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Show Me the Magic - The Adventures of Don McAlpine

directed by Cathy Henkel

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Show Me the Magic - The Adventures of Don McAlpine


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A journey into the life and work of the legendary and world-renowned Australian cinematographer, Don McAlpine.

A country kid from the small wheat-belt town of Quandialla in isolated south-western New South Wales, Australia, McAlpine was born in 1934 - the year before the first technicolour film was released. There wasn’t even a cinema in Quandialla. Don helped his mother support their family from the age of 14, when his father was stricken by tuberculosis. His part-time job at the Temora chemist as a darkroom photo developer struck a chord in young Don's soul. Soon, a school performance of The Mikado ignited in him the desire to entertain an audience.
His fascination with the magical images emerging from his darkroom set him on the winding path that would eventually lead to the glittering lights of Hollywood, where, in 2009, he received the American Society of Cinematographers’ “International Cinematographer of the Year” Award in front of the foremost luminaries of the American film industry.

That same year, Don shot his 50th film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a big-budget, effects-driven action movie directed by Oscar-winner Gavin Hood and starring Hugh Jackman. Show Me the Magic takes us on set and behind the scenes of that film. In 2011, Don posted another landmark: Mental, a low budget movie directed by PJ Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Peter Pan). Mental was Don’s first digital film and his first Australian film in 25 years. As we travel with Don back into his past, and into the Australian outback landscape that he loves so much, we experience the extremes of movie making: embedded alongside him on the contrasting sets of Wolverine and Mental, we peel back the layers of what Don calls ‘the beautiful deception' of cinema to illuminate the world behind the screen.

Joined by celebrated Australian directors Bruce Beresford and Gillian Armstrong, we explore the heritage of the remarkable Australian films that Don photographed, including the iconic Breaker Morant and My Brilliant Career. In Los Angeles, Don reconnects with Paul Mazursky who gave him his big break in Hollywood with Tempest and followed up with Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

And two Australians of a later generation - Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin - take us behind the scenes on Don’s spectacular creative achievements – Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! At once the story of a remarkable man and an exploration of filmmaking at the highest level, Show Me The Magic will engage and entrance anyone who has ever been touched by the magic of movies.

Don McAlpine's personal history in film is a history of the medium itself; he developed as an artist in parallel to the growth of the Australian film industry, winning the respect of his peers and great international acclaim.

Don was born in the isolated outback village of Quandialla, NSW. He was working as a physical education teacher in a small town nearby when he boldly talked the Australian Broadcasting Corporation into giving him a shot as a newsreel stringer. His achievements in the '60s filming regional stories led to a full time job at the national broadcaster.

From there he moved to the Commonwealth Film Unit, where he was assigned the job of travelling to exotic places to shoot ethnographic pieces on colour 35mm film. In 1972, Don took leave from this position to shoot his first feature film, Bruce Beresford's The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

And so began a career spanning six decades and over 53 films, from the iconic Australian classics Don's Party, 'Breaker'Morant, and My Brilliant Career to international box-office hits like Parenthood, Mrs Doubtfire, Patriot Games, Predator and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. For his films with Baz Luhrmann, Don received a BAFTA nomination (Romeo + Juliet), and Oscar® and BAFTA nominations for Best Cinematography (Moulin Rouge!).

In 2009 Don was honoured as the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) Cinematographer of the Year, and in 2011 he was granted the first award to be bestowed by the newly-established Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA): the Raymond Longford Award, which recognises a person who has made a truly outstanding contribution to the enrichment of Australia's screen environment and culture.

Throughout his career, Don has earned a reputation as a brilliant craftsman, fast and flexible, with a knack for innovative solutions to tricky on-set problems. His mercurial adaptability in working with directors to realize their visions has resulted in an incredibly diverse filmography. From Oscar-winners to first-timers, they all applaud Don's sensitivity and simpatico, as well as his humility and fortitude.

As he approaches his 80th year, Don shows little interest in slowing down. He and his lifelong partner Jeanette still travel the world, shooting on location from Dolphin Heads to Durham. Don is adapting to new digital cameras and continues to embrace cutting-edge technology, shooting his first digital film, Mental with P.J. Hogan. Show Me The Magic is a tender portrait of a life in film, weaving together footage from Don's personal archive, his filmography and on-set observation. The film includes fellow filmmakers Baz Luhrmann, Bruce Beresford, Gavin Hood, P.J. Hogan, Gillian Armstrong and actor/producer Hugh Jackman.

"As in the chilling 2008 documentary The Burning Season, Henkel’s style is straightforward and unfussy. She keeps the leisure footage casual, and lets the coverage of the man at work speak for itself."
- Michael Dalton (reviews.media-culture.org.au)

"Thoroughly enjoyable- interesting and very informative...not only on Don McAlpine but also on filmmaking, relationships and history in Oz."
- Megan Thackeray (screenworks.com.au)

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