AIDC coming to Melbourne!

Breaking news from Adelaide! The Australian International Documentary Conference has found a new home – in Melbourne, Victoria.

Film Victoria and ACMI will jointly sponsor next year’s AIDC. And as Katrina Sedgwick told us at this year’s event, she brought the Documentary Conference to Adelaide when she was running the Adelaide Film Festival around 12 years ago. Katrina and Richard Sowada were present at the announcement and are obviously keen to hit the ground running and provide a terrific, reimagined conference next year.

Lucky Melbourne!

After the SA government withdrew substantial amount of funding for this year’s Conference, it was morphed into a no frills version this year by outgoing Joost Den Hartog, who looked as though he really didn’t want to be there. The Conference, named Net-Work-Play, focussed on online delivery mechanisms and digital content as the way of the future.

Film Victoria’s Jenni Tosi also welcomed the arrival of AIDC to Victoria and is clearly a strong supporter of the move along with FV’s Jeni McMahon who was also there.

SPA Low budget feature scheme outlined

Screen Producers Australia hopes to reach agreement with the other major guilds on a new scheme for low budget features within the next few months.

SPA is proposing that all participants- producers, directors, writers, cast and crew- would receive 50% of their minimum award fees, reinvest the balance and thus share in the potential profits.

The scheme would apply to features costing less than $1.5 million which would not be eligible for Screen Australia funding but could qualify for the producer offset.  Producers would pay the employees’ tax obligations based on the minimum rates.

The aims are to boost the level of feature production, which has barely changed in 30 years; enable cheaper films to be made on a far more professional basis; and provide a pathway for a new generation of writers and talent.

Owen Johnston, SPA’s manager, commercial and industrial affairs, gave IF an update on the scheme today after hosting a screening on Tuesday night of UK film Delicious. The writer, director and co-producer Tammy Riley-Smith and the producer/ composer Michael Price took part in a Q&A session after the screening at AFTRS.

To be released in Australia by iTunes on February 9, Delicious was made for £150,000 ($280,000) under the agreement for low budget features between the UK producers association PACT and the UK’s Equity. The filmmakers say they expect the production to be in the black in two years.

The darkly comic romance stars Sherlock’s Louise Brealey as Stella, an obsessive dieter who embarks on a dysfunctional romance with aspiring French chef Jacques (Nico Rogner). Released from prison, Jacques arrives in London and starts working in the kitchen of volatile chef Victor (Adrian Scarborough), whom he believes could be his father. In the city he meets his neighbours, feisty pensioner Patti (Sheila Hancock) and the beguiling Stella, whom he plans to seduce with his culinary talent.

Since 2009, 139 films costing £3 million ($5.5 million) or less have been registered under the scheme.

SPA’s scheme is a simplified version of the UK model which entails actors taking a 75% pay cut on films costing less than £3 million and 50% less for projects budgeted below £1 million.

Johnston said, “One of the union’s concerns was that the scheme would erode the pay scale for actors. In the UK that hasn’t happened; it has created work additional to the status quo.”

He points out the number of films produced in Australia, 25 to 30 per year, excluding credit card films, has not changed in 30 years.

“We think the scheme will enable low budget films to be made far more professionally, inspire writers to work on these films and provide practice for a new generation of talent. “

Last year SPA flagged the idea of creating a joint review panel made up of reps from MEAA and SPA to assess applications for certification under the scheme. That notion caused concern at the ADG, which wanted a seat at the table.

Johnston said the composition of the review panel has not been determined and the ADG may well be involved.

SPA has been negotiating the terms of the agreement with the MEAA and will soon circulate a draft to that body, the ADG and the AWG. He hopes to get sign-off in the next few months so the scheme could be operating by mid-year.

Equity director Zoe Angus tells IF, “We have had preliminary discussions with SPA about introducing a registration scheme for low budget films. SPA has advised us that they will table a proposal shortly. MEAA will consult widely with members to ensure that any new arrangements offer the right protections for performers.”

Concurrently SPA has been discussing with Screen Australia a more flexible interpretation of the offset rules which require films to have a theatrical release or, at minimum, the intention to do so.

