An interview with Bin Li, nitrate film specialist

Since July 2014, Bin Li has been working for Haghefilm Digitaal in Amsterdam, one of the most esteemed film preservation/restoration laboratories in the world. A graduate of the MA Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image course at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, he previously volunteered for EYE Film Instituut, where he identified and catalogued films in the famous Van Liemt collection. Apart from being a big talent in the film archiving field, Bin is a person who I’m happy to call a friend!

This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of interviews with people who work, in some capacity, with silent film.


All Wrong (US 1919)

Hi Bin! Can you talk a bit about your background, and how you got into this field of work?

My film background is in academia; I completed a Masters degree in film studies in London, at the University of Westminster. It was quite a diverse course: film theory was a major part of it, but it also covered film culture, a bit of film history.

And after that, you came to Amsterdam to study moving image preservation?

Yes, after I completed my Masters in London I was going to continue to a PhD, but there wasn’t funding available. I wrote my MA thesis on the history of early film archives, and that’s how I developed an interest in the preservation and archiving field. Then, I found out about the P&P course.

What about in China – were you studying film there?

No, nothing related to film. My university studies there were a long time ago: ten years or more. I actually studied soil and water conservation – not many people know that about me! I never worked in that field, though. I was always a film lover, always watching films – pirated DVDs in China. :) In China, I wasn’t happy with my job, and with the political situation – I wanted to leave, and I decided to pursue a passion.

So before, P&P, you hadn’t worked with film before?

 No, not at all. In China, I watched a lot of films and read film histories, but I had no practical experience. When I wrote my thesis for P&P on the Prizmacolor system, I did a lot of research at EYE and gained some film handling experience. Some time after that, staff at EYE decided to do vault control. Everyone could sign up for one day – I sent a sign up for the whole week. My team worked the fastest! The vault survey revealed so many decomposed nitrate reels, and EYE realized that they needed someone to work on this material – they asked me, and this formed part of my internship. For the other half of the internship, I was working with safety (acetate) material: identifying and registering material that had come from NIAf (the Nederlands Instituut voor Animatie Film), which had come to EYE when NIAf closed in 2013.

Can you tell more about your work with nitrate film at EYE?

 EYE doesn’t have a full-time nitrate archivist, so there was a big need for that work. My duties involved identifying films and registering them in their database. The first step is control – most films were not in good condition, so it was necessary to get them into a condition where they can be put into the vault. It was a matter of achieving control, then proceeding with identification and then registration. There are all kinds of issues with nitrate films, they might display multiple types of damage: organic (decomposition), mechanical (tears, breaks, etc), biological (mould), and corrosion (from the metal cans). I was also often condition reporting film, comparing prints, etc.

mould_sml  nitrate_decomp_2_smlMouldy film; decomposing nitrate.

When you were identifying films at EYE, what were some of favourite finds?

It’s a difficult question. There were some films that were really, really hard to identify, and I spent so much time, and then finally found out what it was – the films might not be that important or impressive, but I will always remember those. I was working with so many unique titles: any silent film you ID, there’s a big chance that it’s a lost film. I’m really proud that I identified so many Dutch films, even though I don’t speak Dutch!

LonChaney1_crop  LonChaney2_sml
Lon Chaney in All the Brothers were Valiant (US 1923)

The Lon Chaney film (All the Brothers were Valiant, US 1923) was the biggest one. Many people were interested, horror and scifi fans – it drew attention from beyond silent film communities. I found two reels of it, but hopefully the rest is out there. There are still around 1300 cans of film in that collection still to be examined in depth. The whole collection has been looked at, but very quickly, and usually by interns or amateurs, so there is more extensive work to be done.

Don’t forget Love, Life and Laughter (GB 1923), one of George Pearson’s films starring Betty Balfour! Your name didn’t make it into the press coverage, but you were the person who identified that film.

You’re currently working at Haghefilm; can you outline what kind of working you’re doing there? What does your typical workday look like?

 I specialize in working with nitrate; I work in the prep room, which is the first place any material comes to. We receive material from many different institutions, normally in quite good condition, but not always. I firstly examine the film: check the perfs, splices, and make repairs. The preparation of the film depends on the client’s request; whether they want a scan or a print, what kind of scanner they want, what kind of print. I put on in-house (Haghefilm) leaders, and clean the film – I tend to do this manually for nitrate. Shrinkage can be a problem; I measure that. I also check the framelines. We get some very damaged material; in that case, it’s a matter of seeing how much we can save.

