Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger

By Professor Sarah Street, Professor of Film and Foundation Chair of Drama, School of Arts

From October to December 2023, the British Film Institute (BFI) curated a special UK-wide season of screenings and events to celebrate the work of visionary British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In a partnership spanning thirty-three years and twenty-four films, Powell and Pressburger transformed cinema with their bold storytelling and vivid cinematography, most notably in The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. As an academic specialist on British cinema history, Professor Sarah Street participated in several of the events and here tells us about her contributions.

To mark the opening of the Cinema Unbound season, the BFI published The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger, a superbly illustrated book co-edited by Nathalie Morris and Claire Smith. This includes a chapter by Sarah Street on the filmmakers’ extraordinary use of Technicolor which draws on research arising from several major projects on colour films led by Sarah Street and funded by the AHRC and Leverhulme Trust. It was also informed by her in-depth study of Black Narcissus which features with a link to a chapter in the BFI/Bloomsbury’s Screen Studies online publication on Powell and Pressburger. The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger includes many sumptuous images showcasing an extraordinary range of original set and costume designs, photographs and objects, many of which are in the BFI’s own archives. The book was launched at the BFI Southbank in conjunction with the opening of a major exhibition on The Red Shoes. A special cake was made to mark the occasion.

As part of the Powell and Pressburger season the BFI held several discussions on fascinating dimensions of their work. Sarah Street contributed to ‘Centre Stage: The leading women of Powell and Pressburger’, appearing alongside Professor Lucy Bolton (Queen Mary, University of London), critic, writer and historian Pamela Hutchinson and writer Lillian Crawford. The second panel discussion was ‘Queering Powell and Pressburger’, with Dr Andrew Moor (Manchester Metropolitan University), Emma Smart, Director of Collections, Learning and Engagement at the BFI, and Zorian Clayton, Curator of Prints at the V&A and BFI Flare programmer. Each panelist chose extracts from a selection of Powell and Pressburger’s films which illustrated many key themes. These included queer perspectives on the films, offering fresh understandings of iconic performances by well-known actors such as Anton Walbrook and Ruth Byron, and British character actors such as Charles Hawtrey and Judith Furse.

Professor Sarah Street (third from left) participates in a panel discussion on the theme of ‘British Blonde’

Sarah Street is currently collaborating with Claire Smith, Senior Curator of Special Collections at the BFI and Professor Melanie Bell, University of Leeds on a three-year research project, ‘Film Costumes in Action’, funded by the AHRC. She also recently contributed to a panel discussion held at the V&A in connection with a series of lectures by art historian Professor Lynda Nead, Birkbeck, University of London, funded by the Paul Mellon Centre. These were on the theme of ‘British Blonde’, focusing on four celebrated, notorious blonde women: Diana Dors, Ruth Ellis, Barbara Windsor and Pauline Boty. Filmmakers Catherine Grant and John Wyver made four video essays in response to the lectures which were discussed in the last session of the series by Sarah Street and Professor Melanie Williams, University of East Anglia.

Professor Sarah Street is Professor of Film and Foundation Chair of Drama in the Department of Film and Television. A member of our Screen Research Group, Sarah has published widely on British cinema history and the importance of preserving colour film in the archives. To find out more about Sarah’s research, including her current AHRC investigation into ‘Film Costumes in Action’, please email

World Day for Audiovisual Heritage 2020

The United Nations (UN) designates 27 October as the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, a day to acknowledge the importance of audiovisual content and raise awareness of the need to preserve it. A priceless heritage, audiovisual archives tell stories about people from across the globe, and act as a valuable source of knowledge reflecting the cultural, social and linguistic diversity of our communities. As the UN states, ‘Conserving this heritage and ensuring it remains accessible to the public and future generations is a vital goal for all memory institutions, as well as the public at large.’

To find out more about the challenges and rewards of archiving audiovisual content, we asked Audiovisual Digitisation Officer Nigel Bryant to tell us about his work at the University.

A few days ago I spotted this tweet by @martinianpaul: “We have books from 600 years ago we can still read; we have discs and tapes from 30 years ago we can’t. Should we be worried? #obsolescense.” The answer is, of course, yes.

The majority of audiovisual formats have a finite life and for many, particularly magnetic tapes, that life is coming to an end. Add to this the scarcity of obsolescent equipment required to play back these formats, engineers with the skill to maintain the equipment, and operators with the experience of working with them, and you have what some might describe as a ‘perfect storm’.

In my role as Audiovisual Digitisation Officer, I work across the University’s Special Collections and Theatre Collection on archive projects funded by the Wellcome Trust that include significant quantities of AV material. The most prevalent format is the videotape – from the familiar domestic VHS to professional broadcast standards like Digital Betacam.

