The Moving Image:
The History of Film and Television in WA 1895-1985

Edited by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith

The State Film Archives of WA

Jack Honniball

The State Film Archives is a section of the J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History and is located on the third floor of the Alexander Library Building in Perth Cultural Centre. Unti1 1979 it formed part of the State Film Centre, which itself develped out of the Education Department's Audio-Visual Education Branch whose origins go back more than forty years.

During World War II films were widely used used and recognised as an effective medium for training and propaganda purposes, and, as peace approached, the Education Department begun producing short documentaries covering such subjects of contemporary concern as democracy, citizenship and physical a m fitness. It also started encouraging schools and public authorities to acquire 16mm projectors for use not only in the classroom but also by youth groups and organisations in the wider community. For this new sphere of actvity the initial base of operations was two rooms at Perth Technical College and then a number of huts at the rivers edge once they were vacated by the Air Force. A libnary of 'instructional' films was gradually assembled British, American and Australain sources of supply, many ofthem being obtained gratis from government instrumentalities. The Library was soon divided into two collections, one containing the films deemed relevant for schools and the other the titles adjudged more suitable for 'adult' groups.

At the beginning of 1948 the Department raised the little unit to the status of a Branch, and a State Advisory Committee was set up under the Education Act to advise the Minister on all aspects of visual education. Interdepartmental in its composition, the Committee encouraged all government authofities to build up and support the central film library in order to reduce any duplication of acquisitions and to exploit scarce resources more fully. It also came to assist the Supefintendent in selecting the topics of new films to be made locally by the Branch's steadily expanding production component which was designated the Government Film Unit. For its first few years the adult library expefienced 'enormous strain' in coping with the fast-increasing demand from its registered borrowers; the tally of loans levelled out at some 18,000 annually in the early 1950s although by then the stock was little more than 1,000 titles.

In 1958 the multi-faceted Branch moved from the city's doorstep, and a more commodious Audio Visual Aids Centre was established in a former school building in Leederville. There the adult library adoptea the name of State Film Centre in 1961, and at this stage began feeling the effects of the introduction of television; loans stood at a little over 10,000 in the four years 1961-4 until boosted again through the issuing of a new edition of the pfinted catalogue.

A change of Supefintendents at the end of 1966 ushered in a succession of new developments, and in that year's annual report attention was first focussed on the destiny of the considerable quantity of old fllm in store that represented more than twenty years work by the production unit and withdrawals from the dual library.

Yet there were various factors which between them brought about the birth of the State Film Archives. At this time, several people came forward expressing concern for the preservation of the local film hefitage and were armed with first-hand knowledge of film archives elsewhere. Then Western Australia was found to have suffered a not- uncommon tragedy when it abruptly lost forever its most important single collection of local film footage, which had long been kept in private hands. This was the camerawork of Fred Murphy, the state's leading professional of the inter-war years, who had stored the best of his considerable output on a rural property - until one day it fell victim to a match struck by vandals! Some 100,000 feet of nitrate film (about twenty-seven hours of running time) was completely destroyed, though the grievous loss only became public knowledge when an offficer of the Commonwealth Film Unit was working on a new production in Perth and sought to use early footage that Murphy was known to have shot. There was also some dissatisfaction that the National Film Archive had proved so limited in its activity and outreach, for it had undertaken no field- work of any consequence in this state. Perth's great distance from Canberra was always a significant factor; if the state's slender fllm resources were to be safeguarded properly and made conveniently accessible locally, then it was clear that some initiative was called for at base.

In 1967 the Government Film Unit was phased out as such, and Audio-Visual Education Branch's production team thereafter directed its full attention to the needs of the classroom screen, while other government agencies were encouraged to turn to private enterprise for th,eir film-making requirements. At the same time the interdepartmental counsel was replaced by a new State Film Centre Committee, which was charged with two main responsibilities. These were to help direct the film-lending service to community groups and to advise on the disposition of the accumulated archival film. Next the new Committee spawned two sub-committees - one to select films for purchase and the other to foster the State Film Archives. The necessary but minimal staffing for the Centre's library and repository continued to be provided by the Branch until the end of 1976 and then for eighteen months at a different location by the Education Department's Technical Education Division. But it was clear that the steady progress achieved in the early 1970s was not being maintained, and so at the request of the advisory Committee, the Library Board accepted responsbility for the State Film Centre and Archives in July 1978. It found them new accommodation near its own headquarters, affected a considerable improvement in their staffing, and retained the assistance of the advisory bodies for both entities by reconstituting their personnel as sub-committees of the Library Board.

