NFSA reopens with new home for
Video preservation specialist Richard Vorobieff, documents and artifact conservator Shingo Ishikawa, assistant curator Chris Arneil, curator Tamara Osicka and collection management team leader Belinda Hunt at the new public space and display Hive at the NFSA. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.
Amy Martin, National Film and Sound Archive reopens with Australia’s first Academy Award and shoes from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Canberra Times, 31 July 2020
Who would have thought that something that began its life on the shelves of Kmart would end up on display at the National Film and Sound Archive (and help pick up an Academy Award along the way)?
One of the platform shoes worn by Hugo Weaving in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 1995, will be on display in the archive’s new public space, Hive, when the institution reopens on Saturday.
The other is still stored safely as it is too deteriorated to be put on display. But according to documents and artefacts conservator Shingo Ishikawa it doesn’t come as a surprise, particularly since it is an upcycled thong from Kmart.
“The challenges of having something like that in our collection is to try to preserve it, and the difficulty is that you know those things are not made to last,” he said.
“You know, they’re just cheap rubber thongs from Kmart. They’re not made to last and slowly the rubber bit of the thong is deteriorating. And as a conservator, one of the biggest challenges to try to preserve items such as that which is not made to last.
“Some of these movie costumes and props they’re not really made with high-quality materials that are made to last. They have to whip it up together quickly in a matter of time and hopefully, they’ll last during the shoot.”
The shoe is one of six elements in focus in the new public space, with it aiming to give visitors a chance to explore stories about the treasures in the archive’s collection and hear from the people who care for more than three million items preserved by the institution.
The centrepiece of Hive is a new interactive display titled Storywall, that features a life-size projection of six NFSA experts, including Mr Ishikawa, that visitors can interact with using their mobile devices. Once selected, they will tell a story about themselves and their passion for Australia’s audiovisual history, as well as digitally showcasing items from the NFSA collection.
They include Australia’s first Academy Award given to Ken G Hall in 1942 for his newsreel titled Kokoda Front Line!, as well as an aluminium record from the 1930s that holds a birthday message from a grandmother to her granddaughter, and the 1993 video game Halloween Harry.
“It was very difficult to select which of the six stories we’d select a Storywall,” manager of exhibitions and education Felicity Harmey said.
“Really what we did was go out into the dark corners of the archive and look at the best stories and best examples of things that capture the spirit of what we’re about here.
“And it is a permanent space that will be open for a long time so we’re hoping to change those stories over time but the first suite that we’ve selected really captured the spirit of what the staff do here every day.”
From the experts
Australia’s first Academy Award – team leader of collection management Belinda Hunt
The first Oscar, it’s a pretty special collection item because, first of all, it’s an Oscar. It was the first one that was awarded to an Australian and it was probably the only one that was awarded to a newsreel. It was for the 1942 Kokoda Front Line!, Cinesound Review newsreel. In 1943 it was awarded to Ken G Hall, who was pretty much running the newsreels at the time. But he has always shared that Oscar with Damien Parer, who was the cinematographer who actually was in New Guinea shooting all of this footage. Every time he was interviewed about it, he wanted to share that accolade with Damien Parer.
It’s very heavy. And also, it’s a little bit battered too, because I mean, it is 80 years old. But it has got some of the gold plating has come away at the shoulders and things like that. But other than that is in pretty good condition.
It’s a real showpiece. We keep it in a safe, because it’s almost invaluable. As far as we know, the only one that was awarded to a newsreel. Because newsreels sort of died out by about the mid 1970s, it’s quite a special Oscar.
The other interesting story with it is that because of the war, Ken G Hall received a gunmetal Oscar as a temporary Oscar. He had that for a couple of years. After 1945, it was actually replaced with the real thing. We often wondered where that temporary Oscar went. And we only found out recently, through Ken G Hall’s relatives that it was actually given to a friend of his so there is that temporary Oscar floating about in Australia as well.
Platform shoes from Priscilla – documents and artefacts conservator Shingo Ishikawa
We have a wide range of fantastic costumes from Priscilla. We were working on the 25th anniversary of Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert event at the Film and Sound Archive and we were fortunate enough to have Tim Chappel, one of the costume designers from the movie to join us. We had a good discussion about the behind the scenes story of how the costumes were made. The rubber thong dress is such an iconic piece and he was telling us a story about the budget for the movie was so small that he had asked his mother who was working at Kmart to get staff discounts so he could buy a whole bunch of rubber thongs using her staff discount and then they put this put the thongs together to create this fantastic outfit and shoes and also a handbag.
Tim Chappel was telling us an interesting story. Because the shoot happened in middle of nowhere in the outback, he had to make all of this costume beforehand. But by the time they got to the location, the heat of the trip melted a lot of the components of the costume so he had to quickly whip together the whole new set of costumes with found objects and things like that.
You can just imagine working under that kind of stressful situation. You can you can see in every costume, if you look closely you can see the little alterations that happened here and little fixes that happen there on the go and you can sort of pick those things when you’re looking at it but it was so nice to actually hear the story from the designer.
