Reel to reel with Jez Stewart
Having been based at the British Film Institute (BFI) for over 11 years, film archivist Jez Stewart really knows his film leaders from his wind tension. He is also one of the very few curators of animation in the world, which he describes as “something of a dream job.”
Talking to The Knowledge, he told us about some of his career highs and lows, and offers some valuable advice on handling the film heritage of the country.
Can you give us an idea of your current role and the background to it?
I've been at the BFI for over eleven years now, having moved from a couple of temporary contracts to a permanent position since 2005. My first job was as acquisitions assistant, which mainly involved processing film and video material into the BFI National Archive, and liaising with the people who donated it.
I then worked on a project bringing the back catalogue of UK Coca-Cola commercials into the collection - the main issue being finding the damn things!
Currently I am part of a team responsible for the non-fiction material in the archive, but for the last few years I have been able to develop a specialism in animation - something that has always been a passion for me.
How and why did you become a film archivist?
I did a BA in Film and Drama at The University of Reading and had a keen interest in the history of the industry, but I recognised that I didn't really have the talent or desire to work in it.
After graduating I wasn't really sure what to do with myself and spent three years working in a bookshop. I wanted to continue studying but quite enjoyed earning wages. Naively, I don't think I was particularly aware of film archiving as a possible career until a friend saw a job advert in the Guardian and convinced me to apply.
Despite my ignorance of the whole area I somehow got the job, and have been revelling in it ever since.
What are the main challenges of your role?
The BFI collection is dauntingly huge and constantly growing, but it still represents only a small proportion of the total history of moving image production in the UK.
We can't acquire copies of everything as we don't have the time, space, or resources, so my job is about selection - what are the films that should become part of the nation's film collection and represent our history?
If I think a film should be acquired, then I have no authority to actually make it happen. We rely on the generosity of the filmmakers, or whoever has the material, and hope to share our belief that this is the best chance to ensure a film's preservation for generations to come.
The job is about making judgements based on knowledge, experience and understanding, and being able to argue your case and present your opinions.
The role is equally about being capable of revising those opinions in the light of new evidence. You are dealing with the past, present and future of a constantly evolving and diverse industry and have to stay on top of it all.
At the same time, the archive is part of a bigger cultural institution that is quite rightly not just about the preservation of such materials, but also about using them to educate, promote and celebrate filmmaking in Britain.
What’s the most memorable part of your job?
Within a week or so of starting my job I was handling reels of original camera negative film that had been produced over 100 years ago: the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection [the largest collections of early actuality films in the world].
It was the first of many, many memorable moments. I am currently in the midst of accessioning 3000 cans of film from the Halas & Batchelor Collection - an animation company that dominated the British industry for many years, and have the great pleasure of working with the daughter of its two founders to help cement and promote her parents’ legacy.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is its sheer diversity. One week you can be in Newcastle sifting through a collection of mouldy audio tracks encrusted with pigeon poo, and the next week you can be in Dulwich Village sharing tea with an infinitely charming 91-year-old animator who has never really been questioned about the industry in which she played a huge part.
There is a lot of repetitive process work in the job; loads of spreadsheets and databases and filing. There has to be or no-one would ever find anything again. Yet every can of film, or videotape or, increasingly, data folder that you open has the potential to widen your horizons and open out a piece of history.
Trips to Vancouver, Perpignan, Amsterdam, Beijing and New York for conferences and lectures have been very nice as well.
How is your job changing?
The increasing use of digital media in the production, distribution and restoration of moving pictures has completely changed the state of the industry even in my short time in film archiving. The use of film as a medium - 35mm and 16mm - for filmmaking is now very rare, and in fact for most industries, like television, animation and sponsored filmmaking, it stopped being used some time ago.
Digital media has contributed to the increasing democratisation of moving image so there is more and more stuff being made, by more and more people, and it is available via sites like YouTube, Vimeo and others for free. There is a real pressure on archives to make their collections available, but such institutions generally do not own the rights to allow them to do so.
Preserving digital born materials, or assets made by digitising film or video, is a tricky business and is unlikely to ever have the stability and conformity that there was with film.
BUT there are huge positives with digital - days after The Making of Longbird won the BAFTA for Best Animated Short in 2013, the filmmaker, Will Anderson, was able to share a copy of his master file with us via an online FTP transfer. This would be very unlikely if those masters were film.
Digital restoration of damaged film stocks or obsolete colour processes can also bring film works back to life as never before, and the web gives unprecedented reach for archival content. Keeping up with the past and the future can make the job a little schizophrenic.
What key skills do you need to become an archivist?
With all the digital changes going on, the need to prioritise and act assuredly at speed becomes paramount. Organisation is also key, and if you haven't got a good memory get good at note-taking and filing.
There are a number of different roles within a film archive - some are more technical, dealing hands-on with film, video and digital media and their individual quirks; others are more curatorial, finding, acquiring and interpreting moving image works and their makers.
But there is huge overlap, and the more you know about one the better you will be at the other. Obviously the curatorial role requires more communication skills, but the technical roles involve a methodical approach and an attention to detail that I personally envy.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a film archivist?
Almost all the people who have joined the BFI National Archive after me have had some kind of archival post-graduate qualification, so that is definitely something to look at.
There are a number of good courses out there in the US and Europe. However, each of these courses release half-a-dozen or more qualified archivists each year and not all of them will find work in archiving, and archives do also look for other qualities.
Although film stocks are used less and less in production and cinemas it will be around in film archives for hundreds of years to come - it is still the best medium for the long-term preservation and if kept in the right conditions it should last for centuries.
Get some experience of handling film and get an understanding of legacy video tape formats as it won't be long before they are gone from the industry too, but they carry a huge amount of our moving image heritage on them.
The more you learn about the situation in which films were made and seen - the cultural, historical and technical background the better.
Also, watch a film on 35mm in the cinema, and then on a DVD, and then on your phone and think about the differences.
If you could meet a version of yourself right at the start of your career, what’s the one piece of advice you would offer?
I can't think of any one thing I could say that would change much - in fact I think I would worry about jinxing things, as everything is pretty good at the moment. So I would probably just try and freak my past self out by claiming that in the future I travel to work in a one-piece bodysuit by jet pack.