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Shell Company of Australia

The Shell collection comprises a range of audiovisual material sponsored by the Shell Company of Australia or made by the Shell Film Unit over a 90-year involvement with film and video production.

The material includes hundreds of documentaries (some openly promotional, others less so), educational series, informational and training films and advertisements ranging in duration from under ten minutes to over an hour. In addition to film and video material, hundreds of associated publicity booklets, scripts, production stills, posters and film notes have also been collected and preserved.

The Shell Company of Australia has taken an active interest in the power of the moving image to convey a message since the 1920s when it began sponsoring short documentaries and producing cinema advertisements. These include The Origin of Oil (c1923) and Australasian Gazette – 10,000 Miles around Australia (c1926). During the Second World War, Shell also sponsored films to raise morale and support the war effort including They Serve (1940), about the Red Cross, and Cavalcade of Empire (1939).

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Shell Company of Australia was one of the principal private companies sponsoring and making documentary films. In 1948 the company formed its own film production unit – Shell Film Unit Australia – a self-contained 16 mm production, distribution and exhibition network that made trade and educational films, documentaries and corporate training films. It was derived from the Shell Film Unit in Britain which had been operating since 1934. This allowed the company to build its own film library and exhibit its films around the country through their own theatrettes in the capital cities and in other venues including town halls and schools.

The Shell Film Unit engaged some of Australia’s most accomplished filmmakers, including director and producer John Heyer, cameraman Ross Wood and producer Bernard Gandy. The Unit’s 1954 documentary The Back of Beyond (1954) won the Grand Prix Absolute at the Venice Film Festival and was reported to have been seen by around ten per cent of the Australian population within the first two years of its release.

Shell’s sophisticated use of the medium has documented the company’s own complex and changing relationship with Australia’s environment over that time. The films sponsored and made by the Shell Company of Australia provide a record of Australia’s natural resources, the mining industry, roads and infrastructure, the motoring and sporting industries and the associated activities and interests which surround these sectors. Embedded in these films are the contrasting forces of original intention and broader significance. While these films are sponsored by a private company, this does not diminish their significance as a cultural, historical or creative record.

Recognising the value of moving image and associated materials as cultural and historical artefacts, the Shell Company of Australia has deposited a significant amount of its own film library holdings with the National Film and Sound Archive for preservation. Along with film and video material, the collection includes hundreds of associated publicity booklets, scripts, production stills, posters and film notes.

Titles in this collection

Around a Gum Tree 1949

This documentary cleverly uses gum trees as a device to explore the broad range of industries that Australia supports.

The Back of Beyond 1954

Battling heat, dust and flood, Tom Kruse delivers mail, stores and supplies along the 517 kilometre Birdsville Track in central Australia.

Championship Chase 1970

Norm Beechey retired soon after winning the1970 Australian Touring Car Championship.

The Changing Face of Australia 1970

The sheer beauty and grandeur of Uluru before and after a rainstorm is a highlight of this geological study.

The City of Geelong 1957

The Shell Film Unit made this promotional travelogue of Geelong; three years earlier, a large Shell oil refinery was built on the city’s outskirts.

The Forerunner 1957

The Forerunner positions the the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme’s as the country’s 'first major step towards the final solution of Australia’s water problem’.

Hoyts and Studebaker Cinema Advertisement: Touring Talkie Show c1929

This advertisement positions the joint Hoyts, Shell and Studebaker venture as a service which audiences in country areas both need and deserve.

King Billy’s First Car 1939

This 1930s animated advertisement contains a disturbing subtext about Indigenous Australians.

Let’s Go c1956

This film promotes the Shell Touring Service and Shell’s nationwide network of road-related services. Shell maps were produced from the 1920s until the late 1970s. Shell has deposited a significant amount of film with the National Film and Sound Archive for preservation, with a range of excerpts on this site.

On Stream 1954

On Stream romanticises the achievements in building an oil refinery and emphasises the benefits for Geelong, its residents and the Australian nation.

The Origin of Oil c1923

Made for the Shell Company of Australia, this industrial documentary traces the path of oil from its initial extraction to the petroleum relied on by consumers.

Shell Animated Commercial: Poster Man 1960

This advertisement was made to screen only in cinemas prior to a feature film program despite being made after the introduction of television.

They Serve 1940

By the 1940s, the work of the Red Cross for the 'Australian soldier at home and abroad’ extended throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Through the Centre 1940

The Indian camel trader and the Japanese pearl diver become part of the film’s projection of the exotic within the expansive space of the Australian outback.

Timber 1947

Timber communicates a romantic perspective of logging and the timber industry – both seen as having minimal negative environmental impact.

Two Men of Fiji 1959

Issues of representation, colonialism and portrayals of culture all bubble under the surface in this story of two young men who leave their village for Suva.

What Makes a Champion 1959

This Shell Film Unit documentary includes demonstrations by a number of Australian Olympic athletes to analyse championship performance and answer the question ‘What makes a champion?’.