Indigenous Colour: The Quest to Make Australia’s First Natural Colour Feature Film

It is said that during the 1951 shoot for Twentieth Century Fox’s Kangaroo, the first Technicolor feature shot in Australia, Adelaide ran out of green paint. The reasons are not entirely clear. Something to do with how the colours of the Australian landscapes registered on the Technicolor of that era? Coincidentally, green was Fox studio head Daryl Zanuck’s favourite colour. He dictated his daily barrage of memos from an office with green walls. He drove a Cadillac painted Zanuck Green, a hue especially mixed by the Fox Art Department. Yes, that’s right, Zanuck Green.[1] This story captured my imagination. The wealth and excess it suggested. The insistence on a uniformity of vision. After all, it was Daryl Zanuck who ultimately called the shots during the making of Kangaroo. I grew up in South Australia and began my career as a writer and director there. Plus, I have a long-standing interest in cinema and its shifting colour palettes. I began chasing the making-of-Kangaroo story through archives in Australia and America, only to discover that it was as much a story about red as it was green. One the after-image of the other. That is, look at a projection of green long enough and an after-image of red will appear.

This essay explores the production of Twentieth Century Fox’s Kangaroo (1952) [2] in the context of a longer-term quest to make Australia’s first ‘natural colour’ feature film. Around the globe, the post-World War 11 period was a time of experimentation and flux in colour film technologies with a number of new stocks developed and tested. Whilst claims to ‘firsts’ were – are – often used to support nationalistic aspirations, the complexity of colour film systems meant that breakthroughs were nearly always the result of exchange across international borders. Although feature films shot locally in ‘natural colour’ arrived relatively late in Australia, local industry personnel, often working with minimal resources and financial backing, actively sought to develop an Australian colour system from the ‘silent film’ era onwards. Australian filmmakers and commentators frequently expressed the desire to project the authentic colours of the country on screen. But what did they mean by authentic? How were the post-war cinematic palettes projected onto Australia’s unique landscapes and cultures? How can we understand the hues of these mid-century film stocks and systems in the context of the longer arc of the production and use of indigenous colours and pigments in Australia?

Kangaroo (1952), The Queen in Australia (1954) [3] and Jedda (1955) [4] all made some claim to being Australia’s first feature film in natural colour. Those claims were suitably qualified, of course. Kangaroo was the first film shot in ‘natural colour’ in Australia. (Albeit with Americans as the lead actors and occupying all the key creative roles.) Processed in the United States, Kangaroo was edited and post-produced in Los Angeles under the personal supervision of Daryl Zanuck. The Queen in Australia, made with considerable input from British filmmakers, utilising Ferrania Color and post-produced in London, was Australia’s first ‘natural colour’ feature documentary.) And Jedda, shot on Gevacolor and processed in London, was the first ‘natural colour’ feature conceived of and produced by Australians who featured both behind and in front of the camera.

Film historian Tom Gunning has observed that, as an art form in which scientific and technological processes play a large role, “cinema has often been described in terms of ‘progress’ from the simple to the more complex.” [5] As if moving pictures, across the centuries, around the globe, all marched towards a single point in history. And that, in a series of technological breakthroughs, the medium gradually developed from silent black and white to sound and colour. Art forms and media, however, are constantly in transition. Waxing and waning across long arcs of time. Film and photography did not develop in a straight line but through a series of projects and experiments, often overlapping and circling back on each other. Far from viewing early silent films in monochrome, audiences were often treated to dazzling displays of colour through the application of pigments and inks to images that were already photographed. Colour was often applied to film stocks in early silent cinema in an aesthetic that aspired less to realism than fantasy. [6] Motion picture photography in colour, which took many years and the efforts of hundreds of people to perfect, was often referred to as ‘natural colour’ and, at least partly, associated with realism. Kinemacolor, the most successful of the early ’natural colour’ film processes, which flourished from around 1908 to 1913, was often described as “presenting the colours of nature”.[7] ,[8] In Australia, reviews of what appears to have been our first Kinemacolor short Melbourne in her Natural Colours, also emphasised the remarkable realism of the colours.[9] Immediacy was often emphasised with phrases like ‘colour in the moment’. A common objection was that colour motion pictures were fatiguing to the eye. Red, especially, was suspect in this regard. [10]

