Colour footage re-imagines last thylacine

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Drawings, paintings and written accounts have helped international experts bring colour to footage of the last-known Tasmanian tiger.

The National Film and Sound Archive this week released digitised film of the thylacine, known as Benjamin, which was originally taken in 1933 at Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo.

The almost 80 seconds of footage, shot by Australian zoologist and naturalist David Fleay, is the longest of the extinct marsupial on record.

The original 35mm black-and-white negative was scanned to reach 4K archival standards and then sent to colourisation experts in France.

The finished product took more than 200 hours and was informed by drawings, sketches and paintings, as well as preserved pelts.

Samuel Francois-Steininger, who led the project, said his team primarily relied on written descriptions of the thylacine’s coat to ensure tints and shades were accurate.

“These descriptions, combined with scientific drawings, and recent 3D colour renderings of the animal, meant we were able to get a clear idea of what the thylacine’s fur should look like,” he said.

“I have worked on more than 100 archive-based documentary films and series, most of them very complex.

“But for the thylacine, I faced a different kind of challenge and responsibility: I had to take care of the rare footage, and pay tribute to the last representative of a species.”

Benjamin died in captivity in 1936, about two months after the species was granted protected status.

It is estimated there were about 5000 thylacines in Tasmania at the time of European settlement, before excessive hunting, habitat destruction and disease resulted in their demise.

The state government in 1888 paid a bounty of one pound for each adult animal killed.

The footage was released on National Threatened Species Day, designed to raise awareness of animals and plants facing extinction.

“(The release) will continue to invite re-imagining and reconnection to this iconic footage,” NFSA curator Vick Gwyn said.

“We hope that people will apply their own perception and stimulate understanding of this remarkable animal.”

About three minutes of black-and-white footage of the Tasmanian tiger exists.

In May 2020, the NFSA unearthed a 21-second clip of Benjamin that was shot in 1935 and formed part of a travelogue dubbed Tasmania The Wonderland.

The narrator described the thylacine as “now very rare, being forced out of its natural habitat by the march of civilisation”.

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