Archive Material

Thursday, May 27 2010
Archive Material

We’ve long since admired the rejuvenated BFI’s ability to unearth gems for release, the kind of projects that few others can or even will do.

Its next bath of releases, for example, includes unearthed rarely seen Ken Loach material (Black Jack, covered elsewhere on this site), more to its hugely impressive Flipside range, exploring the underbelly of British cinema, more rarities from the Adelphi film studio (as part of June’s Adelphi Collection looking at ththis long-forgotten family run British studio) and another clutch of propaganda and morale boosting works from The Central Office Of Information (The COI Collection Volume 3: They Stand Ready) and early time-lapse photography and other techniques used at the birth of wildlife films, in Secrets Of Nature (the last pair are both July releases). The COI Collection alone is a treasure trove of material from a bygone era, while a title such as The Miners’ Campaign Tapes offers a fascinating insight into recent British history.

So how does it go about finding the wealth of material it comes up with for its releases?

As the BFI’s National Archive celebrates its 75th anniversary, we chatted to the organisation’s Sam Dunn about how it finds its gems for release.

Firstly, it’s worth remembering that the BFI’s DVD arm is more than just a normal distributor or publisher. “Many of the processes involved in working in DVD and Blu-ray publishing at the BFI are much the same as almost any independent distributor, with a couple of crucial differences,” Dunn explains. “First, we are working to the BFI’s overall cultural programme which runs across cinema exhibition at the BFI Southbank, national film distribution, education, etc.

“Secondly, we work alongside the BFI National Archive, the biggest film archive in the world, which contains many of the material elements used in our DVD and Blu-ray releases. The expertise of our curatorial colleagues informs the shape of our editions, and the curators contribute written work for the booklets which we publish to add context to all of our releases.”

Theses titles aren’t just bunged together at the last minute, or compiled from easy-to-find materials or elements handed on a plate from producers in Hollywood, often the case with stanard labels.

“We start planning our schedule at least 12 months in advance, and the range of projects we work on are divided between the BFI’s three DVD/Blu-ray Producers: Shona, Upekha and Sonia. Each producer then sets about researching each film, or collection of films, in order to ensure that the finished product has the most relevant, interesting and entertaining range of film and/or written materials to accompany it. Among other things, this involves contacting filmmakers, producers and actors who may have been out of the business for some time, and for whom memories of these films are distant, so it’s often extremely rewarding to be involved in re-acquainting them with their work and to be part of the process of recalling often fascinating stories.”

However, while the BFI National Archive does offer them a great insight and the opportunity to release product, BFI still needs to physically acquire the rights to release programming. “In this respect,” Dunn says, “we are like any other distributor.

“In terms of how we go about deciding what title to acquire rights for, there are a number of ways in which project ideas evolve and get onto our release schedule.  Often, these come from our curators, who offer up a range of ideas and suggestions which reflect the range of knowledge and expertise held within their teams. At other times, ideas for individual titles come from within the DVD team.

It’s not a case of mining the archive. In the same way a company such as Disney says the story is king, for the BFI the idea is key. And if that holds water, then the organization will look in the archive to see what materials are available. And despite its wealth of footage on offer this is not a given – the Archive has to protect and preserve its library; camera negatives must be preserved for generations to come and not damaged.

It’s exhaustive work and often involves scores of different people working on a project.

As Dunn explains: “A BFI release can involve as few as only a handful of producers, technical staff, and be completed almost entirely by the DVD team, but these are relatively few and far between. More generally, the producers will liaise with curatorial experts, and invite their contribution to our detailed contextualising booklets.  On larger-scale projects, such as the Land Of Promise or Portrait Of A Miner DVD boxsets, the lead usually comes from the Archive, and the DVD editions are usually the last of a number of outcomes, which could include major film restorations, a season at the BFI Southbank, a book publication, a nationwide tour, and a Mediatheque package.

“The number of people involved in such extensive projects can be huge, especially when such a high volume of the films on these releases need to be newly transferred from material held at the BFI National Archive and technical examinations and/or comparisons need to be made.”

But despite that effort, the reputation of its releases and the satisfaction derived from them, makes it a more than worthwhile enterprise.

“Such volumes as Land Of Promise or Portrait Of A Miner are the kind of releases which we are all very proud of, but each release gives us a reason to be proud, since we’re increasingly focused on breathing new life into works which have long been unseen and unseeable,” Dunn concludes.

“The Flipside project, for instance, gives us the opportunity not only to present extraordinary and varied feature film works from the 60s and 70s, but also gives us a context for publishing some of the most brilliant short films – fiction and documentary), by directors such as James Hill (Black Beauty) and John Irvin (Raw Deal) for the first time since they were made.”

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