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Archives: A New Frontier (for some…)

Beth Darbyshire is a participant on Creative Skillset’s Media Archive Traineeship 2016, a partnership with Film London and FOCAL International. She gives us an insider’s view on the traineeship, and shares some photos from Instagram @thecuriousarchivist.

Beth DarbyshireThis year’s Media Archive Traineeship kicked off in June with 16 individuals of varying experiences and ambitions set to learn about the world of media archives. I am one of them. After an exhaustive, often frustrating search to find ways to learn the specifics of how motion picture film, video and sound are cared for in an archive setting, I found Creative Skillset’s programme. This paid traineeship is truly unique in this country and has allowed me and my fellow trainees the opportunity to engage with media archives through classroom-based learning, immersive professional events, mentoring from industry experts and practical skills on the job.

Back to School

The classroom element of the traineeship is as intense as you’d expect, condensing over a century’s worth of technical, theoretical, and practical information into a few weeks. Knowledgeable guest speakers coupled with visits to the BFI, Sky News, Prime Focus and The Imperial War Museum set the pace – followed by a 5-day crash course in film industry schmoozing at Sheffield Doc Fest. The intent is to show just how broad the career directions are within archives. The hardest part is narrowing the field.

To help with the barrage of possibility, Creative Skillset has paired us with mentors for the duration of the traineeship; industry pros that have taken us under their wing and offered sagely guidance. I am fortunate enough to have David Walsh, Head of Digital Collections at the Imperial War Museums, as my sensei. David’s top-shelf archive experience and connections within the sector provide a measure of focus and have helped me to wade through the technical information and differing opinions that come from all directions.

Film cans motion picture

The industry placements are tailored towards your individual interests, whether it be cerebral archiving skills (curation and programming) to the more tactile and technical (film handling and digitisation). My interest leans toward the technical side, so for my first placement I have been sent to Deluxe to work within their restoration department in London. Though this placement is not at an archive, they regularly handle archive media and interact with archivists. The steep, jargon-laced learning curve has been challenging but very interesting. I’ve been in good hands – the team is made up of seasoned professionals with an excellent overview of how the film industry has evolved in the last few decades.

My first few weeks saw me caring and repairing for incoming films (16mm and 35mm) of varying sources and conditions. The care of archival films may lack the glamour of the forward facing part of restoration in the commercial sector, but is a vital part of the process, linking past photochemical craft to current digital artistry.

As I have moved through the restoration workflow, I have started to find practical applications for concepts that have stumped me the past – like the physics of colour, gamma, and colour spaces. I have finally come face to face with the fabled celestial look of nitrate, the powdery colours of Kodachrome and the heady saturation of Technicolor. That’s the thing with archive moving image, beyond the satisfying detective work and creative problem solving, you will certainly find magic and inspiration.

‘Future Proofing’

35mm motion pictureRestoration is a costly enterprise and the attention to detail required to remaster motion picture is - quite frankly - astonishing, with some projects taking months of constant work from many individuals to complete.

While it sounds somewhat mercenary, it can be argued that the symbiosis between the commercial film industry and archives is key, generating interest in covert collections and ensuring that this material is preserved for posterity.
It has been interesting to see old and new technologies co-existing. This brings up a host of questions about how archives can best serve an art form that has fundamentally changed course; should traditional film and its modern counterpart be viewed as singular rather than competing media?

The last few months working at Deluxe has convinced me that my success as a media archivist is dependent on the relationship between the motion picture industry and film archives, as is an understanding of the highly collaborative nature of film production and its laboratory roots.

I would encourage anyone interested in this field but unsure how to get that ‘foot in the door’ to keep their eyes open for the next Media Archive Traineeships to be announced.

About the Media Archive Traineeships

This programme is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by Creative Skillset’s Film Skills Fund, funded by the BFI. Our partners are Film London and FOCAL International.

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