Film Australia's Outback

Producer/director/editor Denise Haslem writes about the making of the DVD.

Denise Haslem

Film Australia's Outback began with the "simple" idea of transferring a selection from Film Australia's acclaimed archive onto DVD to celebrate the Year of the Outback. However by the time it was completed, the DVD had incorporated documentaries, drama, animation, interviews with filmmakers, biographies, "on location" stories, production stills, a 20-page booklet featuring synopses of all the films and a web link. The DVD had grown to become a comprehensive, entertaining and unique history of documentary filmmaking in Australia's remote areas.

When producer Denise Haslem scanned Film Australia's database for films with outback themes, she discovered over 100 titles dating back to images of camel trains travelling across the central desert in 1913.

Says Denise, "I've been working as a contract editor at Film Australia since 1982 and I'd seen a lot of footage from the library reused in other films as archival material, so I had some awareness of the history of the films - I'd even worked with some of the filmmakers. But it was a wonderful surprise to discover the quality and range of work that had been produced."

"I wanted Film Australia's Outback to honour not just the works but also the filmmakers whose creativity changed what were essentially 'government department' films into important and often extraordinarily beautiful documents about the history of our land and the people who live in isolated parts of this vast country."

The production team had a strict set of criteria for selection: Did the film have a strong story and interesting characters? Did it have historical and social context or contemporary relevance? Did it have background material available from Film Australia's photo and production archive? Were there people, such as filmmakers or historians, who could speak to the film? However, choosing the final 14 programs from so many interesting programs proved extraordinarily difficult.

Many of the films from early last century such as the classic tourist film, The Heart of Australia (made in 1928), had little documentation or production stills. But collectively so many wonderful photographs with an outback theme were uncovered, that Denise decided to make a special photo gallery montage called Snapshots. A script extract and storyboard were found to add to the website.

Once the final selection of films was made, the filmmakers could be contacted, but tracking them down required a bit of detective work.

Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Dean Semler was shooting in Prague, but phoned in to say that he would love to be interviewed and introduce the DVD. He had worked at Film Australia throughout the 1970s and was a key participant as the collection of outback films that he'd worked on included Saturday, which he had directed, and Where Dead Men Lie and Outback Supply, which he had shot.

He gave generously of his time to provide many revealing behind-the-scenes stories of filming on location in the outback.

"I was very lucky to be asked to shoot Where Dead Men Lie...this to me was like shooting Lawrence of Arabia. To be able to go out into the Australian desert and shoot 35 mm for the first time in the classic Australian outback, this was heaven to me, it was just heaven. I was so excited I was like a kid in a lolly shop."

Many other filmmakers agreed to come to Film Australia's Lindfield studio for interviews. Their stories are part of the special features of the DVD with the transcripts of their interviews made available through the web link

Internationally acclaimed artist Jeannie Baker, whose animation, The Story of Rosy Dock is included in full on the DVD, explains the inspiration for her film.

"In the desert I couldn't help but notice a very distinctive red plant, distinctive because it was red and it was beautiful, and I was told it wasn't native to Australia, in fact, it had come from the Middle East... So I started asking questions: what happens to the native plants and the native animals and the birds in places like this? What can they exist on?"

Renowned ethnographic filmmaker, Ian Dunlop spoke about his love affair with the outback and his film, Desert People (1966).

"I thought the desert would be something like the Sahara, you know, bare sand hills. And I went out into this absolutely beautiful country, the beautiful red soil, the rugged red rocks above the hills, and it just blew my mind. I thought, this is the most beautiful country in the world... And the other thing, and very importantly, is the people of the outback, whether they be nomadic Aboriginal people or maybe the people on the land, farmers, they have a certain closeness to the land and it's interesting, I think, meeting and working with these people. And for me, meeting some of the last Aboriginal families who were living a nomadic life in the desert, it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life and certainly one of the greatest privileges I've ever had."

By contrast, David Batty, who is based in Broome, gave a hilarious recounting of his recent experience co-directing the acclaimed Bush Mechanics series with Warlpiri filmmaker Francis Jupurrula Kelly from Yuendumu in the Northern Territory.

Lee Robinson, who produced the Skippy series in the 1960s, readily agreed to talk about Outback Patrol (1952) and the pleasure of working with iconic Australian actor, Chips Rafferty who narrated the film.

"Outback Patrol was a pet subject of mine...I decided to do it out in the Harts Range, which was out a couple of hundred miles from Alice Springs. It was a horse patrol area, and it was policed by a relatively young fellow and he was married with two little girls and a beautiful wife who'd originally been Miss Northern Territory...There was always a great sense that this story has got to be told. Apart from finding the subject matter absolutely absorbing, the outback presented us with something that Hollywood couldn't challenge."

Denise edited many of the films, remaining true to the integrity of each original story but with the intention of pushing the limits of the DVD technology to allow the maximum coverage of a century of filmmaking. The preview, snapshots and interviews were also edited. This was the most rewarding and difficult stage, as the interviews were rich with material, and in the end, she wanted to do an individual DVD for each filmmaker!

From the beginning of the design approach of Film Australia's Outback, Denise was determined to avoid the "dead spots" of so many DVDs, where the screen goes blank while loading a new menu item. She worked closely with CDP Media to produce an innovative and dynamic interface that creates transitions using short videos featuring a moving panorama of production stills. Each film is also given a dynamic map that shows the viewer the film's outback location. On-screen biographies give short summaries of the highlights of the filmmakers' careers, together with a 20-page colour booklet that gives a synopsis of every film.

With all the audio, video and design components completed, the DVDs were ready for authoring and encoding. After thorough testing, any little bugs were ironed out and the results look remarkable. According to Denise, the quality of the images is stunning - thanks to the Film Australia Library working to retransfer material to restore it to pristine condition.

She adds, "I am pleased that Film Australia will continue to transfer many of its titles to DVD with behind-the-scenes information. Giving a context to the viewing experience is fantastic. It will really expand the accessibility and longevity of what is an extraordinarily valuable collection of films."