It is estimated that more than two hundred separate processes went into the development of Technicolor which was to dominate colour film production from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was promoted as the finest ‘natural colour’ picture ever produced and even “Technicolor is natural colour.”[11] The process was said to “throw upon the screen a continual succession of natural colours that copy nature with the fidelity of a finely executed oil painting.”[12] For several decades, producers wanting access to its colour film process were required to rent Technicolor cameras, employ an additional cameraperson supplied by the company, purchase make-up specially designed by Max Factor, buy film stock from Kodak Eastman and have all film processing and printing carried out by the company. In addition, they were required to employ one of the company’s Colour Consultants and adopt restrictive rules about the use of colour in the film’s production design. Given Australia’s relatively small population, distance from film processing laboratories in the United States, not to mention its particular climatic conditions, the challenges of shooting a feature in ‘natural colour’ were considerable.

Much of the interest in colour feature films in Australia focused on the possibilities of presenting the unique colours and light-plays of our landscapes and scenery to local and international audiences. Since the 1930’s, via correspondence courses offered by his Chauvel School of Scenario Writing, director Charles Chauvel urged writers to find stories by immersing themselves in the romance and adventure of the Australian bush.[13] Working with the most basic of resources, two of Australia’s most acclaimed cinematographers from the silent film and early sound era invented colour processing systems designed to be reliable and inexpensive alternatives to Technicolor. The two new Australian systems emerged around the same time just as new ‘natural colour’ film systems were becoming available internationally. Kodachrome, in formats primarily suited to amateur use, was released in 1935 whilst in the following year Agfa introduced an Agfacolor negative-positive system for professional production.

Commonwealth Film Laboratories launched a 35mm colour process Mal-comm Colour, named after inventor and cameraman George Malcolm, in 1937. [14] A bi-pack operation, the processing of Mal-comm Colour involved floating the film in paraffin in one long trough. The film was dipped one side at a time, firstly into blue and then red. The process was reportedly able to “reproduce primary colours true to life”. Although it was intended that Mal-comm Colour would be made available to locally-produced feature films, its use appears to have been restricted to cinema advertisements. A short anti-Hitler animation produced in the early 1940s is the only remaining film produced in Mal-comm Colour identified to date.[15]

Hot on the heels of Mal-Comm Colour, Arthur Higgins, one of three brothers prominent in Australia’s early film industry, announced his Solarchrome system. Higgins, who shot several dozen features and a number of newsreel items, documentaries and advertising shorts in the first four decades of the twentieth century, was one of Australia’s most experienced and highly regarded cinematographers. According to Sheila Higgins, her husband had been preoccupied with perfecting a colour film system for more than twenty years before the founding of Solarchrome. [16] In 1937, Higgins and business partners registered their Solarchrome Processing Company which would photograph and develop films in colour with a new bi-pack process.[17] Their initial capital was a modest five thousand pounds. The Cinema News Company in Queensland soon purchased the rights to Solarchrome to produce a series of one-reel colour films highlighting the state’s scenery.[18]

One of the surviving Solarchrome titles is the short documentary A Playground of the Pacific (1938). Shot by Arthur Higgins, it featured crowds of Sydney-siders swimming, relaxing in the sun and watching surf lifesaving competitions. [19] Promoted as an ‘all-Australian colour short’, the film was part of an intended series called Colorlogues of Australia.[20] And where better to begin than Sydney’s famed Bondi Beach? Solarchrome soon found uses in animation as well as documentary. Willie the Wombat (1939), a promotional short directed by Eric Porter, was claimed as “the first Australian colour cartoon”.[21] Porter aimed to devise cartoon characters based on koalas, kangaroos and wombats to rival Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. After a preview of Willie the Wombat, a reviewer described the Solarchrome colours as ‘remarkable’, adding that ‘while lacking the range of Technicolor, it suggested interesting possibilities for the production of full-length Australian films in colour.’ [22] The documentary short, Sydney on Show (1940), photographed by Arthur Higgins, soon followed. It presented glimpses of Sydney during its annual Royal Easter Show.[23]

In the wake of the Second World War, competition to control colour film production and processing intensified. ‘German Colour Secret on Way to U.S. and Britain’, announced the trade paper the Motion Picture Herald in 1946.[24] There was an increasing demand for colour motion picture film stock and great interest in the German Agfa colour film process. The stock had long been considered as simpler and less expensive than Technicolor and produced good results on screen. Nathan Golden, U.S. Scientific Consultant, represented the motion picture industry on a Field Intelligence Agency to Germany. He questioned colour scientists who had worked at the Farben and Agfa plants and were now held under ‘protective custody’ on progress made during the war. Men who later stood trial at Nuremberg accused of crimes against humanity – there was a high price to be paid for cheap colour film. Golden reported that Agfa film was processed and printed just like black-and-white film. Its colours were paler than those of Technicolor and resembled pastels. As a result of the information gleaned from the German colour scientists, it was estimated that all feature films would be produced in colour within five years.

