Silver screen magic: inside the British Film Institute vaults
Thousands of reels of film – classic cinema, old newsreel clips, lost gems – are stored in special refrigerated vaults at the BFI archives outside London. Every year the archivists restore a silent film, this year the 1920s silent Indian love story Shiraz. Here's how the precious restoration work is done
Produced by Natalie Whittle. Filmed and edited by Richard Topping.
There's an enormous number of films from all periods of film history, going right back to the Victorian era and right forward to the present day. And these are all celluloid films. So they have to be kept in these cool conditions, which is why it's cold in here. The 20th century captured nearly everything that was going on.
So we're a kind of depositary of that visual history. We rescue the films and we keep them safe in these big vaults. This part of the collection is actually on celluloid, which is inherently unstable. So it begins to decay almost the minute it's made. It's a chemical sandwich of complexity, all fighting each other.
The BFI National Archive is one of the biggest in the world. Now, this might be a surprise. Because our film industry is relatively small if you compare it to Hollywood, or France. But, we've got this massive, massive collection. And this is historical. It's because London is where it is in the world. Film came through London and was distributed all around. It tended to get stuck in holding facilities and bonded warehouses.
Consequently, we've collected it here. And we've got this huge collection. So there's all kinds of things on these shelves. And it's fascinating. I'm just looking at some of the titles that are written on the cans. Passion of Joan of Arc. That's a fantastic one. That's drier, you know, great, classic movie which was lost for years and years and years. And it turned up in an asylum. It's a real treasure. Probably one of the top 10 best silent films ever.
So I specialise in very early film. I think, probably that's what I find most exciting. Lifting, you know, the film out of the can, and sort of seeing something from like the 1890s is incredibly exciting.
The film we're working on at the moment is called Shiraz. And it's a really unusual film. It's from 1928. It's completely set in India, filmed there, all on location. No studio at all. So it's an important film. Because almost none of the films that were made in India in the 1920s survive.
We've been working on Shiraz for about 15 months through initial planning and searches around the world to see if there were other copies elsewhere. Overall, there's a combined team of nearly 30 people working on a major restoration project like Shiraz.
The largest group of people will be the ones working on the digital image repair. So after the films are scanned, all those scratches and marks that have accumulated over nine decades of usage are removed digitally from the scans.
Although we have the camera negative of Shiraz, over time, it's begun to deteriorate. So a real complexity in Shiraz was to swap between two film copies, the original and a copy that was made in the '70s to generate the highest quality sources for the film.
Film making in the '20s, late '20s, is very different to the late '40s or the late '70s or now. The way the films were handled, the way the films were shot and then processed and then developed, was a lot more manual. And it results in certain things that you can see on screen, a certain level of flicker, perhaps or fluctuation. Some kinds of dirt or marks on the film, we would leave, because they would have been seen by original audience.
You're really strongly aware of the fact that you're representing somebody else's work. And in the case of Shiraz, the filmmakers aren't with us still. So it's that obligation to present their film fairly, and make sure that it can be seen in the way it was when they made it.
There's no original score. Doesn't survive. There may not even have been one. So we have commissioned Anoushka Shankar, which is an extraordinary piece of luck. So one of the leading sitar players in the world is going to give it that Indian cultural feel that it so badly needs. She'll be doing something which bridges the gap between the period in which the film was set, the period in which the film was made, in the 1920s, and now.
But this is what's exciting about this job, is it could be anything. Could be a great classic. It could be something completely unknown. So we keep everything, so that people of later generations, when all of these things are available and restored, they can make their own discoveries as well. So it's not just locked up in this big vault.