Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Chinagirls – by collectors of esoteric film artefacts


Cathy – a chinagirl from Colorfilm, c 1978

I have no idea why, but an unusual Facebook page popped up on my screen recently. It belonged to the North West Chigaco Film Society, and was their Chinagirl/LeaderLady page. It set me to reminiscing – always a dangerous thing!

Lab technicians and film projectionists know about chinagirls, but few others. Two or more frames of a test film consisting of a head and shoulders image – usually of a young woman – and a series of neutral grey squares were routinely cut into the head leader of every reel of film that was printed by the lab. It was used to check and control the colour balance in the print.

Although Kodak supplied rolls of their own version of a chinagirl, many labs created their own, typically featuring an attractive member of the lab staff: possibly the closest she ever got to making it into the movies. But whilst fame and fortune might have eluded them, those chinagirls had a small role in every film that the lab handled – possibly dozens a year, more in many labs.

Placed just before the countdown leader, they should never have been seen in a public screening: but in test screenings, or with careless projectionists, that face – always the same shot, lit the same, with the same expression (or occasionally, caught blnking) would flash subliminally on the screen, impinging deep into the audience’s subconscious.

What I didn’t realise, was that the chinagirl – known in various labs as the lady, or the  ladywedge, the dolly, the Lily, as well as chinagirl – had become such a collectors’ item.

Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso

In Cinema Paradiso, the old projectionist had to censor his films, and cut out scenes of people kissing. Young Toto was always trying to get hold of the pieces of film. It seems there are many real-live Totos around, collecting -not people kissing- but single frames of the young women whose images once flickered so briefly onto their screens.

Rose - chinagirl

Rose – and more. Music by Sailor.

At Colorfilm, we also shot our own chinagirl. Rose worked in negative assembly, and one day the lab manager Tom stopped her in the corridor and said “Rose, how would you like to be in films?”. Off we went to the old Supreme Studios, and rolled off several hundred feet of Rose, sitting perfectly still on a stool, with a grey card in front of her.

We obviously had time on our hands in those leisured days then – it was back in 1974!. Discovering that we weren’t the only lab to have a chinagirl, my colleague Rick put this reel together for our Christmas goof reel that year

Lily vimeo clip

Another musical clip, for the Lille short film festival. Music: Hang it Up Daddy by Chick Habit

But wait – there’s more here – put together for the Festival du Film Minute de Lilles – (a collection perhaps of Lilies?).

Harvard Film Museum exhibition

Karen Segal and Julie Buck

In fact,  back in 2008, a couple of visual artists at the Harvard Film Museum carefully restored and made frame enlargements of about 70 chinagirls, and mounted an exhibition – once again accompanied by a video clip (after all, these still frames deserve to be seen in motion on the big screen, with a great soundtrack, don’t they!).

Who knew? – that those ephemeral frames are now the subject of exhaustive – and perhaps a trifle obsessive – collections? There’s no real equivalent for these minor works of art in digital cinema – so the chinagirl is just one more symbol of a passing technology, more or less born and died at each end of the twentieth century. But these girls will live on – at least as long as those who have collected them.

More on the subject here.


Arthur Cambridge slips away into the night.

Arthur Cambridge, the legendary film grader from Colorfilm and later Atlab, has died.

Arthur was one of the small cadre of Colorfilm staff who had a hand in more feature films in those glory days of the 70s and 80s than anyone else in the industry. He, negative matcher Margaret Cardin, lab liaison Bill Gooley and optical effects specialist Roger Cowland, were the dream team!

Arthur CambridgeFrom the early days of the Australian film renaissance, Arthur developed an eye for colour balance, but more importantly, an empathy for exactly what look and mood the cinematographer and director wanted to achieve in telling the story of the film. For film after film, Arthur’s first answer print (made once the camera negative had been cut) was almost invariably accepted with very few further corrections – no mean achievement in the days when colour video monitors bore only a passing resemblance of the projected film print image. His skill in delivering the right look with only the rudimentary controls of red, green or blue, lighter or darker, was remarkable. None the less, Arthur would emerge from grading almost every feature announcing that it was the most difficult job he’d ever tackled.

Some jobs were indeed difficult, however: ironically, the challenge of blending archival newsreel footage of the Maitland floods with Phil Noyce’s new material for Newsfront, despite it all being black and white, had this writer and Arthur working late into the night – but successfully so, as when the film was released in the UK, the director gave up trying to match our results through his UK lab, and requested prints from Colorfilm.

When Colorfilm closed in 1990, Arthur moved straight over to Atlab: his skill was undiminished, but the best days were over. The dream team was no more, with only Roger Cowland of the four still around, and feature production was slumping after the removal of the 10BA tax breaks. However, he continued grading for another decade before retiring.

While younger film graders made the switch to digital colour correction, Arthur remained resolutely a film grader, using the familiar Colormaster equipment. This writer recalls an occasion however, when he was called to a telecine suite by a colourist who couldn’t match two shots in a print that Arthur had graded. Arthur watched the colourist struggle with gamma, lift and gain controls for a while, then quietly asked if he could try. He reached across, moved each control once, and the shots matched perfectly!