Technicolor’s near monopoly on colour feature film production was dealt a further blow when the company and Eastman Kodak were charged with violation of anti-trust laws. The two companies were accused of conspiring to monopolise colour film manufacture and processing in the United States and foreign territories in an agreement that dated back to 1934. Technicolor produced 90% of colour motion picture prints internationally and Eastman manufactured the film stock and saw off competitors. [25] Armed with the Golden Report, the Ansco Company, announced they had developed a new fast colour film stock to compete with Technicolor.[26] In Europe too more competition was on the way. Processes such as the Belgian Gevacolour and the Italian Ferrania Colour were variants of the Agfacolor process. Like Ansco Color, they were made possible by the industrial secrets the Allies obtained as part of the spoils of war. In response, Technicolor ramped up its activity, exploiting its domination of the market whilst it still could. Twentieth Century Fox soon sent crews around the world to make outdoor pictures, primarily adventure stories and westerns, in Technicolor. It was not long before Australia was in its sights with the company beginning development on The Bushranger (a working title for Kangaroo) in early 1949.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Film Laboratories and Cinesound both planned to move into processing colour features. Solarchrome, still used for documentaries, would be available for features. Whilst Technicolor used three negatives, Solarchrome only used two with orange and blue added at the processing stage, the Adelaide News explained to readers. This gave the effect of additional hues including yellows and greens. The result was “a subdued and quite pleasant colour effect”.[27] A Smith’s Weekly reviewer wrote that “the Solarchrome colours were comparable to those in American films.” [28] Whilst Arthur Higgins continued to explore the possibilities of Solarchrome, Eric Porter used the system for the live-action The Joy of Living (1948) which advertised the tonic Milo.[29] In the Solarchrome films I have viewed, warm tones – lemon, gold, orange, russet and maroon – are especially prominent. As if Australians of that era lived in an endless late summer.

The race was now on to make Australia’s first feature-length film in ‘natural colour’. Early 1950 Twentieth Century Fox announced that its upcoming feature film Bushranger would be in colour.[30] [31] While the film was initially to be shot in northern New South Wales or Queensland, weather conditions soon became a concern due to heavy rainfalls and flooding on the east coast. Enter South Australia. The feature Bitter Springs (1950) had been shot in the Lower Flinders Ranges the previous year with considerable assistance from the South Australian Government. To out-bid Queensland and secure the production, South Australia offered ever more ‘carrots’ and concessions.

Meanwhile Charles Chauvel and his wife and filmmaking collaborator Elsa Chauvel, announced they were moving their cameras and writing pads to the outback. America had more than its fair share of stars. But for Australians, the landscape deserved star billing. Inspired by a year-long trek across the country supported by the Federal Government, the duo would make Australia’s first all-colour, all-Australian feature in the country between Alice Springs and Darwin. [32] The project was tagged The Northern Territory Story and the Chauvels initially looked to the U.S. for financial backing and colour processing. In something of a David and Goliath story, the Chauvels’ Northern Territory Story and Fox’s Australia Story (another working title for Kangaroo) slugged it out for the title of ‘Australia’s first natural colour feature’. The odds though, were stacked against the Chauvels in comparison to their Hollywood studio rivals.

Leveraging profits from exhibiting pictures in Australia during the war, Twentieth Century Fox ultimately secured generous support from both the Australian Commonwealth and South Australia Governments and relocated its production to Port Augusta and the Lower Flinders Ranges. The cash and concessions helped the Hollywood studio beat its local rivals to the finishing line for the first colour feature film made in Australia. (The project was also known as The Australian Story, The Sundowners, The Bushranger and The Land Down Under before Fox settled on Kangaroo.) A stagecoach western, penned in Hollywood and transposed to Australia, Kangaroo was set around 1900, during one of the worst droughts the country had experienced since European settlement. In the script, the rain-making ceremony staged by Aboriginal performers would break the drought. But in the storyline of post-war Australia, Kangaroo would break the nation’s feature filmmaking drought.

