Online archive copy of Newsletter 32 which was a printed newsletter:
Pres letter May
You will have read in last month’s newsletter, that Sophie Meyrick and Michael Church have both resigned from the Melbourne Committee. I personally want to thank them both for their enormous contribution to the ASE. I want to especially thank Sophie, who took over the helm last year when Roberta Horslie had to withdraw because of illness. Sophie has done a colossal amount of work for the ASE especially in organising THE FIRST ASSEMBLY: A POST PRODUCTION FORUM in Melbourne last year. She has also offered invaluable advice and support to me, which I will really miss.
However, although Sophie says her ’days as a drab committee member are over’ she has not disappeared entirely. She and Michael continue to represent the ASE on an inter guild committee that came out of last year’s Forum. Once it is underway she will report back to the ASE via the newsletter. She sounds extremely excited and so we look forward to hearing from her in the future. Thanks Sophie.
Fade to Black update
Talking about conferences, after months of frustrating timetable negotiations, the AGSC (Australian Guild of Screen Composers) has succeeded in organising a get together of reps from guilds and associations involved in the 1995 FADE TO BLACK Conference for an ’Information Exchange’. I will be attending along with past President Henry Dangar and Administrator Helen Martin. Hopefully the gathering will address how far we’ve come in four years, what recommendations were realised and what issues are in need of attention. We intend to raise issues such as Editor consultation, Scheduling, Contracts, Wages, Assistant positions, Training and the possibility of an Academy. I will report on that meeting next month.
This month’s reminder to all is that Superannuation is every worker’s right. 7% of your gross wage must be paid into an approved fund and is in ADDITION to your gross wage.
Til next time.
Saturday 17th April 10:00 - 18:00 - Gunpowder
One day hands on training course
Mac literacy, file management, tips and techniques
We started the “Basic AVID Media Composer” training day by being greeted by Peter Bradstock and Roger Grant in the reception of Gunpowder in Crows Nest.
We introduced ourselves to our trainers Jacomiene Betlem (Jackie) and Leigh Elmes and to each other Mark Graham, Petros Manalopoulos,
Peter Somerville, Stephane Zerbib and myself Andrew Bambach. After commenting on the distinct lack of female participants on this day, we split up into two groups and settled into our edit suites.
I ended up in the off-line suite downstairs with Jackie. I was with a guy who worked with the ABC( in accounts) and wanted to become an editor and a guy who trained others on Media 100 and who owned a FAST non-linear edit system. I come from a linear editing background and I own an AVID MCXpress on NT.
The first thing we covered was basic Mac literacy; i.e. keyboard top right button to start, desktop settings, file management, disks etc.
Shortly after starting Peter delivered for the first of many times
throughout the day, some nice strong coffee and some cakes.
We then went through the procedure of starting up media composer, setting up new projects and changing the user settings to suit
yourself. We then set up bins and the digitise video tools settings
and logged some rushes from “Deadheart” off Betacam SP, which we then batch digitised. Jackie then demonstrated the interface layout, how to assign shortcuts to keys, keyboard shortcuts, the effects pallet, title tool, transitions, insert edits, overlays, adding tracks, trimming, synching etc.
Lunch was then served by our Gunpowder host, Peter (it was prepared by his wife - a caterer). The first course was a meat stew with potato followed with a date pudding and ice-cream in a caramel
sauce and washed down with a coke. We sat around and talked about kine transfers, video verus film and the millennium bug.
After lunch Peter delivered coffee to our suites and we all took turns booting up from scratch and editing a sequence, adding transition effects and basically working with the keyboard shortcuts.
We were working on a Media Composer version 5.5, so the more sophisticated features available on the latest PCI based models. Bearing that in mind my main impressions of an off-line media composer on a Mac compared to working on MCXpress on NT are these:
1) MC is the industry standard as is the Mac.
2) MC has the ability to add multiple (24) video and audio tracks and MCX only has 2 video and four audio tracks.
3) High end MC can edit at 24fps (but then again so can the high end Xpress NT)
4) MC does not have easy adjustment of the input level of audio (unless you use an external audio mixer).
