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Special Effects from Down Under: A Growing Proposition

While you might not realize it, you've probably already seen some of Australia's top effects houses in action. Stephen Lynch explains.

Australian effects companies are finding work on the biggest Hollywood pictures, as Animal Logic proved with their work on The Matrix. © Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

When the digital revolution swept through the filmmaking community, few could have foretold that some of its leading exponents would come from the land down under. Small budget films had long been the mainstay of Australian films and the cost involved in visual effects seemed to place it outside the reach of local filmmakers. Yet some effects houses saw the opportunity that lay ahead and geared up to take advantage of this new technology.

Breaking In

Rachael Turk, who is the communications manager of Animal Logic, recalls how the company first became involved in film visual effects. "It was around 1994. We started getting involved with Australian productions, doing title designs for films like Dating the Enemy and Blackrock, but it wasn't until 1997 that we actually formalized it by creating Animal Logic Film." That same year Animal Logic won the contract to provide the titles for the John Woo film Face/Off. "That was when we hit the big time. That credential became a calling card for our VFX supervisor Chris Godfrey, so when he went around knocking on doors, he was allowed through. The rest of course has been up to him."

Since their initial breakthrough Animal Logic have provided visual effects for such films as The Thin Red Line, Babe 2 and Holy Smoke, illustrating just how successful they have been in capitalizing on this opportunity. Last year they were afforded the ultimate recognition when their work on The Matrix, for which they created over a hundred shots, won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. "It's amazing how strong that film is," ponders Rachael. "We still get lots of inquiries about it. At the time it was released it had an enormous impact as far as box office and popular culture, so it's only natural that some of that fed directly back to Animal Logic and increased our business."

Photon VFX took to the high seas with their work on Moby Dick. © Whale/Nine Network Australia.

It is a theme taken up by Soren Jensen of Photon VFX, a company whose credits over the last ten years include the television series The Lost World, Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Emmy-nominated Moby Dick. "We are totally reliant on return of business, so we have to make our stuff extra good. We basically care for our product. We massage material until we are all happy with it, whereas in a lot of the countries like the United States, there are so many FX companies they just spit it out at an enormous rate."

Many Factors

This difference in scale between Australia and America has also led to a different model of operation between the two countries. Peter Webb, who before starting work at local FX house Phenomena worked on such U.S. productions as Batman Forever and Coneheads, points out that, "American companies, because of the throughput, have to specialize and compartmentalize people, whereas in Australia you have to be more resourceful. Rather than spending 5 or 6 weeks in development, and then having a texture team working for 6 months to get a scene to look a certain way, here we just hit the ground running and come up with the results much more quickly. We're very resourceful through necessity, and I think that filmmakers like that."

It certainly is one of the reasons for the increasing work heading Australia's way, but there are many other contributing factors that have converged to put Australia in its current position. Some are beyond the control of the industry, such as the state of the Australian dollar, but other factors that were once seen as an impediment, are now viewed as an asset.

"Technical evolution has been part of the film globalization," explains Rachael Turk, "enabling us to transcend physical and geographical time zone barriers. What we have now is a 24-hour workday, with half-day shifts between Australia and America. At the close of our day we can send over our output so that when the client wakes up, they're ready to do revisions and send back their comments. There's even an overlap of about 5 hours each morning where we can have direct contact over the phone to work things out."

Fox's wild spin on the classic tale Romeo + Juliet included the work of Complete Post. ™ and © 1996 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Lower Budgets At Work

This technical evolution has also reaped benefits for the smaller-budgeted Australian films. Chris Schwarze, who together with wife Kerri founded Complete Post, recalls that, "Initially Australian producers were very reluctant to get involved with visual effects, but gradually they started to realize that this stuff could actually save them money. Simple things like crowd generation to save on extras and set extensions to save on building enormous sets. So now people are using visual effects to get the look that they couldn't otherwise get and to save them money."

Peter Webb confirms this view: "With lower budgets you can't afford to just stay on set for another 3 days and wait for that perfect sunset, or move the whole crew 50 miles across country just to get that beautiful shore-line. With visual effects you can add that at a much lower cost. I guess the phrase I would use is less compromise. Less compromise visually, which translates into less compromise in the storytelling. If some important story point needs to be made we can look for ways to achieve that."

Yet smaller budgets obviously do influence to what extent visual effects are used in a film. Kerri Schwarz states that, "It is a challenge, but at the same time I think that's what makes us innovative in our industry. It's because we have to be, with the sort of budgets we have to work with. It's not a case of having a lot of money to splash around. It's trying to solve problems and coming up with ideas within the budget range that we have."

Photon VFX proves that there is more than one way to severe a hand in When Good Ghouls Go Bad. © Fox Television.

Offering Solutions

It is an opinion shared amongst Australia's effects houses. Soren Jensen, who has just wrapped work on the U.S. tele-movie When Good Ghouls Go Bad, states that, "We pride ourselves that there is always more than one way to achieve an effect. If our clients need a severed hand, we can let them know that you can make a 3D hand, or you can film a real hand and doctor it, or you can do it as a prosthetic hand with wire removal. There are always different methods of attacking the same problem."

The growing confidence in Australian visual effects has enabled some of these methods to be used together to make possible any complex shot required in a script. In the upcoming film Subterano, remote control toys terrorize humans trapped in an underground car park. Peter Webb, who is the film's VFX supervisor, states, "I always advocate that if you can achieve an effect in-camera for real, it's always the best way to go. However, if the drama calls for something that you can't do, then you use computer effects to do that. Peter Stubbs and Filmtrix developed animatronic creatures that they used on set with remote controls, but at certain times there were things that they couldn't physically do. So we've created CG versions of these creatures to carry out those tasks, such as when they break down into little balls."

Another Australian visual effects film on the horizon is Cubbyhouse. Chris Schwarze believes, "It is actually one of the most intensive Australian visual effects films ever. We had to create the demon that inhabits the cubbyhouse, and vines that come out and attack people. Quite often you might get a large shot count in a feature film and a lot of it is simple work like wire removal, but basically every shot in this film was a challenge."

Animal Logic helped bring Toulouse Lautrec's Paris to life in Moulin Rouge! © 2001 Fox and its related entities.

More Big Projects

Apart from the smaller budgeted films, Australian artistry is also showcased in Baz Luhrmann's upcoming musical Moulin Rouge! "It isn't like anything you've seen before," enthuses Rachael Turk. "It's not a period piece, it's not a blockbuster, and it's not art house. Animal Logic has created as many effects on this as The Matrix had in entirety, so it is by far the largest project we have ever undertaken. The biggest part was to create 19th century Paris, which was not just a matter of touching up a few archive photos. It's to actually build an interpretation of Paris at that time, which involves thousands of buildings at various degrees of proximity. It has been challenging, logistically and creatively, but obviously that's what we seek. That's what we thrive on."

Which is as good a reason as any to explain the popularity of Australian VFX companies. In summation, Turk concludes, "You've probably heard all the reasons; exchange rate, flexibility, methodology and attitude of Australian crews. These are all important factors in attracting foreign productions, but at the end of the day, major studios wouldn't risk big budgets and their reputations on anything less than marquee production skills."

To which Peter Webb adds, "They just wouldn't do it if the job that we did wasn't as good as what they could get back home. We've got fabulous locations here, and a talent pool that's the equal of the best. So it's a win-win situation."

Stephen Lynch has written about the various aspects of filmmaking for books and magazines throughout Australia, England and America, as well as co-hosting Flicks, a weekly film review program.