That's not a film - this is a film.

Science and art come to the rescue of Australian cinema classics

The Age: 17th December 2005

Restorers scoured the world to save even recent movies from fading away, reports Steve Dow.

IN 1998, 20 years after Australian director Phillip Noyce's feature Newsfront was released to acclaim, an old print was shown at the Sydney Film Festival. Noyce was shocked. "It looked like some strange Eastern European film of the 1960s," says the filmmaker who also made Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American. "It was all washed out. We were astounded it had deteriorated so much."

Noyce's film about the dying years of Australia's movie newsreel makers of the 1940s and '50s - interwoven with newsreel footage from that postwar era - was disintegrating rapidly. And many important Australian films - some just a few decades old, such as Peter Weir's feature debut The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Fred Schepisi's The Devil's Playground (1976), Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) and Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant (1980) - were facing the same fate.

Even Peter Faiman's Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Jane Campion's Sweetie (1989) were in need of restoration.

Noyce's decision to save Newsfront prompted the national archive in 2000 to launch an ambitious program to save dozens more Australian films from oblivion.

"It's not necessarily that these films need to be salvaged because they're great works of art or they were commercially successful, although many were," says Noyce. "It's because they are a living window, a time machine, into our past."

So for five years the national archive has teamed with Kodak and the technical experts at Sydney's Atlab laboratory to restore early movies by Noyce, Beresford, Armstrong, Schepisi, Weir and others. The project has so far reinvigorated - and saved - 50 important Australian films made between 1955 and 1992. The cost to the national archive and Kodak/Atlab is close to $2 million, a figure that doesn't count additional hours of work donated by technicians and the filmmakers themselves.

This week the collaboration announced that another 25 films would be restored to cinema quality in the project's second phase. Only one film, Ray Lawrence's Bliss (1985), has so far been named. A panel of experts has yet to decide the remaining 24.

The project has produced new cinema-quality prints of once imperilled films, but, more importantly, Atlab has also produced new negatives of many of the films, ensuring their preservation. Atlab project manager Dominic Case, who worked on some of the films in the 1970s and more recently on their restoration, says original negatives and duplicate negatives had to be tracked down from around the world, because prints would never have produced quality copies.

The restoration of the 50 - soon to be 75 - films has involved colour "regrading"; fine-tuning the colours and lighting to overcome fading. While it is often difficult to know what an old film's cinematographer intended with colour and lighting, many of the restored films benefited when Atlab brought Arthur Cambridge - a "colour grader" technician on about two-thirds of the 50 original films - out of retirement to work on the restorations. "His memory was like a musician," says Case. "Pitch perfect." The work also involved upgrading mono soundtracks to stereo and occasional digital work to repair scratches and blemishes.

The importance of the project can't be overstated, says Australian cinematographer Russell Boyd, whose body of work includes Noyce's first feature, Backroads (1977), and Armstrong's first film, The Singer and the Dancer (also 1977), both of which have been restored in the project. "If the negatives fade too far, they will disappear, and disappear forever," says Boyd, who also worked on Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. Weir recently created a new negative and print at his own expense when he edited a (shortened) director's cut of the 1975 classic.

Colour dyes in film negatives simply fade, even those made today, but more so in film stock of past decades, says Boyd. Think of your own photo album, he says, where the images of family and friends turn pale with time. If left, says Boyd, a film negative becomes "grey, muddy, milky".

Simon Burke, who was 13 when he played Tom Allen in Schepisi's The Devil's Playground, is looking forward to seeing the remastered film - and is shocked that he is old enough to have appeared in a film needing restoration. At a time when Australian films are emerging from a long slump in quality and box office takings, "any initiative which allows us to take pride in our recent past, in Australian stories, is important", he says.

Australia has for decades failed to force film producers to preserve their movies, with negatives and duplicate negatives often left neglected on dusty shelves, in attics or even in garages.

Since 1993, both the Film Finance Corporation Australia and the Australian Film Commission have made it a condition of financing that at least one good quality print of new films must be donated to the national archive - the negative or duplicate negative can be lodged, but it is not mandatory. Case hopes that the Federal Government will legislate to force producers to lodge a copy of their film with the archive.

Of the 50 films chosen for restoration, Newsfront was the toughest to pull together. Phillip Noyce and the movie's original assistant film editor, Frans Vandenburg, who was primarily responsible for remastering Newsfront, combed archives in Sydney, Canberra, Paris, New York and London for negatives and duplicate negatives. Vandenburg says "a very recent and crucial period of film history was potentially not accessible, not only through the ravages of time, changes in technology, cost, but politics and legal battles as well".

The last duplicate negatives were found in the warehouse of a Panamanian shelf company in Pasadena, California, buckled from the heat and suffering severe water erosion. Many Australian films, including Newsfront and My Brilliant Career, were sold as a job lot to an obscure Los Angeles company, necessitating a protracted legal battle to get the copyright back. Vandenburg says the hunt for the Newsfront material nearly "drove me crazy". Finally, a "treasure trove" of 11 35-millimetre master mix reels, discovered in the back room of New Yorker Films in Manhattan, were crucial to recreating sound negatives and completing the film's soundtrack.

Noyce says the film now has a "more seamless and integrated look". For instance, a pivotal black-and-white scene, the recreation of the 1954 Maitland floods - interspersed with flood footage from four other sources - holds together more neatly than it did in the original print. Films such as Newsfront now have the potential for new commercial life because of the restoration process, says Noyce, combined with a greater hunger for films through DVD, the internet, cable and satellite television and video-on-demand technology. Noyce says Australians are proud of their film heritage. "Our movies have defined the Australian soul. That's why we need to preserve them."


27A, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Alvin Purple, Backroads, The Big Steal, Bliss, Breaker Morant, Buddies, The Cars that Ate Paris, Crocodile Dundee, Crystal Voyager, The Devil's Playground, Don's Party, FJ Holden, The Getting of Wisdom, Goodbye Paradise, Greetings from Wollongong, Jedda, The Killing of Angel Street, Lonely Hearts, Love Letters from Teralba Road, The Man from Snowy River, The Man from Hong Kong, The Money Movers, Morning of the Earth, My Brilliant Career, Newsfront, Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, The Night the Prowler, The Odd Angry Shot, Oz, Palm Beach, Petersen, The Picture Show Man, Pure Shit, Return Home, The Singer and the Dancer, Stir, Storm Boy, Sunday Too Far Away, Sweetie, The Club, They're A Weird Mob, Walk into Paradise, We of the Never Never, Wrong Side of the Road, The Year My Voice Broke, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, You Can't See 'Round Corners, Journey Among Women, Mad Dog Morgan


MOVIES made using film stock are susceptible to several types of damage including scratching, tearing, decomposition and colour fading. Film repairs include: splice repair, perforation repair and repairing tears in film. The work is time consuming, detailed and costly and often several negatives of any particular movie also need to be tracked down.