An Interview with Kieron Webb, Head of Conservation, British Film Institute

By Sara Lawrence

This past spring, I had the opportunity to chat with Kieron Webb, the Head of Conservation, at the British Film Institute’s (BFI) National Archive. While at the BFI, he has worked on restoring some of the early works of Charlie Chapin, David Lean, and Alfred Hitchcock. Kieron is also a member of the Technical Commission of FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives). Over two days and an hour and a half on Zoom, he shared his thoughts with me about the field of film and conservation. This article outlines a brief insight into that conversation, including Kieron’s thoughts on the BFI and the field of film preservation and conservation today.

Background

Kieron Webb attributes the beginnings of his moving image preservation career to his time at the University of Kent in Canterbury, where he earned a degree in film studies. The 35mm film prints that he was exposed to there, all exhibited different qualities and conditions, and all generated a sense of wonder about the prints themselves and their survival for the years ahead. After graduation, Kieron volunteered at a commercial film archive called Huntley Film Archives. The founder, John Huntley, had worked for the BFI for just over twenty years until the mid-seventies. During Kieron’s time at Huntley’s a one-day course was offered on film preservation, and from that experience Kieron was “hooked.” Soon after, in 2000, the BFI acquired funds from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and expanded their staff by almost double. At this time Kieron was able to, “get his foot in the door,” with the BFI, starting what would be a long and successful career with the institution.

The BFI

The BFI, created in 1933, is one of the largest archives for film and television on Earth. It serves to preserve and educate the public on moving image culture. As an institution, its structure and relationship to the government is unique, as Kieron explains, “The BFI in the UK is referred to as ‘the lead body for film.’ There’s a phrase, ‘it’s an arm’s length government body.’ We do report to a government department directly now, but we’re not within it. It’s sort of a funny beast, because we’re also a charity.” Funding and overall scope is distinctive for the institution as well. The BFI is supplied with funding from a government grant, as well as through the National Lottery and its own activities. A Royal Charter provides the mission statement for the BFI. The institution’s objective includes more than just moving image preservation, but also production and even encouraging moving image culture:

We provide educational outputs and access to wider ranges of film, a moving image culture I should say, more widely. Through various ways, either through our venue, physically in London, or by helping with distribution of certain titles, either new ones or archive titles re-released. Blu-ray release and so on. We have a player online channel, etc. The BFI covers a lot of ground in terms of activities, and of course, the National Archive.

The BFI’s Role in Today’s Film Culture

Our conversation drifted into the importance of the BFI on current filmmakers and film culture. Kieron told me that there has been a dramatic increase of filmmakers wanting to access BFI materials to re-use in new broadcasts or documentaries. Shifting trends in documentary filmmaking has led to an increased request for more archival footage:

So of course, there’s a greater demand for that [archival footage], I think than there was before, perhaps because you could pad a program in the past with somebody doing the talking head interview and that kind of thing. Whereas now if you’re going to take that approach, you’re going to need historical footage for the entire run-time.

Increased exposure to archival footage may have large effects for both filmmakers and the general population. Kieron sees the expanded presentation of heritage materials to the public and filmmakers as inspiring, especially if the roles of archives and archivists are connected:

Just as the French New Wave grew up watching classics in the Cinémathèque, who knows who we might be inspiring now, running a Truffaut season at the cinema as we are, releasing Blu-rays and so on. So I would really like to think the archive definitely has a place to play in that. But, I think it really varies how people perceive archives and how archivists perceive their place in that as well.

A critical part of increasing use of heritage materials is access. With this in mind, our discussion turned to access and archives. Technological advancements, says Kieron, is at the center of access progress:  

I think you have seen since DVD and Blu-ray a really wide range of films, that I thought in the past, like you say as a film lover, you thought if you didn’t catch this in cinema you might never see it again in your life. You know, [that] Japanese classic of some kind. And now you can start watching them as soon as you’ve remembered the title. That amazes me just as a film viewer, to go back from college days through graduating to think, ‘wow, I thought this film was a myth and here it is, I can just start streaming it now.’ And archives internationally have their place in that now, obviously.