That seems to be happening as evidenced by The Mule, which eOne released on digital platforms and qualified for the offset.

SPA is also working with Screen Australia on ideas for alternative distribution avenues for Australian films.

[Wed 04/02/2015 9:26 AM].  IF MAGAZINE

By Don Groves

Film bosses accused of mutilating scripts and pushing out writing talent

Original and subtle work is often altered to follow a money-making formula that results in bland movies

Script writer William Nicholson said he was once credited with writing the script for a film which bore little relation to the original.

Three of Britain’s Oscar-nominated screenwriters say that an increasing tendency among film studio bosses and directors to “mutilate” film scripts is forcing top writers to either direct their own work or write for television, where they command greater respect.

Jeffrey Caine, William Nicholson and Steven Knight – whose acclaimed screenplays include those for The Constant Gardener, Gladiator and Dirty Pretty Things respectively – told the Observer that writers were often sacked without warning from the studios and would then discover that their original work has been altered beyond recognition by a production line of writers.

Caine said that studio executives, directors or actors who “ride roughshod” over film scripts can leave writers feeling embarrassed when their names appear in the credits.

Writers often find themselves blamed for excruciating dialogue they never wrote, he said, adding: “I have seen lines of dialogue in films with my name on them that I wouldn’t have written under torture.”

To add insult to injury, writers are sometimes unceremoniously removed from projects, though their name may appear in the credits. They may not even be told they have been replaced: they discover their sacking by chance on a blog or trade report. Nicholson recalled delivering a commissioned screenplay and receiving a phone call from the studio saying it was “wonderful – we’re so excited”. He then heard nothing. Two years later it appeared in cinemas; other writers had taken it on.

His name was on it, but it bore little relation to his original.

The phenomenon is not new. Howard Clewes, a leading British screenwriter, took his name off Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando, in 1962, because he was so dismayed by the rewrites. Today’s writers do not have that option. Writers’ Guild rules do not permit writers to take their name off a screenplay if they have been paid more than a certain amount. Studios can, in effect, buy their names.

Nicholson said he understood the pressures on studios, particularly with huge financial investments, but lamented “a failure of manners”. They could, he said, send “even an email, saying they appreciate ‘you gave six months of your life, but … we’ve moved on’. They never, ever, do.” He added: “Although I understand why they treat writers so badly, it’s not in their interests to do so. They will get poorer work from their writers. Create an atmosphere of trust and [writers] will take risks and write better for you. Create an atmosphere of fear and neglect and they won’t.”

Nicholson won an Oscar nomination for Shadowlands in 1993, starring Anthony Hopkins, which he said was shot from his screenplay because Richard Attenborough was both a great director and a gent who respected a script. But on Gladiator he was the third writer – “two other writers … had suffered the ignominious fate, which I have suffered many times”. TV was “very significant” for top writers, he said, because there they have “enormously more power and respect than film writers”.

Caine’s screenplay for The Constant Gardener, starring Ralph Fiennes, was his adaptation of John le Carré’s noveland showered with nominations for Oscar, Bafta and Writers’ Guild of America awards. It was filmed largely as he intended – a rare thing in the industry, he lamented. Film-makers who do not understand the subtleties of storyline, characterisation and dialogue are “only interested in the crudest storytelling, and the most banal and superficial elements of character”, Caine said. “The writer tries to put in subtleties, but they sometimes end up being excised from the script.”

He likened the problem to a chef being asked to prepare his signature dish for a dinner and finding the host smothering the meal with ketchup. “Many major big-budget movies these days taste of ketchup,” he said, because each change to the original dilutes it. “All the best stuff that made it cohere and made it work is no longer there, and all you’re left with is pretty pictures … That’s why so many blockbuster, mass market films are so bland.”

The problem applies less to independent films and more to originals than adaptations as with the latter there is a basic storyline and also characterisations producers and the director know they can’t stray from too far.

Hollywood’s principle on mass-market movies is the more writers the better.

Observing that some of the best screenplays came from writer-directors such as John Huston and Billy Wilder, Caine said that DIY directing or producing is now the best way to preserve the integrity of screenplays, though he has no wish to pursue that route himself. But writers doing so include Richard Linklater, whose Boyhood is an Oscar frontrunner, and Damien Chazelle, who wrote the acclaimed thriller Whiplash.

