Persistence of Vision


Drive-In theatres are fondly remembered for providing teenagers with both a cover story (a trip to the movies) and a relatively private place (a car) for their furtive, mutual anatomical research, but they were also frequented by families with small children. I remember going to the drive-in to see family films when there were little babies in our family and I was small myself. In particular, I was very affected by seeing “BAMBI” when I was 5 years old.


My brother Jo was still a small baby, and provided his own vocal accompaniment from the front seat, where he was attended to by my mother, already pregnant with next brother, Rob (who would help out with yodeling chores in a few months). Despite the noise, and being treated to moments of SENSE-AROUND when baby-bro had his underthings changed in front of me, I was much engrossed in what was onscreen.


Before the ages of video, DVD & streaming media, drive-in theatres were where parents could see movies without feeling self-conscious about their bawling kids. No need for a babysitter for the tiny ones, just bring them along. Sealed off in your soundproof bubble, you wouldn’t bother the other patrons, who were probably families themselves, or teenagers who had more pressing things (ie; the pressing of “things”) on their minds. But you could bother each other, cooped up during a double bill of “Blue-Beard’s Ghost” & “Herbie the Love Bug”. With all the bickering and crying and spilled drinks and whatnot, there was as much tragedy, comedy & drama in the car, as on the screen.


The death of BAMBI’s Mother affected me deeply and I’m absolutely sure that I added my own blubbering to the general commotion within our car at that point. Parents like to shield their kids from raw emotions, but this moment of tragedy is part of one of my most powerful early-childhood memories. Apart from the inevitable tears, “Bambi” would affect me in an even more powerful way.. It was while at the drive-in watching “Bambi” that I realised that this film was somehow different to other movies… IT WAS DRAWINGS… Moving and talking and seeming to be alive… and then seeming to be killed… drawings making me feel both happy, and then sad.


My tears of anguish were still wet, even as I began to wonder how this could be so.. I could not grasp how it was possible for these drawings to be alive. It was a singular moment; I was both pulled into and popped out of, the movie at the same time. Mum & Dad now had their hands full; crying baby on the one hand and on the other, a 5 year old who needed some answers. My parents did their best to explain the rudiments of the animation process, but it seemed completely unbelievable.


I wasn’t apt to take their explanations at face value either; I hadn’t forgotten the great lengths they had taken with that Santa Claus nonsense, which I never believed for a moment (much to the disappointment of my mother). You never knew what hokum grown-ups were going to put over on you next.. I was taken to the back of the drive-in, behind our car where, in the same building as the snack bar there was a window for patrons to peek into the projection booth.


This is one of those memories that is still vivid inside my head, but I’m not sure if it actually happened at that moment in 1969. Instead, perhaps this impression formed over time, as the childhood-me began to understand the filmmaking process, and became attached to this real movie-watching memory retroactively? (memory is not always as immutable as we like to think). However and whenever it got there, the memory I now see projected inside my head is of my Dad lifting me up high enough to peer through a tiny observation window on the drive-in projection booth, as he attempted to convey the animation process to me. I watched a machine spool out a long shiny ribbon that passed through a ray of light, sending a flickering beam out through the main window and onto the huge screen, in front of which our family car was parked, under the night sky.


I was told that there were thousands of hand drawn little pictures on that strip of film, and through some process as yet beyond my ability to comprehend, they looked alive when put through the projector, and light went through them. Tiny drawings? ALIVE? How? What kind of magic was this? I’d always liked cartoons, but never thought about how they were made, until this moment; watching Bambi at the Drive-In theatre in Hobart when I was 5. If I had thought about it at all, I probably thought that ALL films were documentaries, and that the events on-screen were really happening (“Reality TV” in today’s parlance) but the realisation that this film was made of drawings made that an impossibility.


Animation sounded like some kind of magic to me, and even if it wasn’t “real” magic then it was clearly the next best thing. The sense of wonder from that night stayed with me for quite some time. Certainly long enough to get me into the animation industry, and sustain me throughout my long career. I can still conjure up a ghost of those feelings of childhood awe at the man-made magic show even now, after working at studios all around the world for more than 30 years.


These days of course, people don’t go to drive-in movies. They take their tiny kids to the multiplex, or simply watch whatever they like, whenever they like, at home on big-screen home entertainment centres, with thousands of channels and streaming video to choose from.. but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for drive-in movie theatres, because of formative memories made there, including this one.