Announcing the deal in Parliament, South Australian Premier Tom Playford said that the first full-scale Technicolor film ever produced in the country would “convey to the world an idea of the scenery to be found in South Australia and be a wonderful advertisement for the state overseas”. [33] Playford expressed his disappointment with Bitter Springs which was filmed in black-and-white. Given the considerable assistance provided by his government, Bitter Springs had done little to advertise the state. “It would have been a great thing for South Australia had the scenery of the Warren Gorges been filmed in colour”, the Premier said. [34] So strongly did he hold this view that Playford had hired a cinematographer to shoot colour footage of the key locations as part of a campaign to entice Bitter Springs to South Australia.[35] He expressed confidence that Kangaroo would be the first of many more ventures with Twentieth Century Fox.

In December 1950, the American and Australian cast and crew for Kangaroo made an epic journey across the interior. From Sydney, where they had completed a studio shoot, to Port Augusta, a mining town in South Australia. A film colony was soon established on the edge of town – one of the most desolate locations imaginable. Premier Thomas Playford flew in, raised the flag and named the new Hollywood Down Under. It was called Zanuckville. Zanuckville, South Australia. It was hoped that the first ‘natural colour’ feature to be shot in this country would not only attract tourists, but also migrants in great numbers. An arduous shoot soon began. In a newsreel produced by the Department of Information, the breathless narrator announced that ‘real wild aboriginal tribesmen’ would feature in the film. A corroboree would be one of the film’s highlights, “the multi-hued markings showing up well in Technicolor”. It was hoped that Kangaroo would put “Australia’s colours on the world screen”. [36]

If there is one colour associated with the Kangaroo exterior locations in South Australia it is red. Red earth. Red dust. Red haze. The country near Port Augusta and the Lower Flinders Ranges was famed for its wind storms or whirli-whirlis. Early colonists in the region reported “we could see nothing before us but a great wall of dust which seemed to reach from earth to heaven”.[37] Some other accounts: “The gloom was eerie. People walked about in a red twilight”. “On all sides, the view was obscured by a swirling red haze. The town was in semi-darkness”. [38] “A red glow from the flying dust was observed”.[39] But in the prints of Kangaroo that I have seen – except for the opening titles, the reds are strangely muted.

Kangaroo’s opening sequence displays vivid red titles over footage of the Aboriginal cast performing a corroboree. The Aboriginal performers white-clay body markings and red bandanas stand out against the softened backgrounds. Kangaroos are seen hopping through the scrub. Maureen O’Hara, as Dell, rides back to the homestead where she rather improbably greets pet native animals. The filmmakers had no choice but to take Daryl Zanuck’s instructions to heart. The studio head’s cables to the creative team, including director Lewis Milestone – exiled to Australia because of being grey-listed in Hollywood as a suspected Communist sympathiser – were clear. He wanted local colour. Buckets of it. Zanuck communicated his notes on rushes to Milestone in cables from the film’s producer like this one. “You should milk balance of scenes in bush for all the individual business and colour you can. Stop. Suggest again a koala bear for a pet around station and inject Australian animals like kookaburra bird dingoes platypuses and like wherever you can. Stop. This is very important as actual countryside seems to resemble California”. [40] Zanuck was consistently on-message. Another cable read: “We must not overlook a bet of getting into it occasionally an ostrich comma bear or what have you as well as interesting natives and anything else that will exploit Australian back country”. “Nothing fancy or arty”.[41] An aim perhaps in which he was only too successful.

The most striking scenes in Kangaroo are undoubtedly those that feature Aboriginal performers re-enacting a corroboree. So much so that they are almost like scenes from another film spliced into Fox’s lazily scripted kangaroo-western. Australian ethnologist Charles Mountford and the production’s research advisor Colin Simpson worked with the indigenous performers to adapt ceremonies and ‘magic songs’ for the screen. Mountford’s script notes for Lewis Milestone describe a ceremony in which the rainmaker would drag a sacred rain-stone across a blood-soaked boulder as three men chanted. Simpson added in his notes that ceremonies not belonging to this specific country had been added for dramatic effect and the required ‘local colour’.[42] As he wrote in Adam in Ochre, Simpson found himself captivated by Aboriginal art when he stepped inside a cave full of paintings on a visit to Inyulak in Arnhem land. “Red ochre, yellow ochre, pipeclay white, powdered charcoal for black, and sometimes another red that was kangaroo blood…Vivid ones painted over and across the fading colours of earlier pictures, yet even those were still glowing across the rock…”.[43] These colours were as old as time. Whilst the Ooldea performers actively participated in traditional ceremonies, on a day-to-day basis they wore western-style clothing. The red garments were the Art Department’s response to the demands of the Hayes Code Assessors. Nudity on screen was not permissible. And red, of course, registered well on Technicolor. The indigenous performers’ on-screen costumes were a mix of ceremonial dress and 1950s Hollywood-art-department wardrobe.

