Our improving pictures

by Steve Dow
Sun Herald: 8th January 2006

They typify the humour and soul of a nation, but many of Australia's greatest films are literally fading away. Steve Dow looks at an ambitious project to save them. IN 1998, 20 years after Australian director Phillip Noyce's feature Newsfront was released, an old print was shown at the Sydney Film Festival. Noyce was aghast. "It looked like some strange Eastern European film of the 1960s," says the filmmaker, who in more recent times has directed 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 - woven with newsreel footage from that postwar era - was disintegrating in the manner of many local films made as recently as the 1970s and '80s, which were shot on film stock prone to fading and scratching.

Many important Australian films just a few decades old, such as Peter Weir's 1974 feature debut The Cars That Ate Paris, 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, released in 1986, and Jane Campion's Sweetie, from 1989, were in need of restoration.

Noyce decided to save Newsfront in collaboration with the movie's original assistant film editor, Frans Vandenburg. Splitting the cost of an international search for duplicate negatives and the restoration with Canberra's National Film and Sound Archive, prompted the national archive to launch, in 2000, an ambitious program to save dozens more Australian films. "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," Noyce says. "It's because they are a living window, a time machine into our past."

So, for the past five years, the national archive has teamed with Kodak and the technical experts at Sydney's Atlab laboratory to restore the formative features of Noyce, Beresford, Armstrong, Schepisi, Weir et al. The project has so far reinvigorated - and quite literally saved - 50 important Australian films made between 1955 and 1992. The cost to the national archive and Kodak/Atlab is close to $2 million, but that figure doesn't account for additional hours clocked up by technicians and the filmmakers themselves who regard the project as a labour of love.

In mid-December it was announced that 25 more 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, with a panel of experts 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 brand new negatives of many of the films, ensuring their future preservation. Atlab project manager Dominic Case, who worked on many of the films originally in the 1970s and more recently 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.

Australia, with virtually no movie studio system, has for decades failed to force film producers to preserve their movies, thus negatives and duplicate negatives are often left neglected on dusty shelves, in attics or even in garages. Since 1993, the Film Finance Corporation Australia and the Australian Film Commission have made it a condition of financing contracts with producers 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 this is not mandatory. Case says it is hoped that in the future the Federal Government will legislate to force a greater number of producers to lodge a copy of their film with the archive - possibly a print, though a negative or duplicate negative would be preferable.

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 out of retirement Arthur Cambridge, who was a "colour grader" technician on about two-thirds of the 50 original films. "His memory was like a musician's," Case says. "Pitch perfect." The work also involved upgrading mono soundtracks to a stereo remastering, and occasional digital enhancement to wipe out scratches and blemishes.

The importance of the project can't be overstated, says famed Australian cinematographer Russell Boyd, whose large body of work includes Noyce's first feature Backroads (1977) and Armstrong's first film, the 50-minute The Singer And The Dancer, 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 classics including Picnic At Hanging Rock. Weir recently created a new negative and print at his own cost 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, Boyd adds.

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 shocked that he is old enough to have appeared in a film needing restoration. At a time when drama on television is falling and Australian films are only just emerging from their box office slump, "any initiative which allows us to take pride in our recent past, in Australian stories, is important".

Of the 50 films, Newsfront was the toughest to pull together. Noyce (above) and Frans Vandenburg, the latter primarily responsible for remastering the much-lauded film, combed archives for the negatives and duplicate negatives in Sydney, Canberra, Paris, New York and London. 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 and cost, but through 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 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, found in the backroom of New Yorker Films in Manhattan, were a crucial find for creating sound negatives and completing the film's soundtrack.

Noyce says the film has a "more seamless and integrated look". For instance, a pivotal black and white scene, the recreation of the 1954 Maitland floods, which is 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, Noyce says, combined with a greater hunger for films through DVD, the internet, cable and satellite television and video on demand technology.

Noyce says Australians are "rather proud" of their film heritage. "Together with the more obvious definitions provided by sports, our movies have defined the Australian soul," he says. "That's why we need to preserve them."


Some of the 51 National Film and Sound Archive Kodak/Atlab Cinema Collection films:

* The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie
* Backroads
* 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
* Jedda
* The Love Letters From Teralba Road
* The Man From Snowy River
* My Brilliant Career
* Newsfront
* Storm Boy
* Sunday Too Far Away
* Sweetie
* The Club
* They're A Weird Mob
* We Of The Never Never
* The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith
* Mad Dog Morgan