My aim is twofold:

  • to transform the magnetically stored information (i.e. picture, sound, timecodes and other ancillary information) from these tapes into digital files so that they can be easily accessed and viewed
  • to preserve the endangered content of these tapes in a stable lossless form (i.e. at the highest possible quality). There will come a time when the physical medium is unplayable, so the digital file will be the only preserved master copy of the original contents

Photograph of Franko B and Marina Abramovic, a still from a Franko B home movie, June 2004
Franko B with Marina Abramovic (still from Franko B home movie, June 2004)

I worked recently on the audiovisual archive of visual artist Franko B, which is held by the Theatre Collection as part of its extensive range of Live Art material. In addition to live performances of Franko’s work, due to his habit of carrying a digital video camera with him at all times, the collection includes home movies which give a fascinating insight into his life, loves and inspirations.

The fact that this material was filmed largely on Mini DV tape means that, with the correct equipment and software, I can make an exact copy of the digital information stored on the tape in a digital file. As well as picture and sound that match the original tape with no quality loss, the resulting file can capture metadata such as dates, timecodes, and even the original settings from the camera used to film the material.

It’s a highly rewarding process to be able to preserve audiovisual material for posterity, but one that doesn’t come without its challenges. Nearly all tapes have their own quirks; for instance, Mini DV tape is thin/fragile and prone to digital dropout errors, while VHS tapes (due to their domestic nature) can suffer the effects of poor storage such as physical damage and mould. In addition to this, there is the general loss over time of the magnetic signal from tape and temperamental playback machines that can decide to suddenly stop working overnight. Luckily, there is a very supportive community online with discussion groups like AVhackers and OldVTRS which are an invaluable source of information and tips.

Photo of screen showing digitisation of early footage of Sir David Attenborough
Digitising early footage of Sir David Attenborough from the Wildfilm archive

I’m currently working on the Wildfilm History archive for Special Collections. The audiovisual material contains a wide selection of the most important wildlife films of the last hundred years or so, along with filmed oral histories of pioneering wildlife filmmakers. Bringing such a wealth of material together from a range of broadcasters and filmmakers will provide a valuable source for research related to the environment, zoology, botany, film making and broadcasting. Interacting with nature through viewing it on film has been proven to have positive effects on our mental health, so that’s another bonus of this collection.

Two 16mm films made by Dr Harry Lillie, Naval surgeon and early anti-whaling activist, were a particularly exciting discovery. ‘They Have No Say’ (1964) and ‘Trappers’ Trails’ (1952) are very early examples of anti-vivisection and anti-fur trapping on film and could potentially be unique holdings as they do not exist in the British Film Institute’s (BFI) collection or elsewhere. As we don’t yet possess the equipment to digitise celluloid film, both have been recently digitised to archival standards by a specialist external supplier and will be available for researchers to view in the near future.

Photo showing a selection of equipment in the AV Digitisation Studio at the Theatre Collection
A selection of equipment in the AV Digitisation Studio at the Theatre Collection

We only have a short window of time – perhaps 10-20 years – to ensure the survival of the contents of magnetic tape-based media collections. Celluloid film and audio tape both have national initiatives run by the BFI and British Library to preserve those portions of the UK’s cultural heritage. Videotape is the last of the major AV formats to be afforded this special treatment, making its preservation particularly important and urgent. As the title of an ongoing series of international symposia on digital audiovisual preservation rightly states, there is ‘No Time to Wait’.

by Nigel Bryant, Audiovisual Digitisation Officer

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today, 9 August, marks the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, raising awareness of the needs of indigenous people across the globe.

Dr Camilla Morelli, a lecturer in social anthropology here at the University of Bristol, has been working with indigenous communities in Amazonian Peru for over a decade. Here we learn more about her most recent piece of research.

Amazonimations – co-producing animated films with indigenous people in Amazonia

Amazonimations is a collection of three animated films produced collaboratively with the indigenous Matses people of the Amazon rainforest. The films are the outcome of a research project (funded by the British Academy) that brought together academic research, art and animation with the objective of using collaborative film production as a means through which people living at the margins of technological and economic inclusion can find forms of self-representation and gain a sense of wider recognition.

Like many other indigenous societies, Matses people had no contact with outsiders until fairly recently, and they are now dealing with the challenges of urbanisation, socioeconomic change, and the impact of globalised media and markets. Amidst the difficulties they face, a key issue is the feeling of being largely unheard and cut out from wider society; their goal, as they phrased it, is for the world to know who they are. In each animated short, a different generation of Matses tells a story: the elderly talk about the traditional ritual of ‘acate’, an intoxicating substance that is said to create a connection between people and the forest; Matses children tell a story about rainforest animals and spirits; and young Matses who migrated from the forest to the city discuss their experiences of adjusting to urban life.

This work is quintessentially collaborative – the films have been scripted, narrated and illustrated by Matses people themselves, and the overall goal of this is to disseminate the animations widely in order to raise awareness about threatened indigenous lives and their precarious futures. Learn more about the Matses people and their culture by watching Amazonimations on Vimeo.