Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive restores record of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’

It's just over a year since the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) took delivery of the first Scanity in Australia. As we celebrate our 30th anniversary, we look back on the first 12 months of operation. Prior to procurement, we conducted extensive market-testing in 2013 and 2014, with visits to labs and factories in US and EU, to talk with engineers and clients, and to test some of our footage on different film-scanners. The Scanity handles some of the most shrunken and damaged historical film, while producing excellent image quality at higher speeds than other machines.

The NFSA has more than 91,600 16-mm films in the collection. We need to scan film at high-enough rates to progress through a sufficient amount of footage each year. The Scanity provides real-time 2k scanning at 24-25 frames per second, and allows us to scan optical or magnetic soundtracks in one pass. A significant percentage of our films are sole-surviving composite prints, rather than earlier production elements, although we hold a number of original negatives, camera-reversal and intermediates. We have been experimenting with Log and Linear scanning of high-contrast film stocks, and we are interested in testing the High Dynamic Range options developed by DFT.

One of the first projects involved scanning the Wirth Family Home Movies collection, approximately fifty 16mm films, mostly donated by family members. In 1882, the Wirth family, of German origin, launched what became Australia's largest, most prestigious circus company. For eight decades Wirths was Australia’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, a large travelling circus of international standard and reputation. The circus toured Australia extensively and also embarked on world tours. It was disbanded only in 1963.

The Wirth family's films document their lifestyle – the grand homes, overseas travel, family, friends and parties. Circus footage is the highlight of the collection, with performances, animals, big-top tents and behind-the-scenes circus life. The films were recorded from 1925, just after the introduction of 16-mm film, to around 1950. It is believed that most of the films were taken by George Wirth (one of the Circus' founders) and his wife Margaret.

The Collection contains a large amount of high-contrast black-and-white, and later colour-reversal, mostly un-spliced shot-edits in camera. As with most films from this era, we encountered plenty of shrinkage and other damage, although the Scanity handles these smoothly with good focus and registration. We've discussed whether the new wet-gate option on the Scanity would be useful for reducing blemishes from embedded dirt. The NFSA catalogue may be searched for information on the Wirth family and the National Collection at

The NFSA continues to print and process black & white 35-mm film, but hopes to progress to scanning 35-mm colour film in the near future. We have a significant challenge ahead in restoring colour film from the early 1970s, when the Australian film industry underwent significant re-invigoration. Many of these film elements are now around 40 years old, and hundreds of these films have undergone significant dye-fade, shrinkage and other problems, prior to being deposited into the NFSA's cool dry storage repositories. In some cases, the deterioration is so severe that conventional photo-mechanical and photo-chemical processing is insufficient to restore the quality of the original images. A small number of low-budget or limited-release titles survive only on 16-mm, but the majority are on 35-mm.

About NFSA

The NFSA preserves more than 240,000 films, within a collection of more than 2 million items including audio, video, documents and artefacts. We present screenings, footage-sales, and content for broadcast and online delivery around the world.

The installation of the NFSA scanner was handled by Future Reality, which represents DFT in Australian and New Zealand. As a supplier of creative technology systems, software and services for the local film, broadcast television and post-production industries, Future Reality was able to undertake the complete integration of the Scanity system with the NFSA’s new and existing infrastructure.

“Preserving Australia’s film history is a vital part of our country’s culture and we are proud to have been involved with the NFSA and DFT on this important project,” said David Edgar, Managing Director of Future Reality.

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