5) MC (ver 5.5) does not rubberband the audio, but version 6.x plus do.
6) MC (ver 5.5) does not play out more than 2 audio tracks because of the audio card used. PCI versions of the MC play out 4 or more tracks.
7) MC makes it difficult to identify and move around media from one drive or partition
to another. It does not have a Media Library as in MCX which means the media can be identified by the same file name you have given the clip.
I should point out that the editing I do on MCXpress NT is usually both off-line and on-line at the same time, so comparing against an off-line composer is a bit unfair.
At the end of a very informative day we were presented with a folder of Media Composer technical notes, including Apple System Error Codes, Keyboard Shortcuts, backing up to floppy, retrieving bins from the attic, database reconstructing on launch of Media Composer, rebuilding the desktop file, deleting unused precomputes to free up space and what’s in the attic all courtesy of Gunpowder’s Peter Bradstock.
One final note on courses run by ASE is how to pay for them. Courses are generously provided by editors and post houses such as Gunpowder and Island Films, with the ASE providing catering. These courses are presently free, however a donation box was placed during our course. I think that a nominal up front fee would be a better way of recouping some money, whether it is $50 or $100, participants would be aware of the cost before hand. The ASE would be interested in your comments.
In Your Face Productions
This article is reproduced from the MPSE web site/Editors’ Net
Digital Video: The New Aesthetic
By Elif Cercel
Monday April 26, 1999,
Fledgling filmmakers packed into a comedy club on Sunset Blvd. on a Sunday afternoon last week for a panel on digital filmmaking -- many of them already sold on the notion. Digital Video (DV), after all, promises dramatically low production costs and greater creative control, and trend-setting films like "The Celebration" and Oscar-nominee "The Farm" have helped to spread the word fast in the independent film community.
But the session, part of the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival that ran from April 15 through April 20, offered a sobering look at issues arising from the treatment of video and audio as digital data. They ranged from camera choices and desktop editing to crewing and transfer to film.
The event's message was, there's more to DV than 'grab-your-camcorder-and-go.'
On the panel were Michael Backes, co-founder of the interactive software company, Oxonian and the AFI Digital Media Studies program; Patrick Lindenmaier from Swiss Effects, a high-tech video-to-film transfer facility; Bennett Miller, director of the DV documentary, "The Cruise;"
Peter Broderick, president of Next Wave Films, a company that provides finishing funds to low-budget projects; and Sharon Sklr, head of Blow Up Pictures, a production facility specializing in DV projects. Jonathan Wells, editor of RES Magazine for digital filmmaking, was on hand to moderate.
"It's very exciting, the way power has shifted from the financiers to the filmmakers," said Broderick who believes that DV is challenging the old model of writing a script in isolation and finding a third party to finance the project. In his view, low-cost technology has given filmmakers
more creative control by allowing them to assess their resources and
choose equipment, crews and labs.
"We are seeing good features being done for a couple of thousand dollars,"
Broderick added. Next Wave, backed by the Independent Film Channel, recently funded "The Last Broadcast" a feature shot digitally and edited on a desktop system for a budget of $900. Broderick offered the DV
Filmmaker's Handbook, as well as the British publication, Sight & Sound as a useful resources for would-be filmmakers
Features like "The Last Broadcast" and Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration," according to Wells, are examples of work that is creating "a new aesthetic" through the use of DV.
"It would be a shame if all we did was make films in the style we've been doing in the past 100 years," said Wells, who has led discussions at Sundance and AFI and launched ResFest, an annual forum specifically intended for DV projects.
Non-narrative features have also been at the forefront of the DV trend and a spate of documentaries were mentioned by the panelists, including "The
Farm" and an upcoming animated documentary, "The Roadhead."
One the few to win theatrical distribution is Miller's documentary, "The Cruise" which was acquired by Artisan after it premiered at last year's LAIFF. The film went on to win an award at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival.
