Kieron Webb (KW)
Conservation Manager (British Film Institute)
Interviewer: Paul Frith (PF)
PF: OK, so this is an interview with Kieron Webb at the BFI, Berkhamsted, on 30 January 2019. So if you can start Kieron just by introducing yourself and your role here at the BFI.
KW: Yeah. I’m Film Conservation Manager at the BFI National Archive. That means that I manage the film conservation teams, so everybody who is handling and copying from, whether that’s photographically or digitally, the film collections here including restoration projects. I often say it’s everything we, everything the BFI chooses to do. It’s even sort of, more precisely defined, everything the archive decides to do with the films once they’re out of the vault. So I’m not, I’m not part of that collections management that, you know, ensure the vaults are working correctly, and so on, although I work with them on policies for keeping and accessing film. But otherwise it’s the film lab teams, and the graders, and film conservation specialists who inspect, examine, compare, repair films.
PF: OK so if we can go on to talk about A Man on a Beach, perhaps if you could introduce how that project came about and what were the first steps in that process of getting that print?
KW: Yeah, we were contacted by, and I think it was something like the… it was shot at Lyme Regis, I believe, and we were contacted by, you’ll have to double check the name, but the Lyme Regis Society, or something like that, who were interested in having a copy made I suppose is what they thought, but print, they wanted of the title for a screening. So the neg was checked, the original picture and sound negatives are here, along with what we could call an original projector print. So those are the three elements held here. As you can see, the print from the time is significantly faded, about as faded as prints ever do get I think, so… and in any case, when making a new print you would use the negatives. They were checked here, compared for length and so on, then went to Soho Images and they alerted us after running some printing tests that, you know, the negative was faded… the negative itself was also faded. You can… we’ve just taken a look on the bench at that sample print which we have and some of the grading records indicate how much the yellow layer of the negative has faded by the, by how low the grader has taken the blue printing light, especially in relation to the others. So this was a, was always, would have been intended to be a normal contact printing route without any optical work or analogue colour restoration wasn’t anticipated. And it’s 2009 and that’s significant because, for us, because we’d just completed the David Lean centenary restorations and, I think three of those ended up being completely DI restorations, and another two were, in part, DI, with a normal negative being produced and those sections being cut it. So we were aware more and more of what digital intermediate restoration could allow you to do, flexibility it gave you. And we were working on Joseph Losey’s Accident which wasn’t really so much restoration, the negative was in reasonable condition. So working with the same facility Midnight Transfer… I’m just pausing because they were becoming Deluxe, they were becoming part of Deluxe at that point. But the real issues is it was the same staff and colourist. So they, all of us not really very used to working with faded Eastmancolor negative, so they scanned on a Arriscan, they scanned as best as they felt they could. I suspect there’s more to be said about how that negative could be scanned now I look back. As you say it’s ten years near enough. But anyway, we had a usable result that we had some latitude with and working with Steve Bearman, who’s the colourist now at Silver Salt, we analysed the three channels. You could see straight away when you compared them how, just as a monochrome channel, how faded, how dropped the contrast was in the blue-yellow channel. So we worked by extending that using the, kind of, overall curve like altering the characteristic curve of it, not scene-to-scene, we probably came up with a good overall adjustment. And then we could recombine it and work in colour again and alter things scene to scene as needed. The issue of course is there’s no contemporary print that’s any use to refer to so, you make a judgement about, first of all, what’s reasonable for the colour design and the contrast range. We didn’t touch grain or anything like that but I think it’s fair to say there is a sense of graininess anyway… it’s very early Eastmancolor isn’t it, I forget the year of the film…
PF: ‘54. Filmed in ’54…
