For the first time we can watch a thylacine, also known as a Tasmanian tiger, move in something close to living color. Originally taken in black and white, a film of Benjamin, the last confirmed member of his species, who died on September 7, 1936, has been colorized and released to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the event, as well as National Threatened Species Day, which Australia holds in commemoration of Benjamin on September 7 each year.
Although there have been reports of thylacine sightings since 1936, and even some blurry footage, the Tasmanian tiger is generally considered to have gone extinct with Benjamin's death or soon after. What we have left of the species are 10 black-and-white film clips, some artistic rendering, and museum exhibits.
Samuel François-Steininger, who runs Composite Films and has colorized several films stored in Australia's National Film and Sound Archives, turned his attention to the thylacine clips. François-Steininger chose footage of Benjamin taken in 1933, rather than the more famous, but lower quality, footage from 1935 to color.
“It was very challenging to colourise because, apart from the animal, there were few elements in the frame,” François-Steininger explained in a statement. “And because of the resolution and quality of the picture, there were a lot of details – the fur was dense and a lot of hair had to be detailed and animated. Regarding the colourisation choices, we could find many different skins in different museums that were well conserved in the dark and kept their colors."
Lacking color photographs of thylacines, and knowing even the best-preserved skins may fade with time, François-Steininger drew on sketches, paintings and written descriptions from the era when it was still alive.
“From a technological point of view, we did everything digitally – combining digital restoration, rotoscoping and 2D animation, lighting, AI algorithms for the movement and the noise, compositing and digital grading,” François-Steininger said. “More than 200 hours of work were needed to achieve this result.”
The thylacine was the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial before its extinction, and its loss left a gap in Tasmania's ecosystem. Although Australia has seen more mammals go extinct in the last 200 years than anywhere else on Earth, no other loss has captured the imagination like the thylacine. This may reflect its size and distinctive nature or the fact its extermination was largely deliberate, rather than the accidental byproduct of cats and foxes running wild as in so many other cases. The existence of the footage may have also contributed to keeping the thylacine's memory alive.
"I am very happy and proud to pay tribute to the thylacine on this special day,” François-Steininger wrote; “I hope this project will help to communicate and raise awareness of plants and animal species at risk of extinction."