February 2021

Arts & Letters

Eye to eye in the wild: ‘Australia Remastered’

By Anne Rutherford

The continent’s natural wonders – some now gone forever – are celebrated in a series that uncovers footage from the ABC’s disbanded Natural History Unit

Skirt all aflutter, swishing and swirling. Curves rippling, long slender arms spiralling, unfurling in a fluvial whoosh. Gossamer cloak enveloping the undulating body in a shimmer of pink flushes and lilac rivulets. A sultry eye watching from below a sleepy eyelid. To write about the giant cuttlefish requires a choreographer’s lexicon, a language of flourish and flow, words that swing and sway, that ebb and flow with the currents. But how much more powerful to have a camera to capture her. A camera to meander and drift, suspended in the wash. No need for pyrotechnics here: just an eye to witness.

The cinematographers of ABC’s Australia Remastered give us this eye and take the time just to float, to hang in there with the cuttlefish as they linger in Spencer Gulf, South Australia, with one thing on their minds: to unite that rippling, curvaceous body with another in a sinuous vibrato embrace, as one long pulsating, shuddering tube, mouth to mouth, arms entwined, bodies rising and falling in the swell.

The ABC series brings us eye to eye with Australia’s extraordinary wildlife, in never-before-seen footage from the network’s natural history vaults. In partnership with WildBear Entertainment and the National Archives of Australia, and with a crew of more than 60 people, the ABC undertook the mammoth task of recovering a vast amount of footage from its archive of 16mm and 35mm films, restoring and remastering it, and digitally scanning it to make it available for future generations. The 26 episodes began screening in late 2020 and continue on ABC and iview.

Early episodes focus on Australia’s iconic species and the three great oceans that surround the continent. There are astonishing scenes of yellow-spotted monitor lizards wrestling each other, grappling with ferocious claws, reared up on hind legs, belly to belly, and sensational footage of giant kangaroos boxing, flexing their enormous chest muscles in a struggle for dominance. These are impressive displays of brute musculature and power, but it is the quieter moments that are mesmerising, when the cinematographer has been enraptured by the small details.

Down at the level of a termite, we watch as a Pilbara gecko crouches, attentive to the swarm below. A tyrannosaurus of the termite world, the gecko picks out one tasty victim after another to gobble. Satiated, its gleamy, mottled green eye looks straight into the camera as it licks its lips then repeatedly flicks its tongue up to its bulbous eyes, a natural windscreen wiper. A thorny devil with its heavy-metal armature perches in the desert sand beside an ant train. Nonchalant, it plucks up only those hapless ants that wander straight under its mouth and don’t require any more effort than a snap of the tongue. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the vulnerable ants – like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods – but they just keep on coming.

A lace monitor darts its scent-detecting tongue in and out, tracking prey; all the cold calculation and determination of the predator focused in the forked appendage that is longer than the lizard’s head. A snake stretches its powerful jaw wide open in a yawn and we are right there inside its mouth in close-up, zoomed into the surprisingly pink, muscular fleshiness of its upper palate.

The footage used in Australia Remastered was shot almost entirely on film stock from the 1970s to the early 2000s, without the technical wizardry available to recent series such as the BBC’s Planet Earth and Netflix’s Our Planet, such as the gyro stabilisers that enable digital cameras to track animal movement fluidly and dynamically, and the digital techniques that make it possible to correct poor exposure, crop framing and adjust colour balance. Regardless of their much more rudimentary equipment, the cinematographers who contributed to this series have produced cinematic gems, and, in writer-producer Jeremy Hogarth’s words, “an archive of what our continent has or had” – footage that captured animal behaviour never before filmed and that will never be filmed again due to environmental change and species loss. In the context of the federal government’s failure to develop even a single threatened-species recovery plan in its first 18 months in office, the series is, as executive producer Leo Faber says, “a reminder of just how special and unique our diverse Aussie species are and just what is at risk of extinction”.

