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Visual effects, Australian involvement

Harvie Krumpet (2003).

Harvie Krumpet (2003). Image courtesy of Melodrama Pictures.

I was a fan of magicians when I was growing up and read about the big stage magicians - Thurston, Houdini and those guys. I loved that aspect of it, the magic trick. I like pulling the wool over the audience's eyes, creating things where they're not really sure how it's done.
Ben Snow, Visual Effects Supervisor for Van Helsing (2004) and Pearl Harbour (2001). Interviewed 1 June 2004.

Hidden behind the scenes in film, television, new media and game production, a number of Australian individuals and companies have been quietly contributing their creativity, imagination and skill. Their faces may not be as familiar as high-profile Australian movie stars or sports people but their international and domestic accomplishments are no less significant.

Visual effects in film

Innovations in digital and computer technology have vastly changed the way contemporary feature films are made. Film makers can insert real-life actors in computer generated backgrounds, add effects like explosions or floods and even cast computer generated actors in key roles, as shown by the success of the computer generated character Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Industry snapshot - Ben Snow, Visual Effects Supervisor

Born in Nhill in the north-west of Victoria, Ben Snow is one of Australia's most successful visual effects supervisors and has worked on a host of Hollywood films including blockbusters The Mummy (1999), Pearl Harbour (2001) and the gothic action-horror Van Helsing (2004).

I wanted to study movies but my parents said, 'get a solid career! Computing will get you in any field you like'. But at that time Francis Coppola was using computer systems to help shoot 'One From The Heart', and they used computer-guided systems for motion control in 'Star Wars'... George Lucas had started editing on computers. So, I was like, 'oh, maybe there's a point here'. But it was several years before I was able to actually prove that they were right.
Ben Snow, Visual Effects Supervisor for Van Helsing (2004) and Pearl Harbour (2001). Interviewed 1 June 2004.

After studying computing and film at the University of Canberra he took the trans-Mongolian railway from Hong Kong to London and started knocking on doors to try and get into film. He eventually found a job with the (then) small computer graphics house, Moving Picture Company, where he stayed until 1991. He then came back to Australia to head the computer animation department for a Sydney company and made commercials and station idents (identification sequences) for television, including the ABC program Beyond 2000's title sequence.

A few years later, at a computer graphics conference, SIGGRAPH, in Los Angeles, Snow was invited to an Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) party where a friend looking for a team to work on a new Caspar the Ghost film requested Ben's show reel (a selection of work edited together). Snow got the job and ended up working on a CG version of the Starship Enterprise for the film Star Trek: Generations. Since then he has worked on Twister, Deep Impact, Pearl Harbour, Star Wars: Episode II - attack of the Clones and Van Helsing.

Australian-based visual effects - Animal Logic

Moulin Rouge.

Moulin Rouge - 20th Century Fox. Image courtesy of Animal Logic.

Production houses on Australian shores have been working on equally large productions and having great success. Since 1991, Sydney-based effects house Animal Logic (responsible for effects in films The Matrix and Moulin Rouge and television science-fiction series Farscape: Series 4) has been at the forefront of visual effects in Australia and is one of the county's largest employers in the industry.

According to Director Greg Smith, one reason for Animal Logic's success is that it has not had to rely on the state of the local industry in order to survive:

People have referred to us as being one of the top ten companies of our kind in the world, which is very flattering and humbling all at the same time. It's odd that you would have a company like that and of our scale sitting here in Australia but I think that there's a couple of things that underpin the success. One is that ninety per cent of the work that we do is offshore, for offshore clients, most of that's in North America. And so there's a telling point. The industry here is small, yes. And if we were dependant on the local industry's creative output to keep our company viable then we would have closed our doors, unfortunately, quite a long time ago.
Greg Smith, Communications Director of Animal Logic. Interviewed on 19 June 2004.

The science of visual effects

The special effects we see in film and television can be put into two categories: physical effects, (like explosions, pyrotechnics and collapsing buildings) and visual effects (those created in the post-production process). Innovations in digital and computer technology are making computer-generated images increasingly more prevalent and important in contemporary film.

Since the Lumiere brothers' first moving picture story, The Arrival of a Train , in 1895, visual effects have revolved around the use of film. Early tricks included multiple exposures, the use of miniatures, stop-motion camera work, and filming through painted glass. In the latter part of the 20th century, motion control technology (where cameras are controlled by computers), like that seen in George Lucas' s 1977 Star Wars became predominant.

In the 21st century, computers have allowed film makers to weave real footage with computer-generated images almost seamlessly. Find a history of visual effects in film on the Nova Online website.

Australian recognition

The Matrix DVD.

The Matrix DVD - Roadshow Entertainment. Image courtesy of Animal Logic.

A number of Australians have been recognised for their achievements in visual effects by the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Academy Awards in the United States.

Australians who have won Oscars for their work in this field include:

Australians nominated at the US Academy Awards for visual effects include:

In 1999, Australian Gary Tregaskis won a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for his primary design of Flame and Inferno software, a high-speed, integrated digital compositing and visual effects tool.

Adam Elliot was awarded an Oscar in 2004 for his animated short film Harvie Krumpet (2003). But he is not the first Australian to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Suzanne Baker, who produced Leisure (1976), a short film directed by Bruce Petty, received the honour in 1977.

Digital Production Houses

Australian production houses have achieved great international successes in independent film and commercial television.

As well as being involved in a number of successful films, digital production house Animal Logic has also contributed visual effects and post-production to television, winning a Saturn Award for visual effects created in Farscape: Series 4.

Other companies leading the way in film, television and commercial production include Digital Pictures, the Cutting Edge Group (George of the Jungle 2, 2003), Rising Sun Pictures (Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 2001-2003; The Last Samurai, 2003), and Complete Post (The Dish, 2000).

Education and support

Together with the contribution of financing by bodies like the Australian Film Commission and Film Victoria, a number of academic institutions supply the film, television and new media industry with high-quality graduates. Some of these organisations include:

Useful links

Production houses

Visual effects education

Last updated: 7 August 2007