Flammable film stock given £12m home

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,
Inside the old and new archives - and what can happen to poorly stored film

A state-of-the-art storage facility will soon ensure the most fragile items in the British Film Institute's film archive will be kept safe for future generations.

From the outside the building in Gaydon, Warwickshire looks like something out of a James Bond movie - a gleaming, hi-tech installation, implausibly sited in the middle of the rolling English countryside.

With its shiny metal portico, sloping roof and symmetrical concrete portals, it appears startlingly futuristic - the sort of edifice Ken Adam might have designed for Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove.

Yet this is not a film set but a movie archive, capable of storing more than 450,000 canisters of film in optimal environmental conditions.

Dotted around it are concrete bunkers that used to house something else entirely - nuclear bombs that might have been launched from nearby a RAF base, which is now defunct.

It is a location rich in history that, rather fittingly, now finds itself at the forefront of preserving it for future generations.

Welcome to the BFI's Master Film Store, a £12 million facility that will house some of the most valuable items in its national archive from September.


"The building is here to safeguard the nation's film and television heritage," says Heather Stewart, the BFI's creative director of public programming.

"Five years ago our national collection was in serious risk of being lost. Now it's not. It's safe."

Image caption,
The building will be able to store more than 450,000 film canisters

One reason for the archive's volatility is that much of it consists of nitrate film, an extremely flammable film stock that, once ignited, cannot be extinguished.

Nitrate fires are extremely rare. But in a building capable of storing 190,000 cans of the stuff, precautions have been taken to make one both unlikely and containable.

Along the two flanks of the building, 30 narrow nitrate "cells" have been constructed with pressure release panels on their exterior walls.

Should the unthinkable happen in one of these cells, the panel will drop to release the flames into the open air and prevent them spreading to its neighbours.

Six larger rooms within the structure will store cans containing "safety" film - less combustible stock, but prone to decay.

The entire building will be cooled to -5C and kept at 35% relative humidity - the best conditions possible, according to project manager Sarah-Jane Lucas.

"We need to keep the film below zero but also sufficiently dry," she says.

"As a result, we've needed to create a very sophisticated system of air conditional and environmental conditioning."

The science is as formidable as the battery of tubes, ducts and air conditioning units that adorn the roof and rear of the structure.

In layman's terms, they work together to create "a very air-tight box".

Original negatives

"We've managed to achieve 0.28 on the air permeability scale," Lucas says proudly. "It's highly insulated and sealed to a very high level."

Consequently, its architects are certain it will become the film archive against which all others will be measured.

"A lot of people want us to work with them on constructing something similar," says Ms Stewart.

Image caption,
Inside one of the 30 "cells" that will house flammable nitrate film

"In fact, a film-maker from Mali was with us recently wanting us to send Sarah-Jane out there to help them construct an archive."

So what exactly will be stored here?

"The very oldest film is footage of the 1895 Derby. That's as old as British film, almost any film, gets," explains Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive.

"We'll have original negatives of films such as Olivier's Henry V, Brighton Rock and Alfred Hitchcock's nine surviving silent films - fantastically rare material."

What the Master Film Store will do, says Mr Baker, is "add hundreds of years onto the life expectancy of those films".

"If we leave them as they are, they're just going to deteriorate more and more. What we will be doing is instantly halting any further degradation.

"Our ambition is not one of commerce, but of preservation. We want to look after the films and make them as accessible to the public as we can."

So would the BFI consider letting new films be shot at its latest pride and joy?

"That would be so much fun," says Ms Lucas.

Heather Stewart, though, has bad news for the brains behind the Bonds. "We can't be blowing it up so forget it," she says firmly.

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