Janet Moat: Dopes, Quads and Plushes; a personal history of documenting the movies

Janet Moat, now retired British Film Institute [BFI] gave a history of collecting material that documents the movies.

Janet began by saying that although film is arguably the most accessible of art forms, film archives are conversely the least accessible of all archives.

The BFI is the national repository for film and has vast holdings of archive mostly acquired via voluntary donation. Growth of collection increased from the 1950s onwards,  and film donations were made by industry personnel. This process of random deposits led to an unsystematic collections process. From the 1970s onwards – film library and archive became dual collections.

The 1970s were the end of an era for many filmmakers/producers – and they began submitting personal papers in greater quantities. A film’s paper archive might include a sourcebook –but the most recognisable document is a script. Janet said that scripts are adorned with data, often illustrated or with notations (about budgeting, etc.). Dope sheets,  a document detailing who and/or what is required for each day of filming, might also survive. Sometimes film cells would be clipped to sheets and conservation of these could be problematic (especially for nitrate film). Quads (30”x40” posters), plushes (soft toys for marketing), and sheet music might also be deposited.

In order to make sense of the collections and to beging building coherent collections Janet looked to the US for techniques on management of material and found that arrangement followed the film production process. The final documentary stage of this process included gathering books about/supporting the film, and any critical reviews the film received. The BFI started to follow that practice – paper-based records would be kept together but the poster collection remained separate.

The BFI also acquired Granada’s cinema chain archive. This was a treasure trove of information – photographs of cinema buildings, publicity, serials, etc. A vanished world and a significant social history collection.

Dealing with voluntary donations – links to industry was strong initially but remained a reactive process. This meant acquisition was poor and relied on the selection of material by the depositor. A more proactive process was not welcomed by potential depositors who were uncertain of the BFI’s motive and a lack of belief in archival process. Buying archives was not something with which the BFI wished to be involved. The acquisition policy was to tell the story of british cinema and film through the documentary evidence. Gaps existed – studios had closed before archive set up. Consequently there is a low rate of survival of material.  Regional broadcasters – bankruptcies – material obtained via this manner.

Digital futures – digitising material copyright remains the single biggest issue with film archives. Clearing copyright takes time and resources. Who are your audiences? How do you provide access to a variety of users, is digital the be all?

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