Q&A: Director of ‘Girt by Sea’, Shane McNeil

Published on January 13, 2014
Categories - Blog, Q&A, Read About

Australian writer and director Shane McNeil has created a truly unique piece of work which will be screened as part of the Perth International Arts Festival. His film Girt by Sea was commissioned by ABC TV Arts, PIAF, ScreenWest, Screen Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive, and it looks at our relationship as Australians with the coast. It is largely made up of archival footage that will resonate with viewers, and will be premiered at Somerville Auditorium with an accompanied live score being performed by The Panics. What a wonderful event! Today we find out more from the Shane himself…

Tell us about your career background and how you’ve come to where you are now:

Like most kids, I always loved films growing up but didn’t start making any of my own until I enrolled in Cinema Studies, whilst completing my drama degree at university. It was a great course with an equal balance of theory and practice and immediately changed my career direction. After I finished my degree, I knew I wanted to make films for a living. But before I could get behind the camera, I ended up becoming an ‘accidental’ lecturer when I was asked if I could fill in for a staff member who was sick. Those six months turned into ten years, culminating in my co-founding the Screen Studies course at Flinders University in South Australia.

I made some funded short films with the support of the SA Film Corporation but after a decade of teaching I left academia, deciding it was time to make films and not just talk about them. So after a necessary period of unemployment, I managed to enter the brave new world of commercial production, directing TV ads, making music videos and writing for children’s television.

With the support of the Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia) I made a short feature called The 13th House and was fortunate to be mentored by Rolf de Heer (Bad Boy Bubby, The Tracker, Ten Canoes) during that time.

I then formed a production company – Smoking Gun Productions – and produced and directed a number of short films, documentaries, TV series, online games and feature films – most notably Lucky Country and Boxing Day both directed by Kriv Stenders (Red Dog).

I now freelance as a writer/director/developer which supplements my day job as Manager of Programs and Development at the Media Resource Centre in Adelaide, which also supports emerging filmmakers and screen artists through production grants and script development. After Girt by Sea premieres next year, I commence pre-production on a feature supported through the SAFC’s low budget FilmLab program.

Shane McNeil

What inspired you to make Girt by Sea?

It was mainly inspired by the fact that I wanted to make a film with my good friend (Producer) Heather Croall. We have known each other for over 20 years but never worked together. Heather is the Artistic Director of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and in 2012 she produced a feature documentary entitled From the Sea to the Land Beyond, being an archival history of the UK coastline backed by a soundtrack from UK indie rock band British Sea Power. It screened at the festival and on the BBC and was extremely well received by English audiences. So Heather and I discussed doing an Australian version of it. Like most Australians, Heather and I both had fond memories of growing up near the coast and spending many of our formative years at the beach. We initially approached the ABC and ScreenWest with the idea of an archival documentary and then the Perth International Arts Festival jumped on board embracing it as an ‘event’ – offering a premiere outdoor screening accompanied by a live score performed by The Panics.

What can we expect to see on screen?

A vast, varied and sometimes ironic collage of images, which hopefully will evoke memories and provoke discussion.

Essentially, Girt by Sea is a silent film bound together by recurring themes, motifs and emotional tones, all propelled by the alluring original soundtrack created by The Panics.

Naturally, it is impossible to create a complete history of the Australian coastline in 50 minutes. Hence I have constructed an impressionistic film that touches on recurring themes and ideas regarding the way I believe the coastline has helped shape our national identity.

Like Baraka, Samsara or Koyaanisqatsi, the film is experimental in that there is no narration or discernible plotline to guide the viewer. I have tried to create an immersive cinema experience, relying on the audience to create their own narrative as they draw their meaning from each section based on their own experiences.

How did you go about getting the footage? What was the response like?

Most of the footage we used was sourced through the National Film & Sound Archive and ABC Archives. To date, I think I have now viewed over 500 hours of archive material! The archivists and researchers at both institutions have been amazing to collaborate with, both in terms of physically helping me locate specific shots and also in their enthusiasm to offer regional suggestions as to what other footage might be suitable.

ABC did a call out across Australia asking for viewers to submit any home movies relating to the coast. We have also managed to access a number of home movie collections which have been donated to NFSA and ABC archives. We’ve been processing all amateur footage received primarily looking for distinctive shots that bring to mind memories of our collective youth, both individually and as a country.

