Restoration and preservation: forever young

Wake In Fright- a restorationMore than simply making sure we can always wawtch old films, to preserve a classic piece of Australian cinema or television is to preserve a piece of the country’s history. Paul Hayes writes.

An audiovisual work is a portrait of a certain time and place, not only of those who produced it, but also of those for whom it  was intended.
The National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) is at the forefront of preserving our audiovisual legacy, and the decision as to what will or won’t be preserved is predicated largely on the idea of safeguarding history.

“Decisions are made on the basis cultural significance, historical significance and a sense of capturing not only creative work, but works which represent a snapshot of Australian society,” NFSA senior curator of documents and artefactsGraham Shirley told Encore. “Obviously certain films do that much better than others, but every feature film produced in the country is a reflection of both perceived audience tastes, as well as the sensibilities of the people who have made these films.”

Film restoration and preservation become a particularly timely topic with the successful and high-profile re-release of what had for decades been the country’s lost film classic, Wake in Fright. Originally released in 1971 to critical raves and a box office whimper, the original print was thought to be lost until the film’s original editor, Tony Buckley, tracked it to Pittsburgh in the USA, in a vault marked for destruction.

It was then given a time-consuming and expensive frame-by-frame digital restoration at the Sydney-based post-production house, Deluxe (formerly ATLAB). The result is a film that looks and sounds better today than it ever would have in the past.

The story behind its rescue and resurrection should be enough, but Wake in Fright is a brilliantly savage portrayal of outback life that few have had the courage to show, before or since, and is exactly the kind of snapshot of Australian society that Shirley is talking about.

“It has a credibility and a consistency which has a considerable impact,” he said.

“It is a very revealing, quite potent snapshot of a section of Australian life from the early 70s, and there are many people, (star) Jack Thompson included, who claim that there are sections of Australia, particularly the outback, which have not changed.”

So successful was the film’s restoration that it was screened in the Classics section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in competition in 1971, and also at last month’s Sydney Film Festival and this


The NFSA is not alone in recognising the importance of preserving Australian film, both as an art form as a cultural and historical document. The post-production facility that worked on Wake in Fright, Deluxe, works with various other people and organisations who want to see Australian audiovisual history preserved.

In 2002 and in conjunction with the NFSA, Deluxe began the Deluxe Kodak project, which saw the facility restore 50 films over five years, including Malcolm, Sunday Too Far Away, and A Street to Die.

Deluxe general manager Anthos Simon recognised the importance of the work, which saw people often giving up their own time to complete it.

“What we are doing is giving up our time, hard work hard work, but we did it and there are a lot of great classic Australian films that have been copied and restored that the Archives now have.

“It has been very successful.”

The project has recently been extended, with a further 25 films on the upcoming restoration agenda. Outside of working with the NFSA, Deluxe is contacted by people from all kinds of areas.

“We have dealt with organisations such as the Australian War Memorial for many years,” Simon said. “They have a lot of film in their collection that has to get copied and some has to be restored.”

It is this type of specific request that underlines the fact that audiovisual history is so important. It may not be bare any significance to a mass audience, but it may to a small one.

“There are other libraries that come to us saying they have got footage of someone running onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the 1950s, or of the Melbourne Olympics, and that they want to restore a section of it,” Simon said. “Sometimes you get a collection of unknown Army sergeants doing drills in Vietnam and somebody wants to copy that.

“It’s all important to somebody.”

Films restored by the NFSA and Deluxe, such as The Sentimental Bloke and The Story of the Kelly Gang, have been released on DVD by Madman, but it’s not just the big distributors that have an interest in old films.

As the managing director of Australian home film distribution company Umbrella Entertainment, Jeff Harrison is someone who has taken it into his own hands to get Australian films restored and out to an audience.

The Umbrella catalogue features a vast array of what are considered classic Australian films, including Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and just about any Bruce Beresford film you can name.

“I just wanted to restore a lot of Australian films and give them their rightful place in history,” Harrison said.

Since Umbrella’s inception a decade ago, Harrison has taken it upon himself to get a hold of any Australian films that he could and see that they are restored; that they get some extras, and are released on DVD.

“We can take some of this history and give it a context through DVD that would never have been done before,” he said. “DVD was this one opportunity to give it context back then and give it context today, and also to find missing pieces of archival material that were going to add value to the film itself.

“I want these films to be there forever.”

Films however, are not the only part of the audiovisual world. Television plays an equally important role in the idea of capturing the historical context of the country.

With that in mind, the NFSA has recently struck a deal with FOXTEL that will see much of the subscription television produced in Australia preserved in the archive.

FOXTEL has existed long enough to have gathered a considerable catalogue, but also young enough to still have people who have been involved in its entire history.

“We were in the unique position that we have people who were here on day one,” Malcolm Smith from the office of chief executive at FOXTEL told Encore. “But nobody has ever collected the boxes underneath their desks and we were very worried that that whole history of subscription television would go wasting.”

In terms of being an important historical snapshot of society, TV can actually benefit from the ways in which it differs, and even suffers, by comparison, to film. Being produced on a regular basis for a very specific audience, television production can ultimately be much sharper and more instantaneous in terms of reflecting its participants.