Miller discussed the freedom, inconspicuousness and intimacy with the subject that he gained from shooting his film solo with a hand-held Sony DCR-VX1000 camera (also known as a mini-DV). The VX1000 is a popular
choice which offers high image quality with 500 lines of resolution. From his perspective, he said, "It really helps not to be a spectacle." He is currently developing a television special with Ira Glass, the producer of the popular public radio program, "This American Life." "The Cruise" was transferred to Beta SP and edited online onto digital Beta and color-corrected in the same format.
Lindenmaier, whose company is working on the upcoming documentary "Saltman of Tibet," warned, "It's a mistake to think you can do everything from
camera work to editing, alone. You can get overloaded with technical problems." He recommended that filmmakers give careful consideration to the choice between the PAL or NTSC standard, and should set aside time for tasks like checking tapes for dropout -- a common problem in the digital medium, he stressed. "Saltman of Tibet" was shot on the DV1000, which offers the standard 1394 interface (Firewire link).
European facilities like Swiss Effects, which currently transfers up to four films a month to film, are at the center of the DV trend in part because of the appeal of PAL, the 25 frames per second standard which is closer to 35mm film than its 24 frames per second, U.S. counterpart. (When transferred to film, video captured in PAL results in a 4% reduction in speed).
Letters to the editor:
Firstly let me say I'm sorry that you took offence to my story about the AFC seemingly promoting a preference for cutting on sprockets. Let's both take heart that many have been only grateful for "the most entertaining newsletter" for ages!
I'm a little perturbed that you think that I'm uninformed when you know I spend every day, as I have for the last twenty years, talking to editors and producers about post production.
I can assure you I have no personal agenda on this issue. Please note I made it clear that the AFC suggested I present my views to the ASE. I have no sour grapes about either Bored Olives nor A Wreck A Tangle not coming to our facility. I had many discussions with Nick Myers about his preferred choice for "Bored Olives". I respect his decision to cut on film and he knows I do. Likewise I talked to Shawn. I know he prefers Avid to Lightworks and until only recently Lightworks was all we offered.
My story was about an issue which affects editors, and that's why I wrote it for the ASE. ( I admit I also promised Paul Healy I would put my pen where my mouth was).
I have a concern that precedents are being set about post methodology with dubious rationale. I realise I'm treading on thin ice, and I have tried to choose my words carefully...but frankly ...what's happening worries me. In the past few weeks more has come to hand that reinforces where I'm coming from. For reasons unknown to me it feels like cutting non linear has aquired a bad reputation with the AFC and with respect I think any kind of blanket approach on post is crazy.
Like you (and all of us), the bottom line is to make the best movie we can with what's available. Of course the choice was yours. My concern was that it stays that way for everyone.
Letters to the Editor
Thank you for your balanced and sharp response. At least you have been hearing the same kind of things as I have.
I agree entirely with your feelings about screening cuts on film. I can say though that over the past couple of years, most features we have done have appeared to get by quite well with two or three film screenings (35mm). I guess the fact remains...for whatever reason, most people are now cutting features non linear.
I must point out that I did not actually say I would never cut on sprockets again. (although I admit it is extremely unlikely). What I did say was, that Tim Wellburn has a splicer that is engraved "never again". Thinking about this, I wonder if it was because it was one of those American ones which are quite dangerous.....
Anyway.... regarding my rash statement that no experienced editor would go back to sprockets......it should have read "numerous more experienced editors ..."
. My apologies to all experienced editors who still cut on film.
My statement about the stone age was meant to refer to the equipment...not the method. This was also my error. Please excuse!
(Makes me wonder if I ever want to write to the ASE again without running it by the solicitor!).
EditorsNet: Interview with Zach Staenberg, Editor, "The Matrix"
By Elif Cercel
Thursday April 1, 1999.
This article is reproduced from the MPSE web site/EditorsNet
Zach Staenberg, A.C.E., just completed editing the Warner Bros. film, "The Matrix." Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski ("Bound"), "The Matrix" takes place in a universe run by computers using human beings as batteries for bio-electrical energy. This power fuels the artificial intelligence known as The Matrix, which has created a virtual reality to make its inhabitants think they are living happy, creative and productive lives. There are, however, a few human beings -- including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) -- who have broken free from the Matrix and are searching to destroy it, recruiting Neo (Keanu
Reeves) along the way.