Ironically, not far from the Kangaroo locations are the Bookarto ochre mines, a source of high-quality red pigment used by Aboriginal people since ancient times for artistic, decorative and ceremonial purposes. Red ochre symbolizes the blood of ancestors spilt on the earth, casting a red pigment over the surrounding countryside. In some stories, the local ochre – deep red and with a distinctive sheen – is said to be the spilt blood of a sacred emu chased over country. In others, the emus are kangaroos. Parties of Aboriginal men made pilgrimages of up to a thousand miles, over trails established for millenia, to obtain this high-quality ochre. The traditional custodians of the mine supervised access to the closely-guarded site. Men designated to collect the pigment were required to leave their companions at a nominated place and travel the last ten miles without food, water or weapons. They dug out the ochre, dried and formed it into large cakes for the journey home. So significant was red ochre to indigenous Australians that the colour red has been described as the basis of their spiritual beliefs. In the words of a local station owner who advocated for their right to continue to control the mine, red was “as important to Aboriginal Australians as the Bible is to Christians”. [44]

Kangaroo’s infamous water trough scene, described by critic Deb Verhoeven as the most astonishingly racist in the history of Australian cinema, appears around two thirds of the way through Kangaroo. [45] At the height of the drought, two groups converge on the station’s water trough. Hordes of cattle appear around a bend in the road. From the other direction, a group of Aboriginal people emerge. An elder steps forward and asks permission to use the trough. They will pray for rain in return for a drink. In this confrontation, and indeed throughout Kangaroo, the white and black actors are mostly shown in separate shots. As Patrick Keating observes in his history of Hollywood lighting, Technicolor boasted of the their three-strip colour stock’s ability to capture a wide range of skin tones. “Filmmakers relied on exotic subject matter to put the technology’s skills on display, turning racial diversity into pictorial spectacle”. [46]

The water-trough scene in Kangaroo is a long way from any historical reality. When white settlers in this area cleared the land for grazing sheep, indigenous people were dispossessed of the country to which they had been connected for more than forty thousand years. Soaks were valuable sources of water and sites of major ceremonies. In response to the elder’s request, Dell (Maureen O’Hara) intervenes. (Incidentally, O’Hara was cast, in part, due to her red hair, considered a major plus for a Technicolor heroine). Harry Kleiner’s screenplay describes the Aborigines in this scene as “grotesquely streaked with ochre”. [47] In Kangaroo’s fictional world red ochre, a pigment widely used by a culture with the longest ongoing artistic tradition on earth, was associated with the grotesque. But then, cultural sensitivity was not high on the agenda. Despite well-informed local advisors, the Kangaroo script described didgeridoos as long wooden trumpets. Ultimately, despite a relentless publicity campaign, Kangaroo was dismissed by critics and spurned by audiences. The Australian High Commissioner in London reportedly requested that the subtitle ‘Australian Story’ be removed.

Before Jedda made it to the screen in 1955, there was another contender for the title of Australia’s first ‘natural colour feature’. In this instance, production swiftly followed the press announcement because it documented a real event. The Queen in Australia(1954), produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit, portrayed a youthful Queen Elizabeth on her first visit to the Antipodes. The filmmakers assembled a roll-call of local arts and technical talent and trained their lenses and microphones on Her Majesty as she travelled the length and breadth of the country. Prime Minister Robert Menzies, an ardent monarchist and home-movie enthusiast, committed the Commonwealth Film Unit to completing the film by April only two months after the Royal visit. This ambitious schedule placed the production under enormous pressure. Colour film of the era was especially sensitive to heat and, as with Kangaroo, the logistical challenges were considerable. Since there were still no facilities for processing 35 mm. colour footage in Australia, the exposed colour negative would be placed in refrigerated containers ready to travel overseas. [48] The Queen in Australia was shot utilising the Italian-invented Ferrania Color film system with footage flown to Denham Laboratories in London for processing, editing and post-production. [49]