PIAF Coast

I read the ABC call out asking for Super 8 home video footage. Why did you ask for Super 8 footage in particular? Was it to do with its time frame or aesthetics?

Before video handicams and smartphones, Super 8 was THE preferred film gauge for amateur filmmakers. Like the more commercial 16mm and 35mm stock, filmmakers could shoot, process, edit and even put sound on their 8mm home movies.

Super 8 does have a distinct aesthetic ‘look’ to it which immediately says ‘home movies’, and therefore ‘family’. We have consciously tried to employ as many different film stocks and gauges as we can in the film to show the range of our ‘archive’. Like Ektachrome and Kodachrome photos, each historical film format has its own tonal register, which hopefully brings back memories of a particular time and place.

We discovered that a lot of Super 8 home movie enthusiasts were actually chemists! This may have been because chemists used to stock Super 8 film and send it off for developing in the day, as they did with photographs before Polaroids and digital technology came along. So they were the unsung domestic archivists of their day.

Nowadays everyone has a smart phone so in a sense, everyone is now an archivist. The difference, I believe, is that all that massive amount of daily data is (a) not being sourced selectively and so it’s value is lowered and (b) is not being kept or collated. Neil Armstrong went to the moon and only took five photos. People now go the bathroom and take 37 ‘selfies’. Which photos will history remember?

The film is about our relationship, as Australians, to the coast. What is your relationship with the coast personally?

When I think of ‘the coast’ I automatically think of my family and summer holidays. I think of long, hot summer nights sleeping under the stars on Aldinga Beach (SA); digging for cockles (pipi) with my grandparents in the foreshore at Horseshoe Bay (Pt Elliot); catching my first fish (a leather jacket!) with my grandfather off the Victor Harbour jetty (SA); surfing with my brother and our mates after graduation at Point Turton; crabbing with my Dad at St Kilda Beach (SA); and now Christmas holidays with my wife and kids at Middleton Beach (SA).

In terms of semiotics, the coast is regarded as a place of egalitarianism, where we all stand (or lie) equal before the sea and under the sun. For me the idea of ‘coast’ more importantly embraces a quintessential Australian myth – ‘coming of age’. Being a relatively young nation of immigrants, the vast majority of Australian’s have ‘grown up’ on the beach. Our first memories are of sand and salt and sun. So as a nation, we likewise tend to view the coastline through the nostalgic memories of youth – looking back to where we once came from and out to where we might go.

What’s your favourite beach in Australia?

As a kid it was definitely bodyboarding at Boomer Beach (Pt Elliot) with its massive surf waves (or at least we though they were then.) As an adult, it would have to be the beautiful Silver Sands at Aldinga. But don’t tell anyone.

I think it’s a great idea to have The Panics play a live score to the film! There’s something quite enchanting about live music accompanying cinema…

I loved The Panics music even before getting the chance to collaborate on this film with them. I’ve always felt their sound had strong emotional resonance and evoked a distinct sense of place. And although it sounds like a cliché – they have a very ‘Australian’ sound. As soon as you hear Jae’s voice you can’t imagine them as being from anywhere but Australia.

When we were shortlisting bands for the film, Heather and I both felt The Panics’ music had a clever instrumentation and a rich orchestral (if not symphonic) quality, which we thought would lend itself to our intended score. The concept of a live score also evokes the sense of it being a silent film, and how music plays an essential part in shaping the film’s narrative.

Have The Panics recorded a score for future screenings of the film?

The Panics are composing an original score of about a dozen new tracks to play live when the film premieres at PIAF on 9 February and that score will be recorded and will accompany the film’s soundtrack when it airs on ABC 1 the following week. Shane

The world premiere of Girt by Sea will screen at Somerville Auditorium on Sunday 9 February at 8pm and, as above, will be accompanied by a live score from The Panics. Tickets are $59.50 and are available here.


  • Blimey, I’m glad I watched Girt by Sea today (27:1:18) on the ABC.
    Thanks Shane…
    I was brought up in Sydney and Dad was an engineer on the Manly Ferries (: Good times.
    My Uncle Charles Cody was supervisor of Taronga Zoo and trained the Elephants… My hero..
    My Mum was brought up in Woolloomooloo with 8 siblings ha ha ha…I’d love to visit my Nanna there.. We moved to Geelong when Dad got a job on the Tug-boats.
    Thanks again Shane (:

    by Margaret Jansen on January 27, 2018 at 9:25 am

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