Reflections on the VCA Digital Archive of Student Film

Donna Lyon is impressive. Not only is she a film producer and lecturer at the VCA film school, Donna is also finishing up her PhD on creating the VCA Digital Archive – a growing, online repository of over 1,800 student short films tracing back to the 1960s.

This mammoth project required input from a range of departments across the University of Melbourne, including the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation. In this interview with Samara Greenwood, Donna describes the many facets of her project and how it has ultimately led her to reimagine the role of producers and other cultural agents in society today.

What led you to create a digital archive of student films?

I started off as a producer in film and television. I cut my teeth on short films. I had also studied at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and completed my Master of Producing there. So, I had a deep understanding of the ethos of the VCA film school and the types of films they made.

Eventually I landed a job at the VCA overseeing the production and coordination of about 150 student short films a year.

Students felt the films they made went into what they called ‘The VCA Vault’ and died. They were mastered on magnetic media and you couldn’t play that in an accessible form. Also, the film school owned the copyright to the films. The students were stifled in terms of the way they could expose their work and get it out there to a market.

Donna Lyon
Donna Lyon is a film producer and lecturer at VCA Film and Television. Photographer: Giulia McGauran

How did that problem evolve into a research PhD?

It began with a conversation around the difficulty of accessing student work.

A VCA staff member said to me one day “I know how we could solve that, we could have our own YouTube channel and put all the films up there”. They also said, “that would make a really good master’s project”. I thought: yes, it would!

I first embarked on a research Masters in 2013, which later transferred into a PhD.

The project came not only out of a need to access student films from the past, but also from the rise of the digital age. If we didn’t respond to this, we were going to be left behind. Not only that, but the materials were going to erode.

How did you connect with the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation?

As a producer, you’re always trying to find out how to make a project work. Who do you need? Who are the people, the stakeholders, the experts in the field that you can bring together to realise a project?

Through my journey there was a series of serendipitous moments where I connected to parts of the university that I knew were somehow linked in these areas of conservation and digital preservation.

My first contact with the Grimwade Centre was when l sought them out to conduct a Preservation Needs Assessment, in which they assessed the preservation requirements for our collection. In the case of our film and magnetic media, the report confirmed that the film was prone to vinegar syndrome, which occurs when cellulose decomposes, and the magnetic media had a shelf life of ten years. So, we knew the archive was a ticking time bomb.

You then worked with the Grimwade Centre further for your PhD?

I was looking for a co-supervisor to guide me alongside my VCA supervisor, Associate Professor Annabelle Murphy, and I reached out to the Director of Grimwade, Professor Robyn Sloggett. I had no idea who she was. I had no idea of her expertise or her profile. I just emailed her thinking, “she looks like she could be good”. And she said yes!

Robyn helped me to think about the project on a conceptual level and also to bring in the theory. The film school is very practice based, so that is what I knew. I didn’t know how to do a PhD. I didn’t really know how to engage with theory or how it could enhance my research. Robyn really helped me take it to the next level in that area.

There were many times that I wanted to give up. I thought, “I can’t do this project, I’m not smart enough, I’m not good enough”, those kinds of thoughts. Robyn helped guide my thinking.

I was impressed with how, through your PhD, you were able to marry a very practical project with academic theory as well as personal reflection. What were the challenges in bringing those three elements together?

When I began, I didn’t know what the story was or where it sat. I think this is because it crossed all these different fields. I’m not an archivist but it is an archive project. It was the same with records and IT and library science and so on. But they all contributed to the research. Primarily, I think it took me quite a while to confidently claim that I was a filmmaker and my work was in filmmaking. Once that sunk in, I was okay.

But then, as artists, we are also highly reflective. I found it very helpful when I started to engage creatively and personally in the project – that’s when things became really alive and generative for me. And, because my background is as a sexual abuse survivor, I was also dealing with those effects and issues.

I looked back on early work that I’d made on VHS tape. When I watched that, I realised that at age 18 I was literally making films about my trauma. At the time I had no idea I was doing that.

I think that was a reason I moved into the arts. I needed to construct a sense of self because my self was so damaged as a child. I needed to reassemble myself. That was very much in line with the project of reassembling and reimagining an archive of ‘dead media’ and giving it new life. As soon as I started to toy with that conceptual, and somewhat feminist, framework, I found it a very easy process.

That also made me think, I wonder how many film students are unconsciously creating manifestations of themselves? Almost like: we know our identity at a young age, yet we don’t quite have the language to articulate it yet. I noticed that other filmmakers in the collection were now, as established filmmakers, making works that spoke to their film student movies. I found that fascinating.

I was struck by your discussion about the parallels between film production and academic research, could you tell us a little about that?

While working on my PhD, I investigated different research methods, including Action Research. While I found the academic methods interesting, I found the existing skills and methods I used in film production where also highly applicable to my research and provided me with a strong framework in which to progress the project.

In many ways, I found completing the research was like making a film. I was following the same stages I do when producing, including planning, preproduction, production and postproduction. Before undertaking my PhD, I didn’t realise this process was a legitimate methodology, known as the Film Value Chain Model. I hadn’t seen the value in my methods.

I also hadn’t seen the value and ‘power’ inherent in the role of producer as cultural agent and gatekeeper. I think that anybody contributing to the cultural fabric of our society, where they are instigating the work, in some respect, is – by their very nature – a cultural agent.

Once we understand that, it imbues us with a greater sense of responsibility. How do we ethically engage with the work? Thinking about this question has really transformed my practice. I wish I’d known about these ideas and this body of knowledge 15 years ago!

You also spoke about the value of the VCA digital archive itself for future researchers who might be interested in what past student films can tell us about; for example, the social and cultural history of Australia. Could you expand on how you see that working?

A film is made up of so many parts and each part has the opportunity to be researched, from costumes, theme, setting, location, cast, through to the technology and format that the filmmakers are playing with.

For every film in the digital archive we have included detailed information on each of these aspects. This level of detail then makes it easier for researchers to find, compare and contrast films from the past to the present. I’m looking forward to historians and culturally clever people coming in and engaging with the films in new ways.

I also think it’s important for an artist to realise early that their work has a greater context.

The archive can help students see that their work takes on greater meaning, whether or not they like it. That’s the nature of art.

I talk in the thesis about how individual student films sit within a larger body of works, which then has a greater context because it connects to practice, to ideas and to discourse. It goes out to an audience and the audience is going to take that on board in a multitude of ways.

I also want students to understand that things change over time, that they are not fixed to any one identity and that, hopefully, they are going to keep on creating and making.

What’s next for you?

I have to submit my thesis! Then I am working on a participatory arts documentary, which combines boxing and writing, for female survivors of child sexual abuse and trauma. It looks at how the combination of sport with creative arts and writing can contribute to post-traumatic growth. That project is my next research baby.

For more information on the VCA Digital Archive you can read Donna’s article for The Conversation, ‘Magnetic Memoir: A Love Letter to VHS from the Archives’ and this article celebrating the opening of the archive to the public in October 2019. Selected films from the archive are available to the public via YouTube.

Feature Image: Still from The Kid in the Closet by Melodie Shen, 2013. Photographer: Melodie Shen.