BY TARA MARYNOWSKY
Updated 29 October 2020: Dawn Swane passed away on 13 October 2020. The NFSA would like to acknowledge Ms Swane's incredible life story and thank her for her countless contributions to the audiovisual industry, as well as for her and her daughter Melinda Doring's donation of home movies and other video recordings to our collection. This blog post was originally published in April 2016.
Production designer Melinda Doring has donated to the NFSA a unique collection of home movies and video recordings by her mother, dancer and make-up artist Dawn Swane. The footage includes a never-before-seen 1965 clip of The Beatles.
This diverse collection documenting Dawn’s career begins with Super 8mm films shot in 1957 when Dawn toured Europe as a dancer with the London Festival Ballet. It continues into the early 1990s with video recordings of inventive make-up presentations recorded at her successful Sydney make-up school, the 3 Arts Make-up Centre.
At a very young age, Dawn won the Frances Scully Overseas Scholarship in 1952 – the award took her to London and carried her into the world of ballet, opera, theatre, film, television and choreography. Arriving in England she was accepted into the Sadler’s Wells School (now the Royal Ballet School). She was later invited to join the London Festival Ballet, just in time to learn a dance to perform at Grace Kelly’s royal wedding in Monte Carlo in 1956.
Dawn toured Europe extensively and it was during this period that she picked up her 8mm home movie camera in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Dawn recalls, ‘I bought the camera and [the instructions were] all in Danish. Nobody could speak Danish … that was rather funny, so someone put the film in for me. And I went down and started to point it at the mermaid they’ve got there in Copenhagen.’
Behind-the-scenes with the stars
After suffering from a back injury Dawn returned to Sydney in 1958. She worked for ABC TV and the Nine Network in a variety of roles, including head of the make-up department for Bandstand. In 1961 she also directed and choreographed her own ballet, Black Opal, based on a story set in the Dreamtime.
Dawn returned to London in the mid-60s and secured a job as a make-up artist at Granada TV, in Manchester. She often took her 8mm camera to the studio. Whilst working at Granada, she met – and occasionally managed to film – famous musicians, actors and directors.
One major highlight of her film collection is the 49-second clip of The Beatles at her Granada make-up station, preparing for the TV special The Music of Lennon & McCartney on 1 November 1965.
Dawn Swane and the autographed call sheet for The Music of Lennon & McCartney, 1 and 2 November 1965.
Dawn says, ‘I was in the make-up room. And so we were having some champagne … And anyway, I don’t know if it was John or if it was Ringo but they took the camera off me and said, “This is no way to use a camera”, and they sort of jiggled it upside down and inside out a bit, and everybody was just mucking around. But that was great. I mean they were a nice group of people. They really were.’
Other highlights from this time include footage of a young Michael Caine on the set of the TV drama The Other Man (1964).
The art of make-up
Back in Sydney in 1966 Dawn established her own make-up school, 3 Arts Make-up Centre (now the Art and Technology of Make-up College).
Starting out in the Imperial Strand Arcade and ending up in Chippendale, the school produced many internationally recognised make-up artists, special effects artists, fashion artists, designers and sculptors over 40 years.
Dawn documented many aspects of the make-up school on videotape, recording numerous exercises, lessons, guest speakers and student exams during the late 1980s and early 90s.
‘Clown make-up’, ‘Scars, burns and mutilations’, ‘Creepy skin’, ‘High fashion’ and ‘Fantasy’ are how some of the tapes are labelled. Segments feature background music played from cassette tape to enhance the themes of the student’s make-up work.
Dawn once summed up her career by saying ‘I have had training in three different worlds but in the end they all became part of one’. What shines through the collection is Dawn’s dedication to the arts and her drive to explore the imagination.