At the BFI, streaming with BFI Player allows on-demand home access to rare moving images.

The Biggest Shift in Film Preservation

On the second day of the interview, Kieron mentioned how the previous day’s discussion reminded him of his early career venture to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and of changes in film preservation noted from his experiences there. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival, started in 1982, is a yearly convergence of film enthusiasts in northern Italy to celebrate and showcase silent films. He talked about the National Lottery Heritage Fund of the BFI, and how early in his career at the BFI, the curator at the time offered a chance for two people to go to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, in Pordenone, Italy. He described how the Collegium at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival was created to attract a younger audience to the festival by offering lodging to the young participants, with the only requirement being that they had to write an essay of their time at the Festival. This program is ongoing for interested film enthusiasts. Kieron attributed a lot of his early connections in the field from this festival, due to the essay and requirements having the participants mix and interview with established professionals of the field. While interviewing at the festival, a topic of contention among archivists was on the digitization of the films instead of maintaining the original format: 

It was at a moment, the early 2000s, where everything was still being shown on film at the festival but some of the restorations had gone through a digital process and gone back out to film. That was a very hot topic of debate about the authenticity, the ethics, the practicalities, how expensive it was, the quality, et cetera, et cetera. And a lot of that still is [in debate]. So a fascinating time to have gone there. And I suppose it sounds almost cliche to say, but in the time that I’ve been working in the field, that’s obviously been the biggest change. Now, restoration itself is almost synonymous with digital tools technology. People still do restoration on film, or we do it partly on film, sometimes in a relationship with digital methods. Lots of things have changed in how cataloging is developed and how collections are managed in a sort of technical conservation sense. But from my perspective, that’s got to be the biggest shift.

Closing Thoughts

This article does not do justice to the breadth of the conversation I had with Kieron Webb. A consummate professional in the field who has many stories to tell throughout his career, Kieron gave great insight into what it means to be an expert in film preservation and conservation. I greatly appreciated the time I was given, realizing what a film archive can lend to the public and understanding how its professionals work day-to-day to give access to its resources. Overall, my appreciation for the knowledge and relationship gained through this interview will remain with me and be one of my founding memories into this professional path.

A Conversation with Simona Monizza, Curator at EYE

The EYE New Filmmuseum in Amsterdam
The EYE New Filmmuseum in Amsterdam

In late February, 2013, I had the pleasure of speaking with Simona Monizza, Curator at the EYE New Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, formerly known as the EYE Film Institute. The museum embraces, exhibits and teaches about film on multiple levels. It serves as a space with both permanent and rotating exhibits and there are film screenings daily. EYE is devoted to film archiving, restoration and collecting.

Although she has worked with EYE for over 13 years, Monizza’s role with the institute has changed somewhat over the years. After graduating from the Selznick School in Rochester, NY, she worked for one year with the British Film Institute and then moved to Amsterdam to work for the EYE Institute as a restorer. Working as a film restorer her duties were quite diverse. She was in charge of doing all of the prep work for multiple projects. This involved collecting any materials which might have information about a title, comparing different film elements, writing condition reports, deciding the best path to take for a particular project, working alongside the restorers at Haghefilm and overseeing quality control. As there was a flurry of projects going on at this time, she was often overseeing multiple film projects in various stages simultaneously. At this time, both Haghefilm and EYE were located in the same building. She said it was really great to be working side-by-side individuals in this amazing lab. There was one year in which they restored 400 films. Given the copious amount of time and energy it takes for just one film, this is truly astounding.

