History caught on camera

30th July 2004 at 01:00
A National Lottery grant will make 400 hours of fragile film, showing aspects of our heritage, accessible to public viewing, says Douglas Blane

Something about old records seems to sustain youthful enthusiasm. Janet McBain, curator at the Scottish Screen Archive, has the positive outlook of someone who joined last week, though she has worked there since its 1976 start.

"It's the raw material," she says. "Everyone who works here falls in love with the old films and images. You never forget the day you first lay hands on a can with wonderful footage in it that no one has seen for 60 years."

The publicly funded national organisation possesses a growing collection of 15,000 films - mostly Scottish and mainly non-fiction - which it locates and preserves. It has a permanent staff of only nine at its Glasgow base, which means that, while each has specialist areas of expertise, they all tend to get involved in every aspect of the work. "That creates a real sense of engagement," says Ms McBain.

"We also give talks to community groups," she explains. "We might grumble about having to go out on a wet Tuesday night to talk to pensioners in a draughty church hall, but then you get the projector and screen set up and the lights go down, you start showing the film and you see the audience reaction, the obvious pleasure in their faces. Having had a hand in that gives you a real buzz."

The air of buoyancy at the Scottish Screen Archive is particularly noticeable just now owing to news of a pound;696,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a three-year project to make hundreds of hours of fragile film footage accessible to schools and researchers.

"We have a huge and valuable resource here that could be used right across the curriculum and at all levels of education but at the moment we can only provide access to 20 per cent of the films," says Ms McBain.

"So many of them are unique and very fragile. There is a risk in taking an old film out and putting it on a projector: it could get damaged and you'd lose the images for ever. So we have to make a copy if we're going to provide access."

The archive plans to use a professional piece of equipment that copies film to high quality video. A chemical bath will eliminate scratches and playing speed can be adjusted so that people and cars move normally.

"You can improve the contrast and correct for exposure faults and faded colours to get pin-sharp reproduction," she explains. "You can redress a lot of the ravages of time with a Telecine machine. And once you have the images on video you can easily produce DVDs."

The archive will use the Heritage Lottery Fund grant to contract the work to a specialist company in England. About 400 hours of film will then be available for the first time to schools, colleges and universities.

The process of selecting footage in the vaults with most appeal has already begun. "Later this year we will be appointing a permanent education officer, but in the meantime I've been talking to teachers to learn what they want," says Ms McBain.

"History teachers have been telling us there are classroom resources available on DVD but not with the Scottish slant that will engage their kids. That's exactly what we can provide. Take the Second World War: we have lots of images of the home front and soldiers going off to war."

Another educational nugget in the archive is a 1928 film of the Lochgelly annual old folks' outing, in which stern-faced ladies in their Sunday best troop past the camera, followed by bewhiskered men, to board the charabancs that took them the 14 miles to Crook o' Devon for the day.

"This is one of my favourites; it always gets a great reaction," says Ms McBain as she watches the village line the streets to wave at the departing open-topped vehicles with their rows of stiff and dignified elderly people staring straight ahead.

"It captures perfectly what life was like in Scotland in our grandmothers'

time. At one level this is pure entertainment; but it is also wonderful social history and gives a powerful sense of the strength of communities that have all but disappeared.

"Did you notice none of the women had teeth? Dentures were too expensive for working people and there was no National Health Service then."

Also among the archive's black and white treasures is footage of Hugh McDiarmid reading his own poetry and Joan Eardley creating her classic painting Street Kids. "We have lots of images relevant to Scots literature, language and art," says Ms McBain.

"The film collection can engage right across the curriculum. So we want to talk to teachers of all subjects and ask where they could use archive film.

Then we'll be working with teachers to produce packs that set the films in context and relate them to the curriculum."

Restoration of delicate film is also an important part of the project. The archive has identified a small number of films that are important to our national heritage but in very poor condition.

"We have the first film ever made in Scotland: scenes at Balmoral shot in 1896, with footage of Queen Victoria. It's very jerky and flickery and you just can't watch it. But there are sophisticated digital techniques that will let us stabilise the image," says Ms McBain.

Another film earmarked for special treatment is a trip to St Kilda in 1923, before the island was finally evacuated in 1930.

"It is a powerful, emotive film, but the emulsion is beginning to balloon off the celluloid and burst like a blister, so you get huge white blotches on screen. With digital restoration we can clone background images from clean frames."

Then there is the work of Margaret Tait, who made a series of film-poems in the 1960s, inspired by Orkney landscapes and culture. "One of her techniques was to paint directly on to film stock to create visual animations set to music. With digital techniques we can scan the originals and paint out the blemishes using the computer, particularly the effects of a fungus that's growing on the film and sinking its roots into the emulsion."

The resources needed for this work are expensive and the skill required to restore film frame by frame is scarce. In this case, the Scottish Screen Archive plans to buy the software and training and build on the expertise of its staff.

"This is cutting edge technology and we're absolutely delighted we are getting it," says Ms McBain. "It puts us at the leading edge of film archives internationally."

Scottish Screen Archive, Glasgow, tel 0141 337 7400www.scottishscreen.comTo comment on the selection of films for wider access, contact the curator, Janet McBain, tel 0141 302 1722, janet.mcbain@scottishscreen.com The job of education and access officer will be advertised in November

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