“TV doesn’t have the advantage of much production time like a film, but in ways it has other advantages, namely that it is more immediate,” Smith said.


Preserving a country’s history through the restoration and protection of its audiovisual works is all well and good, but the financial questions inevitably have to be asked: Who will pay for this restoration and preservation? Is it profitable? It can be an especially expensive process and that money has to come from somewhere.

In the case of Wake in Fright’s restoration at Deluxe, a problem arose when it became clear that a far superior result would be achieved through a more expensive digital work as opposed to photochemical. The NFSA budget set aside for the restoration did not extend beyond the photochemical.

Fortunately, Deluxe saw the value and importance of the film and endeavoured to ensure that the digital work was done, which ultimately meant the company absorbed not only financial costs, but also gave up its time to see the work finished as it should have been. Deluxe does its best to cover costs, while its partner in restoration, Kodak, also helps with costs and film stock.

“There are some costs that we can and can’t absorb,” Simon said. “It costs us money to put specialists on to handle this stuff; all of our time and costs are basically given and there are never any market rates applied. There are no healthy budgets and there is certainly no profit to be made from this.

“But the Archives are very good at trying to raise as much money as they can. They work very hard to try and keep the collection going.”

The need to stay profitable is a more immediate concern for Jeff Harrison at Umbrella. As a distribution company, it comes down to very basic business: if restoration and production costs outweigh sales, then it is harder to justify that action in the first place.

“Without being profitable I can’t continue to do it, that’s a given,” he said.

But Harrison is another for whom the process extends far beyond the financial.

“Have I been a tad over budget? Yes. Have I let that go? Of course I have,” he said. “I didn’t just do it for the commercial reasons…but for the altruistic purposes and the history placed in these films which is really important.

“There is a greater motive to it. A much more passionate, personal motive.”

Harrison also raises the more human, more frail, aspect of film history and the importance of people taking some responsibility as custodians and preserving it as soon as possible.

Time waits for no one, even in the film industry, and film stock is not the only finite resource in film preservation.

“These people are not getting any younger,” Harrison said. “If I didn’t get to talk to some of those involved, like Bud Tingwell and others we interviewed along the way, as we have seen, they’re gone.

“It wasn’t just the archival material that was disappearing.”


Ever since images could be captured on film, there seems to have been a prevailing sense that once that image is indeed captured, there is a record and it will always be there. This is of course not the case.  Film has always been a fragile and finite resource that needed to be handled with care.

“There is a sense that many filmmakers have even to this day, that someone is going to be looking after the work,” the NFSA’s Shirley said.

“But the reality is that unless it comes to us, usually very few people will be looking after it.

“Ninety percent of Australia’s silent film output, features, documentaries and news reels, was lost, predominantly through indifference.”

FOXTEL’s Malcolm Smith, who worked for many years as a filmmaker, agrees that this indifference and ignorance is a historical problem.

“Technologists didn’t understand when working with, say two inch television tape, that it actually fell apart after about seven years,” he said. “Nobody realised until they went to their vaults one day and the stuff had shed or just fallen apart.”

The digital world in which we currently live has helped to eliminate many of these problems.

“Digital gives us the ability to get stuff that is not going to corrupt in the future,” Harrison said. “We live in a far better age for that kind of audiovisual storage.”

But according to Shirley, it is exactly this kind of digital storage that has given many filmmakers today  a misplaced sense of security about the preservation of their work. When a hard drive can be erased literally at the push of a button, many are walking a very fine line when it comes to the ensuring the  future of their films.

“There are lots of young filmmakers who are postproducing a film on their hard drive, producing a DVD, having the DVD screened and then wiping the hard drive,” Shirley said.

“They think that the DVD will last forever.

“It won’t.”

According to Smith, it is not the danger of deletion that is worrying, but is in fact the opposite. He argues that as the pressure to delete -or even record over, in the case of tape- is lessened, the volume of material will become the problem. “Our problem is the sheer volume that is coming through. What do you save? What’s important?” he said.“ Those decisions are the ones that the National Film and Sound Archive has to make all the time.“

But the NFSA’s Shirley warns that while digital may seem safe and reliable, it is anything but.“Just as there are still some films surviving from the 1890s in their nitrate form, there are very recent works that have been produced digitally whose future is by no means assured.”


Regardless of how it came about or who paid for it, the success and profile of the restoration of Wake in Fright will serve a very important purpose in alerting people to the idea of film preservation and the fact that there are so many classic Australian films for them to see.

“The more people who recognise the importance of the preservation of our film and television history the better, and the more the ‘Wake in Fright’s that are put together, the better,” FOXTEL’s Malcolm Smith said.

Anthos Simon sees it opening not only people’s eyes, but also a new market in Australian cinema. “I don’t know that every film will have as much history behind it as Wake in Fright, but there could be a market there, a small one perhaps, but a market of people wanting to look at classic Australian films and give them new life,”  he said.

Australia’s audiovisual content clearly goes well beyond the commercial, and even beyond entertainment. It helps to give life to a history that can potentially be lost, and its preservation is critical to the future. “When people have the ability to re-write history, which they do, it is always incredibly important to have the source materials so you can make your own judgement,” Smith said. “That’s why film preservation is so important.” ■


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