Since its theatrical release, Wake in Fright occasionally screened late at night on Australia television during the 1980s and early 1990s, presented by Bill Collins, and there was a limited release of Outback on videocassette in the US in the ’80s. However, by the late ’90s, though some 16mm and 35mm prints of the film still existed, they were in extremely poor condition for screening and the original negatives seemed to have disappeared without a trace.
In 1996, Anthony Buckley, the editor of Wake in Fright, started searching for the original materials. In 1998, he located the negatives in London at a bonded warehouse, only to find on arrival that the film had been shipped to the United States the week before.
The search continued for another four years until, in 2002, the original film materials were finally located in a Pittsburgh vault marked for destruction and imminent disposal.
There were protracted negotiations with CBS (who owned the North American rights to the film and the materials) and finally, with the assistance of Ausfilm in Los Angeles, an agreement was struck with CBS to export materials to Australia to be held at the NFSA.
In 2003, the eagerly awaited first batch of Wake in Fright materials arrived in Australia. Upon close inspection it was quickly apparent that the two pallets of material were mainly beaten up, cut-down TV versions of the film, and of little use. This was a great disappointment for all concerned as CBS stated that they had delivered all the material known to be held.
Despite this setback Buckley persisted and – with the assistance of Megs Worthy, then of Ausfilm – continued to liaise with CBS in Los Angeles. CBS recommended contacting Iron Mountain Vaults directly, where a long-time vaults manager suggested that if there was anything more to be found, the 'dump bins’ would need to be searched. And it was in these bins that the complete original negatives of Wake in Fright were finally found.
In two separate shipments, 263 cans of film from the US containing original film elements necessary to reconstruct and preserve the film, arrived at the NFSA in September 2004. An initial inspection confirmed that virtually the complete set of images and sound negatives were there and reasonably intact. The NFSA determined how best to preserve the film and to choose appropriate image and materials in good enough condition to use.
The NFSA, together with Atlab and benefiting from Tony Buckley’s creative oversight, commenced preservation work using traditional photochemical techniques for the image and archival matching of the negative components.
Due to poor condition and the onset of vinegar syndrome on key components, however, the sound required specific care and transfer techniques to produce a quality transfer. A large number of sound components were transferred and auditioned for audio quality and completeness by NFSA technicians.
Eventually, components were selected for use in a new final mix. These components included a combination of dialogue tracks, music and effects tracks and optical soundtracks from both film and television versions. These parts were then pieced together digitally by Soundfirm with the guidance of NFSA staff to create a restored and complete mix ready for Atlab/Deluxe to re-master to Dolby Digital.
Meanwhile, it was soon apparent that traditional photochemical preservation would not be sufficient to preserve the film and produce prints that could match the film's original release. Significant colour fade and emulsion scratching were too severe to rejuvenate it via photochemical means. Instead, testing with digital restoration techniques was carried out to see what improvements could be made using these methods over photochemical.
Digital restoration testing proved very positive and a partnership was agreed between the NFSA and Atlab for a full digital restoration.
Anthos Simon, General Manager, Atlab/Deluxe explained, 'Atlab/Deluxe scanned the original film elements for Wake in Fright at the highest possible resolution (4K or 4096×3112) on a pin-registered scanner to ensure we got the best image quality available. We kept the entire digital image in film log space (DPX files) so there was no colour compression at all. We then proceeded to digitally restore each reel by carefully removing dirt marks, fixing scratches, creating a colour LUT to repair the emulsions, and splice repair. We used both standard and in-house digital tools that we developed specifically for this project. It was also handy to have some in-house research and development. All this careful and delicate restoration was done frame by frame and took over a year to complete. The sound was also remastered to a new Dolby digital sound negative from a combination of the original final mix, dialogue, music and effects elements. We then proceeded to make brand new prints and a safety inter-positive master.’
By February 2009, Wake in Fright was digitally restored to pristine condition by Atlab/Deluxe and the NFSA – and ready for rediscovery by audiences.
After a world premiere in the Cannes Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival on 15 May, the restored Wake in Fright had its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival on 13 June and began a limited theatrical run around Australia from 25 June 2009.