Australia in Colour: recolourised film ushers into existence a new kind of fiction

As the new series of SBS’s film revitalisation project airs, Guardian Australia’s film critic considers the consequences of this trend in film-making

Paolo Cherchi Usai – the Italian curator and former head of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) – once put forward an elegant definition of moving image preservation, calling it “the science of gradual loss and the art of coming to terms with its consequences”. Those melancholic words present the dispossession of our celluloid and digital pasts as inevitable, and efforts to maintain them a will-o’-the-wisp exercise: impossible to achieve, like reaching the gold at the end of the rainbow.

But loss is far from the first thing that comes to mind after watching the second season of SBS’s four-part documentary series Australia in Colour. Separated into different themes, the first episode is devoted to family, exploring issues such as changing gender roles, the stolen generations and the arrival of contraceptive pills; the second, about sport, investigates national heroes and drinking culture.

Before and after still from Australia in colour
The first episode is devoted to family, exploring issues such as changing gender roles, the Stolen Generation and the arrival of contraceptive pills.

It is a project of restoration as well as preservation. These practices are linked but, in the words of Australian Centre for the Moving Image digital preservation technician Ben Abbott, “discreetly different concepts”. Like the first season, which arrived in 2019, the film-makers use cutting edge technology to colourise dusty black and white footage supplied by the NFSA, adding fresh modern vitality to motion pictures previously bound by the technology of the time.

This is the central novelty of the series, narrator Hugo Weaving semi-regularly reminding us that these old monochrome visions are now “in colour for the first time”. Australia in Colour belongs to a growing trend of recent historical documentaries that apply colourisation processes including TV productions America in Colour (three seasons, from 2017 to 2020), Auschwitz Untold: In Colour (2020) and Peter Jackson’s 2018 film They Shall Not Grow Old, which restored and embellished first world war footage supplied by London’s Imperial War Museum.

Australia in Colour pledges a dimension of colour that is symbolic as well as literal, matching its newfangled images with the promise of a more culturally diverse and detailed portrait of the past. This includes addressing gaps created by various historical omissions – including a focus on neglected demographics such as the Indigenous population. The passage of time has been politically appropriated, but not in a bad way; rather as an attempt to right previous wrongs.

A still from the second series of SBS’s four-part recolourisation documentary, Australia in Colour.
Australia in Colour pledges a dimension of colour that is symbolic as well as literal – including a focus on neglected demographics such as Indigenous people. Photograph: SBS

In They Shall Not Grow Old, on the other hand, Jackson keeps his focus where it has always been: on men serving on the frontline, rather than groups whose efforts have often been consigned to the historical dustbin, such as women serving in hospitals. Jackson told Guardian Australia in 2018 that this was due to limitations in scope (“you need to do something focused and intensely and do it justice”) but it’s perhaps also because his primary interest lay elsewhere: not in correcting injustices but using technology to pursue visually authentic representations of the past.

The director expressed utter faith in his processes, insisting that “we’re not adding anything that wasn’t there on the day it was shot” but rather “bringing it back to what it was 100 years ago”. But that’s simply not true. As the NFSA website explains, choosing colours and shades to apply to these kinds of productions involves making decisions informed by various sources, from weather records to letters, newspaper reports and interviews with historians. The idea that we are watching the exact colours once observed in real-life is absurd.

So we have an interesting paradox: through the pursuit of historical accuracy the film-makers have ushered into existence a new kind of fiction. Some believe this sort of fiction – born in the era of sophisticated digital manipulation – has altered the very nature of cinema.

Men sitting on some stairs
Choosing colours and shades for recolourisation projects involves making decisions informed by various sources, from weather records to letters, newspaper reports and interviews with historians. Photograph: SBS

In his influential book The Language of New Media, academic Lev Manovich argues that constructing and manipulating images digitally “represents a return to 19th century pre-cinematic practices, when images were hand-painted and hand-animated”. This means that cinema “can no longer be distinguished from animation” because it is now not a technology but rather “a sub-genre of painting”.

It’s hard to disagree when we watch any of the aforementioned colourisation projects (or, for that matter, CGI-slathered blockbusters, with their screensaver-like vistas, stuffed with visual stimuli). While the restored footage is impressive, it has an element of the unreal; the colours look feathery and faded, almost pastel.

Sometimes, as is the case in Auschwitz Untold: In Colour, the colourisation creates unintended psychological effects. This production captures many horrific settings, such as Nazi-run ghettoes and concentration camps, which would be shocking in any format. However, the added colour has given them a softness, a texture that appears gentle and autumnal. Nothing like the harsh, inhumane properties of black and white, which are more emotionally suited to the content. Steven Spielberg once addressed why Schindler’s List was in monochrome, saying: “The Holocaust was life without light. For me, the symbol of life is colour. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black and white”.

There is also the fact that what looks and sounds convincing to contemporary viewers inevitably changes as technologies evolve. Accounts of 19th century audiences running in fear of their lives during a legendary screening of the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat may have been overblown, but viewers of the time would have undoubtedly considered it thrillingly realistic and immersive. As they probably will with the technical achievements of Australia in Colour – which brings, as producer Jo-anne McGowan says, old pictures “into the present in a very vivid and emotional way”.

Before and after stills from the tv series Australia in Colour
Cinema “can no longer be distinguished from animation” because it is now not a technology but rather “a sub-genre of painting”.

We have entered a new era of immersive experiences now, during these nascent years of virtual and augmented realities. VR for instance is being sold with the promise of allowing users to “go anywhere” – including across the space/time continuum. There are already many historical VR experiences, including tours of Anne Frank’s Secret Annex and journeys through concentration camps. And use of AR is increasing rapidly in various sectors, including education, with some classrooms using AR to augment (in more ways than one) history lessons.

In the future, real-world historical sites will use augmented reality overlays to bring to life vivid spatial representations of the past (in fact this process has already begun). In the words of VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña, “the audience will not only be in the middle of the story but they’ll be able to move around within it”. Freed from the tyranny of two-dimensional screens, we will experience volumetric scenes with a dimensional power traditional film and television can never achieve. By that point, the idea of a production spruiking the novelty of turning black-and-white pictures into colour will feel rather quaint.

The makers of these next-gen spatial experiences will need to do their research to make informed decisions about how to accurately render these spaces – not dissimilar to the way colourists consult weather records and history books. Who will keep track of these new kinds of content? How will they be captured, preserved, restored? As artists continue the dialogue between past and future, finding new ways to look forward while looking back, it’s likely the current era of moving image preservation – with all its challenges and consequences, its sense of gradual loss – will feel like the good old days in comparison.

  • Australia in Colour season two starts on SBS and will be available On Demand on Wednesday, 10 March at 8.30pm


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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