As much as the series opens our eyes to the animals and their habitat, it also immerses us in the sensory pleasures of colour, texture and movement. We are drawn into the drama and ruthlessness of the hunt – crocodiles stalking their prey, a pod of orca mercilessly flinging a sea lion pup back and forth across the water – but as we watch a perentie sprint across the red desert and grab a king brown snake in its jaws, it’s the serpent’s kinetic power that is astonishing: it writhes and thrashes, leveraging all the force of its body in a ferocious whip-like ricochet.

Texture and pattern, too, take on a life of their own. A chameleon dragon clings to a branch, waiting for ants to devour. To see, close up, the eyelid of the dragon is to encounter an ancient, weathered landscape, a rocky, barren terrain of peaks, folds and crevices. Hexagonal scales laid out in a mosaic more exquisite than the most accomplished mosaics of Byzantium or the Roman empire. Glassy eyes stare out from whorls of colour that spiral from the eye socket across puckered segments. Just as the dragon sits, almost perfectly still, on its branch, waiting for prey, the camera holds, watching, giving us time to explore this alien terrain with a fascination reminiscent of seeing the pores of our own magnified skin. This lattice template of scales recurs in reptile after reptile in Australia Remastered, but we need a whole language of knobbles, bumps, spines, shingles, humps, ridges and thorns to describe the innovation on the theme in each animal. Skin markings, too, cross the gamut of possible variations, from the random rings of the gecko, the symmetrical spots of the perentie and the granular freckles of the Lake Eyre dragon, to the complex, highly patterned ikat weave of the lace monitor.

In an episode devoted entirely to parrots, we watch a superflock of budgerigars turn the sky green as thousands swoop down to a waterhole, and we spy on the courtship rituals of the rare palm cockatoo of Cape York, majestic with its sleek black plumage, striking crest and vermilion cheeks. As we watch, the curious but sceptical female observes the male touch up his nesting hollow to meet her approval and, in his final attempt to impress, take up a stick and begin to drum out a rhythm on the tree trunk – “the only animal in the world that uses a tool to make music”.

Australia Remastered draws us into an intimate encounter with the cycle of life and death. We witness the first moment of an elephant seal’s life, as it pops out of the mother’s birth canal in a gush of amniotic fluid. Skuas stand by the birthing mother to drink the milk spurting from her teats while she is in labour and, in search of scraps to eat, stride in to cut and devour her umbilical cord. Wildlife cinematographers talk of the exhilaration of capturing moments such as this, the reward for their endless patience and perseverance. Our Planet cinematographer Matt Aeberhard describes hunching all day in a narrow hide like “a mediaeval torture cage”, waiting for a shot that may never eventuate, and says that most other cinematographers consider wildlife cinematographers to be insane, driven as they are to great tests of patience and endurance by their passion for wildlife, their quest to capture moments that will “sing on the screen”.

Wildlife cinematography is all about maximising time on location – it is prohibitively costly to spend six weeks in the field to produce a minute or two of screen time – and the series credits naturalists and scientists as key consultants. We can only wonder how much richer the series might have been, what complex relationships it might have uncovered, if it had engaged the experts on Australia’s wildlife with tens of thousands of years’ experience upon which to draw – the nation’s Indigenous peoples. The ABC has missed an opportunity to frame the series within this dialogue. Other ABC programs, such as First Footprints, have provided a model for this exchange, exploring the way disciplines such as archaeology are increasingly integrating two knowledge systems, resulting in an exponential growth in understanding of our continent and its history.

Lurking unnamed behind the pleasures of this amazing footage are other devastating losses. Australia Remastered has brought back to light a hugely significant cultural heritage, a testament to the glory days of the ABC Natural History Unit. Its rich legacy has been carefully preserved by both the ABC and the National Archives of Australia through the meticulous digital remastering of the original film. This achievement brings into relief the cultural vandalism of the federal government’s cuts to ABC funding. Most devastating of all is the ongoing depredation and loss of Australia’s biodiversity, accelerated by the negligence of governments, and the rampant destruction of habitat by development and extractive industries.

Anne Rutherford

Anne Rutherford is a film critic and adjunct associate professor in cinema studies at Western Sydney University.

Still from Australia Remastered, courtesy ABC

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