Staenberg, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, began his career as a production assistant on Brian DePalma's "The Fury." On his next feature,
"The Omen II," he became an apprentice editor and, from that experience, decided to concentrate on editing. Among his film credits are "Police Academy," "Nowhere to Run" and, of course, "Bound." Most recently he edited "Phoenix," with Ray Liotta, for director Danny Cannon ("Judge Dredd.")
Staenberg's next project is "The Crossing," directed by Robert Harmon, with whom Staenberg has collaborated frequently, most recently on HBO's "Gotti," for which he received an A.C.E. Eddy award and an Emmy
How would you put this film, given its level of sophistication and amount of visual effects, in context with your other work?
Editing this movie was really no different from editing "Bound," my first movie with the Wachowski Brothers. This particular movie was just a little more complex, but it was the same edit. I know that may sound funny, but it's actually the truth. Most editors resent being typecast, but just because you haven't done a film this complex doesn't mean you can't do it.
I try to put one foot in front of the other, keep working to make each
film better and better.
In some ways, when you have the luxury of a big budget like this one and other things associated with that, some things are actually easier. For example, you might have more coverage. I think, up to a certain point, it's often easier to edit a scene if there is more coverage, instead of trying to figure out how to squeeze a limited amount of coverage to do certain things. Generally speaking, I find that the more film you've got the better off you are.
There comes a point on some of these movies where you have millions of feet of film and it can be too much. This film printed about 500,000 feet of film, which isn't an enormous amount. It's probably a little above average, but I didn't think it was huge.
If you were to break it down, how much of that was live-action material and how much was visual effects?
There are some very simple visual effects, things like wire removals, sky fixes, etc., and at the other end of the spectrum are shots which are pure CG. There are about 100 to 150 composite shots in the movie which are
anywhere from very simple composites like a two element greenscreen to very elaborate composites with five, six or eight elements in them, including possibly some animation, like the spoon-bending scene. I worked
with a visual effects editor, Kate Crossley, on this movie, but the
directors and I picked all the shots that went into the composites. Kate
did a terrific job managing the visual effects because it was a huge job.
If I had to break it down I would say that probably about 400,000 feet of it was stuff I had to really actively deal with. But even then a lot of the remaining 100,000 feet were greenscreens in which the actor is acting, and they have to be selected. There are sequences where I would edit them together as greenscreens because they still have to match. When Neo is
jumping off a building you have to know that the shot, the A side and the B side, are going to work together.
How challenging was the process of combining the live action and the visual effects?
It was very challenging. It was a new way of working for me. As I was editing a scene I would quickly realize that I was going to re-edit it as I got more advanced in the shot -- as the shot started taking more form. I was doing that right up to last week.
Basically, you get a shot in, maybe something you had certain expectations for, like the environment the action was taking place in. In some cases, the environment would be so stunning that I would want to give the shot 16 frames more at the head because I didn't want to give it up, it was so beautiful, I had never seen it before.
For example, in one of the shots, the hero ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, comes through this tunnel and Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, says to "set it down on the other side." You see the ship passing through a large pit and going across it to the other side. When the final CG version came
in, about two weeks before we were totally wrapped, I ended up adding about 24 frames at the head of the shot, which is a significant amount, because it looked so great. Up to that point we had been dealing with animatics. The action was exactly the same but we didn't have any atmosphere, light, no feeling for the actual environment and what the pit and tunnels would look like. I just cut it as an action beat using the animatic as my guide. Visual effects shots are a constantly evolving process, and you have to be flexible.
Some of the most interesting scenes were in the martial arts or fighting sequences which are interspersed throughout the film. What techniques were used to create the different looks and pace of these scenes and how did you approach the editing?
