Forget movies, soapies or reality TV shows.
For wildlife documentary maker Jeremy Hogarth, there’s nothing more compelling than watching life unfold in the natural world.
“There’s competition, there’s aggression, there’s submission, individual animals are doing what they do because that’s what they’re basically hardwired to do.
“For example, in a mob of kangaroos, a male kangaroo must become dominant and within that fight for dominance there’s drama, which, in a way, makes you think about the way we live our lives.”
Hogarth has been involved in wildlife film production for almost half a century and worked with the ABC’s acclaimed Natural History Unit, which produced many award-winning programs for more than 30 years from the early 70s.
He was a film editor with the unit from 1975-1981 and then a producer from 1989-1995.
Now he’s come full circle and is a writer and producer on Australia Remastered, a new series showcasing the unit’s finest work — 16-mm and 35-mm films carefully preserved in the ABC archives and virtually unseen for decades.
“It’s actually amazing that the quality is as good as it is,” says Hogarth.
“So, the films from the Natural History Unit are an archive of what our continent has, or had, which is unique.
“I think to be able to go back, remaster it and show it to a new audience is very satisfying because it actually means that the work you did 30 or 40 years ago hasn’t gone to waste.”
Hundreds of hours of film restored
The 23-part series (15 episodes airing in 2020 and 8 episodes in 2021) is hosted by Aaron Pedersen and, with fresh insights from the latest scientific research, breathes new life into films depicting Australian wildlife, from orca pods to wombat kingdoms, the dramatic landscapes of Kakadu and the Red Centre, and the vast aquatic wildernesses of the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans.
It’s a joint production between the ABC and WildBear Entertainment, which understood the value of the NHU films and pitched the idea.
“Some of the footage is getting pretty old and so the idea of preserving this incredible footage was really important — hundreds of hours of film reels have now been cleaned up, remastered, restored and scanned to be used as a digital archive,” says ABC executive producer Leo Faber.
“Seeing a tiny Tamar wallaby crawl up its mum’s pouch is something spectacular to behold, as is the power of a pack of wild dingoes hunting down a kangaroo.
“This is a series for all of Australia to be proud of as we fight to ensure that our most threatened species have a chance to live on for centuries to come.”
Pioneers in wildlife cinematography
Archivists Natasha Marfutenko and Jon Steiner, and their team, are the custodians of the ABC’s vast film, video and audio collection and were delighted at the opportunity to share the NHU’s programs with a new audience.
“I always hoped that someday someone would do something big that really tapped into our Natural History Unit film collection,” says Steiner.
“We sold the odd bit of footage for documentaries now and again, and occasionally a shot found its way into an ABC production, but I felt that it was an amazing resource that was just waiting for a deep dive into the myriad worlds documented within those film cans.”
“The NHU crews shot in locations ranging from Papua New Guinea to the Galapagos Islands to Antarctica and, as I understand it, pioneered many innovative tricks and techniques in the field of wildlife cinematography, including hiding a motion-sensor-equipped camera in a box, or waiting for hours in a tree, camouflaged by netting, for the animal they wanted to show up,” says Steiner.
“The Natural History Unit was a kind of a little special entity unto itself and the people that worked in it were mostly considered crazy by the rest of the ABC,” recalls Jeremy Hogarth.
“We were all passionate about wildlife and were given remarkable latitude.
“You’d come up with a concept, talk to the experts, then head off to somewhere, like I did to the Kimberley for six months, and come back with a film.
“You’d be camping out and these were the days before mobile phones and the internet so you’d just disappear into the bush and occasionally make calls back to base when you could.
“Cameraman/producer David Parer and a sound assistant actually spent 18 months on Macquarie Island, making four films, some of which is in Australia Remastered.”
Patience is everything when you’re making a wildlife program.
Hogarth once spent 14 days in Sumatra filming a never-captured-before, one-minute sequence of orangutans using a tool like humans — but it was well worth the wait.
“And it’s not for the kudos of the filming but it illustrates something that’s not been seen before and it’s pretty special. But the patience required is extreme.”
Film remastering a huge undertaking
Over three decades, the NHU produced scores of programs and amassed an enormous collection of raw production material on film, video tape, and audio tape.
These were catalogued shot by shot in a dedicated database, listing species names (both common and scientific), activities, habitats, and other details.
“On film alone, we have in our collection more than 7,000 reels of “negative outs” — these are compiles of the rolls of original negative that came out of the cameras (minus the shots that ended up in the final edits). About half of the outs reels are held in ABC vaults, with the rest in the custody of the National Archives of Australia,” says archivist Jon Steiner.
Retrieving, restoring and digitising the original footage and weaving it together with the latest science into new stories was a huge, time-consuming undertaking.
“We had a crew of over 60 people working across the last year and a half to make the show.
“We essentially started with an idea that we wanted to do an exhaustive survey of pretty much all the animal, bird and sea-life habitats and species.
“We then went through countless hours of natural history film reels to identify the very best scenes of wildlife behaviour.
“From there we crafted five primary focus areas — our iconic species, the unique environments and habitats, conflict between species and hunting, ocean life and finally the forces of nature that shape our continent.”
“The scale of the film preparation, cleaning and scanning that needed to take place for Australia Remastered was significant — it ended up being more than 2,000 reels of film,” says Steiner.
“It was going to be far more than we could incorporate into our regular workflow, so we worked with WildBear, who provided resources to install and operate a second scanner, running in shifts and on weekends.
“A lot of film was held at the National Archives of Australia, so the Lending team there played a vital role in the project.
“We sent them large lists of the film reels we needed and they retrieved them, conditioned them up to room temperature for transport, and made them available for collection — boxes and boxes of film cans each week, for months.
“And after scanning was done, they had to receive it all back and re-shelve it.
“It was a huge surge in work for them and they really helped us out.”
And while the ABC archive team, Natasha Marfutenko, Jon Steiner, and Helen Meany and Amber Sierek already knew what cinematic treasures were to be found in the ABC vaults, they’ve been blown away by the remastering and reimagining of the original footage.
“The sun setting over the Kimberley, or a baby stripe-faced dunnart nestling with its mum, or a trumpet manucode sitting in its nest, or a tasselled wobbegong resting on the ocean floor.
“It was breathtaking. High-resolution scanning really brought out the cinematic quality and richness of colour of the material.
“Australia Remastered has done the material justice in ways beyond my wildest dreams.
“I am always very happy when anything from the ABC Archives can be once again enjoyed by contemporary audiences, but this … this is next level!”
Australia Remastered airs on ABC TV and iview on Sundays at 6pm from August 30