Arthur’s extraordinary skills came into their own again when Atlab produced restored prints of many of the features of that era for NFSA’s Atlab/Kodak collection. He had graded most of them the first time around, and remembered exactly how they looked then. Picnic at Hanging Rock came back with exactly the same brooding atmosphere, while The Night, The Prowler was exactly the right shade of blue – something no other grader would have imagined!

At an editors’ conference around 1991 this writer gave a talk (as part of a panel) about the arrival of computers into film editing rooms, and the consequent loss of a training path for assistant editors. As an analogy it was pointed out that the introduction of computers into the grading room some years previously had reduced opportunities for assistant colour graders to learn the skills – and as a result there was no ‘next wave’ of film graders coming through. During questions, someone asked the panel if this was true, and what we would all do when Arthur Cambridge retired. One of the other panellists muttered “stop making films, I suppose”.

Arthur is survived by his wife Jan and sons Doug and Mark.


This memory was first published in Screenhub.

Where to now for NFSA?

The National Film and Sound Archive desperately needs a sense of direction.

In the past dozen years the organisation has had five directors or CEO’s, two from overseas. It has been moved into the arms of the Australian Film Commission and out again, and undergone several organisational restructures.

Over that time, it has attempted to expand its operations to meet the directives of successive ministers and boards. In particular, since it inherited several touring screening programs (such as Big Screen and Black Screen) as well as the Australian Screen website from the now defunct AFC, it has thrown more emphasis into the “sharing” part of its task. Its collection has veered between a “take anything” curatorial policy to a strictly Australian only one (and selective at that), countered by a determined international (and sometimes esoteric) approach to its screening program at the ARC cinema in Canberra. While centred in Canberra, with only limited operations in Sydney and Melbourne, it has developed a highly respected and influential presence in international archive circles, with staff playing pivotal organisational and training roles in FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives) and SEAPAVAA (South East Asia & Pacific Audiovisual Archive Association).  Its popular-style Kookaburra magazine was replaced by an academic journal, and a residential program supporting visiting research scholars was introduced. More recently it has absorbed the Film Australia library which manages a responsive program of supplying stock shot footage and complete programs from its catalogue of a century of government information films (only a couple of years after that operation had been grafted, uncomfortably, onto Screen Australia).

What of its core tasks? Has it been succeeding? While NFSA can point to many achievements, there has been a constant and widespread opinion among film-makers that material is too hard to access and takes too long, and many are reluctant to deposit material with the archive for fear that they will never see it again.

According to its website, “The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia is the nation’s living archive, collecting, preserving and sharing our rich audiovisual heritage.”   This is such a broadly defined function that it’s no wonder it has felt obliged to expand into an ever-wider field of activities. There are no limits, there is little that doesn’t fit somewhere under this umbrella.

It has been an ambitious program. And all this has been at a time when the “film” part of its brief has been undergoing the massive change from physical, analogue reels of film to digital data, threatening to make much of its collection obsolete and unusable, but offering unprecedented opportunities to bring that collection to a wider audience. The NFSA has struggled to balance its task of preserving the past with the challenge of surviving in the future. It has tried to be something for all time and for everyone.

So it’s hardly surprising that the current CEO Michael Loebenstein has conducted a major review of the organisation and has just announced a restructure. Nor is it surprising that there have been howls of protest at the announced changes, which includes 28 jobs cut (one in seven of the total workforce), a cessation of the regular ARC screening program in Canberra and of the various touring programs such as Big Screen, and transfer of its Oral History program from a curatorial division to the Communications brief. More of this later.

A growing business

One unavoidable fact about an Archive collection is that it is a growth business. Every year, more and more is produced. As long as there is any media production at all, the Archive’s collection will inevitably grow if it is to do its job properly. And while conventional feature film production is unlikely ever to regain the “glory times” of the 1970s and 80s, the explosion of digital media, and the consequent ease of production already outstrips those times in sheer physical quantity, leading to what has been called the Digital Deluge. This presents the NFSA with a new challenge: what new formats should it be collecting? Independently produced TV drama? Amateur, unfunded digital features shot on a smartphone? Video games? Websites? User-generated YouTube clips? Mash-ups? Some of these might be dismissed as ephemeral and unworthy: but that is exactly the view taken of cinema a century ago.

The Analogue Avalanche

Furthermore, there is no statutory deposit law covering screen media in Australia, so although there is an expectation that NFSA holds copies of everything that’s been made, that isn’t the case. Much of its collection has been acquired many years after production, when producers’ or lab vaults have been cleared out, and so it’s often in bad condition, incomplete, or in a non-preservation format. In recent years, as production companies have realised that the many thousands of feet of film in their vaults take up a lot of expensive space and have become virtually obsolete, they have presented the material to the NFSA with a simple alternative: take it or we ditch it. Thus the Digital Deluge is now supplemented by an Analogue Avalanche, adding to the already vast backlog of material waiting to be properly catalogued and preserved.