Scenes like that are very carefully choreographed. In order to get that level of performance, you really have to plan it out very carefully. The main challenge in that is there are multiple cameras and a lot of overlapping action in the heads and tails of shots. There were never long takes like you would find in a dialogue scene, where you shoot a minute of
film. All the takes on that stuff are from 10 to 25 seconds long. They are short bits of film. Pace in those sequences comes from the editing.
In the dojo training sequence and the subway fight, outside of wire removal, there is one example of a visual effects shot we call "recursive action." You see the same image many times, like a fist coming at you, shadowing itself. Those were fairly complex shots that came in late. One of the dojos did not come out exactly as we had planned, though -- in the eleventh hour we cut it shorter and it still works just great.
One of those scenes, the training scene where Neo is being programmed to fight, has a very interesting speed effect. Did you use any special
techniques editing that scene? How did you use slow-motion?
It is really hard to quantify that question. There are no special
techniques like "we used technique 96 there or method 405." It's basically just a matter of feeling it. You know when you have done it right. You have to be aware of the rhythms of the entire scene and where the scene will sustain a 300-frames-per-second shot. You
can't always do that. 300 frames is really slow and we have a number of 300-frame shots in there. It is really almost a dance the way that
particular one was shot. It is much more like a Fred Astaire dance number than like a typical Western fight scene, so you have to cut it as such.
Did the Wachowski Brothers use Hong Kong filmmaking as a reference point?
Yes, they gave me a lot to look at. I watched quite a few really great Hong Kong films. We had a fight choreographer named Yuen Wo Ping who has directed and choreographed many Hong Kong action films. He is a familiar name to devotees of that genre, one of the greats.
How did you go about editing the helicopter crash sequence, and how did you collaborate with John Gaeta and the visual effects team?
That's a very interesting scene, because I kept revising constantly as I got deeper into the visual effects. One of the most spectacular parts is where the helicopter actually crashes into the building. The crash itself was shot with very large miniatures. They weren't really miniatures at all, they were between 2/3" and 3/4" scale. In other words, they built a helicopter at 2/3" scale and created a massive explosion. The cameras had to be in bunkers. They cleared the area for about a quarter of a mile all around, literally.
Those shots basically became the backplates, the bottom or anchor element.
Those are all very extensive
composites. For instance, in the crash, the skeleton of the building and the explosion were all real, but the building didn't have any of its skin or glass on it. That was all added in CG. The helicopter didn't have any rotors, there were no human beings in the shot, obviously the heroine wasn't hanging from a rope. A lot of the shots of the Keanu Reeves character were over his shoulder towards the other building that was exploding. Those were all composited in. He is really standing on a greenscreen.
Our visual effects supervisor, John Gaeta, works extensively with computer-generated animatics, and he used little figures that look like little crash test dummies. He would create the shot as to what he thought it would look like based on his conversation with the directors, and give me a version of it on video. We call it an animatic or previsualization,
depending on what the material actually consisted of or what stage it was at. In the helicopter crash scene, I would cut these animatics and integrate them into the sequence. I would then show it to him and to the directors and ask them if we could be on a certain spot a little bit longer, so we
could get from her swinging to him pulling her up, or if we were a little bit more over his shoulder and the camera was a little bit higher. Since it's essentially a virtual shot in the end you can put your camera wherever you want to put it in the compositing. We had it worked out, using those methods, very carefully so when they finally did the big explosion they placed their cameras at very precise places based on the cut we had created, which had become a blueprint. When they actually shot it, they were simply making a fully-realized version of what we had
already cut together in a working environment on the Avid.
Did you start doing this process during the dailies?
Yes, we started doing it immediately. When I went to Sydney I hired an excellent first assistant editor, Peter Scaret(sic). He is terrific with the Avid. He is very fast and very skillful at putting these composites together, which became a very important function.
So you would have these shots approved by the director?
Could you describe the actual setup you had and how the work was divided up between the various members of your team and the visual effects team?
We had three Avids: One for me, one for Peter and one for visual effects. We were on a pretty advanced Fibre Channel sharing system called Transoft. We were all linked up. All the Avids were connected to the same towers, to the same drives. We had about 270 GB of storage available. We had plenty of room to put anything we wanted at a very high AVR rate. I mixed 6S and 8S. I used 8S when I felt I needed to see things really clearly.
