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NOYCE, PHIL: NEWSFRONT DVD

SAVE IT DIGITALLY
Restoration of Australian film classics with new 35 mm prints is very good – but storing them digitally is even better, Phil Noyce tells Andrew L. Urban, as his 1978 feature, Newsfront, is released on DVD.

Phil Noyce, mobile phone at the ear, is lumbering across the lot at Fox Studios in Sydney, tracking across the autumn leaves strewn on the ground between Stage 3 and the café in the Frank Hurley Grandstand Building which serves modern breakfast. (The toast is large baguette slices and the bacon is trimmed of rind.) The image is symbolically striking for two reasons.

One: Noyce is one of Australia’s first round filmmakers of the 1970s, who has since become an internationally renowned director. At the time, there was no film industry, never mind a studio lot like Fox. He is now back home making two films back to back (in post production on Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American). His towering presence on the Fox lot symbolizes both the maturity of Australian filmmaking and the benefit of the facility in the service of an Australian filmmaker.

Two: We are sharing breakfast to talk about the DVD release of the restored Newsfront, Noyce’s second feature (after Backroads) and perhaps his most seminal work as an Australian director. The reason this is symbolic is that the process of restoring the film was the process that preceded the arrival of DVD as a mainstream medium of force, and may well be recognized in due course as the trigger for the digital storage of other Australian classics.

“In another 20 years, those restored films will again be fading…”

Over our lightly fluffy scrambled eggs and espresso, Noyce talks passionately about his concern that many Australian films are going to disintegrate if we don’t rescue them. “It’s one of my bugbears,” he says. “I’ve told them [ScreenSound] that I’d rather see the money devoted to that “incredibly wonderful project supported by them and Atlab and Kodak to restore 50 Australian films go to storing them digitally. And I’ve told them that. In another 20 years, those restored films will again be fading….”

When Noyce saw what had happened to Newsfront at a Sydney Film Festival screening in 1997, he says it reminded him of seeing someone with cancer; “they shrink. . .” The ghostly images of a once vibrant film prompted Noyce to begin a process that took him three years and a bundle of money, to restore the film – and most importantly, the store it digitally.

“a labour of love”

Pushed along by the enthusiasm of the film’s assistant editor “and keeper of the faith” Frans Vandenburg, the restoration process tracked down the best dupe negative and other materials they could, traveling to a warehouse in Pasadena in Los Angeles at one stage to rescue materials that had disappeared with the US based Pepper organization, the infamous company with invisible principals who had acquired rights to dozens of Australian classic films for 40 years and then disappeared.

“I started financing it as a labour of love,” says Noyce lighting up a cigarette and ordering a second coffee, “with the hope of selling it to somebody.”

Three years later, the restoration was complete and Noyce went to see Graham Burke, the managing director of Village Roadshow, which had distributed the film on its original release. By now, DVD was a commercial reality and offered a viable outlet for the film. “I told him we’d give him the remastered film with the commentaries track and he – being a patriot and a champion of the film still – agreed. . .on a 50 – 50 deal.”

Noyce sees DVD as the potential salvation of old films – but also as a powerful new way of “making everyone a film buff, on their own chosen level.” And just as importantly, he sees DVD as a way to lift the quality and standard of film education. A point that triggers some wishful thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great,” he says, “if we could hear Fellini talk about his films!”

“I hope the major market for the DVD becomes schools . . . it would help show young people that there was a film industry before Crocodile Dundee,” he says half seriously.

“it’s not just as good as it was”

It’s a salient point about the extended value of the DVD revolution: access to the process of filmmakers, that unique experience which adds context and depth to our appreciation – and enjoyment – of great films, not only of the present but also of the past.

Noyce is clearly pleased that Newsfront has been saved: he is also proud of the fact that he managed to collect so many voices onto the commentary track. Speaking of voices, he also notes how much the Australian voice has changed, even since the 70s. “It went from the Anglocised pre-war sound through the increasingly Aussie sound perpetrated by the new nationalism up to the 70s and then to the new international sound…it’s very noticeable.”

The restoration process allowed Noyce and the team to clear dialogue, to improve framing (by digitally removing unwanted items like studio lights in the better frame) and to regrade the colour to the level that cinematographer Vincent Monton says he always dreamed of achieving with the original.

“So it’s not just as good as it was,” says Noyce, “it’s even better.”

Published June 14, 2001

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