With this kind of material, you probably spend quite a lot of time of repairing films.

Yes, I see some very, very damaged films. One film was extremely water-damaged, and very brittle – it would crumble on your fingertips. I think it took me three months to finish one reel! Not working on it full-time, of course, but when I had time around other work. It’s really fun to repair film. Lots of people are quite afraid of touching films! Having awareness about how to work with film in this way is good. Lots of these films, the ones dating from 100 years ago – most of them are unique copies. I’m touching a thing that only exists here.


An extremely damaged Russian film.

I’m wondering about the most common workflow; do clients usually want a scan, a photochemical dupe, or scan and Arrilaser back to film? What do you consider the optimal workflow?

It’s difficult to generalize – it depends on the budget and the importance of the film, and most archives don’t have a lot of funds available. For clients that do have a decent budget, they tend to make a dupe neg first – it’s easier to make a print, and the film is protected.

Regarding workflow – photochemical copying, contrary to popular opinion, is actually cheaper. And it’s more reliable – if you make a dupe negative and print, it lasts hundreds of years. Digital has many  advantages, but long-term accessibility is a concern. However, a digital workflow is the better choice for some materials – stencil colour, for example.

A travers la Creuse, l’Indre et la Haute-Vienne (Pathé-frères 1919)_crop

Pathé Frères film A travers la Creuse, l’Indre et la Haute-Vienne (FR 1919).

Is it mostly silent film you work on?

Yes, mostly – since I primarily work with nitrate. But if there is downtime between jobs, I work on other things, all different types of materials. Lots of filmmakers bring in their films, especially artists – this can be processing negatives and/or making preservation copies. It’s a wide range of work. I have done quite a lot of work on sound films from the 1930s and 1940s.

What is your favourite part of the job?

 The relationship between EYE and Haghefilm is great – you can learn all different practices, from both an archival and a lab point of view. You have an overall hub of restoration and preservation: because they’re just upstairs/downstairs from each other, technicians can talk to archivists and vice-versa. The relationship between Haghefilm and EYE is really unique, and good. Also, the EYE library is downstairs, which is really helpful for research.

I’m currently doing tests on cans for use with decomposing nitrate – I’ve been gathering data, and will be writing a paper on it. I’m really interested in this kind of research.

I find that a film archive and a lab have a completely different practice and work ethic – they’re totally different areas of knowledge. Paolo Cherchi Usai identified the four different types of roles in silent cinema study and restoration: film archivist, scholar, lab staff, audience. I think this is a very good framework, useful for looking at film; a person will have their priority, but it’s important to also consider different perspectives. Not many film archivists have the experience of working in a lab.

Very true, and I like the way you’ve framed that. Changing topic a bit – how did you become interested in silent film specifically?

When I was in China, I was watching lots of things: at first classics, but then expanded beyond that. I was also reading a lot of different film books. Gradually, I tried to see more silent films, and I found that silent film had already achieved everything! Later films don’t have that much innovation. In silent films, all kind of camera techniques and storytelling were already present. Then, working in this field, and going to Pordenone and Bologna – I got deeper and deeper into it.

Una notte a Calcutta (1918, Italy) Borelli crop

Lyda Borelli in Una notte a Calcutta (IT 1918)

Just a couple more questions! You’re a pretty big silent film fan – do you have any cinemas, actors, genres etc that you particularly love, or are interested in right now?

I like European silents more than American ones: Danish, Italian and all early cinema. I don’t like travelogue or documentary that much. EYE recently showed several films from the Jean Desmet collection that are really good: Filibus (IT 1915), Женщина завтрашнего дня | A Woman of Tomorrow (RU 1914), etc.

I love Filibus! In fact, I will be writing up that film next month. I also wanted to ask: as you’re Chinese, I was wondering about your thoughts on Chinese silent cinema. I have really liked the film I’ve seen – mostly from the ‘high silent’ era of the 1930s, e.g. films with Lili Li, Jin Yan, Wang Renmei, Ruan Lingyu, etc – the Lianhua productions.

Yes, the 1930s is the golden era of all Chinese cinema, and I love them too. But because of political reasons and poor care, so many are still unavailable – it’s a shame.

– – –

Thank you very much to Bin Li for the interview! Bin’s blog can be found here; all images shown above are from his blog.

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