So clearly, after years of an – at best – static annual budget, steadily eroded by the “efficiency dividend” so beloved of Federal Treasurers, something has to give. NFSA can’t go on doing everything.

The CEO’s statement

The current CEO of the NFSA is Michael Loebenstein, a young Austrian film archivist who was appointed in 2011 by a Board which, including its then Chair, has since been entirely replaced. After a number of interim changes and a six-month internal management review, reports emerged earlier this month of significant changes to the organisation. There would be a number of redundancies, and many public programs would cease. The initial press release was minimal in detail, but a statement from the CEO appeared on the NFSA’s website a little later, apparently in response to rumours that the NFSA would become “a mere storage facility”..

Among other points, Loebenstein says:

More than any other collecting institution, transformational digital technology can be used to position us as the ‘archive of the future’. But this means we need to re-focus what we do and how we do it, to allow for re-investment into building capabilities and capacity to operate better in this online environment.

We will be doing many things differently in the future so we are even more effective, innovative and relevant. This means some things will not continue in the way we have traditionally done them.

While existing programs such as the Arc Cinema program, exhibitions, and the touring film festivals will in many cases continue unchanged until the end of the winter season and into spring, they will be gradually replaced by new programs, with an increased focus on online delivery, and activities delivered in collaboration with partners in the cultural sector, the industry and communities.

Under the new structure, we will be taking some hard decisions to reduce our staff numbers. . .

There may be a lot of good in this reshuffle: but it’s not visible in this statement, nor in the snippets of information that are emerging from NFSA staff. Sadly, in the present political environment, where cuts in public spending and activities are being announced on a daily basis, even the slightest hint that “some things will not continue . . .”, and the absence of specific detail of new activities will, inevitably, be taken badly. News that several of the highest profile staff members, representing unparalleled expertise in film history and culture and knowledge of the local industry are among the staff casualties can only lead to confusion about the CEO’s plans, even though inside sources suggest that the staff cuts are across all sections – administrative as well as specialised – and at all levels.


Like any Public Service organisation, NFSA is, inevitably, a bureaucracy. It has a very traditional management and reporting structure imposed on it by the norms of the APS. With around 200 staff, though, it is a small organisation, arguably [proportionally overburdened by these structures, committees and processes. It requires many arcane set procedures to be followed for even straightforward tasks – unlike the film and television production community it serves, whose operations tend to be much more outcome-driven (shoot first, ask questions later!). It may well be that Loebenstein’s changes will address some of these obstacles, although they will, necessarily, be limited by APS requirements, and by a firmly entrenched culture in the NFSA. After all an archive, of all possible institutions, can be expected to preserve its own culture.

Preservation and digitisation

Of the many tasks facing the NFSA, perhaps the most fundamental one is its core one: that of preserving its vast holdings of film and tape. Archivists around the world agree that, under proper conditions, film itself is the best medium for long-term preservation. Formats are settled, and the images are easily retrievable. Ideally, copies should be made on modern polyester film and preserved in controlled temperature and humidity.

By comparison, digital has yet to prove itself as a long-term preservation prospect, with ever-changing formats, not always back-compatible, and the possibility of not gradual decay but sudden and total loss of recoverable data. You can’t transfer, shelve the tape, and forget it: the data needs constant maintenance. And data volumes are huge: while a DVD copy of a feature is just a few Megabytes, the uncompressed, full resolution version of the same film is measured in Gigabytes – a thousand times as much. Digital storage presents a not inconsiderable cost.

But digital versions are now the best way to make images available: via the internet, on DVDs or as high-resolution cinema versions.

It’s a fundamental archival principle to continue to preserve the original material – typically the original negative or a printed intermediate copy (a projection print isn’t suitable). So like archives around the world, NFSA faces a dilemma: how to best preserve – and share – its massive collection of film – amounting, at the latest count, to nearly 130 million feet. Not unsurprisingly, it has a huge backlog of material to be catalogued, transferred onto polyester base film, or digitised.

While NFSA can provide “broadcast quality” transfers of items in its collection, it still lacks the equipment for full-resolution scanning of 35mm film. Even with the required equipment, scanning is a slow process, and only one of many steps needed to digitise 35mm film – preparation and repair beforehand, quality checking and copying afterwards, all require resources.

The archive struggles to provide a reasonable turn-around time for material requested by producers or researchers. At its current level of resources, even with the equipment required, it’s doubtful if it would ever catch up with cataloguing, digitising and preserving the backlog of additions to its collection.

Estimates of the cost of digitising and preserving the film collection vary widely, but could be between $25million and $50million, and it would take many years to complete. With an annual operational budget of around $25million for all of NFSA’s activities, clearly this operation is presently unfunded.


But to focus its resources exclusively on the preservation task is clearly far short of Michael Loebenstein’s vision for the NFSA. In a recent seminar he emphasised the “sharing” part of NFSA’s vision, saying that audiences are embracing the notion of collective ownership of their national estate. “Availability in our current environment is characterised by our users’ expectations of being part of a two-way exchange. Instead of ‘granting access’ we are expected to ‘share’ our collections. We live in a ‘transactional’ environment.”

