BFI Film Archive
July 14, 2011 4:20 AM   Subscribe

The British Film Institute has a youtube channel with rare footage going back over 100 years, covering many aspects of British life. Highlights include: 'Solarflares Burn For You' (1973) (featuring a soundtrack by Robert Wyatt); Rush Hour, Waterloo Station (1970); London Bridge (1926); Productivity Primer (1964); Today in Britain (1964); Snow (1963); Holiday (1957).
posted by ClanvidHorse (7 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Does anyone know what song is playing over "London Bridge (1926)"? or is it just silent movie vamping?
posted by Mooseli at 4:23 AM on July 14, 2011

Ha ha! I can comment on this!

Last month I began a 4-week place at the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. My MA course in Film Archiving has a required placement module. My coursemates have been travelling to some of the coolest archives (national and regional), as well as media museums and restoration houses. I chose the BFI because, well, I'm British and it's got an impressive array of equipment. While there I operated an optical step printer, a telecine machine, a 1940s Gaumont-Kalee projector... not to mention a ton of good ol' winding benches and Steenbecks where we could inspect films of all ages, bases (NITRATE!, acetate, polyester) and guages.

There are so many reasons why I love the youtube channel. First and foremost, the BFI is such a big and prestiguous place, but few ever really look beyond the auteurist-driven retrospectives at the Southbank. The curatorship department is built of three main wings: fiction, non-fiction and TV. Initiatives such as screenonline, Mediatheque and youtube really open up the possibilities for accessing material that isn't commercially viable in the traditional modes of viewing, like exhibition and DVD. Also, it is rare for Youtube submissions to come accompanied with such rich, well curated exposition and metadata.

Interestingly, the BFI is slowly moving away from the Big 3 structure, and individual curators are developing specialisms within their field - such as animation, advertising, education... I think this will lead to even better online work in the future.

Mooseli - the music is certainly added, though I don't know it's provenance. In case you weren't aware, the Friese-Green stuff is a rare example where a restoration has 'improved' the original film. Usually, archives will attempt to restore film to its former glory. However, the original 'Natural Colour' process alternated frames in red and green, which prompted nausea in the audience!

Sorry for the lack of links, I'm typing this a quick-speed because the deadline for my placement report is tomorrow!
posted by dumdidumdum at 4:52 AM on July 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

The Mitchell and Kenyon films - which date from the very early 1900s - are probably worth a post of their own, but the BFI channel has a bunch of them on this channel too.


Also, dumdidumdum, I'm curious - I know you can't speak for the BFI, but what's your impression of how the continuation of film preservation (on film) is justified in the context of the apparently increasing prioritizing of access via digitization? I work with films from film archives (I run a film program that's focused on showing prints from archives and from private collectors - we show lots of material like what's linked in our programs, always on film, with the specific intention of supporting the work of film preservation) and this is one of the big questions we ask ourselves.

I am biased by my position, but whenever I see an FPP like this I think, "What is the point of spending so much energy and money and time on preserving physical film prints when we're just going to let them sit in a warehouse with some fancy cooling equipment forever, never screening them, while we put their graphical content on YouTube or whathaveyou?" (Don't get me wrong, I'm evangelically on the side of showing and seeing things on film whenever possible - but it seems to happen so rarely, partly I guess because of the impression you articulated, that this material is not commercially viable for exhibition. But doesn't the very existence of this post suggest that there's at least a niche public interest in this stuff? And aren't more people likely to have their interest piqued if this material is actually put on a program and promoted - say, as a series of shorts before the features at the Southbank - than if it's just thrown more or less uncurated onto YouTube? Maybe, in the 21st century, that's what Metafilter's for... but it makes me uneasy).
posted by bubukaba at 10:18 AM on July 14, 2011

(I should have checked! There has been a Mitchell and Kenyon FPP on the blue before!)
posted by bubukaba at 10:27 AM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

bubukaba - no problem, it's a common question! Whole books have been written on the subject.

Just to put my cards on the table here, I am very pro-film. There are a billion reasons why archives continue to preserve 'on film', but I'd like to make a distinction: digitisation is not a replacement for preservation. When you make a digital file of a film you are making an access copy. The artefact (whether it originated on nitrate, videotape or an iPhone) is The Thing.

OK, now I've got that out the way, the simple fact is that preservation we wouldn't have digital copies of any film that originated on celluloid. Also, celluloid kept at its optimum storage temperature and humidity will last for centuries (proof? well, Mitchell and Kenyon made it this far kept in a damp shop!). We simply do not know how long a digital file will last. It's an area deserving more attention, especially with so much digital-born media now being acquired, but as it stands there is no digital format that is considered safe for archival preservation.

At the heart of film archiving lies a distinction that we refer to as the Lindgren/Langlois debate.

Henri Langlois was the founder of the Cinematheque Francais (sorry, you probably know this). He never kept records of the films under his care - in part because he acquired them underhand. He also had very little interest in what happened to them once in his care. However, he did exhibit them frequently to eager young film enthusiasts like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut...

Ernest Lindgren, by contrast, was the Chief Curator of the National Film Archive (later the BFI National Archive). Despite there being no standards for film archiving in the mid-1930s, he would systematically inspect every film, take note of the decomposition, and store them carefully. He also, controversially, insisted that no film should be shown unless the archive had a 'master' copy in storage. No duplicates, no screenings.

Each approach has its merits and detractions. But, as Penelope Houston puts it, Langlois was the hare to Lindgren's tortoise. The moral of the story is keep your master celluloid in good condition and the film will be preserved. If you copy to digital and dispose of it, all you will have is a copy limited to whatever format you chose at the time, and you cannot retrieve and restore film that isn't there.

Lastly, digitisation is not cheaper. Some claim that it is over 10x more expensive to digitise and store digits (in a lossless format) than to store celluloid. The BFI only just acquired its first Arriscan digital scanner, and scanning a feature film at 4K takes untold amount of time and expense.

On reflection, it's all better said be the International Federation of Film Archives: Don't Throw Film Away

But like I said, the Youtube channel is cool.
posted by dumdidumdum at 11:58 AM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

God, sorry, that was way to long for a very bare thread! Sorry for steamrolling!
posted by dumdidumdum at 12:03 PM on July 14, 2011

Good Lord - that double roller coaster on "Holiday" appears to be the Grand National - still running at Blackpool Pleasure Beach today!
posted by Decani at 12:59 PM on July 14, 2011

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