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Elsa Chauvel and Jedda

The duo of Charles and Elsa Chauvel were contemporaries of Ken Hall and were also major figures of Australia’s film industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Since Charles’ death in 1959 Elsa had devoted her energies to ensuring the preservation of their films in the Archive and to preparing a book on their career (it was published in 1973). In the normal course of work I had met Elsa and here, too, a friendship developed. One evening in 1972 she invited me to her home in the Sydney suburb of Lindfield, asking me to bring a 16mm projector so we could watch a screening of the Chauvels’ last feature film Jedda. 

Released in 1954, Jedda was a landmark. It was the first Australian feature drama in colour, and the first to cast Aboriginal actors in leading roles. Set in the Northern Territory against a stark natural backdrop, its theme of culture clash was one that would be revisited many times by future filmmakers. It was shot in Gevacolor, a newly developed Belgian film stock. Since Australian laboratories were not yet geared to processing such material, the exposed negative had to be flown to Denham Laboratories in England three or four times a week for processing – one of the many logistical difficulties faced by the production crew. It could be days or weeks before the rushes came back.

Charles Chauvel said he found Gevacolor a natural colour medium. But however effective it may have been in capturing the Territory’s spectacular locations, it turned out, like other new colour stocks of that time, to have a major drawback: the colour dyes were unstable. Within just a few years, all the 35mm release prints and negatives had faded to a dull magenta. They were in the collection and I had seen them – in effect, they were now monochrome and could only be copied in black and white. But there were two extant 16mm Eastmancolor prints which retained the colour palette. They were in Elsa’s possession, and it was one of those prints we watched that evening.

That was when I learned that Elsa hoped the film could still be returned to its original 35mm colour splendour, because Denham Laboratories had followed the then standard practice of making tri-separations from the final cut negative of Jedda. These were 35mm black and white positives representing each of the three primary colours. By a kind of reverse engineering, superimposing these images through colour filters in a film printer would allow a new Eastmancolor duplicate negative to be created.  Elsa had established that the tri-separations were still extant, and was arranging to have them shipped to Australia. And on my next visit, there they were: neatly stacked in Elsa’s garage. I organized their transfer to Canberra.

I was thrilled with the prospect of returning Jedda to the big screen in colour. Being ignorant of the laboratory process, I consulted with the venerable Harry Mellor at Colorfilm Laboratory. We decided to try, as a test, to work on the first reel only. I sent the elements to Harry and, in due course, back came a roll of 35mm Eastmancolor dupe negative and a 35mm answer print. I took it to the management of the Center Cinema, which boasted Canberra’s largest cinema screen, and they ran it for me.

It looked and sounded fantastic. As I sat there in the dark, it dawned on me that not only was this seminal film being reborn, but that I was actually the first person – along with the projectionist - to see the result on a cinema screen. Later on, I would become more aware of imperfections caused by the three colour records not always being in precise register, because they had shrunk at different rates. But I also knew that a general audience would not really notice this.

So we proceeded with the rest of the film. It was not all smooth sailing. Subsequent re-editing of the original negative in the later reels meant that the tri-separations, and hence the new dupe negative, turned out to be longer than the available sound track. As I worked through each reel on an Intercine viewing table I learned a lot about editing and synchronizing, and Harry’s care and patience meant that the longest possible version of the film emerged at the end.

When I was able to go to Sydney and show the result to Elsa in the preview cinema at Film Australia’s Lindfield studio, I was still worried about the colour balance in the print. The sky seemed too intensely blue, the sandhills too orange. Did we get it wrong? “No”, said Elsa, “that’s exactly what it looked like”.  In October 1974, Elsa came to Canberra for a premiere of the film at Electric Shadows cinema, where it ran for a season double-billed with Forty Thousand Horsemen, and to present a Chauvel retrospective in the National Library theatre. Of all the Chauvel films, it has probably become the one most constantly seen on broadcast and view-on-demand television. 

Ray Edmondson

100 Learmonth Drive,Kambah ACT 2902

M  0412 486 849

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