The National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra, Australia is one of two archives containing a wealth of materials concerning early special effects cinematographer, Norman O. Dawn. Dawn created over 800 special effects during the years between 1906-1951. The majority of Dawn’s films were Hollywood productions, most often low-budget, action-adventure films produced during the studio era. However, during the late 1920′s, Dawn travelled to Australia to make three films, among them a very significant historical epic, For The Term of His Natural Life (1927), as well as Australia’s first sound film, Showgirl’s Luck (1931).
Although he directed around 80 films during his career, Dawn remains an obscure figure in film history, as only nine of his films still exist. Three of Dawn’s films can be found at the NFSA, along with a variety of film-related material concerning the production of these films.
Some of the most significant materials at the NFSA include those related to the restoration of For the Term of His Natural Life. The materials concerning the restoration emphasize the complexities of this process. The restored version of For the Term of His Natural Life is a reconstruction of fragments from the original Australian release, the subsequent American release, production stills, and intertitles based on Dawn’s annotated copy of the novel on which the film was based. The archival materials related to this restoration bring to the surface the way in which film restoration is as much of a creative endeavor as the original film of which it is a reconstruction.
While these materials trace the creative process of film restoration, they are also crucial to understanding the complications involved in the process of archival research. Archival materials confront the historical researcher as a set of fragments out of which he or she must construct the past. While these artifacts point to a moment that has passed, they also make evident the way in which this past will always remain elusive. Historiography in this sense is as much of a creative endeavor as the restoration of For the Term of His Natural Life, making the reconstruction of the past not unlike film production, aligning the work of the historian of Dawn with that of Dawn himself.