Ultimately, decisions are driven by money, Knight said. “With a film … it costs a lot of money to get it made. They’re terrified they’re going to lose that money. They look at what’s worked before and think ‘we’ll do that again because that worked’.

Therefore, they will take a script they like – and then change it so it resembles something else because they think that’s engineering it towards success, which isn’t the case.”

He feels that television is now the “home of really good writing” because writers are left alone and directors shoot what’s on the page.

Although this is not a new phenomenon. But, in a way, film-making was ever thus.

Caine claims: “Cinema is the greatest artform ever devised. Had Shakespeare lived now, imagine what he could have done. Then imagine the mutilation. He would no doubt have been a writer-director, as he actually was.”

Directing his comments at audiences and critics, he added: “Before you rush to blame the screenwriter for a bad script, just remember that it may not be the script that these guys signed off on.”

Dalya Alberge – The Guardian – Sunday 11 January 2015

Hollywood pins hopes on Interstellar as it seeks out new life in movie industry

There is much riding on Christopher Nolan’s latest space travel blockbuster after a poor year for the American film industry.

It is not just the fate of humankind at risk in the latest release from the director
Christopher Nolan; it is also the fate of the box office.

Hollywood executives are hoping that Interstellar, which features an all-star cast led by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, will come to the rescue of what has been a terrible year for the industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Britain the total box office haul between the beginning of May and the end of August, the period when major studios tend to release their biggest earning films, was £398m, compared with £434m in 2013. In the US the situation was even worse: the $4.05bn (£2.56bn) total representing a 14% drop from 2013. Adjusted for ticket-price inflation, the US performance was the worst since 1997.

The World Cup, which occupied four weeks from mid-June to mid-July, may have played a significant part in keeping audiences away from the multiplexes, but it has nevertheless produced a crisis of confidence among the studios, with Warner Bros, Sony and DreamWorks among those that have been shedding jobs and cutting costs throughout the year.

Interstellar is being hailed as the film that could yet turn things around and reassure Hollywood that its model of tentpole blockbusters that prop up the rest of the business, still works. The much-hyped space-travel film was produced with a budget of $165m, and was released on Wednesday in the US and on Friday in Britain.

Andrew Pulver – The Guardian, Saturday 8 November 2014

Screen savers: the untold story of US TV’s showrunners

They are the new masters of TV, a bunch of jelly-bean-eating hotshots who have ushered in a golden age. But what do showrunners actually do? Andrew Collins on a film that goes behind the scenes at everything from Boardwalk Empire to The Good Wife

‘Be entertaining’ … the writers’ room on Men of a Certain Age, featured in the new It’s a truism that TV is now better than the movies. So where does that leave Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show? It’s a movie about TV. Specifically, it’s the first feature-length documentary to take us inside the inner sanctums of critically acclaimed and commercially successful US series like The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy, Bones, House of Lies and Boardwalk Empire.

The difference between the American and the British way of making TV drama is no more than the placement of an apostrophe. In the US, it’s all about the writers’ room. In the UK, it’s the writer’s room. Both methodologies are romanticised: the Showrunners film caffeinated, air-conditioned detention centre in Burbank where story arcs are “broken” and whiteboards incrementally filled by salaried Buffy fans juggling stress balls; and the shed at the bottom of an Oxfordshire garden in which a tortured author taps out every syllable of an eight-part masterpiece based on his own novel to the strains of Radio 3 until called in for supper. Perhaps it’s no wonder we mythologise the US system.

Ignoring the old saw about letting light in upon magic, Showrunners points an awed spotlight on to a species previously granted tongue-tied anonymity in a pre-internet age. As Tara Bennett, the author of the film’s companion book, writes: “Who would have ever thought that the pale, weary, self-deprecating talents plunking tirelessly on their abused keyboards would become the pin-up faces for the modern era’s latest Golden Age?”

