The Genius of Hitchcock, BFI Southbank / London 2012 Festival

Two years ago the BFI initiated an enormous campaign to rescue Alfred Hitchcock’s nine out of ten silent films (his second film, The Mountain Eagle, is lost). The campaign is part of the Genius of Hitchcock programme that runs in London from this summer through to October for the London 2012 Festival.

Last weekend saw the last of four gala screenings of Hitchcock silents, launching a full retrospective of the work directed by the master of suspence at the BFI Southbank. The new and digitally restored 1926 Hitchcock film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, which screened at the Barbican Centre last Saturday, was dazzling. A glittering eyes Ivor Novello and Miss June and the wonderfully toned and tinted in blue and amber night-time sequences were accompanied by a newly commissioned score by Nitin Sawhney, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra including dreamy vocals by Nicki Wells and Sam Carter from Sawhney’s band.
Guest Editor|Georgia Korossi – writer & curator based in London & Athens.

REVma -/+ met with the BFI’s Curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon, to talk about what it takes to oversee this major restoration project of Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, honouring the wealth of his creative genius.

REVma -/+: What was the inspiration behind the Rescue the Hitchcock 9 campaign?
B.D.: We decided to restore all nine surviving Hitchcock silent films to mark the occasion of the 2012 celebrations because he is our most revered filmmaker. Namely we worked on The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Downhill, Easy Virtue, The Ring, The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne, The Manxman and Blackmail (silent version).

REVma -/+: What does it involve to screen a Hitchcock feature with footage in the correct order and how long did it take?
B.D.: This is a complex procedure requiring a large team of specialists. The technical team is led by Kieron Webb and myself as lead curator. Much of the digital work is supervised by Deluxe, our commercial digital restoration partner. Work began two years ago and will continue through 2012. It begins with a worldwide search for all surviving elements of Hitchcock’s nine surviving films and research into the films themselves. Then all the different negatives and prints are examined frame by frame to identify the best material to use as a source (this takes weeks). From this work we create a decoupage, which is a list of individual shots that we use to construct the edit. This requires some difficult decisions where material is missing or where we have no material to act as a guide to tell us what the original continuity was.

REVma -/+: Which of Hitchcock’s films was the most challenging and why?
B.D.: Champagne was the most difficult in this respect as only one original element survived which we believe to be a 2nd negative: that is one constructed from alternate shots and used as a back up in case of damage to the main negative or possibly to make export versions. Once all this is done the correct film elements are scanned on a digital scanner (also a long job) and then the digital restoration starts. This includes stabilising of the image, remaking the intertitles using alphabet constructed from the originals, re framing, grading (again many weeks of work is involved in getting the balance of B/W and midtones across the image and between all the shots in the film). Colour is applied if relevant, based on measurements of original tinted and toned prints and our experience of colour schemes and recipes in this era.

REVma -/+: What does it take to have a pristine new film?
B.D.: During this process a team of restorers remove damage, dirt and scratches as far as is possible and without compromising the look of the original film. Damage that is printed through from a previous element is left as this belongs to the artefact. Then remade titles are filmed and printed on 35mm to create some movement and grain, then scanned and reincorporated into the timeline. A series of reviews take place throughout where curators make small decisions with the technical team on work yet to do. Finally the digital files are used to make the ‘deliverables’ – HD tapes, DCPS, reference files and DVDs, and then filmed out to create a new preservation negative and 35mm prints.

REVma -/+: Who in your opinion is the most influential Hitchcock collaborator from his crew and why?
B.D.: His wife Alma Reville was undoubtedly his most important and influential collaborator. She was a talented filmmaker in her own right and worked on many films both with her husband and separately. Like Alfred, she was particularly good at scripting and adapting work for the practical process of filming to create efficient and elegant filmmaking solutions. They worked together for some years before they married and then they worked together on all his films and some of her solo projects – talking through the day’s work and preparing scripts in the evenings over dinner. Hitchcock checked everything with Alma and he called her his harshest critic but this was because he trusted her judgment absolutely.

You can start your journey step-by-step through the work of cinema’s master of suspense by visiting the BFI’s online platform and explore his genius on the big screen at BFI Southbank from 1 August.