Did you screen the film on video?
Both. Basically, we printed film in the dailies, telecined the workprint and used this to get film into the Avid. We would telecine it with code numbers. I made my first cut and showed it to the directors on the Avid monitor. We made one test, went through it for about two weeks just to clean things up a little bit and then my assistants conformed that immediately. As I finished reel one, I gave them reel one. They were conforming reel one as I was editing reel two. That pattern continued through the movie.
Depending upon how extensive the work was, they would be one or two days behind me. I would use those days at the end to do things like sound and music.
Was the sound editing team working with you in the same facilities?
No, because we were in Sydney, Australia, and our principal sound editor, Dane Davis, was in L.A. We had him come to Sydney the last week or two of the shoot just to touch base with us and get a feel for everything. From that point forward, we stayed in very close touch and talked every day or two. Mostly he would send us stuff on a hard disk by FedEx overnight. I would ask him for effects and he would send effects. Towards the very end, he was actually sending me entire sequences with little temps he would
create in his studio.
This was really great and served us in two ways. It freed up my staff from having to do a lot of sound stuff, and early on it established a feedback loop between me and the directors and him in terms of refining the sound.
I am very happy with the sound and think that getting him involved that early and getting reactions to stuff that early made a big difference.
What would you say is the most outstanding characteristic of this film?
It's very thought provoking. I don't think it fits a typical structure. It is pretty hard to compare to any other movie.The way so many different genres in the movie are mixed is very innovative. You have a very heavy amount of Kung Fu, which is very well done and very successful. You have a very detailed and rich sci-fi backstory, because it takes place in the future. It's also a movie which has a real spiritual journey, which really means something to the plot of
the movie. I think one of its innovations is that it doesn't abide by any particular genre. It is basically everything that Andy and Larry Wachowski like, kind of a kitchen sink. It really reflects their passions.
Another thing I love about it is that Andy and Larry, along with me, are really craftsmen. Everything in it is really well done and thought out.
What were your favorite sequences? What gave you the most satisfaction to work on in the film?
I have so many favorites. I loved editing this movie. A lot of it is all about editing. This is partly because of how Andy and Larry think. I feel that most of the great directors think editorially, like Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Coppola. I think you can see in the footage of all these guys that they think visually and understand how
editing is going to affect the film. The footage is what I call very
cuttable. From an editor's point of view it is really juicy, you can sink
your teeth into the stuff. There are so many ways you can go with it and
each way is interesting. You don't have to struggle to make something work. It is just a matter of how you make it better. How you get the most out of it, how do you make it sing, how do you make it thrilling. I have so many favorites. I love the Kung Fu scenes because they are all about timing and energy. I loved the power plant scene, where Neo wakes up in the pod. I think it is such an out-there idea. Reel six, I call it reel six, is a giant action sequence and a personal favorite of mine. It's an
incredibly dynamic 20 minutes of film. It is very hard to take a breath. The cuts come fast and furiously. It was really exciting to work on.
I'm just finishing up work today. I think it is close to the end of my
13th month on the movie, my 55th week. In all this time I have felt very privileged to be the only editor on the movie. So often these days on large movies they are on a rush schedule and the only way you can finish them is with multiple editors. I like to work by myself as much as I can.
I personally believe that one person should edit the movie. Editing is a discipline and an art. You can divide it up and work collaboratively with other editors which can often be very successful, but given my druthers I like to work by myself, so I was very happy that I could do this movie
that way and that I was given enough time.If this movie had been for release last Christmas I couldn't have done it and would have to have needed to call out for help.
Who are the Wachowski Brothers? You previously worked with them on "Bound."
Yes, that was their first film and this is their second, which in itself I think is remarkable. Larry and Andy are a couple of guys from Chicago. They are really great guys who I count as friends. Before they got going in movies they worked as carpenters and were pretty good at it. They
started writing scripts and also wrote comics. They have a strong
background in the comic world. Their scripts were immediately recognized as being very good in Hollywood. I don't think it would have been possible for anyone else to direct "The
Matrix." I think it is a totally unique vision.
