Though the cramped attic studio in the Salvation Army building in Melbourne was only restored a few years ago, this hidden gem’s longstanding history traces back until 1891. It’s the home of the Limelight Department, one of the world’s first movie studios.
Within the studio, the Salvation Army produced around 300 films, short and long, for its faithful clients and also for private and government entities. The filmmakers initially used “magic” lantern slides that were created in the Coloring Room and used to project the hand-colored images onto a screen.
The organization used Salvation Army officers as its cast, and shot at its Girls Home and even in the rooms within the studio’s building. In 1900, it notably premiered Soldiers of the Cross, which some argue is perhaps the first feature-length movie ever made, after developing the live action film in the Dark Room here.
The film, which was a mixture of lantern slides, music, and live lectures, lasted nearly two and a half hours. Its violent scenes were controversial at the time. A death scene once even made women in the audience faint.
The Limelight Department hit the big time when it was commissioned by the New South Wales government to make a multi-camera record of the celebratory inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth. Teams of musicians, lecturers, and projectionists would travel the country showing their films, all to raise awareness and funds for their work.
However, its glory did not last long. Later leadership decided that the department wasn’t conservative enough, and it was wound down and eventually shuttered.
The attic studio that once housed the department now showcases some colored slides from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, vintage cameras and equipment, posters, and artifacts.