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.
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, 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.
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.