Interactive exhibit at the EYE Film Museum
Interactive exhibit at the EYE New Filmmuseum

EYE has a large collection of silent, amateur, experimental, animation and mainstream films including the largest collection of Dutch films in the world. Each genre has its own Collection Specialist who works closely with that particular collection. EYE is continuing to add to their existing collection of 40,000 films, which Monizza is directly involved in. After working as a Collection Specialist, she is now the Curator of the Experimental Film Collection. For film, this involves preserving, collecting and cataloging. If there is a particular filmmaker whose films they want to have in their collection, she will actively go to them and try to get their material. This entails going to their house to check the condition of the film elements, creating an inventory and a contract. There have been many times when filmmakers don’t know where a lot of their elements are or their collections are very disorganized which only adds to the complexity of her role and tracking down crucial bits of information. At times there is a lot of sleuthing involved. Her focus however, is more on film collections not just individual titles. She said this is a very time consuming but exciting process because there are always new and interesting things to be discovered. Other times filmmakers approach her to see if their works can be taken in to EYE’s collection. In addition she develops programs at EYE to showcase these newly acquired films and finds ways to connect people to the exhibits. EYE also has a distribution branch which filmmakers can submit their films to. A jury watches these films once a month and can select titles they would like to integrate into their existing collections.

She discussed the difficulty in deciding what to digitize from their collection. “It’s not easy, some collections are easier to digitize than others” she stated, “and the experimental ones offer many challenges in this regard due to their material characteristics.” In order for films to be digitized, copies must be in good condition.

“The state of the film determines its preservation path. At the moment we still preserve on film but also digitize for access. Under access we understand many things, like making Digital Cinema Packages for distribution of short films, or giving online access to part of our collection through some websites.”

Many reversal prints need to be graded, which is another time consuming step that takes place in their lab. EYE is currently not able to scan nitrate or Super 8 films. As they are in many archives, things in the digital realm are progressing rapidly. Demand for immediate access is on the rise and EYE must try and keep up with people’s needs.

EYE receives roughly 80% of their funds from The Netherlands’ government. This contrasts largely to how archives are operated in the United States, which rely heavily on grant funding and donations for projects. In recent years however, not as much money has been devoted to restoration projects and more weight is being put on EYE to find their own funding sources.

Given that her background is in analog work, Monizza is not as excited about the future of digital worrying that it may replace analog completely.

“Both technologies are used in our restorations and the best results come from the combination of both, but it hurts to see so much knowledge and expertise on film disappear so quickly.”

As many individuals do, she feels that there is often more talk about what should be done about the death of film than there are actions being taken to prevent it. As her role has changed over the years and she has adapted, she is certain that she will continue to do so and carve out her own niche in the film world. Her last words of advice for anyone entering this field were to learn as much about the digital aspects of film preservation as possible, without forgetting what film is.

~Asia Harman

Profile of a Film Archivist: David Francis

I recently had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with British film archivist, David Francis. Over the course of his prolific career, Mr. Francis has served as the Curator of the UK’s National Television and Film Archive (a division of the British Film Institute) as well as the Chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, in addition to other positions. I asked David to comment on his background and these experiences in order to paint a picture of the field over time.

Background

Francis was introduced to the world of film early in life. As his parents were members of a 35mm Film Society, the family attended film viewings regularly. This interest was later renewed through programming work for the Film Society at the London School of Economics, where he eventually received a BSc in Economics with a specialization in International Relations. In 1959, he began working as the Television Acquisitions Officer at the National Television and Film Archive, where he developed a television collection; a type of collection that had not existed in film archives until that point. He eventually worked his way up to the Curator position in 1974 where he remained until 1989, working on projects such as the J. Paul Getty, Jnr. Conservation Centre and the Museum of the Moving Image in London. In 1990, he left the UK to accept a contract at the Library of Congress. This turned into a more permanent position as became Chief not long after this contract ended. Francis stayed with the LoC until 2001.

Shot of the (former) Museum of the Moving Image in London.
Shot of the (former) Museum of the Moving Image in London.

