hired as the additional man in the color lab just after SI was started," says Christopoulos, who is now chief of the photo labs for Time Inc. At the beginning, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S two most important colors were black and white. In fact, except for some ads, the magazine's cover and a four-color edit piece or two, black and white were the only colors. "We processed no more than 10 rolls of color film a week for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," he says. "And of course, we did everything by hand."
Our unsung heroes in the color lab handle a few more than 10 rolls a week these days. "Last year we processed about 100,000 rolls of film," says color lab supervisor Carmin Romanelli. "About 32,000 of them were for SI." After last January's Super Bowl in New Orleans, Carmin's shock troops handled more than 500 rolls of film—36 shots per roll—which had been flown by commercial and charter jet to New York. Under pressure—Sunday night is crunch night at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—they cataloged, processed and then mounted the finished product into the slides that our editors work from to determine which pictures will run in the magazine. The average Sunday-night load is a mere 250 to 300 rolls. As any amateur photographer with a basement lab can tell you, you don't process each picture for the same length of time.
"They're the best lab under pressure in the world," says photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, who has spent 17 years toting a camera for SI. "And you have to remember, if a great shot doesn't get developed right, we don't have a great picture. If I make a mistake, or if a cloud comes through during an action sequence, the most important picture in the sequence could be exposed incorrectly. That's when the lab has to correct my mistake or God's work. They do a superb job."
And if it isn't a cloud, it's the haze created by cigarette smoke in an indoor arena. Or the fact that different sections of a ball field or an arena have different light intensities. "We only lose 10 to 12 rolls of film a year, and that's due to mechanical failure," says senior photo technician Ron Trimarchi. "No commercial lab can touch that. It's a good thing, because we can't just offer a free roll of film if we do something wrong, as a commercial lab does."
They do have the luxury of a Danish-made, state-of-the-art film-processing machine called the Refrema, which is about 35 feet long and is sophisticated enough to handle 300 rolls of film every hour for normal processing. And how do they handle this baby?
Very, very carefully.
Still, for Christopoulos, there is "a feeling of nostalgia for the old days, when we did it all by hand. But now you're able to produce better pictures working with these machines. That's progress."