KW: Yeah so, really, ‘53 is kind of that date that you keep in your mind for colour becoming a kind of catalogue item. So it is early and I think the graininess is somewhat inherent in camera negative of the time and the lenses, the Cinema… well actually I forget what the actual credit on the film is. The Hammer ones were normal not CinemaScope but Dyaliscope or HorrorScope, or…
KW: Yeah. In other words, not as good quality lenses as the proper CinemaScope. So we didn’t touch the grain but I think it’s probably fair to say that the result of the route we took may increase the sense of graininess even. We had to watch out carefully for, you always do, but for things like day-for-night, what was supposed to be day-for night. You can tells some of these things relatively… even from a faded print at least, you know, it’s all faded the same so if this shot, sequence, looks day-for-night then you know… And of course there is this reveal in the story that tells you about one of the main characters so even in the interiors, what’s the light level supposed to be like? No harm in saying we played it safe I guess, you know. We went for what we felt would be reasonable for that period of film reproduction. One other thing I was gonna note was the optical effects. There’s a few mixes, dissolves in the film and they… they’re not as good quality as the later inter-neg, internegatives, would be but in terms of fading they were definitely faded less than the camera negative. I can offer no explanation. Might be interesting to ask some of the other people you’ll be talking to. But I have… I know from speaking to other people, at Cineric actually, not Simon [Lund] but the colourist there, that he calls them short opticals, in other words, when they just cut for the length of the effect rather than… because the optical’s so bad I suppose, rather than leave the whole of the outgoing and the incoming scene as a dupe. You just kind of get that kind of [CLICKS FINGERS] quick burst and he’d found that too with US titles that the opticals can be… I wouldn’t say unfaded but less faded for sure. So, this was all done at 2k, the work. I think we discussed, but didn’t use, a great bit-depth in scanning or in grading. I think we tried but it wasn’t possible with the workflow at the time. Another interesting area that we probably would, definitely would, experiment with if we were doing any of this kind of work now. And a new internegative was recorded out and print made, as you’ve seen, along with probably a HD tape master in those days, and the data kept in the usual ways but… Yeah, interesting because there’s no reliable reference, no production stuff that I was made aware of.
PF: So, talking about negs then, so a lot of it is to do with knowledge of the look of Eastmancolor at that period, working with other prints, other negs, and that’s how you kind of get a sense of how it should look, or how a certain stock from a certain period should look. Is that right?
KW: Yes. Yeah, broadly speaking. I… the instant trap is that where will you find an unfaded 1954 Eastmancolor print? They must all be, you know. So you… it’s partly true that you get a sense of progression of Eastmancolor and you, you know, from prints that aren’t faded later on and then work your way backwards. Perhaps you’ve seen prints made from good Eastmancolor negatives of at least from the mid-‘60s let’s say where the, I think the danger of fading is, in normal conditions, much, much slower, and try and do the thought experiment to work backwards. There’s also, I suppose, a sense that even with digital, all the digital grading tools that are there, you can’t push a negative, even a good one, where it doesn’t want to go. You can, you know, you can a bit but I think working with what are compromised materials often from an, you know, in terms of they wouldn’t be in the archive… you know, in black-and-white even you can tell when you’re sort of trying to force a response out of an element that just hasn’t got that contrast range. So I think in this one we felt, well we could make the car, for example that black car, felt certain it was black, certainly we, you know, were, as I say, cautious I guess and sticking to a fairly primary grade. So we felt it was working as being black car and, you know, highly polished reflective surface but just maybe sitting that black up a little bit from where you might put it from a modern, you know, from a modern film. So I… yes it’s educated guess work I think.
PF: I guess… so it’s a lot to do with familiar points of references. I guess that was the same through analogue restorations right through to digital. It’s that kind of a key principle, would you say, for films which don’t have any other reference material? It’s about familiarity with objects and the film stock itself? Is that kind of what you base it on?