To conclude the historical narrative, suffice it to say that the State Film Centre is now flourishing in purpose-built quarters within the new Library and commands a stock of some 5,000 titles, which includes a steadily growing proportion of videotapes. It can be noted too that Audio-Visual Education's library for schools likewise numbers about 5,000 film and video productions, and from its lately-remodelled base at Leederville now extends to a dozen regional centres. Both libraries additionally retain many titles that have been withdrawn from their current stock and no longer appear in their catalogues.

Western Australia's State Film Archives has no counterpart in the other states and, naturally enough, is quite miniscule in comparison with the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. Its self-defined mandate is to collect, preserve and make available for viewing a comprehensive range of films, videotapes and associated documentation produced in or relating to Western Australia. Over the years it has assembled nearly 10,000 cans of film, but there is much variation in the extent to which the different components of the collection have been brought under proper control. Only 1,670 cans have~ been formally accessioned; of these, 1,152 form the 'preservation Collection', 417 are in the 'viewing collection' and 51 contain old nitrate items that have been retained after copying on to modern safety stock.

The preservation collection is stored in a chamber where temparature and humidity are regulated so as to promote the stock's longevity and to arrest colour-fading. For the most part, it comprises 'original' stock, such as negatives and off-cuts, though positive prints are also numerous. The smaller viewing collection consists chiefly of 16mm prints which are readily available for use within the premises. There is a continuing program for acquiring or producing viewing copies of all the images in the preservation collection.

Most of the accessioned material has subsequently been catalogued in such manner and detail as to allow its full exploitation by the potential clientele, and the cataloguing work represents another continuing program. The 1,670 cans include some 680 specific titles, 140 items of newsfilm and 100 or so reels of 'personal' film.

The titled items mainly comprise documentary, educational and promotional films and, though the great majority run just 10 or 15 minutes, productions of 30, 40 and 50 minutes are not uncommon. Copies are held of practically all the 160 fllms that were made by the Government Film Unit and also of the subsequent output of Audio- Visual Education. Since 1970, an instruction from the Premier has entitled the Archives to receive a complimentary copy of every film made by or for state government agencies, although some of them still require tactful pursuit. In the private sector too, commercial sponsors occasionally deposit a promotional film gratis, and from its limited budget the Archives is able to buy a selection of other commercial productions, generally at print-cost. Some productions of federal agencies relating to this state have also been solicited successfully, notably a number made for the Department of Defence. Many titles produced by Film Australia and the ABC have also been purchased at satisfactory discounts. Western Australia has only ever made a meagre contribution to the realm of fictional or dramatised productions, but the Archives' titled stock includes a dozen featurettes, most of them made in the 1930s, and a handful of recent 'full-length' features such as Harlequin, Road Games and Flashpoint.

The 140 items of newsfilm occupy a little over five hours of running time in total. Fortunately, there is virtually a complete run of the Westralian News series of 1947, and there is a limited number of the all-too-few local segments that appeared in the vast output of the Cinesound and Movietone companies.

Personal or amateur movies have been vigorously pursued and welcomed into stock as a very significant component. Their representatives vary in size from numerous single items to the 27 reels that came from the camera of Sir Frederick Samson, mayor of Fremantle from 1951 to 1972. There is good coverage of the defunct whaling industry and of certain country towns over limited periods. Some of the amateur output is of near-professional standard, such as the extensive coverage of the young city of Stirling in a collection which as yet awaits accessioning.