This draws attention to another challenge for the NFSA. Unlike the archives of the major film studios or newsreels, NFSA only owns copyright in about five per cent of its collection. Negotiating rights and obtaining clearance to use or screen (and, in many cases, even to copy for preservation or any other internal application) any of the material is complex, time-consuming and expensive. Currently, copyright clearance isn’t handled by NFSA Access staff; it’s up to whoever hopes to use the material. NFSA has been pressing for simplification of copyright law: there’s no doubt that this complexity needs to be resolved.

But where’s the money to come from?

Even with considerable staff cuts and a pruning of programs, NFSA will struggle to meet its commitments under the present level of government funding. It is hard to imagine that the Federal Government is about to increase funding. So where is the organisation to turn?

By comparison with many archives, especially in the SE Asian region, the NFSA is well funded and resourced. But it is almost unique among Australian and international cultural and collecting institutions in that it receives virtually no philanthropic support.

Art Galleries at National, State and Regional level, State Libraries and the National Museum among many others large and small have all attracted significant funds from wealthy benefactors, amounting in some cases to many millions of dollars annually. Many less wealthy Australians also make regular donations. A glance at the website of any of these organisations reveals a page listing principal supporters, and providing facilities for contributions. There is no such information on NFSA’s website. In the past it has benefited – in kind – from sponsorships such as the Kodak/Atlab and Deluxe/Kodak collections, providing prints and preservation copies of 75 of Australia’s greatest feature films: but currently there appear to be no sponsored programs, and no patrons, or preservation foundations or supporters’ plans of the sort to be found elsewhere.

It might be argued that Fine Art has an aura of wealth and privilege about it that a popular form cannot match. But overseas, for just one example, the billionaire J Paul Getty was a key supporter of the British Film Institute.  Cinema in the twentieth century has traded in glamour; it has created some of the wealthiest people on the planet; and it can appeal to national sentiment in a way that no other creative form can compete with. More directly, many thousands of people have a connection with filmmaking – or recorded sound – in some way that they would like to recognise. There is, surely, a rich vein of support waiting to be tapped here. .

Australia is a country with film production dating back to within a year of the first public screening of a film anywhere in the world. Australia’s feature film industry led the world 100 years ago, and experienced an impressive resurgence 40 years ago. It has a documentary and newsreel tradition second to none, and a fine reputation for technical innovation and excellence. It is among the wealthiest countries in the world, with, for many years, one of the highest cinema attendances in the world. By these standards, the nation’s film and sound history of the past and the present deserves more support than it gets.

And what a time it was

 “Once you get a disk drive, you’ll see the difference. You won’t go back.”

TRS-80 model 1 computer

TRS-80 model 1 computer

It was about 1980. An industry colleague had just graduated to an Apple IIc computer. It included a built in floppy disk drive with a dizzying capacity of 760Kb of data. Enough for programs, heaps of documents, spreadsheets and who knows what else.

But I was still working with my Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80. As it was my employer’s money, I’d chosen the bigger one – it had 16Kb of RAM, instead of the standard 4Kb. I supposed the extra would probably come in handy, though I wasn’t sure how, at first.

Ah yes, the old Trash-80. It hooked up to a conventional portable audio cassette recorder to save data, which it did at a speed that would have earned derision from a competent Morse code operator. My friend with the Apple offered kindly sympathy, but I was stuck with the cassette recorder. Still, if you wrote a program (in BASIC), you could save that on the cassette, provided you allowed enough time. At first, there were very few programs around – games, text editors – mainly for sale at weekend flea markets: but if you wanted to do anything else, you wrote your own software.

I wrote a computer game for it.

You must understand that there were effectively no graphics on the black and green display, and text appeared on the screen at about the speed you could type. So it was a very particular sort of game.

I called it “Fame and Fortune in the Film Industry”.

The year was 1979, and the company I worked for had booked a stand at a film and television technology exhibition. Whatever the rest of our stand showed – our services – got some attention, but I took along the computer – and it turned out to be the big crowd-puller. Almost no-one else had one on their stand, and certainly no-one else had anything so unusual as a computer game.

The program set you up as a film producer, and presented you with a series of obstacles in your project of getting a feature film made and distributed. (There were plenty.) Every decision you made would earn you fame points and fortune points, until you either made a million dollars or went bankrupt.

The challenges were all drawn from real incidents. We were in the exciting first flush of the Australian film renaissance, making period dramas like My Brilliant Career, the Australian Identity ones like Newsfront, the Not Quite Hollywood ones like The Man from Hong Kong and Patrick; and a whole lot in between: The Irishman; Mad Dog Morgan and Mad Max, to name just a few.

