• Behind the scenes at the BFI

    In the pretty Hertfordshire town of Berkhampsted, behind a collection of white-washed buildings reminiscent of a farm, stands a modern block in red brick and coloured steel, nestled up to which are four large, white, hangar-like sheds. Together, these buildings form the British Film Institute’s National Archive and J. Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre. Open to BFI members and guests for tours on just a few occasions each year, a ticket opens up a world of film that is unavailable elsewhere, as I found on Saturday.

    The Archive is the BFI’s hub for receiving, assessing, restoring and preparing for viewing its vast treasury of feature and documentary films, dating back to the very start of the medium in this country. The ‘lost’ observational films of Edwardian pioneers Mitchell & Kenyon, made from 1902 or so onwards, were conserved and scanned for new public showings here, for example, and a remarkable 10,000 films of all sorts were digitised for the Britain of Film project. Various other works, extending to – as we saw – an Op Art piece by John Smith, are currently being looked after.

    Some material is stored permanently at Berkhamsted, not least the vital magnetic masters of many productions. Each of the sheds contains about 250,000 film cans of all gauges, including 9.5mm. Stacked about three times the height of a person, they are retrieved by forklift and individually barcoded. The BFI’s precious (and precarious) holdings of highly flammable nitrate stock along with the majority of their more stable but still troublesome ‘safety’ film prints (on acetate and polyester) are housed in a frozen, dehumidified state in the explosion-proof vaults of Cullinan Studio’s award-winning Master Film Store in the Warwickshire village of Gaydon.

    When examples are requested for viewing in London, either at Stephen Street or the South Bank, they are despatched to Berkhamsted where they join their cousins in the warmer but still chill-inducingly refrigerated sheds for atmospheric acclimatisation. They are then prepared, which includes a quality check screening in the on-site auditorium, and forwarded as needed.

    Increasingly, however, the BFI is scanning such prints, thus saving on handling and transport costs and reducing the risk of damage but also allowing anyone to watch the film anywhere. This is to be accomplished by the establishment of a country-wide network of Mediateques, similar to that at the South Bank. We saw the Vario machines that make this possible, a laser and cold-source LED lighting system scanning the film in real time with automatic compensation for missing perforations and even distorted frames.

    Restoration takes place in special studios where the more traditional synchroniser and cutting bench is the dominant technology. Indeed, one I saw must have dated from the 1960s or so and was manufactured by none other than ARRI, a company better known for its cameras and which celebrates its centenary later this year.

    Carefully examining, logging, comparing and then fixing celluloid of whatever type is painstaking work, sometimes aided by wet-gate projection or scanning. In this clever application of a process familiar to anyone who wetting their finger to hide a mark on a polished wood table, scratches are temporarily ‘erased’ by running the film through a fluid medium, allowing a clear image to be recorded.

    The Special Collections store, the highlight of the tour for me, is also a help. Here, over 400 separate archives of material – stills, diaries, scripts, publicity material, documents and ephemera – are kept, donated by a wide range of film-makers, performers and companies. A wonderful display of items had been put out for us, from a shooting script annotated by Carol Reed to a costume design for Julie Christie, and from an actual Oscar (given to Cecil Beaton) to letters from Alec Guinness.

    The other side to the BFI’s moving image business runs in a separate but parallel workstream, and involves television. All of the BBC’s output since 1990 has been captured via off-air recordings at Berkhamsted as the BBC’s official archive, but the BFI also has old items from the public broadcaster. In addition, we were informed, the early 1990s mergers of the original ITV companies led to a great clear out of their own back offices. The result is that Berkhampsted has a staggering 800,000 programmes stored on well over a dozen different formats of video (the off-air operation alone has gone through four).

    The problem of format migration is therefore key challenge facing the organisation, not least because of the rapidly-reducing pool of functioning video machines and even the component parts needed to keep them working. Various consumer, semi-pro and professional-quality tapes and cassettes was laid out for us, ranging from the much-loved VHS to the massive Sony D1, so big it comes in its own snugly-fitting plastic briefcase but not removed from its domestic baby brother that it, too, doesn’t come complete with a sheet of sticky labels.

    Trusting to the latest technology, the current format of choice is LTO, a small square box of a cassette that uses just a single spool (the take-up remains in the machine) and has a presumed life of 50 years.

    Thus although one big tranche of titles – 33,000, in fact – has been ‘saved’ already thanks to Lottery funding, the apparent increase in generosity that will pay for a much larger second batch of 100,000 titles is misleading; this is only a fraction of what needs saving, and it is limited by the availability of those machines.

    This was a thoroughly absorbing morning out, giving fascinating insight into what goes on behind the screen of the South bank operation. Recommended.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

final cover

Chris's third book reveals the hidden gems and well-known landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village's Deconstructivism, from Royal palaces to pleasure palaces, and from extravagent banks to Modernist apartments. Chris appeared on London Live to chat with presenter Reya El Salahi about the book; click on the still below. Follow the book's Facebook page for more events and news.

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