Today, the persistent threat of lost data is a little different from the early days of filmmaking, when auteurs lived with the reality that their work would almost certainly dissolve into dust, never to be seen again. Some estimates have it that 80 per cent of films made before 1950 are lost forever.
It’s in this light that the work of the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive becomes all the nobler, if not more urgent. It works to restore, conserve and interpret film and TV footage that might otherwise be lost, a sort of unmasked guardian fighting for the good of our shared cultural heritage. Its work is often painstaking, but it can produce spectacular results.
Among the most recent of those is Britain on Film, an ambitious project that opens up an archive of thousands of pieces of British film and makes them freely available to the public via the online BFI Player. It went live in July 2014 with 2,000 pieces of footage, some of it dating back to 1895. By 2017, it will include 10,000 clips of film.
‘It is a massive task to bring these to screens,’ says Brian Robinson, the BFI’s animated communications manager, ‘You have to establish the historical context, the geographic location and the director. Sometimes that’s straightforward because the detail is in the opening titles, but it can involve forensic examination.’
Officially, the archive was founded to maintain a national repository of films of permanent value and originally held in London, before being moved during the war. To survive, it has relied on funds sourced from the government, lottery money, commercial and fundraising activities, as well as gifts from philanthropists.
This includes parnterships with like-minded brands. In 2014 IWC Schaffhausen launched a three-year partnership with the institute by hosting a VIP gala dinner – with high profile guests including Emily Blunt and Mick Jagger – and the release of the Portofino Midsize collection. IWC CEO Georges Kern says,
At IWC, storytelling is part of the DNA of everything we do, our desire is to nurture this incredibly special relationship and to create and deliver impeccable events.
With a clear focus on technology and development, the Swiss watch manufacturer has been producing timepieces of lasting value since 1868, gaining an international reputation for its progressive outlook and technical ingenuity. It has a long-standing tradition of supporting filmmaking, including work with Tribeca Film Festival, Dubai International Film Festival and Beijing International Film Festival.
This partnership continues to grow apace, last year IWC was the sponsor of Luminous, the BFI’s unique fundraising gala, which celebrates British film and film talent, while helping to secure the future of the BFI national archive. IWC created limited-edition timepieces in honour of their continued commitment to fundraising, auctioning a one-off platinum version of the Portugieser Annual Calendar watch, with all proceeds going to the National Archive.
In addition, IWC made a further 59 watches in stainless steel. The Portugieser Hand-wound Eight Days Edition ‘BFI London Film Festival 2015’ pieces cost £8,250 and were individually numbered and sold through IWC’s Bond Street boutique.
Almost 4.7m viewers tuned in to watch a programme showing the discovery of 800 rolls of unseen silent film detailing British life between 1900 and 1912. The priceless films were restored by the BFI over five years at a cost estimated to run into millions. Preserving film for future generations has never been so keenly at the forefront of the British mindset. ‘The films we have here are everyone’s heritage,’ says Botting. ‘They’re everyone’s films.’
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