Films of 1979-81

We were the lab that processed the rushes for most of these films, so we got to witness all the upsets, the disruptions, the calamities and the miracles. With names changed (to avoid being sued) these incidents made great material for my game. For example:

  • The star of your action drama breaks his leg three weeks into the shoot. Do you (a) re-cast and start again; (b) use a double for the wide shots, and just do the static close-ups with the real actor; or (c) rework the script to explain the leg plaster and crutches?
  • There’s an emulsion-side camera scratch on the exploding helicopter shot. Do you (a) get another helicopter and reshoot; (b) use the takes from the B and C units (if you were thorough enough to have had B & C units); get the lab to rotoscope out the scratch on the master shot, frame by frame (it’ll take a month)?

Your decision had a certain effect on your costs, and on the box-office takings and critical success of the film, which added to (or took away from) your fame and fortune scores.

The program had been simple enough to write, and after the popular success at the trade show, I carried on adding more incidents to the library in the program, to add to the variety. The program effectively shuffled a pack of cards at the start of every game, so that the incidents came up in a random order: but it needed quite a few to ensure that players didn’t become familiar with them all after only a few sessions.

At first it would take something like five minutes for the program to load – and a little longer to save it each time after I’d added new material. Before long it had blown out to ten or twelve minutes. But it was becoming a rich vein of drama, suspense and agonising decision-making.

Then one day I set the tape to load, and after about ten minutes, the computer announced that the program was too big to load.

Computer wizards may assure me that it would have been simple to buy extra RAM for the machine: but at the time that didn’t seem possible, nor could I justify it. The computer was really for managing the sensitometric control of the film processing systems in the lab, and the programs I’d written to do that seemed to manage quite happily with the existing memory. So I was stuck, with, it seemed, no way of recovering the program.

I never saw it again. Those same computer wizards may now point me to TRS-80 emulators that will run in a microscopic portion of a modern computer, and some device that would remodulate the morse-code-like signal from a cassette player and pump it into a USB port.

But it’s all too late. I kept the cassette for some years, but where? I think it finally got trashed as a lost cause. I suspect the data would be corrupt by now even if I could track it down.

A few months ago I was interviewed in an oral history project about the film industry, and especially those magical times, when it seemed we had the world at our feet. I could remember so much, but so little. I wished I still had the tape: it’s probably a unique archive of some of those stories. Wouldn’t I have printed the program out from time to time (an even longer process than saving it on tape)? Yes, undoubtedly: but I recall that the printouts were on a strange-looking strip of heat-sensitive metallic paper, about as wide as a toilet roll. Even if I’d kept them, they would have faded many years ago.

Perhaps if I’d got an Apple and a disk drive at the time, I’d have had a better chance of recovering everything. But hindsight, the antithesis of memory, comes too late – and memories, however they are saved, go too soon.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

(Simon & Garfunkel, 1967)

What’s wrong with pricing carbon anyway? Lessons from an old film laboratory.

I think there’s a lesson about the carbon price that can be found in the now dying business of film processing.


Tony Abbott talked about a “great big new tax”. If nothing else, that misrepresentation of the nature of the carbon price suggests that he really opposes it for the sake of opposing the Labor government that introduced it, not because he thinks it is bad policy.

The thing is, I don’t understand what the objection to pricing carbon really is.

ImageSome years ago I worked for a large film processing laboratory. It’s an almost dead technology now that cinema is digital, but in the heyday we processed millions of feet of film each week. That used a lot of water and chemicals – some of which, while not the worst substances ever invented, were not at all good for the environment. Those chemicals turned up in the processing wash water and other used chemical outflows, and in the early days went straight into the sewer. Because they didn’t break down like organic waste, those chemicals would eventually find their way into the rivers and ocean.

No big problem at first – it was a small operation, and the chemicals were diluted with heaps of water. But as we grew, the Water Board took more interest. And we found we had to pay. We had to pay for every litre of water we took from the mains, and again for every litre of waste that went into the sewer. Then they measured how much of those chemicals were in the waste water, and we had to pay for that. If we exceeded an agreed limit, we had to pay a hefty penalty rate as well.

You’ll notice this is a bit like paying for carbon dioxide emissions. Small companies – not a problem. Bigger ones charged according to how much they emit. But we never for a moment thought of our charges as a “tax”. It wasn’t a “sulphite tax” or an “ammonium tax”. It was simply a fee we had to pay to release pollutants into the system.

DSC00060How did we react to these increasing charges? We looked for different chemicals that weren’t such a problem. We found ways to recycle more of the waste chemicals. Our chief chemist developed a system for recovering and recycling up to 90% of the wash water we used. This turned out to be world-beating and the technology was adopted by labs in other countries. We developed systems that even the huge labs in Hollywood didn’t have.

Why is it so hard for fossil fuel users to take the same approach to reducing their costs?

Joe Hockey, the new Federal Treasurer, criticises the carbon “tax” saying it is misconceived because it won’t reduce the use of electricity. He says it’s an inelastic commodity: in other words, we use the same amount even if the price goes up. As it happens, even that isn’t true.

