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September 27
2018

ISSUE

Fall 2018

VFX Down Under: The Now and the New in Australia and New Zealand

By IAN FAILES

Luma Pictures’ Melbourne office

Visual effects in Australia and New Zealand has a rich history. Leaps and bounds have been made in the tech of VFX in that part of the world, as well as in iconic film franchises.

Soon, the visual effects industry ‘down under,’ particularly in Australia, is potentially set to go through another transformation ignited by the recent announcement that Mill Film will be opening up a major studio presence in Adelaide.

VFX Voice outlines the who’s who of the VFX industry in Australia and New Zealand, asking several of the major players their thoughts on where things are right now and where they might be in the future.

One of Weta Digital’s major films released in 2018 was Avengers: Infinity War. The studio produced a CG Thanos, among other effects. (Image copyright © 2018 Marvel)

A QUICK STATE OF PLAY

Australia is dominated by a few major VFX players, including large and medium-sized studios that predominantly do feature film and episodic work. There are also plenty of smaller studios working in commercials and post-production. New Zealand has several similarly purposed studios, too, but the main player is, of course, Weta Digital, one of the major visual effects studios in the world.

Both countries are home to key technological innovators in visual effects. Blackmagic Design hails from Australia, and the compositing system Flame was originally developed in Melbourne. VFX collaboration tool cineSync sprung from Adelaide. Over in New Zealand, Weta Digital was the originator of the 3D texturepainting tool MARI and numerous other technical developments in motion capture, compositing, lighting and rendering over a number of productions.

Like many cities and countries the world over, Australia and New Zealand offer production incentives for visual effects and animation studios. In Australia, this can result in up to a 40% rebate on qualifying expenditures when state and federal incentives are combined (see www.ausfilm.com.au for more information). New Zealand offers a cash grant program that can reach up to 20% (more info: www.nzfilm.co.nz). There are also a number of film studio locations available in each country, adding film incentives to the mix.

“Australia has physical infrastructure in terms of state-of-the-art studio complexes and highly skilled film-service companies and crew that can handle small to big-budget productions,” outlines Rachelle Gibson from Ausfilm, which markets Australia’s federal incentives program. “Australian VFX studios have had a stellar year working on everything from the world’s biggest blockbusters to critically acclaimed indie films. There is fantastic talent in Australia’s VFX industry, which is on par with other great VFX hubs around the world.”

Similarly, in relation to New Zealand, Weta Digital Executive Producer David Conley notes that that country’s government has been supportive of the local VFX industry. “We are fortunate in New Zealand that we have had a stable platform from which to grow our business,” he says. “The incentive strategy coming out of central government has been consistent over the last few years, even with changes in government and policy priorities. The numbers may go up and down a bit, but we’ve seen a commitment  to the importance of having this industry here in New Zealand, and the role it plays as a catalyst for the entertainment and technology business sectors.”

Animal Logic’s Head of Production Ingrid Johnston.

Weta Digital Executive Producer David Conley

Artists at work at Weta Digital in Wellington.

THE MAJOR PLAYERS AND THEIR MAJOR WORKS

Australian and New Zealand visual effects studios work on everything from major blockbusters to smaller independent films, immersive entertainment, and now heavily in streaming series. Animal Logic’s Head of Production Ingrid Johnston highlights Peter Rabbit as one of her studio’s recent stand-outs, not only for the photorealistic creature work, but also as part of Animal’s move into developing its own IP. “As our first film produced out of Animal Logic Entertainment, we have been part of the film from the very beginning of the process, and as a hybrid character film we were combining our experience in Animation and traditional VFX,” says Johnston.

A scene from Peter Rabbit. Animal Logic crafted the CG characters and also produced the film out of its Animal Logic Entertainment outfit. (Image copyright © 2018 Sony Pictures)

A Peter Rabbit shot is set up for shooting. Animal Logic would later add the CG rabbits and other animals. (Image copyright © 2018 Sony Pictures)

Animal Logic has also expanded to Vancouver, where production on animated features, including The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, has been taking place. A few other Australian studios are also part of larger global entities. Method Studios in Australia (formerly Iloura) has made a concerted effort to maintain a style of effects work that has kept the company operating for more than 20 years out of Melbourne and now also in Sydney.

Method Studios delivered CG rhinos for a dramatic scene in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. (Image copyright © 2017 Sony Pictures)

Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst

“While we’re part of a global company with locations beyond Australia that gives us the opportunity to work on bigger projects, we work hard to maintain our boutique style of intimate service to our clients,” states Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst, who has headed up the company’s work on projects such as Game of Thrones, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Christopher Robin. “We’re open to all kinds of work, with a definite leaning toward character animation. We’re equally comfortable being the sole vendor on a smaller creature show or a small part of a large film.”