KW: Yeah and you know always… I can never quite pronounce it, but that sense of, that historical sense. Because even film-to-film, so pre-digital if you like, people were wanting to strike a new print from a negative of a film in the ‘70s, you could and you could get a very reasonable result but actually with more research you probably would have discovered that prints stocks of that time… trying to remember that the film’s system, the print stocks at that time gave different responses. I’ve seen Simon Lund talk previously on when he was working in Spain and making a, they were making a print of Tristana. Is it the Bunuel? I think it’s Tristana, early ‘70s perhaps, and he talked about how he was selectively flashing the print stock just with green, you know, a certain level of green printer light. I forget now the detail of how he arrived at that but the point is, you know, this is not the digital. The principle that you’ve mentioned is the same whether it’s digital or not.
PF: So, talking about the move from analogue to digital, would you say it’s just became easier? That they’re the main differences? It’s the same basic principle of getting the right colour but it’s more based at a work station in trying to achieve the right look of a film? Is that fair to say?
KW: Yeah. I don’t think the aim has changed. It shouldn’t have. But actually that’s worth saying, it is worth saying because it might be possible to take a negative, a well-exposed negative, and begin stretching it out with these wider colour gamuts that we’re seeing being standardised. But for, yeah, for us and others I think of the same approach. It’s… digital is certainly, well I think would really be considered the only way to go about colour restoration of this kind. It might allow you to do it more easily, not to say it’s easy but just more easy than on film, with some better results, but better results meaning in comparison with the aim that you’ve said and I don’t want to overlabour that but just that not everyone would necessarily recognise that even if they say they did. They’re actually doing something else.
PF: I suppose it’s worth mentioning as well, you’ve already talked about achieving a certain look, and look is a very hard thing to quantify but it’s based on experience and knowledge. Is there ever an attempt to try and achieve a look for a film based on a release print or perhaps a first generation show copy? Is that ever an issue? Perhaps when you’ve got more material to work with, do you go for one over the other or is there much of a difference anyway?
KW: Yeah there’s a lot of…. Certainly can be, you know, just because you’ve got original prints or, what festivals are often calling, vintage prints. There’s still some… yeah, you have to be… you can’t just say “Well, bingo. We’ve got that. We’ve got that one.” There’ll be a real range of what’s still usable as a reference because of fading. But I think it is rare. I certainly don’t hear beyond some very top-level studio pictures that you find a can, a print, that’s, you know, was definitely referred to as the approved answer print, you know. It’s… sometimes you deduce about something about the quality of a print in comparison with another, and, you know, work from there. I know this might not be strictly speaking within the bounds of the project but reversals are a good example where you’ve got the… if you had an artist filmmaker, or amateur actually… I suppose you have been doing some research into that, semi-professional let’s say. You know, you had their master reversal and then a reversal print we all know the reversal print colour, you know, you look at the two and I don’t think it’s fading that’s the issue it’s just, you know, the way the colours tracked. And, you know, so we would feel it’s legitimate to follow the master reversal because at least that’s how it was shot. Accident’s one example because the… Gerry Fisher came in and looked at the grade with us. He wasn’t able to, sort of, stay with us days and days on end and go through it. We set up a reel the day before he came for the first time. Then we started from the beginning of the film with him. We didn’t show him that reel, we started at the beginning of the film. Then we moved on to the reel that we’d done and he corrected it. That’s great, you know. I mean, it wasn’t a completely different film he just, you know, we worked on it with him. And then it was trying to fill in between and keep a consistency. No prints to refer to that aren’t faded with Accident from the time of course, but a print was made for Channel 4 I think and then it was deposited to the archive later so…And I think it was made around 2000, it was made from the camera negatives, so I did refer to that too because, although not withstanding what I’ve just said about print stocks changing and the contrast changing, at least, you know, it was an example of a photographic reproduction of the negative as it stood in 2000, or something like that. With Jabberwocky, more recently Terry Gilliam came in. There were some, a range of prints, a small handful I think I recall. One, most of them faded, and one more recent print that we looked at with him but I, you know, I think he’d want to make alterations, you know, he’s that kind of director that he would at it as producing something now, I guess.