Advocating for Moving Image Preservation

I asked David to comment on some his experiences advocating for moving image preservation. While at the British National Film Archive, he established the 24 Year Nitrate Preservation Scheme which allowed the Archive to duplicate approximately five million feet of nitrate film every year through government funding. He also organized a FIAF Symposium entitled “Cinema 1900-1906.”

“Up till that time (1978), film archives had been mainly interested in collecting the classic European silent and sound films. They were not interested in their national cinema…or in cinema before the coming of the first feature films. I had, however, always been interested in the relationship between the screen experience before 1895 and its influence on the first 20 years of the cinema’s creative development. We had acquired many titles from the first decade of cinema but could not make many of them available because we did not have the resources. I asked my archival colleagues around the world to send me all the films they had from the period at the Archive’s expense. I would then make two duplicate negative and two positive copies in our laboratory and send the original, one safety negative and a positive back to the archives and keep the others in our collection. In the end we assembled over 600 titles and screened them to a small group of international scholars. They then chose the titles they thought most interesting and these were screened at the Symposium. I think it would not be unreasonable to say that this Symposium paved the way for the study of early cinema.”

At the Library of Congress, Francis successfully implemented new legislation for the National Film Registry, which required the Librarian of Congress to conduct a “Study on the Current State of Film Preservation.” However, his attempts to do the same for television did not come to fruition.

“Congress indicated very clearly that as far as they were concerned film and television were not separate entities and they would not be prepared to fund a National Television Registry. Actually the film and television industries, although intertwined, are jealous of each other and would never have agreed to collaborate on a joint film and television programme.”

Comparing and Contrasting the BFI and MBRS

Having worked in both British and U.S. archives, Francis holds a unique perspective in the field. When I asked him to compare and contrast these experiences, he explained that while the two archives were similar in size, they remained different in other ways, particularly regarding funding.

“The British Film Institute was a QUANGO—a quasi autonomous non-governmental organization. It received funds from the government through the Ministry of the Arts but was not directly accountable for the way in which the funds were used. The Library of Congress is funded directly by Congress and considered by Congress as its library. However unlike most other archives in the United States the Library received some governmental funding although it had to also raise private funds if it was to meet its responsibilities. The National Film Archive section of the British Film Institute relied on private donations to build its film collections. The National Film Archive section of the BFI relied on private donations to build its film collections. There is no Statutory deposit for films in the UK. The Library builds its current collections through copyright deposits but relies on donations to fill gaps. The National Film Archive was a relatively un-bureaucratic organization and as Curator I was given a lot of freedom to achieve the Archive’s goals. I appointed all my own staff and managed all our budgets. The Library of Congress was very bureaucratic with checks and balances at every level. One had to compete for funding and staff with other Divisions.”

Changes Over Time

Beginning his career in 1959, Francis has experienced many of the great changes in the field. One he notes specifically is the improving relationship with film producers and distributors.

“In the 1960s one had to bribe producers and distributors to donate films. We organized a slap up party at Christmas and only invited staff from companies that participated. We invited the vault managers as well as the managing director because sometimes although we were refused donations officially, we received material unofficially from the vault manager. Another more dubious method of acquiring film was to bribe the driver of the Celluloid Products van who came to collect junk nitrate film for its silver value, to let us go through the films he already had on his van and substitute films of an equal or greater silver value. Even today, producers and distributors are still wary of film archives because they are concerned that they might screen copyrighted films without written permission. However they see the advantage of helping an organization that will store little used materials in ideal conditions free of charge.”

He also mentions the changing role and intentions of the film archive itself.

“When I started at the National Film Archive, the role of an archive was to collect films made by the classic European directors not to concentrate, as today, on the films made in one’s own country. Also scant attention was given to the films made in the first two decades of cinema history, short films, documentary subjects, newsreels or amateur film. These categories are now recognized as just as important as the feature film and, in fact, more important because they will not survive without the help of archives.”