1930s aluminium record – curator Tamara Osicka
This little disc, which is about five inches, or the same size as a CD was made in an automatic booth. So if you think about those passport photo booths, there used to be booths that you could go in and make a sound recording just like this. This was made in Harrods department store in London in 1935. And the person would step into the booth put in their 25 cents and pick up the microphone and make a 60-second recording. This disc would pop out with the little envelope designed for you to send the disc and if you can look closely you can see it says “To Melda, Happy Birthday from Grandma, 1935”. So these amateur sound recordings or home recordings are interesting because they’re the voices of ordinary people.
This particular recording is grandmother Marie who couldn’t be at Melda’s birthday party – Melda was turning three. So she made a recording, sending her birthday wishes and her apologies that she couldn’t be there, and telling her a little bit about the present that she was sending her. I think it’s a beautiful personal recording.
What was particularly moving for me was that Melda never heard this recording until the archive digitised it 84 years after it was recorded. Not all families at this time,1935, had a record player. I don’t know why in all those years that they never managed to play it after that, but it took the family bringing this little disk to the archive and then us digitizing it, for Melda to hear her grandmother’s voice and her message 84 years later.
The standard needles that you had on record players at that time would have scratched the disk. It’s made of soft aluminium, so that’s why you had to play it using special wooden needles. And I think what’s nice, too, is it’s not just the voices of ordinary people, but it’s also to hearing the language that we’ve used and how that’s changed over time. I think that’s quite precious.
Halloween Harry – assistant curator Chris Arneil
My item is the 1993 video game Halloween Harry, which I used to play as a kid. I would go on to the computer to play this game and be this beefy guy running around killing aliens, and zombies. I had the demo version which I only found out was the thing later on. You would just play the first level and then you would have to send a check away in the mail to get the other three levels, which I could never do because I was eight. But I would play it and I’d have no idea that it was made in Brisbane by a guy in his early 20s who quit a job at Telstra that he hated and decided to make a new version of a game that he had made in high school.
It was when I started at the archive 10 years ago, I was quite surprised that no one in Australia was taking video games seriously. Given that they were a big part of my childhood when we talk about Australia’s audiovisual history, I think they’re a big part of that. And a big part of the culture too, especially as an industry now they make more than most of the other industries combined. So, when we started collecting games last year, I was chosen to be on the team of six people figuring out how to archive them, how do we preserve them how to make them accessible in the future.
I was looking at lists of Australian games just going OK where do you start? What are the ones that people remember? And I found Halloween Harry on the list and all these memories came back with like, this is kind of why I came here in the first place to work and it’s great that we’re finally taking them seriously. That whole time I had no idea it was made by a guy slightly north of me kind of following a similar but slightly different track to me as well. So I got to meet him as part of this. Collect material from him, have a chat to him, find out circumstances in which he made it and it was like this really powerful moment.
People in the games industry, they’re quite kind of often hidden behind the games they’re creating and Australian games are interesting because, like this, you wouldn’t be able to tell at all that this is an Australian game because it was published by an American company. It changed its name from Halloween Harry to Alien Carnage the year after it came out, and it was inspired by all of these you know 80s movies like Alien and stuff like that so it doesn’t have an overall Australianness but I think it is important because it represents Australia on kind of world stage in audiovisual media.
Digitising the collection – video preservation specialist Richard Vorobieff
I’m responsible for preserving videotapes. Tapes started in 1956 with the Ampex two-inch video recorder, and that goes right up till the very end of the tape, which is the Sony HD cam, special resolution, the SR tape. And so it’s from 1956 to about 2012.
This is essential, and this is why the archive is here. To collect it, and to preserve it, so that we can then use. It’s essential that we do it and do it well because we want it to be kind of like a time capsule that covers the whole of our history. And that’s not just the tape itself, or the content of those tapes. It’s also the objects, for example, we’ve got really beautiful radios and radiograms and wirelesses and old video recorders.
I sometimes call it a sort of stored potential. It’s like energy, and it’s really precious.
The big problem with digitising is for every one minute of replay, you have one minute of record on the other side. And there’s no turbo button, you can’t speed it up. So to copy it, a tape takes one hour to copy and record. If you’ve got one person doing that, that’s one hour. What we’ve got now is a new capture device where you can record four tapes at once. So in the space of one hour, you can record four hours. And because we’ve got more of these machines, we’ll be able to record more content.
There are certain brands and certain types of video stock that we have trouble with. Those we have to put in an oven and we bake them overnight and sometimes a bit longer. And that helps them to go from being sticky tape back to videotape. And then we put them on a special cleaner that removes any loose videotape oxide, and dust and rubbish. When we’re satisfied, we put it in the machine, press play, do our lineup, make sure it’s perfect and looks good. If we’re happy with it, hit record and capture it.
During both from my time in television, and to now – so 10 years – I’ve watched on an extraordinarily huge amount of television that seems to be mostly news because that seems to be predominantly what a lot of broadcasters keep and the archive has a very big news collection. But here it’s a lot more diverse. So we’ve got home movies, we’ve got people’s recordings off the television, we have content like dramas and soap operas and things the broadcasters have donated, and that we preserve and share. So you name it and I’ve probably seen it or copied it or seen someone else copying it.