The Queen in Australia, released in cinemas in Australia, in other British Commonwealth and the United States, was considered by many as a promotional reel for Australia. Local newspapers quoted reviews. The documentary would be “a magnificent overseas advertisement for Australia”. The audience would see “fine panoramic views of the Australian countryside and ‘superb colour’”. [50] Royal tours with their pageantry have been a popular subject for film, and especially colour film, since the earliest days of cinema. The association with recording royalty, for example, was critical to the success of Kinemacolor in Britain in the early twentieth century. [51]

Watching The Queen in Australia now is to glimpse another era. One million Australians lined the streets to greet the Royal visitors, cheer and wave flags. (There has always been a lot of flag-waving in the history of colour film. So much so that I think its evolution could be told through that subject alone.) As critic Paul Byrnes observed, The Queen in Australia was intended to demonstrate that Australia would stay British.[52] Despite the influx of tens of thousands of migrants from Europe after the War, Australians were British citizens first and foremost. Always had been. Always would be. The New York Times, whilst describing the documentary as rather uninspired, complimented its colour palette. “The glimpses of cities, villages and the outback made fitting subjects for the Italian Ferrania Colour process in which The Queen in Australia was filmed. Its panchromatic hues vary in shading from pastel to vivid and compare favourably with better known processes”. [53] British Pathe’s Welcome the Queen documenting the same Royal Tour via Eastman Color, makes a useful comparison.[54] It registers a far more restricted palette, skewed towards blue.

In late 1952, the Film Division of the Department of Interior carried out tests with Gevacolor in response to growing interest in colour film. The Department’s cameramen were reported to be “taking advantage of spring weather to get colour shots of wildflowers, wattle and fruit blossom”. [55] The following year, the short documentary Switch on Bigga was produced in Gevacolor. It was widely considered that most film production would shift to colour in the next five years. Jedda would be Australia’s first feature-length production using the Belgium-devised system.

When Jedda finally did make it into production, it, too, faced daunting financial and logistical challenges. As the unit moved from one remote location to another, exposed cans of film were packed in ice and stored in caves to prevent damage from extremes of heat. Crew members frequently drove hours each night to store the film in the cool room of a local butcher’s shop. Footage was sent irregularly to London for processing and there were long delays in receiving rushes reports. Chauvel was shooting in the dark. Six weeks into the shoot it was discovered that an inexperienced camera assistant had loaded film into the camera emulsion side down. All the rushes were lost. [56]

Watching the restored version of Jedda, shot and processed using the Gevacolour system, my eye is initially drawn to the reds. (This film, like many others, has been through successive restorations as technologies and viewing platforms have changed.) Its beautifully designed red opening titles. Key items of clothing; Marbuck’s red loincloth (necessitated by the cameras and notions of public decency) and the young Jedda’s red-checked dress and hair ribbon. And, most of all, the distinctive earth and rock formations of central and northern Australia. But, just as red is the after-image of green, the reverse is also true. As the film’s story unfolds, a remarkable range of greens also register on the Gevacolour stock. From the grey-greens of eucalypts to the bright greens of tree-ferns and water-lily pads. Chauvel mapped the Australian landscape with near military precision and, as he said, the landscape was a central character in Jedda. His stories are as much travelogues as dramas.

For all Chauvel’s attention to landscape as character though, the shocking final scene in Jedda was not filmed in the remote northern regions of Australia where the story is set but the Blue Mountains, 100 kilometres west of Sydney. In yet another setback, film cans containing footage of the original final scene were destroyed when the plane conveying them to London for processing burst into flames. The Chauvels, unable to afford a return to a remote location, improvised. In a pre-digital era, they spray-painted a section of the Blue Mountain’s cliff-face a reddish hue.[57] And re-wrote the film’s ending.

