Last week, I had the chance to visit the BFI film archive in Berkhamsted to see how the renovation and restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s first acknowledged film, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” was coming along.

The tour started in the acetate archive, a vast warehouse built to house some of the thousands of reels of film that the BFI owns. Chilled to low temperatures to preserve the film’s quality, the racks and racks of tins are all simply named with long anonymous digits to ensure that if someone was to break in, they wouldn’t be able to find the more valuable items.

As I mentioned above, the reason for the visit was to witness the amount of time and effort that’s being put into the project to restore Hitchcock’s 1926 silent movie, “The Lodger” to it’s former glory. The work on this film is part of a wider plan to preserve the earliest works by the director for future generations, and having seen the quality of some of the source material such as the original projection reel above, it’s clear to see how much work is needed.

Following a global call for access to privately-owned copies of the film by the BFI, the challenge now is to search each and every reel that is offered for different scenes, extended footage or better quality versions. In effect, the plan is to create an ultimate version of the film that includes some scenes that were thought to have either been lost forever or were previously unseen. With film collectors and archives providing clips and footage on every available format, including cinematic projection reels and home cinema 9mm, not only is it a challenge to correlate the material but also to make sure the finished product retains a single “feel”.

Seeing how some of the technicians work in the editing suites/operating theatres, it becomes obvious just how much these people love their work. Around all of the desks and workstations are cuttings, posters, articles and photographs from films since the beginning of cinema.

As the work is only currently in the early stages, we are shown what kind of processes the project will involve, including the painstaking restoration of each of the “intertitle” frames. To those who aren’t in the know (including me), this is the correct name for the flash cards that appear in silent movies to give the audience the information that couldn’t be easily illustrated through mime alone. In the earlier silent films they were very common, but as directors began to get their heads around how to pass information across to the audience visually, there was less need for them.

Knowing that some of the intertitles could be lost or damaged, the restoration team have had to recreate the fonts used and go through the long process of adding the text back into their places, while making sure that the vintage feel isn’t lost in the process. While digital software claims to be able to recreate the wobbly retro feel, the team here have found that it’s still not right, so the only way has been to do it all by hand, putting the new titles back onto film and re-recording footage of that.

Celebrating 75 years of the British Film Institute’s archive, the Long Live Film season will include special events, screenings and releases over July and August 2010. See their site for details here.


7 Responses to “Raiders of the Lost Archive”

  1. Love the close up of the negatives. For once I am jealous of your assignment rather than the (always good) quality of photographs. Cannot of been the easiest of assignments to get good photographs from – large warehouse of tins…

    Posted by Nic
  2. Wow… My dream is to go and spend some time at a place like this to learn and observe how films are restored. You’ve captured this beautifully.

    Posted by Hind
  3. @Nic It was actually quite hard to try to capture the vast scale of the archive room. It was like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark! There were 5 or 6 long corridors with racks from floor to very high ceiling so no way of capturing the whole room in one frame. I’m glad the shots have done the job though! :)

    @Hind Thanks very much. It was a real pleasure to shoot.

    Posted by tabascokid
  4. Superb photos Leon and a smashing assignment :-)

    Posted by JR
  5. My liege…Just noticed this blog. As always, an interesting read and amazing shots (lousy, talented punk! Reason to usurp you!) :-)

    Posted by pixgremlin
  6. You have the best job in the world. Lucky you’re so good at it. These picture’s are superb – you always seem to find a new perspective or interesting angle. Kudos sir.

    Posted by tom ashmore
  7. Cheers, bud! Very kind of you indeed. Also, I haven’t blogged in ages so thanks for reminding me it exists. Think it’s time for some Papal Power ahead of part 5 of the knowledge…

    As for the best job, I have to agree and I’m happy to report I certainly don’t take it for granted. :)

    Posted by tabascokid

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