The year-old technology forum
MITIC (the International Market of Cinema Techniques and Innovations) has carved a place for itself in the Cannes festival schedule, focusing on developments in digital filmmaking, visual effects and distribution.
On display will be new lines of high-definition digital cameras from Sony (HDW700) and the French maker, Thompson. Seminars on new technologies will include representatives from visual effects and post facilities, among them Digital Domain and Cinesite, as well as European-based companies like Centrimage and Kinonet.
The high-point of MITIC will be the presentation of "The Last Broadcast" by Wavelength Releasing, a film shot in digital format, which will be transmitted via satellite and projected digitally.
In response to the who's doing what in Melbourne Cindy Clarkson hasn't fallen through a monitor to a realm where there is always enough time for editing with decent wages and hours for all. No she's still here where the
symbol of Dali's Melting Clock is the truth. Cindy's just started
preproduction on a self financed S16 feature The Merchant of Fairness as picture editor and post production supervisor.
KING OF THE CORAL SEA
An Interview with Lee Robinson
"What's this all about, this directing?" And he said: "Well the best thing to do is to talk to a film editor, they know more about it than anyone."
If Charles Chauvel is the King Vidor of Australian cinema, then Lee Robinson is the Howard Hawkes. Robinson's forte whether in feature film, documentary or in TV drama, has been the narrative action-adventure. His is a masculine world; his heroes are professional men whose work involves grappling with the physical and animal environment as much as it involves dealing with other men. The locations and settings are out of the way, beyond the edges of civilisation. He has an eye and a taste for the exotic. His various projects have led him into the Australian outback of the Northern Territory, to the jungles of New Guinea, to the Pacific and to South-East Asia. In an age of creeping corporatism, his films reconfirm the myth of the rugged, self-reliant individual. His heroes are variously detectives, rangers, pilots, crocodile hunters, divers, soldiers.
Robinson shot his first film footage in 1944/5 and 42 years later he is still going strong. It has been a remarkable career in terms of both the consistency and extent of his output. His work spans a variety of production contexts - from the early work in government documentary in the Film Division of the Department of Information (forerunner to Film Australia); to the feature films made in conjunction with Chips Rafferty; from the TV series of the 1960s and 1970s made in conjunction with John MacCallum; to the shift back into feature films, again with MacCallum, in the context of the expanding Australian film industry of the 1970s. The remarkable consistency of his career, now in its fifth decade, is eloquent testimony to Robinson's energy and professionalism. (Albert Moran)
Moran: How did you come to pin the government documentary film unit?
Robinson: I had a job lined up with the ABC as a radio script writer by way of a fellow I knew very well, John McCloud, the senior script writer. He and Alexander McDonald were the only two official writers at the ABC. I was still in the army. And McCloud said: "Would you be interested to have a go at film." I said "Yes". He said: "I've been approached to go on loan from the ABC to the newly formed National Film Board as a writer. But I'm too old to be getting into a new area. Would you like to have a go?" I said I would. I went to see Ralph Foster who had only just started as the Film Commissioner. Ralph said: "You're the sort of fellow we're after. Can you start next week?" I said sure. I was actually on long service leave from the army. I started the next week with the Film Division. And I was actually being paid twice by the Commonwealth Government for about four weeks as I was still being paid as an army bloke.
Moran: What was your first assignment?
Robinson: I started in January 1946. The first thing I was put onto was doing some research and writing a script on the Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira. I did that through February/March. Foster got involved and did some work on the script. He was a writer too - a former newspaper editor. Then he said: "I think you'd better direct the picture." And I said: "Christ I've got no idea how to direct a picture." And he said "There's nobody around here that does." The only person who had any idea was John Heyer. Foster said: "We've got to start somewhere." So I went and saw Harry Watt who I think was planning to do Eureka Stockade (1949). And I said to Harry: "What's this all about, this directing." And he said: "Well the best thing to do is to talk to a film editor, they know more about it than anyone." But he sat down and told me what overlapping action was, how you watched your left to rights, and general continuity. Harry was very helpful
Moran: What about shooting?