The production of Kangaroo provides insights into the clash of two colour systems and world views. For decades, Technicolor, at the forefront of technological innovation globally, imposed a pre-determined colour system on filmmakers. While Technicolor was underpinned by a philosophy about standardised colours,however, the chromatic practices of the indigenous people in South Australia who appeared in Kangaroo were connected to a sense of living colour. For the inhabitants of the western desert, colours demonstrate the mutability of all things. Life and relationships in transition. Bright colours – from red ochre to highly saturated acrylic paints – are highly valued. Red objects are not only vivid but fade quickly. The latter, according to anthropologist Diane Young, is part of their appeal. [58]

Yet there is another kind of indigenous colour in Australia. The inventors, artists and filmmakers – from Arthur Higgins, George Malcolm and Eric Porter to Charles and Elsa Chauvel and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) – who sought their own relationship with the distinctive tones and chiaroscuro of the Australian landscape. Cinematic storytellers who looked out across the terracotta rooves of Australian cities to expanses of red-brown earth, stands of gums and scrub, and did not see an absence. For them, England’s green and pleasant land was not home. Instead, they struggled to learn how to use the available materials, or invent new ones, to depict the colours they saw and experienced.

In the end, the story behind the run on green paint in Adelaide during the Kangaroo shoot was not quite as I first heard it. According to the Art Department, “the peaks of the Flinders Ranges in the distance, glowing a hazy purple, with reddish gold tinges under the sun, make the ideal backdrop”. But the foreground country, along the banks of the Cataninga Creek, where the homestead set was located, “was not lush, scenic and splendid. It was flat, sandy saltbush, with some scrubby gums along the foothills”. The Technicolor camera needed more to work with and so the scenic artists directed their spray-painting efforts to the grey-green foliage of Australia’s gum trees. [59] The muted greens of Australia’s eucalypts were found wanting. Spray-painted a brighter green considered a better match for Technicolor.

Thanks to Simon Drake from the NFSA for his assistance, film historian Graham Shirley whose early research on Solarchrome and Mal-comm Colour provided one starting point for my own investigation. I would also like to thank Dominic Case and Ric Chauvel who discussed some aspects of this article with me and the organisers of the 2nd Colour and Film Conference, London who invited me to present an earlier version of this research as a keynote in 2017 which provided valuable feedback from conference participants. This research began as a result of an Artists and Scholar’s Fellowship awarded by the NFSA.

[1] Mel Gussow, Daryl F. Zanuck: Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking (London: W.H. Allen, 1971) 80
[2] Kangaroo, directed by Lewis Milestone (1952; Los Angeles: Umbrella Entertainment, 2014) DVD.
[3] The Queen in Australia, directed by Frank Bagnall (1954, Australia: NFSA, 2013) DVD
[4] Jedda, directed by Charles Chauvel (1955, Australia: Umbrella Entertainment, 2015) DVD
[5] Tom Gunning, “Applying Colour” in Fantasia of Colour in Early Cinema ed. Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe, Giovanna Fossati, Jonathan Rosen (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) p. 15
[6] Gunning, Fantasia of Colour in Early Cinema, p. 16
[7] See Kinemacolor entry Barbara Flueckiger Timeline of Historical Film Colours accessed 18th July 2018
[8] “A New Art”, Sunday Times, Sydney, 15th December 1912, p. 15
[9] Sun, Sydney, 16th February 1913, p. 2
[10] George Johnson, Photography in Colours, London: Routledge, 1911, p. 114
[11] Technicolor advertisement, 1930, George Eastman Museum website,
accessed 18th July 2018
[12] Motion Picture World, October 6th, 1917 quoted in Fred Basten,Glorious Technicolor: The Movies’ Magic Rainbow (New Jersey: Barnes, 1980) p. 27
[13] Stuart Cunningham, Featuring Australia: The Cinema of Charles Chauvel (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991) p. 64-5
[14] Everyones, Sydney, 15th September 1937. Reference from Graham Shirley “Colour Cinematography – Unpublished Notes”, 2002.
[15] See New Century Films Colour Animation Film Fragment National Film and Sound Archive, Australia Catalogue. Accessed 18th July 2018.
[16] Hugh McInnes, Sheila Higgins Oral History Interview, Canberra, National Film and Sound Archive, Australia, 1977.
[17] Sydney Morning Herald, 25th March 1939, p. 8
[18] “One-Reel Novelty Films Made Here”, Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 28th November 1938, p. 5
[19] A Playground of the Pacific, directed by Stan Pentreath (1937, Australia: Cameracraft). An excerpt can be viewed at the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia youtube channel.