The documentary’s director is Des Doyle, a voluble, black-T-shirted Dubliner who, after 12 years pulling focus in the camera department on everything from dragon apocalypse Reign of Fire to Barry Levinson’s sectarian wigmaking romp An Everlasting Piece, decided in 2010 to make a film of his own. A growing fascination for big, millennial, creator-led US shows like The X-Files, Buffy and Lost gave him his subject. “I’d waited diligently for a documentary to come along to explain exactly what a ‘showrunner’ did,” he says. “But it never did.”

For the next two years, Doyle and his modest crew stalked Los Angeles collecting firsthand testimony from almost 30 American showrunners – Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Galactica) – resulting in a blockbusting nature documentary in which mostly white, male, 40-50-something showrunners are glimpsed in their natural habitat, feeding as a group on jelly beans and ideas.

Terence Winter established himself by writing for televisual motherlode The Sopranos on HBO and graduated to running his own show, Boardwalk, for the same creatively empowering network. “I’m one of those people who buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions,” he says, explaining why he loves Doyle’s documentary: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and get a look behind that curtain.” He laments the fact that he rarely gets the chance to swap notes with fellow showrunners. “For the most part, the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”

Since the job description isn’t even an above-the-line accreditation (you’ll see “created by” or “executive producer” scroll past in the opening credits, but never “showrunner”) what does it actually entail? In reality, you guard the creative vision while acting as a lightning rod for all production issues. Jane Espenson, who ran Battlestar spin-off Caprica, reckons “a showrunner has to have a bit of dictator in them”. Her former boss Ron Moore likens the job to being “a forest manager – I manage the forest, but someone else is out there dealing with all these trees, pruning them every day”. Winter says they’re “part psychologist, part motivational speaker. You’re a host at a dinner party trying to get everybody to open up a little bit.” Hart Hanson, avuncular creator of the long-running Bones, adds: “Most, but not all, have terrible posture.”

On Boardwalk, which after five grandly slow-burning seasons has just reached its finale, Winter ran his writers’ room just as David Chase had done on The Sopranos, with a sign on the wall based on a Chase dictum: “Be entertaining.” Averaging about five writers at any given time, he’d come in with “a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go” and lead a process that involved “a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression. To the untrained ear, it may sound like a bunch of people bullshitting, but those are the things that get made into TV shows.”

For instance, the Brooklyn house Winter grew up in had fallen into a state of disrepair (“I was always embarrassed of it as a child”). When his mother, who still lived in it, passed away, he fixed up the entire house before selling it. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but what I was really doing was repairing my childhood.” In the writers’ room somebody said: “That would be a great story for Nucky.” That’s the show’s flawed lead, played by Steve Buscemi. Fans will recall that Nucky does the same thing in season one, episode seven. “He also burns the house down,” Winter laughs. “I didn’t do that.”

Doyle’s film is full of similar firsthand insight. Robert and Michelle King, the husband-and-wife team behind The Good Wife, credit their success to “the fact we don’t have resentful spouses at home”. On the subject of social-media interaction with fans, the heavily tattooed Steven S DeKnight, showrunner of Spartacus, recalls: “I’ve gotten into a dust-up twice where I found out later I was actually in a yelling match with, like, a 12-year-old.” Hart Hanson muses: “There’s a very small portion of the audience who think they know how the soup is made and give you advice on how much salt to put in it. I think they should be ignored.”

Female showrunners remain rare, although the likes of Shonda Rimes (Scandal), Espenson and Dee Johnson (Nashville) are making a difference. According to a 2012- 13 study by San Diego State University, women still only account for 24% of US “series creators” (it’s 34% for writers). Janet Tamaro, showrunner of TNT’s female buddy crime series Rizzoli & Isles, observes in the film: “Some people – both male and female – have an easier time being told what to do by a man.” When staffing his room, Winter abides by the law of what he calls “hangability – these are people you gotta want to hang out with”. He used six female writers on Boardwalk.

The British showrunner is even rarer, due to shorter series and tighter budgets, although Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch), Neil Cross (Luther) and Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) are taking the baton from Russell T Davies and his successor at Doctor Who, Steven Moffat, who emulate the American model. At an Edinburgh TV Festival session in August, ITV’s new drama controller Victoria Fea dampened buccaneering fantasies about become the showrunner on a British series: “We have lots of authors in this country who sit in their garrets and write in splendid isolation. That doesn’t necessarily go with running a production meeting.”