But the point of pricing carbon isn’t to reduce electricity usage: it is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It’s an incentive for companies to look for other ways to produce electricity, to reduce their costs – and a way of raising some of the funds necessary for that. That won’t happen overnight, it takes a long time to replace generating plant. But that’s a good reason to start sooner and not to give up.

chemmixBack in the film laboratory, any suggestion that the water and discharge fees were a “cinema tax” or designed to reduce cinema attendance would have been ridiculous. But that, in effect, is what the critics of pricing carbon are saying. Any suggestion that the charges would make our lab in Australia uncompetitive was just nonsense. Labs around the world used the same processes, and pollution problems were the same everywhere. Our response was based on a sense of environmental responsibility as much as on costs. And it actually made us more competitive, not less.

That company has now closed down its film processing operations.  It wasn’t financially ruined by environmental considerations: as before, it moved with the technology, and it’s now a successful digital post-production facility. It’s in Mr Hockey’s electorate. Perhaps he and his Coalition colleagues should take a lesson from its story, and reconsider their dismissal of new technologies, and their obstinate determination to abolish carbon pricing. It should be an effective tool in the challenge to clean up emissions and stem climate change.

Cinematographers speak of change

 Two panel discussions at the recent Society of MOtion Picture and Television Engineers’ conference (SMPTE-13) covered the issues that are confronting cinematographers in the tumultuous change to digital imaging. I wrote these observations for Screenhub.

The first session was called “What Rules – Creativity or Technology” and asked “Why doesn’t the cinematographer have ultimate control over what tools they use?” The high-profile panel, led by Cal Gardiner ACS, included cinematographers Denson Baker ACS, Ben Allen ACS and Tom Gleeson, post supervisor Henry Karjalainen, colorist Adrian Hauser, editor Scott Gray ASE and VFX Director Chris Godfrey. Moderating the discussion was movie expert and presenter Renee Brack.

Ben ALlan ACS

Ben Allan ACS

Discussion revolved around the choice of camera, and how that choice was dictated: sometimes simply by budget, sometimes for reasons of workflow or advice by the post house. The curve settings, LUTs  and choice of recording format all need to fit with the selected workflow through post production, but these settings can have a profound effect on the “look” of the image,traditionally the DOP’s preserve.

Denson Baker said he chose not to be in charge of all camera or post settings: he concentrated on creative decisions: camera placement, lens and lighting. Tom Gleeson agreed that a DOP doesn’t have the automatic right to choose the tools as the post house may need a different format for many reasons. However, if the camera has been selected because of a good deal on price, but he felt it was the wrong choice, then he would make the effort to find a better price on a different camera. He railed against smaller post houses that over-compressed large image files “oh there’s such a lot of footage!”

As a post production supervisor, Henry Karjalainen believed DOPs were indeed in charge of their tools “because we need them to be”. He said his role was to “bring the shot films to life, by putting together a package that would achieve the director’s desires”. Post supervisors are often brought in too late though.

Like Denson, editor Scott Gray said he concentrated on the creative decisions: he wasn’t the data wrangler. But at this point he produced what should have been a game-changer in this discussion: within his creative control as an editor, he said that he was able to zoom in or reframe the shot “to direct the audience’s attention to where I want it”.

Astonishingly (to this writer), none of the cinematographers on the panel picked up on this. In a discussion on the DOP’s loss of creative control, this should have been a red rag to a bull. Framing is fundamental to the cinematographer’s art. But the conversation simply continued along the lines of camera and workflow choice, even in the light of Denson Baker’s earlier comments about controlling camera placement.

Chris Godfrey said that every shot was a compromise between everyone’s needs, but that all participants needed to agree on those compromises at the start of the shoot. He said that there were hundreds of blow-ups and reframes in The Great Gatsby, easily managed because they were shot in 5K resolution. (Admittedly 3D productions do need different framing treatment to manage convergence issues).He noted that every 5K frame (in a 3D pair) was about 100Mbytes. Adrian Hauser noted that he only started colour grading on Gatsby after principal photography had been completed: but there was sufficient image quality in all the material to achieve the required final look. Smaller or cheaper productions weren’t always so safe, he said. Chris Godfrey agreed, emphasising that “the most expensive VFX shot is the one that doesn’t work”. CG backgrounds could always be fixed, but if the live action foreground element isn’t working, then there is no shot.

After a lot more discussion Ben Allan really summed up the session when he said “if the camera is the most interesting thing on the set, then you’ve got problems”.

The second panel on Wednesday, entitled “The Future Vision” was moderated by Erika Addis. The speakers were cinematographers Kim Batterham, Rob Moreton, Dan Freene, Callan Green, Vivyan Madigan and David Peers. Discussion revolved not around futuristic technology, but about the changing work practices in film production, and the skill levels of newer entrants.

Erika Addis

Erika Addis

Kim Batterham led in by reflecting on the increasing complexity of technology and practices over the last thirty years, noting many entrants to the industry now lacked any qualifications. Rob Moreton questioned how many more pixels, how much more speed and dynamic range we needed in our cameras. Callan Green reckoned there were so many people now getting involved in cinematography that the sector was in danger of falling apart. Like several of the panellists he was a keen advocate of mutual support within cinematography, spruiking the benefits of belonging to the ACS and attending meetings and conferences.

