Since the mid-1980s, the BFI has been the custodian of the vast British Transport Films (BTF) collection, preserving the films in the BFI National Archive and publishing curated selections of the work on its cinema screens, in its Mediatheques, and on DVD.
The BTF was established in 1949 by the newly formed British Transport Commission following the nationalisation of public transport by the Attlee government. Over the next 40 years it produced films covering all aspects of Britain’s transport infrastructure, from internal training films through to promotional films about Britain’s trains, buses and waterways. Under the leadership of Edgar Anstey (a protégé of John Grierson), the BTF became one of the most highly regarded film units in the world, and certainly one of the most prolific.
Over the years there has grown an insatiable appetite for BTF films among film buffs, travel enthusiasts and social historians; not only are the films often stunningly well made and stylistically accomplished (Anstey employed the best British filmmakers of the day), they also provide a fascinating insight into Britain’s industrial, cultural, social and political history.
While Volumes 1 to 9 of the BTF collection have largely focused on Britain’s national rail networks, with the Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee, 2012 seemed a good time for a DVD edition that presents BTF films about the capital’s bus and underground train networks. London Transport was in fact the BTF’s second biggest internal customer (after National Rail), with the BTF producing training films for LT staff and promoting their work to a huge commuter population.
As a DVD & Blu-ray producer, it was my job to transform this idea into a fully-fledged two-disc DVD edition. This process included programming a selection of films that conveys the full breadth and excellence of the films the BTF made for LT; ensuring that the chosen films look good on screen and are sourced from the best master materials available; working with our technical team on any new film transfer work that may need to be done; drawing on expertise both within the BFI and beyond to create an informative and enjoyable DVD booklet; and working with our artwork designer on creating attractive, appealing packaging for the release.
After a series of screenings and working closely with my colleagues in DVD and the BFI non-fiction curatorial team, I eventually settled on 15 titles for the release. Spanning the years 1951 to 1983, the selection represents the best of the BTF/LT output; from stylish, colourful promotional documentaries such as Overhaul (1957) and All That Mighty Heart (1963) through to more restrained but no less fascinating instructional training films (Our Canteens, 1951), and informative newsreels (Cine Gazette No.10, 1951).
The lion’s share of films the BTF made for LT are preserved by the London Transport Museum and I worked closely with their film curator Simon Murphy to access the best film elements from their vaults in Acton for transferring to high definition. I also set about researching what film elements were held in the BFI National Archive.
Between the two archives, we were able to source a raft of negatives and prints for transfer and, with the exception of five titles, all of the films presented on the release have been newly mastered in high definition. This work was taken forward by the BFI’s technical producer Doug Weir, who oversaw the new transfers at the Soho-based post-production facility Deluxe 142, working with Trevor Brown, who graded each film.
After consulting with my BFI colleague Tony Dykes, our in-house expert on the Central Office of Information collection, we decided to include the COI/LT production Moving Millions (1947) on the release. A charming promotional film illustrating the full scope of London Transport’s activities at their most extensive, the film made for an ideal ‘extra’ on the release. Luckily, we had a good quality digi-beta master of the film ideal for DVD production, which had originally been created for use on the BFI’s Screenonline website.
Once the film selection had been made, I settled on a running order and moved to the next stages of the production process – the encoding, authoring and menu design. This is essentially where we build the DVD discs, and for this we worked with an external partner, the digital media logistics company re:fine. We provided their team with the HD and digi-beta masters which they then encoded for DVD, maintaining as high a ‘bit-rate’ as possible, so as to maximize picture quality. They also designed the DVD’s moving menus. With these components they then built the discs, before sending over ‘approval discs’ for us to watch. Once a few corrections were made to the discs’ menus and navigation, we were able to sign off on the project and deliver it for manufacturing.
For each BFI DVD & Blu-ray release, we produce booklets which include film notes, essays, stills and technical information. For this booklet I chose to have the voice of a film specialist sit alongside that of someone who had an in-depth knowledge of the workings of London Transport. I gained invaluable help throughout the process of producing this release from Stephen Edwards of the London Bus Preservation Trust; he provided me with hugely knowledgeable, detailed notes on each of the films presented on the discs.
Patrick Russell, the BFI’s senior curator (non-fiction) wrote an introductory essay for the booklet explaining how the BTF was formed and how it came to produce films for London Transport. I then worked with our artwork manager, Paul Fairclough, on choosing a selection of stills and screen-grabs for use in the booklet, and on the DVDs’ labels and sleeve (I was pleased to be able to feature my local bus, the 73, on the artwork for disc one.) After a few final tweaks to the sleeve copy, and one last check of the technical specs, the artwork was signed off and delivered for printing.
BTF Volume 10: London on the Move was released this week, and I look forward to getting stuck in to producing future volumes. It is a joy to work with these fascinating films, and I’m pleased to report there is still a wealth of untapped BTF content held within the BFI National Archive.