Winter, a fan of everything from The Singing Detective to The Hour, has better news. “Whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Watch the trailer here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYWRgqRcSO4

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show is available to purchase from Friday at www.showrunnersthemovie.com

Andrew Collins – The Guardian, Tuesday 28 October 2014

Box office only one indicator of Australian film industry success

We are great at making stories whether it is behind or in front of the camera. I want to encourage us all to look up for a moment, and see the value of this work in positioning Australia internationally.

As chief executive of Screen Australia I get around the globe a bit. When I have attended international markets, I am repeatedly told how talented we Australians are as storytellers – actors, directors, producers and crews – often by the world’s most influential players. I wonder sometimes whether back home we get just how respected and recognised our screen industry is on the world stage.

In the past few weeks there has been debate about the disappointing recent box office for Australian films. Stalwart supporters like Margaret Pomeranz have been championing the films in the face of industry critics. While we always aspire for commercial success for our films, this is a hugely challenging exhibition environment for independent film internationally, lining up alongside the huge budgets and marketing clout of blockbusters; and it should be noted box office is only one measure of success. Our film industry pays back crucial cultural dividends and the legacy of great Australian films can resonate forever.

Much of the recent debates have tended to focus within our borders. I also want to encourage us all to look up for a moment, and see the value of this work in positioning Australia internationally. From the 1980s when the image of Aussie larrikinism in on-screen portrayals like Crocodile Dundee formed some unusual views of daily life in Australia, to the more diverse offerings of today, our stories continue to resonate. The Sapphires left us wanting to sing and dance with the first indigenous girl group; Australia paid tribute to the harsh yet magical country we live in, INXS celebrated the lives and the music of our iconic rock legends, Jabbed taught us about the diverse stances on the hotly debated topic of immunisation and Charlie’s Country took us on a poignant journey into the extraordinary cultures of Arnhem Land.

Charlie’s Country’s lead actor, David Gulpilil received a rare accolade as the first indigenous person to win Best Actor award in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. The film was just one of 11 Australian feature films invited to screen at Cannes this year. In total 13 Australian films were invited this year to the top five international festivals – Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Sundance – selected from an intensely competitive field to feature at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world.

In the past few years we have had 11 top-rating Australian TV drama series sell their format to the US. BAFTA and EMMY award-winning Top of the Lake, high rating drama The Slap based on the best-selling novel of the same name, and innovative drama Secrets & Lies have all demonstrated our ability to produce quality stories with wide appeal.

Earlier this year multiplatform project #7 Days Later became the fourth project in five years involving an Australian company to take home a International Digital Emmy Award.

What does this tell us? We are great at making stories whether it is behind or in front of the camera, for the big, small and mobile screen. Our skilled practitioners in front of and behind the camera are frequently recognised for their expertise – beyond the obvious Cate, Hugh, Russell and Nicole, we also have Catherine Martin picking up two Oscars for Costume design of The Great Gatsby, contribution from local VFX company Rising Sun on Oscar winner Gravity, Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel just complete his much anticipated Macbeth and Angelina Jolie choosing our country and crew to make her directorial debut film, Unbroken. This does so much to profile Australia to the world and to communicate who we are and what we are capable of.

Cate Blanchett in her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards said “there is just so much talent in Australia and Michael Wilkinson, CM and I are just the tip of the iceberg”. My job is to support and celebrate the whole iceberg.

Many would not know that five of the 10 top grossing films at the international box office last year starred Australians – from Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3 to the Hemsworths in The Hunger Games and Thor.

We often see a full circle – emerging talent grow, make the leap to the world stage to then return and tell our stories in Australian voices, such as Russell Crowe going from Neighbours to Gladiator to directing The Water Diviner back in Australia.

Beyond the economic benefits of the $2.2 billion revenue the screen sector has contributed to the economy (2011/12 ABS survey), and beyond the obvious cultural dividends of seeing our own stories reflected back to us on screen, this international success is another key reason our screen industry matters.

It’s a cliche to say we punch above our weight – what we should all celebrate is how much this does for our profile on the world stage.