PF: Is that ever an issue? Because, with people wanting to go back and create something different…
KW: Yeah. It’s an issue because… I suppose the issue is just working with people who make the films and working out how they see it and how the archive can see it and, you know, what could be best done together. With Jabberwocky, the film in its various versions is very well covered with us in terms of 4K, data, and we even were able to afford to make a interpostive from the camera negative so there’s a record there of it non-digital as well. So I think we’re well covered on that one. I can’t say… I’ve not got any of the horror stories that you sort of hear from other people. I think… I just find working with, especially with DoPs, would be fascinating, you know, is fascinating. We don’t often get a chance because the age of films we’re working on sadly to be able to work with those who were involved in them. You could see it could be an issue. I think it’s good for the archive to sit and talk quite a lot with the person, or group, you know, to just at least all be clear on how you see it and are there considerations that the archivist might not have taken into account about the production as a way of working through anything. I would like to do more of it actually just because, you know, I find it so fascinating in so many other ways.
PF: So would you say that where we’re at now in terms of digital restoration, or remastering as well, there’s nothing that can’t be salvageable? Do you think we’re at a point where… or do you think there was ever a point where we couldn’t go… we couldn’t bring the colours back to life? Do you think it’s always been the case that you can retrieve something no matter how far gone it’s actually gone in terms of fading, we can always bring that back?
KW: Actually, I think you’ll get a better response from some other interviewees because my, the majority of my restoration work here has been with silent era material or black-and-white features if I look at it numerically, so I don’t feel... I think it’s probably, I suspect the answer is there always were and there always will be some things that are unretrievable because there’s questions about what it is you’re… think that you’ve retrieved. But I’m an optimist in the sense of this being progressive, you know, that we… I think it’s pretty obvious that there are types that you read a lot and hear a lot and speak with other people who have been around long enough to know that they restoration of a difficult negative or materials in, before digital. Now they’re going back to it certain things are much much easier. Maybe they’re, as you say, it’s great it works. But I suspect there are sometimes, you know, film’s such a tricky thing that I’m sure there’s lots of ways in which it could still out-fox us a bit. But I, you know, I think it’s getting better, more and more reliable. But I’d like to see, my overall hope is that we work increasingly with conservation science to sort some of these things rather than a kind of mirror of post-production techniques which has often been the way. You know, so for something like A Man on the Beach that you could, don’t ask me how, but by some kind of research model and come up with a look-up table that gives you 1953 Kodak neg and print, you know, responses and then you feed in the faded…
PF: I was going to say something about that. The fact that a film, say, that was released in the ‘50s, a popular film which had re-releases throughout the decades, you know, kind of how that look has been generated over different periods. I suppose in that instance, yeah it would be good to kind of try and get back to those original techniques to get the most accurate representation.
KW: Yeah but you would always have to... there would always be “Ah yes, but…”, you know, I mean, just one example we were recently looking at all the print holdings we’ve got of Performance and we’re very fortunate. We have one of the three-sixty prints that were made, I don’t know this particular one, but in the ‘90s, earlyish ‘90s, from the camera negative I think. Anyway, let’s say it was a quality print. I’d better not say it was off the negative in case it wasn’t but it was a, you know, a very well… all those prints were well-made. But we’ve also got a kind of standard release print and we’ve got a Technicolor dye-transfer print from ’70. So, and guess what, the colours… now, you know, I know that you’re pretty interested in films that were shot on Eastman negative but released in dye-transfer and Eastmancolor print. It is quite a fascinating area actually. Would most people choose the Technicolor look because that’s, you know, the king of printing methods. Interesting point, but how many people actually saw a print like that? It’s, you know, you ask… you still will be faced with those… maybe they’re curatorial questions actually. Maybe they’re not technological and scientific, they’re maybe curatorial really.
PF: Right, shall we wrap it up there?