Luma Pictures worked on this chase sequence in Black Panther. (Image copyright © 2018 Marvel)

Luma Pictures, in Melbourne, also has a second office in Santa Monica, where it began. The studio opened in Australia in an effort to make a controlled expansion, according to Luma VP and Head of Production Vince Cirelli. “The positive aspects of having an office in Australia are that the government is very supportive of the film industry, the market isn’t heavily saturated – there are only a few other facilities in the area, Melbourne is just an amazing city  to live in, and the quality of life is wonderful. It would have been in some ways easier to open a facility in the same time zone as our Los Angeles-based office, but the advantage of having a facility in Melbourne is that we’re able to chase the sun, so to speak, and work on projects for our clients around the clock.

Luma Pictures VP and Head of Production Vince Cirelli

Inside the Luma Pictures office in Melbourne.

“The most challenging aspect to having a facility in Australia is the difficulty that comes with recruiting,” adds Cirelli. “Because you’re on an island, a good portion of your labor is foreign to the country. What’s good about Luma’s structure is that we’re a staff-based model. We don’t just hire on a project basis, we keep our artists long term, which allows us to grow very organically.”

Over the Tasman Sea, in New Zealand, Weta Digital is currently embarking on several Avatar sequels – and occasionally also faces staffing issues. “As a small country with a limited local market for film VFX artists, the growth of the education models and training infrastructure has been slow and steady,” notes David Conley. “We continue to increase our engagement at the secondary school, university and post-grad levels to make sure we are providing specific feedback that can help prepare students for entering the market. For more experienced artists, we recruit like most larger facilities do. The industry itself is pretty small, so getting the word out tends not to be the issue, it’s about finding the right fit.”

Alt.vfx’s CG panda for a ‘Tile’ TVC. (Image copyright © 2017 Tile)

Artists at Alt.vfx office

Alt.vfx Co-founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Colin Renshaw.

As noted, there are a myriad of smaller visual effects studios based in Australia and New Zealand which concentrate on TVC (television commercials), episodic and promo deliveries for local and overseas clients. Brisbane-based Alt.vfx Co-founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Colin Renshaw is adamant that this kind of work in the region is highly regarded. “I’ve just been part of the Film Craft jury at Cannes,” he says, “and I can tell you that craft-wise, the work coming out of Australia can hold its head high alongside the work from any country in the world. We have world-class artists in all disciplines, from advertising to film. There’s a good number of large VFX and animation studios working in film, drawing work and artists from all over the world, and in advertising, we are doing the same. Of course, budgets have always been and continue to be an issue, but as a company, we have always had an international outlook, and that has allowed us to grow our reputation in other markets outside of Australia and New Zealand.”

A TIME FOR CHANGE

An increase in the incentives offered through South Australia’s Post Production, Digital and Visual Effects rebate impacted Technicolor’s decision to open

Mill Film’s facility in Adelaide (a branch will also open in Montreal). “Technicolor saw an opportunity to access VFX talent that is already in Australia and provide another hub from which to service Technicolor’s global clients,” says Global Head of Mill Film Lauren McCallum. “The facility in Adelaide expands Technicolor’s footprint in the region, while enhancing the support it can provide clients who require world-class talent to work on productions around the globe – and around the clock.”

Head of Mill Film Lauren McCallum

McCallum says Technicolor, which will also operate a Technicolor Academy VFX training program out of the Adelaide facility, is on target to open the Australian studio in the fall of 2018. “Over the next five years it’s our intention to grow Mill Film Adelaide from a core team up to a team of 500 production, technologists and creatives,” she adds.

The impact this will have on the Australian and New Zealand visual effects industries remains to be seen. But with a clear increase right now in visual effects production coming from comic book films, animated productions and streaming episodic television, VFX down under looks set to continue to be busy.

A still from the visual effects work by Rising Sun Pictures for X-Men: Apocalypse. (Image copyright © 2016 20th Century Fox)

A-Z: Top Australia and New Zealand VFX Studios

A quick guide to just some of the most active visual effects studios based in Australia and New Zealand.

Alt.vfx. The largest commercial VFX studio in the Asia Pacific, with studios in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Los Angeles. The company gained notoriety for a popular TVC for beer brand Tooheys that utilized CG deer. Other commercials it has worked on for overseas clients, including the Pepsi ‘Momotaro’ series for Japan, have generated a huge following. www.altvfx.com

Animal Logic. This Sydney-based studio, which now also has an office in Vancouver, has been operating for more than 25 years. It began in traditional VFX and continues to do so with projects like Peter Rabbit and several Marvel films, as well as in animated features such as the LEGO movies, while also developing its own IP. www.animallogic.com

Assembly. Auckland’s Assembly is strong on character animation for commercials and promos, but also regularly delivers traditional visual effects work. www.assemblyltd.com