Graeme Mason is chief executive of Screen Australia – SMH – October 26, 2014

Kiwi Post-Production House: From Epics to Micro-Budget Works

Of the five Peter Jackson companies in Wellington, Park Road Post wins the prize for the snazziest HQ.

As each company started up, it took over warehouses or other spaces available in the suburb of Miramar. But Park Road, which debuted with 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” was built from the ground up. The massive building includes two large mixing theaters (where editors can sit next to mixers, and music and dialogue editors have their station); a smaller pre-mix room; three DCI projected DI/Grading theaters and a large picture department alongside the sound department.

There is also a 170-seat screening room with art-deco figures in deep blue and gold (one worker described it as “Hearst style,” a reference to Hearst Castle in San Simeon) and twinkling stars of Southern Hemisphere on the ceiling.

Starting in 1941, the New Zealand government oversaw post-production for local filmmakers, via its National Film Unit. But it decided a decade ago to sell the facilities to Australia. Jackson realized the loss of services and infrastructure could be a fatal blow to the country’s film industry. So Park Road was born.

Park Road does 40 projects a year, handling post-production on works ranging from big-budget pieces like “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Master and Commander,” to micro-budget local films, as well as documentaries and restoration work.

“We don’t think of it as a business first. It’s about creating something great,” says g.m. Cameron Harland.

He adds that their constant challenge is to look and sound better, to make tech advancements and upgrades. But supervising senior re-recording mixer Michael Hedges adds: “The enemy to good sound is to worry about technology. You have to worry about what’s on the screen. Technology has to match that.” The staff also includes five toppers: Dean Watkins, head of production; Vicki Jackways, marketing; Louise Baker, corporate services; Amy Shand, picture; and John Neill, sound. PRP generally sends Phil Oatley (head of technology) and Ian Bidgood (technical director and color scientist) to NAB.

The Park Road team has been going to places including Los Angeles to lure production to NZ. Any pushback from Hollywood? No, says Harland, “because you can’t hard-sell something like this. You let the work speaks for itself.”

Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014

Weta Workshop is Made Up of Wellington’s Eclectic, Equal-Rights Designers

Weta Workshop is the oldest of Peter Jackson’s five companies, and the hardest to define. And that’s the way they like it.

Richard Taylor, who runs Weta Workshop with his wife, Tania Rodger, believes in creative diversity. He has won Oscars in three categories: two for makeup, two in visual effects and one for costume design. It reflects his philosophy, “We can only survive if we innovate every day.” The company built 48,000 individual items (props, costumes, etc.) for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. For the “Hobbit” trio, the team produced 11,862 prosthetics, with 5,493 of these just for the Dwarves. Approximately 4 tons of silicone was used to make facial prosthetics for all the characters. In the past year, WW has worked on 30 projects, including six films, plus numerous TV shows and videogames. “It adds to the tapestry of our staff’s lives,” says Taylor. “It’s added to the richness.” Recent projects include the final “Hobbit” film; costuming and prosthetics for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”; designs for “Godzilla” and “Hercules”; merchandise for “DOTA 2”; and materials for films based in China, Hungary, India and the United States.

In association with ITV and Pukeko Pictures, WW is working on the TV relaunch of “Thunderbirds.” There will be 26 half-hours to bow in 2015; scripts are written in the U.S., with voices recorded in the U.K., filming miniatures in New Zealand and animation in Taiwan.

Jackson is a third shareholder in the company, with Taylor and Rodger as the management and creative force behind it. Taylor is managing director.

During Variety’s visit, WW staffers were working on museum installations, a sculpture garden, film projects and books (designed and written inhouse, with 16 published so far). Conducting Variety on a tour through the multi-level maze of workshops, Taylor introduces each space matter-of-factly: “This is the sword- grinding room; this is the sculpting department; this is the paint department,” and he points out machines that do robotic 3D milling, printing, laser-cutting, plasma- cutting and foam latex, urethane casting and riveting machines. “We built machines that can build components,” he says simply.

There is a room devoted to facial castings, with walls lined with face masks: the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” actors, Meryl Streep, Vincent Price and dozens of others.