accessed 18th July 2018
[20] “All-Australian Colour Shorts”, Table Talk, Melbourne, 6th April 1939, p. 14
[21] Mercury , (Hobart), 28 January 1939, p. 5
[22] “Willie the Wombat”, Smiths Weekly, Sydney, 20th May 1939, p. 23
[23] Sydney on Show, (c 1940, Australia: Solarchrome Colour Processing). An excerpt can be viewed at Australian Screen.
accessed 18th July 2018
[24] Motion Picture Herald, March 23rd, 1946, p. 23
[25] “Monopoly Action Hits Film Firms”, LA Times, 14th August 1947
[26] “Fast Colour”, Time, March 22nd, 1948
[27] The News, Adelaide, 12th January 1948, p. 2
[28] “Newsreel News”, Smith’s Weekly, Sydney, 24th January 1948, p. 17
[29] The Joy of Living, directed by Eric Porter (1948, Australia: Litchfield Productions)
An excerpt can be viewed at
with Curator’s Notes by Poppy De Souza.
[30]Bushranger to be New Colour Film” Advertiser, Adelaide, 11th January 1950, p. 3
[31] “Color Film May Be Made Here”, News, Adelaide, 2nd August 1950, p. 2
[32] Charles Chauvel, “Our Outback a Rich Field for Filmmakers”, Sydney Morning Herald, 31st August 1950, p. 2
[33] Chronicle, Adelaide, 24th August 1950, p. 3
[34] South Australia Parliamentary Papers, August 8th 1950
[35] “Premier Playford is Expert Film-Grabber”, Smith’s Weekly, August 26th 1950, p. 2
[36] “Hollywood Comes to Australia”, Australian Diary No. 44 (1951, Australia: Department of Information Bureau, Film Division).
[37] “A Dust Storm”, Evening Journal, Adelaide, 29th July 1869, p. 3
[38] “Red Dust Storm”, Port Pirie Recorder, 2nd January 1928, p. 3
[39] Blyth Agriculture, 6th December 1929, p. 2
[40] “Lewis Milestone Papers”, Folder 32, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
[41] “Lewis Milestone Papers”, Folder 32, Margaret Herrick Library
[42] “Papers of Colin Simpson”, Box 41, National Library of Australia, MS 5253
[43] Colin Simpson, Adam in Ochre (London: Angus and Robertson, 1951) p. 17
[44] See Phillip Jones, “Red Ochre Expeditions”, Journal of Anthropological Society of South Australia 22(1) September 1984 and Phillip Jones, “That Special Property” in Ochre and Rust, (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1997)pp. 337-378
[45] Deb Verhoeven, Sheep and the Australian Cinema (Melbourne University Press, 2006)
p. 256
[46] Patrick Keating, Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) p. 214
[47] Papers of Colin Simpson, Box 41, National Library of Australia, MS5253
[48] Cairns Post, 16th November 1953, p. 1
[49] See Gevacolor entry Barbara Flueckiger “Timeline of Historical Film Colors” accessed 17th July 2018
[50] “Press Reviews of Royal Tour Film”, Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser, 30th June 1954, p. 12
[51] Sarah Street, Colour Films in Great Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-55 (Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2012) p. 13
[52] See Paul Byrnes, Curator’s Notes, The Queen in Australia, Australian Screen Online
accessed 18th July 2018
[53] “Tour Documentary” New York Times, June 16th 1954
[54] Welcome the Queen, directed by Howard Thomas (British Pathe, 1954).
[55] Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 2nd October 1952, p. 19
[56] Susanne Chauvel, Charles and Elsa Chauvel: Movie Pioneers (University of Queensland Press, 1989) p. 152
[57] “A lifelong battle for the films of Australia” Canberra Times, 15th October 1989. P. 20
[58] Dianna Young, “Mutable things: colours as material practice in the northwest of South Australia”, Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 17(2) June 2011 p. 356-376
[59] “Film Chance for 100 SA Horsemen”, The News, Adelaide, 23rd September 1950, p. 4

About the Author

Kathryn Millard

About the Author

Kathryn Millard

Kathryn Millard is a writer, filmmaker and Professor of Screen and Creative Arts at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her award-winning films span drama features, documentaries and essay films. Recent works include the films Experiment 20 (2018) and Shock Room (2015) and the monograph Screenwriting in a Digital Era (2014). Colour, psychology, silent film and the afterlives of images are recurring preoccupations in Kathryn's body of work.View all posts by Kathryn Millard →