Blockhead. Blockhead has Auckland and Sydney offices, and works predominantly in commercials while also representing several colorists. www.blockheadvfx.com

Cause+FX. Auckland’s Cause+FX studio mixes film, television and commercials work. It had particular success with realizing massive battles and fight scenes for the Spartacus TV series. www.causefx.nz

Cutting Edge. A long-time player in the Australian post-production industry, Cutting Edge is in some ways one of the few diverse studios that works in editing, visual effects and grading. www.cuttingedge.com.au

Digipost. Digipost hails from Auckland and has been in operation since 1990. Some of its stand-out work in recent years  includes work on the Spartacus TV series and a number of feature films and other television shows. www.digipost.co.nz

Fin. Sydney-based Fin is a small studio with a heavy bent on design in commercials and stand-alone film VFX sequences. www.findesign.com.au

Luma Pictures. After opening a Melbourne office to join its Santa Monica operation, Luma Pictures has specialized in providing high-end VFX work for stand-out sequences in major effects films, including Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok. www.lumapictures.com

Method Studios. Formerly Iloura – a studio with a 20-year history in Melbourne – Method Studios now operates in Sydney and Melbourne (as well as several locations around the globe). It contributed to such projects as Game of Thrones, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Mad Max: Fury Road. www.methodstudios.com

Plastic Wax. A specialist cinematics studio, Plastic Wax in Sydney works not only in executing ‘cut scenes’ and promo trailers for games, but also in story development and motion capture for them. www.plasticwax.com

Resin. Resin is one of the few VFX studios in Adelaide, and has recently ramped up its TV production on such shows as Tidelands, The Tick and Electric Dreams. www.resin.tv

Rising Sun Pictures. Adelaide-based Rising Sun Pictures is well known for one-off VFX magical moments in the films it works on, most spectacularly with the slow-motion Quicksilver sequences in X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. www.rsp.com.au

Weta Digital. A powerhouse visual effects studio, Wellington’s Weta Digital has amassed a quarter century of iconic VFX work, ranging from Lord of the Rings to the Planet of the Apes reboot. Its sister company, Weta Workshop, is also iconic in the practical and miniature effects world. www.wetafx.co.nz

A recent project produced at UTS ALA involved designing, modeling, animating and producing effects for some killer robots.

VFX Training Puts You in the Studio

As the VFX industry in Australia ramps up, so too has the availability of training courses in the country. One institution offering something a little different is the University of Technology Sydney, which formed a collaboration with local studio Animal Logic to create the UTS Animal Logic Academy (UTS ALA, www.animallogicacademy.uts.edu.au) and to offer a one-year Master of Animation and Visualization degree.

The big difference from a normal higher education course is that UTS ALA runs much more like a real VFX or animation studio. “There are no lectures, there is no homework,” explains Creative Lead Chris Ebeling. “And there aren’t any individual assignments or projects. We all work together on one production, and like any studio, have our artists split across a range of disciplines, including R&D and studio production roles.”

UTS ALA had its first intake in 2017, with students so far embarking on a short animated project, a VR experience and a mixed-reality platform. The idea has been to give students – who come from all kinds of disciplines including other than animation or visual effects – a wide range of experience in what is a diverse industry.

“We like to think that we are giving our crew a head start,” says Ebeling. “Not only will our students be able to hit the ground in any major studio, they will also have the aptitude, knowledge and experience in working with emerging technologies and how to problem-solve and create innovative content here.”

Students, otherwise known as ‘crew,’ at the UTS Animal Logic Academy.

Chris Ebeling

A cineSync frame from the production of Pacific Rim Uprising. (Image courtesy of Cospective)

Rory McGregor, CEO of Cospective, which develops cineSync.

Hello and Review, from the Other Side of the World

When Adelaide-based VFX studio Rising Sun Pictures was simultaneously working on Superman Returns and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, they would need to send shots for remote review to U.S. and U.K. time zones. But just sending the files required mountains of ‘explanation’. Instead, they mashed up a prototype over a weekend for a chat room and QuickTime player combo. It would ultimately become cineSync, the popular remote review and collaboration tool, and an example of the many tech innovations coming out of Australia.

CineSync, developed by Cospective, is used by every major U.S. film studio, the vast majority of major TV networks and every major VFX facility in the world. “It’s become part of the furniture in post-production, although what constitutes ‘post-production’ these days is up for debate,” says Cospective CEO Rory McGregor. “Now that VFX supervisors are involved from previs, cineSync’s role in the life of a project continues to expand.”

McGregor adds that cineSync’s development in Australia is apt, given its long distance from some of the central filmmaking hubs around the world. “Being based in Australia, we have an innate understanding of working remotely,” he says. “We adopted a global mindset from the very beginning – and because we develop and sell our software from far-flung Australia, we meet remote communication challenges every day.”


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