Most silent-era films had been tinted and toned, with tinted prints made on stock whose base was specially coloured as, for instance, rose pink, sunshine yellow, or midnight blue. An alternative way of colouring films was to run an entire black-and-white print through a coloured dye bath. Toning was a different process in which the black-and-white silver image was reprocessed to produce sepia or other shades instead of black. Complete reels were assembled with various sequences in appropriate tints or tones.
I took creative licence in deciding how and where to colour the restoration. The NLA had, at one point, made a 16mm colour print as a record of the surviving Australian version’s tints and tones, and I was surprised on viewing this to see how conservative the colour choices were. The lab work for the restoration was handled by Sydney’s Colorfilm Laboratories, whose Technical Manager, Dominic Case, had mastered a way on Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront (1978) to combine archival newsreel black-and-white with newly shot colour scenes without the monochrome scenes taking on any unwanted colour bias once both were printed onto colour stock. Since the tinting and toning system used on the original Term and other films of the silent era — colouring individual scenes using special chemical baths — was no longer a possibility, Dominic developed a system in which normal colour positive print stock was pre-exposed to simulate the effect of base tints. Using this stock, Colorfilm lab staff then employed normal colour grading techniques to add assorted colour tones to the black-and-white image. As silent filmmakers had, we used the new tints and tones to literally or symbolically match the settings, actions and emotions: sepia for interiors, blue for night, sunshine yellow for daylight exteriors, dark green for claustrophobic bushland, and red for passionate scenes or fire.
On 5 June 1981, with live accompaniment from the Palm Court Orchestra, the restored For the Term of His Natural Life, running at 97 minutes, premiered on the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival at Sydney’s State Theatre. Among the guests were Jessica Harcourt, who had played the film’s femme fatale Jessica Purfoy, Edward Howell, who had played the young convict, Cranky Brown (and who gamely removed his shirt for a re-enacted ‘lashing’ outside the cinema this winter night), the film’s uncredited co-editor Mona Donaldson, and Bill Carty, one of the film’s brace of cameramen.
The restoration, which had already swamped publicity at that year’s festival, was well received. The Palm Court Orchestra, whose live performance did so much to enhance interaction between film and audience, triggered a standing ovation the moment the film ended. Following the Sydney premiere, the orchestra’s score was recorded for the composite print that was screened on the closing night of the 1981 Melbourne Film Festival.
David Williams, then the managing director of the Greater Union Organisation (GUO), a corporate successor to the Australasian Films that had produced Term, arranged for GUO to donate to the NLA — and hence ultimately the NFSA — the rights that GUO still held in Term. GUO distributed the restoration for its Australian theatrical release, and the restoration went on to have wider international exposure than the film’s original version ever did. It was shown around the world at festivals and conferences, screened on Australia’s ABC-TV and released on video, while its score was sold on LP. Above all else, the Term restoration drew unprecedented public and political attention to the work of Australia’s National Film Archive. This attention helped pave the way for wide acceptance of the federal government’s creation in 1984 of an autonomous National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.