Facing a linguistic crisis that threatens the oral traditions that pass on indigenous knowledge, culture and identity, Aboriginal elders have turned to 21st-century animation technology to help sustain intergenerational remembering.

From a Western perspective, the songlines of Indigenous Australians can seem like simple origin myths; tales of ancestral beings whose 'Dreamtime' actions animate Australia's creation story.

Only more recently have 'white fellas' come to realise that songlines defy Western concepts and categories by passing on an encyclopedic knowledge of Australia's eco-biology, bound up in kinship laws that are embedded in cultural and spiritual traditions. Over thousands of years people have become adept at this unique way of learning, knowing and being.

Songlines remain a vast, living archive comprising some 270 distinct languages and about 600 dialects. Within this is stored the vast bulk of Australia's human history, a history that dates back more than 40,000 years.

Alarmingly, however, this knowledge is slipping away. Linguists say Australia is losing Indigenous languages at a rate of two a year – and the loss of Indigenous languages means the loss of the songlines.

The deputy director of the Monash Indigenous Centre, Associate Professor John Bradley, is one of only five speakers left of the Yanyuwa language, which is from Borroloola country on the Gulf of Carpentaria in remote northern Australia. When he first went there 33 years ago as a primary school teacher there were 260 Yanyuwa speakers.

"You have to understand that where I work, the ultimate form of knowledge is the ability to sing songlines," he says. "These are the professors. The ultimate way of knowing is being able to dance your country. Knowledge is not just conceptual ideas learned with books and computers."

He says this can be difficult for people educated in a Western culture to understand, but it is how Indigenous people construct and hold knowledge, and hold it true for a very long period of time. But for this knowledge to be sustained, so must the languages of the songlines.

Associate Professor Bradley explains that songline preservation involves much more than simply compiling dictionaries. "They are incredibly complex phenomena – linguistically, musically, in the way they are performed, in the way they are held as a body of knowledge."

Initially, Associate Professor Bradley compiled dictionaries and grammars as a way of preserving languages, but came to realise that a new way to conserve and pass on languages was needed. He envisioned a technique capable of encoding – in culturally appropriate ways – the layers upon layers of meaning contained in songlines. A chance encounter with the work of a fellow Monash University academic in 2007 provided just what he was looking for.

Dr Tom Chandler at the Monash Faculty of Information Technology is a specialist in 3-D animation, which draws on advanced software to build a virtual world populated by 3-D objects.

A 'camera' can then fly through these worlds – and around the 3-D objects it contains – to produce films. It is the same technology used in the production of movies such as Avatar and countless computer-game worlds.

Fortuitously, Dr Chandler also has a background in archaeology and he combines these academic interests by participating in projects to rebuild – in virtual 3-D space – lost ancient cities such as Cambodia's Angkor.

"John really liked the Angkor animations and in 2007 he emailed me out of the blue," Dr Chandler says. "He had all these wonderful concepts and huge amounts of materials including storyboards and atlases. The first thing I did was set up a meeting between John and a talented 3-D-animation graduate, Brent McKee, to determine what was possible."

The result is the re-creation – in virtual space – of Australian landscapes in which songlines can be modelled, animated, filmed and narrated in their native languages, with copyright remaining the property of the participating Indigenous community.

The Yanyuwa were the first to trial the technology, but within 12 months of seeing what was possible, Indigenous groups across the nation expressed an interest in the technology. The result is the Monash Country Lines Archive (MCLA), which is supported financially by the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation.

"Very few people anywhere in the world use 3-D animation exclusively for research or as an archive science," Dr Chandler says. "It is normally restricted to entertainment, snappy presentations and special effects. With the MCLA, 3-D animation finds a new role as an archive tool that helps 40,000-year-old oral traditions endure."

Taking part are animators Michael Lim, who specialises in creating and animating landscapes, and Chandara Ung, who focuses on creating and animating 'characters' (mainly native animals and humans). Mr McKee remains as art director and lead animator. All three are completing their master's degrees under Dr Chandler's supervision.

"That's generally how working in the 3-D design industry can be as well," Mr Lim says. "As part of a team you might be called on to specialise in modelling, texturing, lighting, animating or a mix of these and other things."

Rather than using libraries of purchased 3-D items, such as trees or animals, Mr Lim says that the MCLA team handcrafted all the objects, landscapes and characters from scratch to ensure a consistent and distinctive style. To create movement, the objects and characters are placed in key locations, and poses are linked together as a sequence of frames. Every second of animation requires a series of 25 frames to be produced.

It can take years of work experience to achieve proficiency as an animator.

"Animating creatures requires a lot of planning so that we know in advance what kind of movements we are going to need," Mr Ung says. "We then rig up the 3-D creature so that it contains a wireframe skeleton that controls movements in a realistic and coordinated fashion. That involves a bit of code writing, but these days the technology allows you to be more artistic and less wrapped up in technical detail."

Every step of the way, Mr McKee checks the team's handiwork with the Yanyuwa elders and in the process has become a frequent visitor to Borroloola. As a consequence he has started to hear and speak a little Yanyuwa.

"We have to take a lot of time and care in what we are doing," Mr McKee says. "It's in the nature of songlines that small details are crucial – they are the whole point. To date we have animated just songline segments producing films that last a few minutes. John and the Yanyuwa, however, would like to see an entire songline animated, even though it would take years to produce and result in a feature-length film."

Help may be on its way. Dr Shannon Faulkhead is the Finkel Fellow responsible for MCLA liaison and consultations with Indigenous communities. She is herself an Indigenous woman with nine years' experience working at the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne and has a research background in how the oral transmission of knowledge itself constitutes an archive.

She says the Yanyuwa films have been received so well that Indigenous communities are in talks with Monash about establishing a training program in 3-D animation.

"What the animators are doing is amazing," she says. "They are artists as well as technicians in that they create not just amazing images, but images that reflect the story as these communities see them."

For the Yanyuwa – who do not possess a tradition of using imagery – the appeal lies in the animation's realism and the interest it arouses intergenerationally. In short, the Yanyuwa see the technology as holding both archival and educational value.

Indeed in Borroloola, Associate Professor Bradley already has a group of young Yanyuwa who now narrate the animations themselves, where previously they heard but did not speak the language.

For other communities, the appeal lies in the ability to re-create landscape that is crucial to a songline but which no longer exists, or in the potential to resurrect languages – in culturally meaningful ways – that are no longer spoken at all.

Underlying all these uses is a project structure that deviates in essential ways from standard copyright and research models. Dr Faulkhead explains that the MCLA has adopted a partnership model that integrates essential lessons learnt in past interactions between Indigenous and academic cultures.

"The community is part of the process all the way through," she says. "We do not ask to retain copyright, and they retain control over how their stories and images are used. This project would not work without those safeguards that prevent a repeat of misappropriations and misrepresentations by researchers in the past."

Those safeguards have made it possible for a technology that builds virtual worlds to become a kind of sanctuary for what Associate Professor Bradley calls "very embodied, kin-oriented and land-based knowledge".

With team members reporting ambitious community aspirations for animations on an epic scale, the MCLA could see the artistic flair of Indigenous people unleash a generation of animators who draw on their ancestry and start to tell their own stories in 3-D-animated formats.

"There is a whole issue of language being related to questions of identity and wellbeing," Associate Professor Bradley says. "It is about intangibles that really matter. For example, we know from studies done in Western Australia that children who grow up with a positive sense of their own language are more positive in the way they function in the world. But at the same time, it is about saying that all these things to do with Indigenous culture have value."

Thanks to the generous permission granted by the Yanyuwa community, some of their 3-D animations can be viewed at the MCLA website.