The Dream Factory


Barely a movie reaches our screens today without digital effects, but did you know how many of your favourite scenes were produced in Australia? Drew Turney takes a closer look at one of our most innovative industries.

In the 1999 Best Picture Oscar winner American Beauty Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) lays in bed fantasising about his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari), floating on the ceiling swathed in rose petals that shower down on Lester’s deliriously smiling face.

You might have thought at the time they had to stick fake petals with Velcro and wait forever to capture them falling in sequence. In 1999 it was an easy mistake to make as the then-burgeoning field of computer-generated imagery (CGI) was still going mainstream. Now, hardly a single film reaches screens without digital effects somewhere — from the 747 rescue in 2006’s Superman Returns to the drifting feather that opens 1994’s Forrest Gump… and yes, every single rose petal in the iconic American Beauty dream sequence.

If you build it…

The real magic of the movies happens inside the powerful computers of digital effects houses today — where the weather, interfering studio suits and the limitations of real-world physics can’t hold up the shoot or ruin million dollar sets.

CGI made its first major splash in 1993’s Jurassic Park as director Steven Spielberg bought us closer than we’ve ever been to living, breathing dinosaurs. Actors ran around empty sets while computers rendered every detail of their reptilian adversaries in many of the major sequences — their shadows cast on the ground, movements, colouring, texture of their skin, steam from their breath and their effect on the trees, ground and air around them.

Nowadays it’s standard practice to digitise your film for effects and post production treatment. With movies still shot mostly on 35mm film, footage is scanned one frame at a time and turned into a digital movie file where animators, colour graders and compositors are free to import frames or clips into software than can literally change the world.

Graphics programs like Maya and Final Cut Pro can add explosions, remove wires suspending people who are supposed to be flying, shave half a second off a scene, change the colour hue of a background if the director doesn’t like it and more. When the movie’s finished, all the digital picture and sounds effects in place, the file is printed back onto film reels and sent all over the world for projection at your local multiplex.

The age of the guru

We live in an era of core competencies, of not deviating from your primary service offering. During Hollywood’s pre-war years films were shot using salaried actors and crew. The studio owned everything from the prop maker’s shop to the film lab, and they were all on the lot.

Today a studio is little more than a marketing entity that hires a producer to deliver a product. The producer hires a director who then hires the principal cast and outsources many other aspects. While filming the movie, directors today oversee effects, sound mix, colour grading and more with specialist artists in many fields.

Pamela Hammond, head of post production for Iloura, part of the Melbourne-based Omnilab group of film service companies, explains. “The script is broken down by studio-appointed effects producers and parameters placed on what the vendors are to quote on,” she says. “We’ll analyse the shot requirements, devise an approach and submit the costs to the studio. They then award the project to a vendor or split it amongst several depending on the size, directors wishes and any rebates that might apply. Brainstorming the shots can take months of R&D — for Charlotte’s Web we worked for five months building pigs [Wilbur] and presenting them before we won the project.”

Digital down under

As you might have realised upon reading that a Victorian effects house worked on the abovementioned Hollywood movie, Australia’s where it’s at. For a country with only two thirds of the population of California alone we have some of the best talent in the industry, talent that’s propelled Australian digital production houses onto the world stage and made them the first port of call for many of the biggest movie productions in the world.

Australian digital effects was something of a cottage industry during much of the 90s, paying the bills with TV commercial and music video work. Even the video game industry that would soon outstrip Hollywood’s earnings was a far-off dream for many Australian designers and programmers.

The opening of Sydney’s Fox Studios precipitated a critical mass when two of the biggest film franchises ever were shot and in some part produced there, the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix trilogy. In the case of the latter, Sydney effects house Animal Logic produced the lion’s share of the iconic effects famous to this day.

Some digital effects houses sprung up from nothing with only a few animation or art graduates on staff, some were spun off from the country’s film labs — at the time dipping their toe in the digital waters in anticipation of an increasingly computer-tinkered future. But the 21st century saw Australian companies charge out in front, synonymous with global film brands including Babe, 300, Moulin Rouge, Charlotte’s Web, Superman Returns, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, World Trade Center, Blood Diamond, Batman Begins and the Lord of the Rings films.

So how did Australia reach this exalted position, one where — without our effects and digital production industry — most Hollywood blockbusters would show actors running around in front of blue screens?

Obviously it helps that we share a language and business culture with the US, but just as importantly, our kids are voracious consumers of American culture and have grown up watching movies thinking ‘I want to do that for a living’, taking advantage of stable industry, government and economic opportunity to do so.

James Whitlam, head of production at Adelaide’s globally-recognised Rising Sun Pictures, calls it ‘a combination of being in the right place at the right time and good old fashioned ingenuity’. “We have three major film studios [Fox in Sydney, Warner Bros on the Gold Coast and Central City in Melbourne] to thank for bringing filmmakers into the country,” he says. “Once they’re here rebates make it attractive to spend a large percentage of their budget on Australian services.”