33 thoughts on “Persistence of Vision”

  1. GREAT story Jamie, in fact, this is more than that. If there were a comic book story of your life, this would be the “Secret Origins” part! I love learning about those little moments that set people on their paths and it seems this night at the drive-in movies did you in- you had no choice…it was your destiny!

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Rhode>> My “origin story” eh? Hmmm… who knows what I would be doing for a living today if, instead of taking me to see a cartoon that night, my parents had taken me to see a ballet….

    • ballet? in Armidale? oh, right . . . lol
      Oh, I have many fond memories of the local drive-in. The first movie I saw there would have had to have been “Grease” methinks.
      Sadly the screens are long gone. It’s now a driver education centre. 🙁

    • Ted, thanks for the feedback. I have been very much enjoying writing these childhood memories down, and I have plenty more yarns like this to serve up in future posts.

  3. Well Jamie (James to the Aust connection) reading you story about the drive-in I thought I would write and tell you about the Coburg drive-in, the last drive-in left in Melbourne. Martha, Max, Moko and I recently went there to watch Zathura. It was an intimate experience couped up in the car together with our thermos flask and snacks. Talking of thermos flasks, my friend Pete’s dad used to take one to the football stuffed with hot dogs. That kept them nice and warm. A lot cheaper than buying them at the game. Martin

    • Thanks, Brian. Yeah, a drive-in was a special kind of experience. It was both intimate and communal. And of course there was a lot of fun to be had later, as a teen; sneaking in the trunk etc.

      Plus, it was a surreally beautiful sight to have this giant screen looming out of the dark in the neighbourhood at the edge of town.

      By the by, our drive-in was the only HEATED drive-in in Australia, by virtue of the fact that my home town actually gets to freezing in the winter. (up in the mountains).You got a little blow-heater to prop on the window along with the speaker. (Nice idea, but in practise, it fogged up the windows pretty quickly!)

  4. Dear Boy. Your memory is quite spot-on, at least as regards the part about fancying that you were lifted up to the little window into the projection room. I was the one who did the lifting – as well as the partner with your dear mother in attempting to explain the mechanics of it all. Thanks, as ever, for the memory-stirring combo of gripping text and increasingly nifty visuals. Love to you and Julia from Wendy and me, Dad

    • Thanks, Scott. This is one of the earliest autobio stories I ever wrote and I did not illustrate them back then, so it was gratifying to finally do these. Still got a few other stories that need illustrations. Stay tuned!

  5. Wonderful Jamie, just lurve those water colours.

    As an old fart myself I certainly remember the 70s drive -ins Australia.
    For me it was Melbourne, same time , same flicks.
    I have to admit that it was the ‘crows on the telegraph wires’ sequence in Dumbo that first sparked the idea of animation to me.
    It was a double billing of Dumbo and Peter Pan at the Dandenong Drive In, 1972, I was 12 at the time.

    Thanks for that Jamie, you made me remember stuff.

  6. nice work, James. the sketches have such humanity. its a combination of your experience in portraying acting in the animation work you have done, and the integrity of the emotion you put into this because of your personal life experience.

    you should seriously think about writing and illustrating children books. you illustrations are still better than most, but your connection with the human condition is your greatest asset.

    don’t let your special abilities go to waste. share it with the rest of the world.

  7. Captured with heartfelt accuracy as usual, especially with the pyjamas and dressing gown. Growing up in Adelaide we had three drive-ins within driving distance and you often had to shoot from one to the other because of the lineups to get in. My jaw dropper was Peter Pan and his shrunken girlfriend. Didn’t cope at all with Wendy.

    • My earliest drive-in memories are from Hobart, where I saw all the mid to late 60s kiddie fare (Sound of Music, The Love Bug etc) and then Armidale drive-in, where i saw drive-in trash cinema when i was older. BTW, Armidale’s drive-in was proudly promoted as “Australia’s only heated drive-in” (But the truth is that the blow-heater, that came with your speaker, fogged up the windscreen in minutes)

    • Just for the record it wasn’t the blow heater that steamed OUR windows up, but that’s another story!

  8. Wonderful stuff as always, Jamie! I truly enjoy reading your writing, sir. Your story reminded me of going with my family as a kid to the Soo Drive-In up in Northern Ontario. Very cool.

  9. Just love immersing myself into your stories. I think someone should bring back those cast metal speaker boxes you hang on your window. Don’t know what they were like in Australia. Just set up a video projector in your garage, hook up the speaker, pop the popcorn and bicker with your family. Heaven.

    • I know a few people who did what you describe during the pandemic. Set up a cinema in the backyard or backyard (although they used better speakers than the drive-in classics).

      Thanks for commenting, Drew!

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