Film and the Historian

IUHFC Project, Technical Selection

As the sole distributor of the IUHFC’s output between 1981 and 1999, the BUFVC held a number of copies of each production in their archive, in some cases on various formats. These included 16mm film prints, Hi- and Lo-band U-Matic, Beta SP and Super-VHS tapes. With such a range of formats, and multiple copies thereof, identifying those that would best illustrate the work of the consortium required a rigorous process of selection. The aim, of course, was to get as close to original production quality as possible. But it was a task made difficult by a number of factors.

Moving Image Selection

To begin with there was the fact that, in most cases, we weren’t in possession of negatives. We did hold some, but the time and funds required to produce new prints were unfortunately unavailable, and so we were left solely with the copies held in our collection. It was far from an ideal situation. Many of the prints held were rental copies, supplied to institutions unable to meet the high cost of purchasing film at that time, and as such were subject to a greater degree of wear and tear than might otherwise have been expected. Typically this manifested itself as scratches (vertical marks), dishing (horizontal marks) or dirt on the print. U-Matic and VHS copies were affected in other ways, most notably through ‘snow’, ‘drop-out’ or ‘ghosting’, though these occurred more as a result of deterioration rather than damage.

Serving to complicate matters was the fact that the films themselves had by and large been constructed from archive footage, which in itself had often suffered damage, damage replicated in subsequent transfers. This meant that when a problem had been identified – be it print-through, scratches or dirt – it was then necessary to attempt to determine whether that problem existed on the print itself or had in fact been carried over. Add to this the fact that you might be viewing a VHS transfer of a Hi-Band U-Matic created from a 16mm print and you’ll see what kind of terrain we’re in…

Picture, of course, wasn’t all there was to consider. Sound, too, was a factor. For instance, a 16mm copy of one film might have superior image quality but poor sound, while a Hi-Band U-Matic of the same film could possess good clean sound but show evidence of deterioration. What is most important, in the context of the film, to the viewer? Which takes precedence in any given circumstance – image or sound? Is it, for instance, the spectacle of the Nuremberg Rally that’s of interest or the speech itself? How does the selector make this choice? The answer here is academic, a question of personal judgment, however dissatisfying that may be. This isn’t to suggest a lack of set criteria, however, and measures were taken to document the evidence upon which decisions were made, but within this framework there remained an unavoidable need for personal choice. Our hope, of course, is that the choices made were for the better.

Selection of Text

In addition to the films themselves we’ve also provided a number of accompanying documents. Included are a series of booklets compiled by the filmmakers involved in each of the productions, Volume 1 of the BUFC’s biannual journal University Vision, an edited transcript of the 1968 conference Film and the Historian, and a number of articles contributed to University Vision throughout its lifetime by leading academics and archivists.

The selection process here was, generally speaking, more straightforward. During the film comparisons a constant to and fro between versions had been required, whereas here we were able to compare different copies side-by-side. In fact, where the IUHFC booklets were concerned process was sometimes easier still: there were some for which we had only a single copy, the rest having been supplied in tandem with the films to institutions over the years. Where we did hold more than a single copy our main concerns were either the rusting of spine staples or discoloration of pages, evidence of which you may find amongst those scans offered here. That, however, is the reality of a project such as this: sometimes the best is still far from ideal.

Frazer Ash Digital Transfer Manager, Learning on Screen