A key challenge in designing the Sir John Monash Centre was a rethinking of traditional museum and interpretative approaches to deliver a fresh multimedia experience that would appeal to a range of audiences.
This has been achieved, in part, due to the striking array of film—archival, contemporary and computer-generated—to give visitors a truly unique experience.
Beginning with archival research at the Australian War Memorial, the Imperial War Museums, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Library of Australia and the National Archives of Australia, the film team was able to source rich archival footage, to produce more than 70 films.
This archival footage was enriched with new footage filmed on locations in Australia, France and New Zealand.
Telling the story of the Australian Flying Corps, for example, led the crew to New Zealand where Academy Award winning director Sir Peter Jackson maintains one of the world’s largest collections of First World War aircraft.
Jackson’s company, The Vintage Aviator provided a German Fokker Dr.I Dreidecker and a British Sopwith Camel which are featured in recreations of aerial ‘dogfights’.
The film crew also discovered the small town of Omaru, near Dunedin in New Zealand, to recreate the village of Villers-Bretonneux. Using a combination of its 19th century streetscape and visual effects, the quiet community was transformed into the war-ravaged village. In other scenes, the heritage buildings were used to depict Le Hamel, Paris and London.
The New Zealand landscape, used by Sir Peter for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, was an ideal location for the Western Front, while the home front scenes were filmed in the Australian colonial setting of Logan Village Museum, south of Brisbane.
Bringing the Australian Imperial Forces to the screen required great attention to detail in casting, costumes and make-up.
Seamstresses recreated the Australian uniforms with tunic, baggy trousers, greatcoat, boots and slouch hat or cap, all with the relevant badges and insignia.
At each location, make-up artists used paint and prosthetics to make the men and women appear tired, dishevelled, dirty, wounded and maimed. Before going on set, the actors stood in fields and mud was pelted at them to provide a realistic appearance of prolonged trench warfare.
These scenes, and many others will be told via 184 screens on every wall and the ceiling of the Sir John Monash Centre’s immersive gallery. Some scenes are enlarged, while others are atomised. For older visitors, it is the IMAX experience taken to a completely new level. For younger audiences, it is the best of augmented reality.
The footage, both archival and recreated, is graphic and colourful. Men’s voices convey the personal narratives of ordinary Australians without the traditional heavy reliance on historical objects. While scenes have been recreated, every word is attributable to an archival source and is authentic to the time and place.
Film producers for the Sir John Monash Centre made a strategic decision to film in colour. Their aim was to enhance the dramatic impact of the galleries and make the experience more meaningful for visitors.
The experiences of Australia’s servicemen and women were not monochrome or faded, so it was important not to present them that way. By using colour audiences see the extreme reality of the past and this opens their minds to a new interpretation of wartime events.
Ultimately the result is a visceral and deeply personal experience where the visitor connects with individual characters and senses the totality of war.