Future Implications for Moving Image Archives

To overcome the challenges of digitization,

“Archives must be more like museums. Archives still control important information although even this position is threatened as more and more 20th century productions are digitized. The screening of a unique restored print in the archive cinema must be an experience to treasure and look forward to. I personally still feel that archives should use digital media to make films available widely, as long as it is still possible to see celluloid copies of the same titles projected in archive cinemas or other approved venues. The digital experience often appears to be technically superior but it is a different experience from watching a film in a darkened auditorium together.”

Furthermore, he voices his concern about the future of celluloid.

“Archives don’t have access to changing technology. When they preserve a film on celluloid they know they can store it in a controlled environment and it will retain its quality and accessibility. It will always be possible to build film projectors because they are mechanical not electronic. A digital master might need to be refreshed every five or so years and archives may not have access to the funds or equipment to do this on a regular basis. If they miss one refreshment stage, the digital master may become inaccessible. A lot of people will argue against this view and we will not know who was correct until we reach the 100 year mark but I believe archives must be conservative and never put the future of the moving image heritage at risk.”

My final question to David asked his opinion of the skills today’s archivists should possess.

“Archivists today have to be politicians, fund raisers and film historians who have the stage presence to make their knowledge exciting to the general public. Even although they must ensure that an archive is supported financially, policy must be based on what they believe should be done not on what others want them to do. Archives should only be big enough to achieve what can reasonably be done. An Archive can be too large as well as too small. If it is too large the head of the archive may not be able to devote enough time to determining policy, explaining it to staff and encouraging them to be part of the archive team.”

francis

 ~Susan Bogner

IULFA and FIAF

On November 20th, 2011, the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) was admitted into the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). To date, only 17 film archives in the United States are FIAF members. This blog post will discuss what FIAF is, a brief history of FIAF, and IULFA’s member status is a big deal.

FIAF was founded in Paris in 1938. Initially there were only 4 members. Though we might think of film preservation and archives as a more recent phenomenon, there was already a concern among cineastes, curators/programmers, filmmakers, and critics over the life of film. These sentiments had already existed in the 1920s. The Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art (NY) took an interest in film, adding them to their collection while

The exterior of the Cinémathèque Française

cinema was still a young medium. The original four members that banded together in 1938 included the Museum of Modern Art, the Cinémathèque Française, the British Film
 Institute, and the Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin (however, this archive was ransacked by Soviet troops in 1945). Since its conception in 1938, the organization has expanded its membership to archives in over 75 countries.

FIAF stated aims are:

  • to uphold a code of ethics for film preservation and practical standards for all areas of film archive work
  • to promote the creation of moving image archives in countries which lack them
  • to seek the improvement of the legal context within which film archives carry out their work
  • to promote film culture and facilitate historical research on both a national and international level
  • to foster training and expertise in preservation and other archive techniques
  • to ensure the permanent availability of material from the collections for study and research by the wider community
  • to encourage the collection and preservation of documents and materials relating to the cinema
  • to develop cooperation between members and “to ensure the international availability of films and documents”.

Simply having a collection is not enough for inclusion into FIAF. In addition to collections, archives should have some kind of long-term and developed plan for preservation. This would include proper storage facilities. IULFA’s collections reside in the Auxiliary Library Facility. Because we have our collections in an environment that will prolong film’s life for 250 years we have one of the best archival storage facilities among FIAF members.

FIAF also encourages greater interaction and cooperation within the archival world. They are engaged in issues of film preservation and restoration, digitization, and access. Every year FIAF organizes the Annual Congress where members come to formally discuss business and participate in workshops. IULFA archivist Rachael Stoeltje represented IU at the Annual Congress in Beijing this past spring.  FIAF also publishes the Journal of Film Preservation.

IULFA is honored to be part of such an historically important organization. We are excited to be participants in the global conversation on the role  of film archives and preservation. FIAF membership will also lead other archival institutions to our doorstep. Being a member means we can develop relationships with other film archives and expose people to our collections and state-of-the-art facility.

~Sean Smalley