Robinson: I went off to the Northern Territory with Axel Poignant in April or May and we spent quite a lot of time up there. We went out and lived with Namatjira as he toured the country painting. We came back about August and cut the picture in Ralph's flat. It was one of the very first colour films. We couldn't do fades or anything properly. There was some guy who had got a system where you put the original film in and then you took it out. And the speed you took it out gave you a fade. But you couldn't do opticals. We were in King Street originally, in King and York at the ACI building. We didn't have any cutting rooms. The only ones in use were at Supreme Sound in Pitt Street - Merv Murphy's original establishment. But it was geared for 35 mm and the film had been shot on 16 mm. That's why we cut the picture in Ralph's flat. We had a little editing gear so we could do it in the kitchen.
Lots of material that Axel was getting on Kodak Colour was unique. The corroboree sequence in Namatjira the Painter (1947) was put on as a series of corroborees. The Aboriginal people weren't terribly aware of what we were doing as the camera meant nothing to them at all. They did a number of corroborees which we photographed. We couldn't use them because they were too risque at that time. We shot a number of very restricted corroborees which we knew were sacred. There was an amateur anthropologist with us - C.P. Mountford. He made the decision as to which corroboree went into the film. It was only a short segment showing the background of Namatjira and his people. The one that we had intended to put into the film - and we'd arranged it with the Aboriginal people - was an Emu dance. But we ended up with a Wild Dog corroboree - which was very sacred.
Alexander McDonald, the film critic on Smith's Weekly, saw the film - but I am not sure where or how. He wrote a long review, extolling the picture, and saying something had to be done to put it into general commercial release. They did do it. They sent a 16 mm print over to the USA and produced a 35 colour negative from it. The film was the very first post-war documentary to go out into theatrical release. When it played in Alice Springs in the old theatre there, there was all hell to play because a lot of Aborigines were in the audience. As soon as the sequence with the Wild Dog corroboree came on, the fellows were belting the women, knocking them unconscious with anything they could pick up. All because it was sacred material. It created a hell of a fuss in Alice Springs for years after. They got terribly cranky about their sacred corroborees being seen by the women who weren't supposed to see them.
I think Namatjira opened at the State Theatre with Howard Hughes' The Outlaw (1943) with Jane Russell. And that had a tremendous publicity campaign attached to it. It had a long run and consequently so did Namatjira the Painter. It played as a support all over the place.
Moran: What else did you do at that time?
Robinson: Well, Stanley Hawes, the Producer-in-Chief, was doing School in the Mailbox (1946) and most units in the field did something for it. I think we did material where the mail was delivered to the outback station by camel and the kid does his education thing. The flying doctor comes in because a stockman is hurt or something. It gives him the opportunity to send back the
KING OF THE CORAL SEA
An Interview with Lee Robinson
kid's stuff to the correspondence school. So we did all those sequences.
In fact Axel and I had a pretty nasty experience whilst we were at Annenberg Mission - the outbase for Namatjira. We had to go down to Henbury to shoot the material of the boy sending the stuff out by the plane. Axel and I took off from Hermannsburg to go down to Henbury. And the plane got up about 200 feet when something went drastically wrong. The thing crashed to pieces. We got a ride on a wool truck going to the other side of Annenburg into Alice Springs. By that time the news hit the papers in Sydney. And I rang Ralph Foster. The first thing Ralph said: "Is the camera all right?" I said: "Yes, and Axel and I are all right as well."
Moran: You made several films in the Northern Territory?
Robinson: I was fascinated by the Northern Territory. And from then on I worked almost exclusively there. We did three or four pictures there. There was a policy that we should be trying to do things in the Territory. There was also a policy that we should be getting theatrical release. And films like The Pearlers (1949) and The Crocodile Hunters (1949) were regarded as interesting and unusual so having a chance of theatrical release. We had shown with Namatjira that we could put the picture together well enough to get theatrical release. So we continued to do that.
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