Bruce Carter, creative director and head of visual effects at Animal Logic and the man behind sequences and effects the whole world’s seen and loved, also points to the track record of Australian companies after those initial kick-starts, track records that now speak for themselves. “Australian digital production companies have shown they’re capable of such high calibre it’s made filmmakers in the US — and elsewhere — really take notice,” he says. “Once they see the end product, suddenly Australia’s not so small and far away because the work delivered is well and truly worth it.”

Carter also thinks technology makes the world small enough so that it doesn’t matter if Animal Logic is in Sydney, LA, or Antarctica (the setting for their most recent triumph Happy Feet). “Once companies overseas start working with us, they realise the distance and/or time difference isn’t a big barrier. There are so many ways to communicate and transfer information these days, we’re able to collaborate effectively.”

The ebb and flow

Unlike most other effects houses that supplement their income with TV, video game and music video design and effects, Rising Sun Pictures works only on film projects. “The industry is driven by finance,” explains James Whitlam. “Exchange rates and rebates often win out over landscapes and the quality of local crew. Riding this wave is never easy, but we’ve come to realise there’s a complex web of niche markets populated by small, protective communities in the giant machine that is Hollywood and we’ve made some great friends in them over the years.

“We’re committed to film because we enjoy the storytelling aspect of what we do. Is there enough work? I guess it’s like anything in life — there’s only as much as you go for and not a shot more.”

With such can-do attitudes, some of the most sought after creative minds in the industry and box office and Oscar hauls to back them up, there doesn’t seem anything to stop the Australian digital juggernaut for now…

Sidebar — The Players

Although one and two man start-ups are joining the fray all the time, many of them with experience learned behind the doors of the big guns, a few standout players command most of the digital effects work in Australia.

Animal Logic

Established: 1991

Employees: 200 or over (during the peak of production on Happy Feet there were 500)

Located: Sydney

Credits:

Happy Feet (2006), 300 (2006), The Matrix (1999-2003), Moulin Rogue! (2001), Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), World Trade Center (2006), House of Flying Daggers (2004), Hero (2002), The Quiet American (2002), Swimming Upstream (2003), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), Aquamarine (2006)

Rising Sun Pictures

Established: 1995

Employees: 77

Located: Adelaide

Credits:

Charlotte’s Web (2006), Blood Diamond (2006), Superman Returns (2006), Batman Begins (2005), Eragon (2006), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), The Last Samurai (2003), Paycheck (2003), The Core (2003), Queen of the Damned (2002)

Digital Pictures Group/Iloura

Established: 1985 (bought into the Omilab/Digital Pictures group in 1991).

Employees: 160

Located: Melbourne

Credits:

Charlotte’s Web (2006), Catch a Fire (2006), Macbeth (2006), Look Both Ways (2005)

Sidebar 2 — The Pixar Effect

The difference between Sydney-based digital effects wunderkind Animal Logic and the Disney-owned animation juggernaut Pixar used to be that the latter writes, creates, storyboards, directs, digitises and produces their films from scratch where the former just does digital effects.

Director George Miller (Mad Max, Dead Calm) had faith Animal Logic could move one step closer to being a fully-fledged animation studio, selecting them to realise his global Christmas 2006 smash Happy Feet.

“Neither we nor George Miller had ever produced an animated feature prior to Happy Feet,” says from Zareh Nalbandian, Animal Logic managing director. “And nobody in the world had undertaken an animated feature like it — it encompassed photoreality, motion capture and complex key frame animation, hundreds of thousands of characters, dance, music and visual effects.”

Nalbandian credits Happy Feet on what he calls Animal Logic’s ‘appetite to innovate, to take on the challenge, to break new ground’, saying their position of being true partners to director Miller and his production partner Doug Mitchell made the whole thing work.

“George had confidence in us based on the existing working relationship from the Babe movies,” Nalbandian explains. “We could also pretty clearly demonstrate our ability both technically and creatively through our history of TV and film work. After discussion workshopping, planning and budgeting, we produced a test of a penguin to demonstrate the potential. That test not only clenched the partnership between Animal Logic and Kennedy Miller but actually got the film greenlit.”

Sidebar 3 — The Kiwi Invasion

You can’t talk about digital movie production south of the equator and not mention the Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson and his creative workshop, Weta Digital.

Jackson’s journey was every budding filmmaker’s dream, starting with the ambitious and grossly offensive splatter film Bad Taste (1987) and reaching his zenith with the critically, financially and culturally triumphant Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Jackson founded Weta in 1993 and soon split it in two; Weta Workshop for in-camera effects and Weta Digital for computer generated film imagery.

For Jackson’s first Hollywood features, 1996’s The Frighteners, Weta availed itself of such a stock of computer processing power nobody knew what to do with it after the production wrapped. As Jackson explains on The Frighteners 2006 DVD release, one project with the potential to harness all the CGI power at Weta’s disposal was Tolkein’s seminal fantasy trilogy, and the rest is multibillion-dollar history.

Today Weta’s talents, data crunching grunt and imagination serves commercial and ongoing feature film work (playing an integral part in 2005’s King Kong) and excess capacity is leased out to other vendors and producers of digital content.


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