A noteworthy collection that was obtained in 1983 is one of 2,610 reels of black-and-white 'historical' film which was assembled from varied sources by television station TVW 7, and to it there is adequate access by means of a subject index that came with it. These reels are mostly very short ones, and the fact that they are stored in 269 cans is indicative of a general problem that a film archive faces in presenting useful statistics of its holdings. (Statistics of running-time would probably be the most meaningful to the layman.) Very recently Perth's ABC-Television also presented an impressive collection of 258 cans of 'stock-shot' material. This will doubtless be found to contain a lot of specific subject matter that will be welcome for its own sake rather than merely as 'stock-shot' footage. The Archives is even more indebted to both Channels 7 and 9 for having deposited all their newsfilm for the years 1970 to 1980. The cans are simply stored in date order, and there is a brief list of the contents in each one; thus the only ready approach to what they may contain is by means of the date. When eventually the Archives is able to absorb the television material into its own cataloguing system, it will certainly be seen to include many non-local items which could possibly be found a more appropriate home in another repository elsewhere.

In the past few years the State Film Archives has built up a collection of 155 videocassettes. This format is expected to be used increasingly to provide the duplication of original film for the viewing collection. Moveover, many new productions are being made on videotape alone, and thus a first copy acquired can qualify for the preservation collection. The most substantial acquisition to date is A Land Looking West, the television series in eight one-hour episodes that went to air late in 1983.

The documentation collection embraces a modest but steadily growing quantity of posters, brochures, stills and press-cuttings. By direct inheritance from the Leederville scene of operations, it includes the individual production files for all the under'fakings of the former Government Film Unit, though, strictly speaking, these form a normal record series of a government agency and could arguably be more fittingly stored with the vast realm or original papers that comprise the State Archives proper and are housed on the Library's next floor above. A considerable quantity of overseas literature also comes regularly to hand through the State Film Archives' affiliation - through its Observer status - with the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF); however, some of this is eventually passed over to other divisions of the Library.

No printed catalogue or listing of the stock has yet been produced for general distribution. The vital card catalogue, which is available for ready public use on the premises, is divided into three parts:

(a) a main-entry sequence of titles (embracing surnames in the instances of personal film)

(b) a chronological sequence

(c) an index of analytical entries for subject content, credits and series.

On each main-entry card, the subject content is first described in summary and then in considerable detail. The chronological file shows that dates of production range from lfi907 to 1985. There are just six short pieces that were made prior to the Great War, and only another fifteen, most of them incomplete, for the years 1917 to 1927; thereafter the stock increases fairly steadily year by year, except for a marked decline during the World War. In the det,~il it records, it is clear that the catalogue aims to make the stock accessible by practically every facet and that the cataloguing work is decidely labour-intensive.

In regard to printed catalogues, it can be noted that a total of well over 500 fllms relating either wholly or substantially to Western Australia can be found described in the serial publication Australian Films, which has been issued from Canberra annually since 1959. The State Film Archives holds a good majority of these titles, although many are not yet accessioned. About 250 pertinent titles are also listed in the printed catalogue of the State Film Centre and are readily available for loan to the Centre's registered borrowers and for viewing in situ. Though the State Film Archives itself makes no loans, it offers its viewing stock for screening within its own premises whenever a member of staff is in attendance, which is generally from 9 am to 5.30 pm on weekdays; however, intending users are strongly advised to ring first in order to discuss their needs and make appointments for any viewing sessions. Although the Archives has lately acquired a telecine transfer unit amongst its fine range of new technical equipment, it remains without the necessary staff to operate it, and consequently any copying of footage for its clientele has still to be done at an external laboratory (of the Archives' choice and at the applicant's expense). However, requests for true 'stock-shot' material cannot be accepted, and enquirers are therefore referred to organisations which cater for this demand, such as Film Australia and Cinesound-Movietone. Film producers can also supplement the moving image of the past with still photographs from the substantial resources of the Battye Library's Pictorial Collection which is housed adjacent. The rights of donors and copyright holders are strictly obiserved, and it is the applicant's responsibility to obtain any necessary approval or clearance. In the past few years several advertised public screenings have been held in order to show something of the wealth of material held in the State Film Archives, and these are expected to increase in frequency now that the Library possesses a well- equipped theatre of its own.