Unearthing Small Gems: VCA Digital Archive Opens to the Public

Every VCA graduation film since 1966 is now stored in digital form. A new exhibition showcases this treasure trove for the first time.

Shorts made at film school have played an iconic role in the history of Australian cinema, revealing fresh talents, winning prestigious awards and launching some big international careers. But where do you find those films now, especially the ones made back in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and even 90s before everything was available on Youtube and Vimeo?

When filmmaker and academic Donna Lyon started working at the VCA’s Film and Television School in 2013, one of her roles was overseeing the distribution of student films that had gained traction beyond academia. ‘What I found was that there was no way to see the films,’ she says, telling Screenhub about the five-year quest that’s dominated her life and become her PhD project.

‘These films were locked in an archive on their raw materials and the only way to see them was through the library on VHS or DVD, which is really becoming obsolete,’ she says. Added to this was the fact that today’s students all expected, as a matter of course, to showcase their work online.

Thus began the VCA Digital Archive Project, a collection of around 1900 short films dating from 1966 to the present, which will be open to the public for a month at Melbourne University’s Old Quad Treasury from Monday 28th October. A curated collection of five shorts will be projected in a custom designed audiovisual space, complete with curved walls, sound barriers and bean bags, while visitors can also access the entire archive on their own devices or ones provided by the exhibition.

Showing us around the space as it was being set up (complete with the intoxicating smell of installation glue), Philippa Brumby, Operations Coordinator of the Old Quad, was incredibly proud. ‘This is the space for showcasing the university’s treasures,’ she said, ‘and it will be the first time we’ve showcased a moving image collection, so it will be very exciting to see how people engage with it.’

Producing an archive

Lyon, who currently lectures in the VCA’s Masters of Producing, saw this as a collaborative project, much like the producing of a film itself. Her role was to ‘steer the ship’ and ‘provide a unified vision’, fundraising and bringing together other services and organisations including ACMI, Film Victoria, Arcitecta and numerous volunteers and information management students.

The project has seen the digitisation of around 500 celluloid films and more than 1,200 magnetic tapes (originally on Digital Betacam, Betacam SP and HDCAM), including works by early graduates from the former Swinburne School of Film and Television, which moved over to the VCA in 1992. The archive now contains digital and preservation versions of all previous graduate films, along with their metadata. Metadata is all the information surrounding a film, like cast and crew, locations, themes, settings and festival screenings and Lyon finds this especially exciting from a research and engagement perspective. ‘Having such metadata will enable us to further curate the collection, to use it and search it in a really refined and nuanced way,’ she says. ‘We can now easily ask questions like, “which films from the school got into Berlin or Cannes, and are there any themes or trends in that?” or “How many of the films are cross-cultural stories, or made by women?”

From now on, all works made by VCA FTV students in the course of their study, not just their graduation films, will be added to the archive, and students can add their own metadata. Lyon says this represents around 150 pieces of work each year, ‘so it’s a living, growing audio visual archive’ that will be accessible to staff, students and researchers. Those outside the university and wanting access will also be able to apply for a password. 

Melbourne University (and the VCA) holds copyright on all its graduation films, and Lyon sees this archive as a ‘democratisation digital project, which basically means let’s give the films back to the students, as well as protecting our cultural assets.’

Starting small with 50 films

The first stage of the project saw fifty selected graduation films made available on Youtube to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the VCA. The collection showcased early works by celebrated filmmakers like Justin Kurzel (Blue Tongue), Robert Luketic (Titsiana Booberini), Ariel Kleiman (Young LoveDeeper Than Yesterday), Billie Pleffer (Bino) and Corrie Chen (Wonder Boy), as well as a host of others. They’re still there to watch, curated under playlists like ‘Coming of Age, ‘Asian Cinema’, ‘Feminist Films’ and ‘Documentary’.The trailer is below: 

Not every filmmaker will jump with joy at the idea of audiences watching their faltering baby steps. Yet Lyon says the overwhelming response has been positive, and the fact that the archive is password protected means these films won’t be shared to a wider unsympathetic audience. She also says there’s something lovely about the raw authenticity of films made by students who are still finding their own voices and responding to the zeitgeist in which they find themselves. This very lack of polish might prove encouraging to current students as they see that everybody had to start somewhere, and talent doesn’t always emerge fully formed at first hatching.

The future of short films?

The breakthrough success of beautifully crafted short films can still play a key role in the career development of a filmmaker. (See this piece on Rodd Rathjen, whose celebrated feature film Buoyancy would not exist without his previous VCA shorts.) But mounting evidence suggests short films no longer provide the clear pathways they once did. For example, Screen Australia no longer funds short films (except as proof of concept of larger TV series or feature projects), and Film Victoria hasn’t had a stand alone short film program since 2011. This hasn’t stopped students and dreamers making thousands of Australian short films each year, and entering them in festivals like Tropfest, Flickerfest and St Kilda (the latter of which receives up to 600 submissions each year).

‘I believe the short film as we used to know it is dead,’ says Lyon, in a statement that seems a little shocking given the nature of the enormous repository she’s promoting. But she’s speaking here as an educator trying to help students build careers and make the most of their time and resources. ‘I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t keep making them. They’re a celebrated cultural icon and an important way to build, refine and test your craft. I just think we need to think more carefully about story and audience in a flooded market, and how much we’re spending on them. The average graduating film at the VCA costs upwards of $5000, often much more depending on the privilege of the student, and as educators we have an ethical responsibility to really challenge them to think more smartly, given that making films is so resource heavy and there is such competition globally.’

With all these caveats, there’s no real indication the short film format is dead. We look forward to mining the archive for years to come. Already, students are doing just this, curating playlists, publishing pieces to the school’s website and just generally splashing around in the giant pool enjoying the content.

Here are some examples: Jake Dell’Ariprete’s piece on Outsiders and Misfits; Xu Xiong’s Why So Queer; and Sophie Bender’s Dance on Film.

Discover the Digital Archive runs from Monday 28 October – Friday 22 November, 10am-4pm weekdays at Melbourne University’s Old Quad.  

Visit the VCA Digital Archive here

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram