How home movies reveal decades of Queensland history

A historic treasure is discovered in long-forgotten film canisters in cupboards across Queensland.

Family members of deceased amateur filmmakers discover home movies dating back to the 1930s, which document life in the Sunshine State through the generations.

However, due to age, heat and humidity, the films are deteriorating at a rapid rate and the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) is in a race against time to save them.

SLQ staff digitize and store the best quality home movies given to them and share them online.

Serena Coates, head of preservation services at the SLQ, said “if we don’t do this work, we are at serious risk of losing the content of this material”.

“It’s crucial that this be done as soon as possible,” she said.

While some movies are approaching 100 years old, video cassettes that are only 20 or 30 years old are already deteriorating.

“Not only is that support deteriorating, but we’re also losing access to the equipment to be able to do this work.”

Reuben Hillier, a specialist librarian at the SLQ, said the films were “very strong in social history – what we wore, what we did, where we lived”.

“It’s changed a lot, especially in a city like Brisbane,” he said.

Moving images from decades past propel the viewer into a time warp – sending them on an exploratory journey of addictive viewing.

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Home movies of Brisbane development.

There are glittering scenes of a bustling Anzac Square in Brisbane’s CBD – before WWII.

Black and white images from 1939 reveal a time when City Hall dominated the skyline and the Story Bridge was about to meet in the middle on the Brisbane River.

Another film, 30 years later, shows the construction of the Captain Cook Bridge.

In 1954, there are crowds of people, dressed in gloves and hats, cheering and waving when they spot a young Queen Elizabeth in a passing motorcade.

While in 1969, discouraged faces peer through fences as a wrecking ball turns Brisbane’s original Tivoli Theater to rubble.

“It’s a glimpse of another era,” Mr. Hillier said.

Daily life in Brisbane captured

In addition to important events and developments, perhaps the most gripping films are those that feature everyday life.

“Your average amateur film from this period – there are children in the garden, there are trips to the Gold Coast, vacations to the Sunshine Coast, street parades – everyone loved going to Warana and filming the passing chariots.”

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Home movies of life in Brisbane, Gold Coast and Redcliffe.(Provided)

There’s the Gayndah Orange Festival, the Warwick Rodeo, the peace parades at the end of WWII in Barcaldine and the Bundaberg Show.

A film shows children waddling like ducks for novelty races at Esk State School.

Another reveals spectators crowding around a concrete slab in the suburbs that figure skaters had turned into a skating rink.

Amateur comedies and dramas

Homegrown slapstick comedy sketches were also popular.

“People would love to do their own comedies and dramas…with their kids as the actors and their backyards as the setting,” Mr. Hillier said.

“They can be pretty crazy experimental movie types.”

Portrait of Reuben Hillier.
Specialized librarian Reuben Hillier says home movies are a glimpse of another era.(ABC News: Sally Eeles)

There were also many trips to Ekka from Brisbane.

“No one ever tires of good Ekka pictures – it says a lot about how we celebrate and how we entertain ourselves,” Mr Hillier said.

A filmmaker in 1964 even added his own voiceover, describing the fairground scenes with a muted Australian-English accent.

Nancy Soden, 85, cannot remember a family event that was not filmed by her father, Len Pass.

“I’ve been in a lot of them, of course,” Ms. Soden said.

“I think the family as a whole loved being part of a movie, which of course at the time was quite unique.”

Nancy Soden holds a photo of her father, Brisbane filmmaker Len Pass.
Nancy Soden holds a photo of her father, Brisbane filmmaker Len Pass.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd )

Clips from the great-grandmother’s early years are liberally sprinkled throughout her father’s vast catalog of films.

There’s Nancy as a toddler in the 1930s, waking up at Christmas to find a new doll at the end of her bed.

There’s a teenage Nancy, in a bathing suit on the beach playing with her pet dog.

There’s Nancy as the bride, beaming in a long white veil as she descends the front stairs.

And there’s Nancy as a mother playing ring-a-rosie in the garden with her daughters.

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Home movies of Nancy Soden’s family.(Provided: Nancy Soden)

Ms. Soden’s father was an electrical engineer, whose passion for cameras and creating images began when he was a schoolboy.

‘He loved anything different – he was quite artistic in his own way – an inventor, that’s how I would say,’ Ms Soden said.

Nancy Soden (seated at the table on the right), with her daughters Lindy (seated at the table on the left) and Jenny (standing).
Nancy Soden, along with daughters Lindy and Jenny, says she thinks the family as a whole loved being part of a movie.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

Video Pioneers

An early board member of the Cine Society of Queensland, Mr Pass built most of its photographic equipment and even developed a machine for doing time-lapse photography.

Black and white head shot of Len Pass.
Len Pass built most of his photographic equipment and even developed a machine for doing time-lapse photography.(Provided: Nancy Soden)

“As a growing child, I took it for granted that he would tinker, play and discover things.”

With sound and images now able to be broadcast worldwide in seconds, Mr Pass was involved in transmitting the first images of the former Tower Mill from Brisbane to Ipswich.

“He and this friend of his really started the start of the television industry,” Ms Soden said.

Brisbane filmmaker Len Pass stares into the viewfinder of his camera on a tripod in the bush.
Nancy Soden can’t remember a family event that wasn’t filmed by her father, Len Pass.(Provided: Nancy Soden)

Call for more footage

The SLQ is looking for more quality amateur films.

“There’s a chance there will be important images and we’re always interested in looking at new collections, but they should be assessed on their condition and content,” Hillier said.

“Some of them are a bit too blurry or there’s too much movement and they’re not something we can scan.

And rather than being hidden away in air-conditioned storage, once digitized, old films will find new life.

“We’re not eliminating it – we’re constantly using film footage in our exhibits and presentations,” Hillier said.

“We use a lot of our film footage on our social media or at a show, like the Ekka, to highlight the story of this event.”

A staff member cleans film as part of the home film preservation process.
There is an order book of 10,000 items to be digitized.(ABC News: Sally Eeles)

In the SLQ’s preservation laboratories, the digitization process continues every day.

There is a backlog of 10,000 items to digitize and it is a slow process, with each record having to be cleaned up first.

Experts shoot each film by hand, using an eyepiece to check individual frames for mold, before the item is ready for scanning.

Information on how to keep your own film, video and audio recordings can be found on the SLQ website.

Ms Coates said it was recommended to create and store multiple copies on personal computers, the cloud and external hard drives.

“If you can store any on an external drive, give them to your neighbor so they have a copy so that if the worst happens and you have some kind of disaster at home, you have a backup copy. “said Ms Coates. .

“You can digitize something, you can keep it and do your best to make sure it’s around for as long as possible, but you can never say forever.”

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