Dan Freene commented that the explosion of websites for even the simplest business meant that everyone needed visual content, and there was heaps of work for young cinematographers. However, this explosion pushed budgets down throughout the range, resulting in producers and production managers with absolutely no experience. For example, if a cinematographer insisted on hiring a low-loader in order to shoot moving car scenes, he or she might be replaced by another one who would do it cheaply (and illegally) from a motorbike. Ultimately this would become the norm. David added that the dodgy shots might also have problems that could be fixed in post – but the post house would get “drilled” to fix these unbudgeted problems.

Vivyan Madigan advocated a traditional learning path, learning on set as an assistant rather than simply picking up a camera without knowing how to shoot. There was a general sense that no amount of experience shooting solo with a DSLR equipped the shooter to work in a crew or follow the disciplines of more structured productions. Dan pointed to press photographers who were asked to shoot movie clips on the same camera they were using for stills – a slippery path to an expectation of being a fully-blown cinematographer, but lacking any knowledge of lighting or crew work.

They all felt that the availability of DSLRs and other cheap cameras meant that few people now were prepared to enter the industry as runners, focus pullers or second assistants. Kim said that AFTRS set out to teach structure, and how to express a vision: David said “if people have a passion, we can give them the skills.

Looking to the future, David predicted that the flurry of new equipment and methods would settle down within five years, and training and crew issues would be resolved, and the balance between technology and storytelling would be resolved. He pointed to similar disruptions in editing when non-linear systems were introduced (twenty years ago), and in animation. Dan said this was a weird period – this was “the year that Atlab (Deluxe) closed (stopped film processing) – with hardly a murmur”.

Both discussions clearly agreed with the maxim that “the technology has only arrived when it’s gone away”, aching for a time when creativity would once again dominate. For the time though, technology was the obsession. Maybe it really is, or maybe the surroundings – a large exhibition full of high-tech equipment with engineers crawling all over it, influenced their thinking.

But it’s high time ACS put on a panel discussion about editors and reframing.

The View from Berlin

ImageI was recently in Berlin, but at quite the wrong time for the Berlin Film Festival. Undaunted, I headed for the Berlin Film Museum, located centrally in Berlin in the ultra-modern Sony Centre, a striking edifice of glass and steel. Filmhaus, the part of the centre housing the museum, its Arsenal cinemas and the German Film & TV School is right opposite the Cinestar and Event cinemas, part of Germany’s largest cinema chain, operated by none other than Australia’s Amalgamated Holdings (Greater Union).

The museum therefore, by its geography and architecture, corresponds more closely with ACMI in Melbourne than it does with NFSA’s sleepy art deco presence just too far off the main drag in Canberra. But its focus, like NFSA’s, is on the entire century of filmmaking in Germany, and this invites a comparison of the exhibits, the industries and the histories of the two countries. (This isn’t as absurd as it sounds.)

It’s been said that Australia’s history as a Federation is also that of its film industry, which was born at around the same time. It’s not so very different in Germany, which was only a couple of decades old as a country when film was first seen by the German public. The Skladanowsky brothers screened moving pictures at the Berlin Wintergarden on their Bioscope projector in November 1895, apparently weeks before the Lumière brothers did in Paris. (What is it about brothers in film? Pathé, Coen, Wachowsky, anyone?)

As in Australia, but for largely quite different reasons, the German film industry has struggled throughout the twentieth century. And just as in Australia (reassuringly for film theorists and social historians), the ebb and flow of cinema mirrors very precisely the preoccupations of the country at the time.

ImageThere is only one way through the museum (like shopping at Ikea, though there the resemblance ends). Entering the first section, the floor, walls and ceiling disappear and you are immediately swept into an infinite world of cinema images. Silent film stars in close-up; a screen kiss; marching troops; there’s Peter Lorre in M, there’s a young Marlene Dietrich. It’s all done with mirrors, and you spot glimpses of yourself over there, and there – and isn’t that the iconic shot in Nosferatu? – and where is the floor? can I step this way or that? So far this is no ordinary museum, but a brilliant and disorienting celebration of disembodied, timeless images from across the last century: in other words – cinema!  Somehow, that is exactly what the German Expressionists of the 1920s were concerned with, in a way more than any other national cinema was.

As you emerge from this first chamber, you see an early, hand-cranked camera, apparently cranking itself, demonstrating the intermittent movement that is central to cinematography. In the next display is a moving projector. The early years of cinema were full of technicians solving problems in their own way, and Germany’s Oskar Messter is one of several people in different countries who are claimed as inventors of the Maltese Cross or Geneva movement for projectors at around the same time. Next, a large model shows the studio and sets that were built to make The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

From then on, the museum settles down to deal with the distinct periods of German cinema and history (the early years, the Weimar republic years, the Nazi years, and the bleak postwar years) by focussing mainly on three “Ms”: FW Murnau (Nosferatu), Metropolis (Fritz Lang), and Marlene Dietrich; and of course Leni Riefenstahl, and only briefly touching on the later resurgence led by directors such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog.

So how would this compare with the story of Australian cinema, if it were told in the same way? Is it a fair or worthwhile comparison? For those who proudly point to Australia’s production of the world’s first feature film in 1906, its prolific production burst for the subsequent decade before Hollywood took over, and the disproportionate international successes of our cinematographers in recent years, yes, we should ask the questions.

Australia’s early cinema was led by showmen such as the Tait brothers (there goes the ‘brothers’ thing again), but the Taits were theatrical entrepreneurs rather than creatives or artists. In Germany, FW Murnau also came from the stage, but he was an actor when war broke out, having studied philosophy (reportedly reading Schopenhauer and Nietsche at the age of 12). He wrote his first film screenplay while interred in neutral Switzerland where his plane had crashed. Australian silent films, more focussed on gaining an audience than being artistic expressions tended to have straightforward themes and be realist in style: such popular appeal films were also made in Germany, but Murnau and others were part of the broader expressionist movement dominating the arts in Europe at the time, and made films with pioneering camera and editing techniques and more philosophical themes.

Nosferatu ImageMade here at the same time as Murnau’s Nosferatu (really Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the copyright court found), The Sentimental Bloke is sometimes hailed as Australia’s best silent film (and like many other great silent films from both countries it suffered the fate of savage and bad cutting for US release and failed). A setting of the CJ Dennis verses, it is a simple narrative of ordinary people, which can stand up to critical analysis of the way it portrays post WW1 social values in urban Australia. But even if Australia were not half a world away, it would never have made the impact on world cinema that German pictures of the time did.

For the Term of his Natural Lifege MetropolisFor the Term of his Natural Life, made in the same year as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, shows traces of the German film’s visual expressionist style in a story that deals with social justice and revenge as powerfully as Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. But in 1927 it is entirely backward looking, innovative neither in style nor message. Moreover, although an Australian story and production, the director Norman Dawn was an American.

While Australian silent cinema suffered from a lack of protection from imported US and UK productions, the tragedy of early German cinema is that all the creative giants of the twenties moved over to Hollywood: at first to escape the hyper-inflation of the German economy, and later to escape the Nazi regime. Both Fritz Lang and FW Murnau made the journey, as did Marlene Dietrich (whose extensive collection of costumes is shown alongside clips of the films she wore them in).

As a result, much of the film museum’s exhibit for this mid-century period deals not with German cinema but with the work of émigré filmmakers, mostly in Hollywood. There is a display that deals with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Triumph des Willens, but, ironically, in another corner of the same room a clip is playing from Casablanca (1942). The clip, (of course), is the scene where the German soldiers’ singing is drowned out by the band and patrons of Rick’s café singing The Marseillaise. Casablanca was directed by the Hungarian émigré Mihaly Kertész, (Michael Curtiz) who had worked in Vienna and then briefly in Germany with Lang and Murnau before being invited to Hollywood in 1923.

Set against this display of creative expression and propaganda, what could a visit to the NFSA’s small exhibition in Canberra tell us about our own industry? After the silent era, our story is one of an industry that struggled for half a century, relieved by newsreels and documentaries (no shortage of propaganda there, but perhaps less blatantly so), and the consistently successful Cinesound features of Ken G Hall. Hall never pretended to be a great auteur filmmaker: he was of the tradition of the Taits, originally a publicity man for a cinema chain. As it happens, his break came in 1926 when he was asked by his employer to recut a German silent film (bought sight-unseen) called Unsere Emden: a German WW1 story of the famous battleship sunk by HMAS Sydney in Australia’s first WW1 naval action. More than recutting the film, Hall re-shot half of it, with the cooperation of the Australian Navy, to convert it from a blatantly pro-German propaganda film to one that told a heroic story of the Australian action.

This comparison is not to dismiss Australia’s film history as somehow less worthy than a European one. Rather, it is to note that Berlin spent the twentieth century in turmoil – first artistic, then financial, then political, military and political again – and its cinema reflects exactly that, whether it flourished in Germany itself or in exile. By contrast, Australia’s twentieth century was one of less sophisticated issues: building a new country far away from the northern hemisphere’s traditional conflicts; learning to survive a tough climate and an economy affected by the rest of the world but with little influence over it; involvement in other people’s far distant wars; and more recently, belatedly creating the cinematic literature of our national myths. In both countries, the cinema precisely reflects those times and preoccupations.

ImagePerhaps everyone needs to travel away to get a perspective on such matters: and my visit to the Berlin Film Museum will certainly send me back to Canberra to revisit the display at NFSA and learn more from it. Perhaps its modest and traditional design reflects the substance of the culture it displays: perhaps in a small way that might even reinforce those modest ideas of cinema.  But how breathtakingly magnificent it would be to see a display that, like the one in Berlin, so completely transports the visitor and immerses him in a uniquely cinematic world.

This was first published in Screenhub in November 2012