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Preserving materials in the AIATSIS Collection

You may or may not have heard about the 1973 TV pilot ‘Spinifex Breed – Marra Marra”. But thanks to the conservation team at AIATSIS, the film will now be available for future generations.

The film, which features famous actors Bob Maza and David Gulpilil, is about a mining company taking over Indigenous sacred land. It was produced by film maker CJ Stanley, who privately funded the production. CJ’s son, John Stanley, recalled his father showing the film at his family home. John inherited that same copy before being deposited with AIATSIS.

The deposit included three film cans containing two reels of 16mm Release Print, two reels of Mag (Soundtrack) and two reels of Mag (Music & Effects).

On receiving the film, the Digitisation and Preservation team assessed the materials to determine any required treatments and prioritisation for digitisation. The team noted an acidic smell coming from the cans, which indicated the presence of acetic acid, a product of Vinegar Syndrome. The team called on the specialists in the Moving Image and Archival Collections (AV) teams to conduct the assessment.

Specialist from the Moving Image Team conducting the assessment of the materials. Image: Christina Sparrow, AIATSIS.


Vinegar syndrome is a term used to describe the chemical reaction that deteriorates film over time. The presence of the odour does not mean the film has degraded, but rather that the reaction is taking place. The acid produced can also react with the dyes in colour films, causing dye fading and damage to both the image as well as the base.

Acetic acid poses a significant health risk to staff handling the material as well as potentially damaging other materials in proximity. To minimise risk, the materials were stored in a refrigeration unit in our quarantine room to arrest further decomposition until a proper condition assessment could be made.

Decomposing 16mm Magnetic soundtrack showing severe edge curl which prevents the Mag being digitised. Image: Christina Sparrow, AIATSIS.


Unfortunately, the four 16mm Full Coat Magnetic soundtrack reels were in a severe state of decomposition, preventing them from being preserved. Luckily, the 16mm Composite film was in a condition suitable for digitisation. The team were elated to discover that the film had an Optical Variable-Area soundtrack, making the magnetic film components less vital.

The 16mm Composite Film was successfully digitised, however the footage wasn’t free from the effects of Vinegar Syndrome. When inspecting the film, it was obvious the film was affected by severe colour dye fade.

Still from the film “Spinifex Breed – Marra Marra. The left side of the image is the final image post restoration. The right side shows the Vinegar Syndrome faded film pre restoration. Left to right: Tony Allyn (Jack) and Lex Mitchell (Constable Donegan)

AIATSIS’s film remastering expert was tasked to correct the colour on the digitised copy using professional colour grading and editing software. These images demonstrate the outstanding results of the restoration. The restoration shows the impact that colour brings to the depth and clarity of the film, too.

The original film and the digitised version will remain in our Collection for future generations. More importantly, John Stanley will receive a copy of the restored film. He last watched the pilot in the mid-1970s. Without the team's skills at AIATSIS, this film may have been lost forever.

Learn more about the AIATSIS Collection here


Last updated: 27 October 2023