After all, it's just a ride….

BFI Archive Members Tour, Berkhamsted

Being a BFI member is a bit like being in the mafia isn’t it? Once a year they open the books, consider which soldiers have been diligent and respectful little earners and garner them with a little treat – a ‘made’ man members only tour of the BFI restoration centre and archieve in the chilly foothalls of deepest Hertforshire. This is where some of the nations audio-visual treasures are held and the painstaking pursuit of reel by reel, frame by frame restoration is conducted, such as this 1927 picture which was recently commissioned for this years London Film Festival;

A dozen or so of us were walked around the complex with tour guide in hand meeting and chatting to the technicians and boffins who preserve and the hundreds of years of material which have been collected since 1935 when the institute was established. We got to see close-up the machines that photograph the negatives one frame at a time for digitial archival purposes and computerized restoration, the soundsmiths who remove the hiss and clicks of sonic degradation (yes, the recent Nolan sound backlash came up and we all had a little chuckle), and the man who may well have the best job in the world – upon instruction it’s his job to watch and log every film in the collection for a future retrospective. For example, say the BFI want to curate a season of Dame Maggie Smith, as is currently in play at the Southbank. He receives a phone call and it’s his job to consult the archive, to collate and project every 16mm, 35mm, 70mm or whatever print and assess what is a solid enough condition to be presentable, a process which he explained watching a mere 81 of Dame Smith’s films, providing the curator with the essential information of what he could and couldn’t include in the programme. So, essentially, watching films in your own theatre all day and getting paid for it. Sweet.

Naturally I found the whole place fascinating, just a sideways glance in one of the examining rooms had film cans labeled up as The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, or the AFI’s print of Vertigo, glance another way and there was a reel from Brainstorm or Three Colours Blue. I think the area that got the most ‘ooohs’ and ahhhs’ was the special materials room where some of the ephemera of film culture was also catalogued, archived and held in trust, this is the unit which manages the film posters, the scripts, the film related personal effects donated to the institute. We were given sight of Peter Sellers childhood diaries, a final leather-bound script of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Carol Reed’s pencil annoted shooting script to The Third Man, and Lee and Cushing’s written contracts for The Curse Of Frankenstein. Oh and the original storyboard book for The Empire Strikes Back, complete with scribbled questions about camera moves and SFX choices and solutions to certain sequences. Suck it neeerrrrdddssss……

So yeah, pretty much film nerd heaven, a terrific session which I’m glad to have finally attended. Maybe one day they will open the main archieve to the public over in Warwickshire, that’s where the hundreds of thousands of prints and material is held in effectively a giant fridge, for the benefit of future generations when that old fashioned recording medium of celluloid will seem as archaic and amber as Mary Pickford or Theda Bara are to today’s generation. If you’re interested in any of the debates around digital versus film shooting or archival practices then again I heartily recommend Side By Side, a terrific documentary which lays bare all the current debates and discussions of where film culture is shifting from one phase to the next……that is, if we can even call it ‘film’ anymore….

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