It may be matter-of-fact to him, but to a visitor, it seems like a labyrinth designed for people with ADD: Diverse, high-energy and magical. Asked how many square feet/meters in the building, Taylor laughs, “Oh, I have no idea.” When Taylor started on 2001’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Weta Workshop had a staff of 158, only 38 of whom had any film experience.

He promotes the “Jack and Jill of all trades” mentality. There is a roughly 50-50 split of men and women among the core crew of 55. That’s also true when the staff is augmented to work on multiple projects, with the additions ranging from 70 to 240.

Taylor is proud that no one had formal training. Some are first-time sculptors he trained. And he’s also self-taught: He started sculpting margarine, then moved on to clay.There is also Weta Cave, a shop that sells objects and offers a $20 tour of the workshop. It’s the only public access to the five companies. Taylor says it was inspired “by watching busloads of people looking at this old dilapidated warehouse. I couldn’t stand it,” so he wanted to give them a positive connection.

Among other key staffers at Weta Workshop: General manager David Wilks, Workshop supervisor Rob Gillies, head of production Grant Bensley, head of design Rik Athorne, head of consumer products Mike Gonzales, head of tourism Jake Downing and executive assistant to Taylor plus g.m. Ri Streeter.

Rodger also supervises the Roxy theater, a refurbished cinema in the Miramar neighborhood that shows first-run films and classics. Taylor describes the interior as “sci-fi deco with a Rockefeller twist” (as in Rockefeller Center).

Weta Workshop also designs and produces collectibles with 500-800 copies of each piece, having made 1 million in all over the years. “It’s a tiny collectors market,” he says, but enough that “it lets us do fine-art sculpting for a living.” Enough to justify the cost, “but I would probably do them anyway. You’re interacting with the fans.

Fans is almost a misnomer. These are people who are driven by a love of literature, the arts and creativity.” Many of them go to seven or eight conventions a year.

He appreciates the Oscars he and the others at Wellington have won because the wins are an exclamation mark to their work. “It’s endorsing our team and showing that we have a showing that we have a place in the world.” New Zealand definitely has a place in the world, and as the Weta brand expands, its global footprint gets even larger and more impressive.

Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014

Peter Jackson’s Companies Offer Every Step for Filmmakers

In the past two decades, Peter Jackson and his team have created five companies to service every aspect of filmmaking. These are among the most accomplished but misunderstood film companies in the world.

That’s because each was started without any hoopla. Ever since Jackson’s 1994 “Heavenly Creatures,” his films have gotten more ambitious, creatively and technically. So these companies were created to meet the needs of Jackson and the growing film industry in New Zealand. And after they were born, each started working immediately.

Even though filmmakers such as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg have been enthusiastic collaborators, many in the industry are confused about the structures and goals there.

Aside from Weta Digital, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, there are four other companies: Weta Workshop, Park Road Post Production, Stone Street Studios and Portsmouth Road film-equipment company.

The various toppers, with typical Kiwi humor, sat down in Wellington with Variety to dispel some misperceptions.

  1. The five companies are not designed solely to work on Jackson’s films. In the past year, for example, Park Road worked on 40 projects; Weta Workshop contributed to 30.
  2. They are not just for blockbusters. With Jackson’s six Tolkien films and Cameron’s “Avatar” franchise, the companies have gotten typecast. But this year their workload included lots of TV, a documentary, a $100,000 NZ indie and film restoration.
  3. They can handle every aspect of a production, but the soup-to-nuts approach is not required. Each of the five companies can be responsible for its specialty (design, editing, sound, VFX, etc.) throughout the life of a project — or can contribute just a few weeks’ work. The five sometimes work together, but often separately.

4 It’s not necessary to relocate. The companies in Wellington have recently worked on productions based in India, South Africa, China and the U.S. For “Tintin,” they connected daily with Spielberg, who was in the Aegean.

Park Road Post general manager Cameron Harland sums it up: “We want people to know that New Zealand is open for business.” Weta Digital: Peter Jackson’s VFX Company is About ‘Immersive Filmmaking’ Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014 Joe Letteri, the company’s director and senior visual effects supervisor, flanked by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson Weta Digital is observing its 20th anniversary this year, but the celebration is low- key, because the team is too busy to rest on its laurels.

Top priorities include “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies,” the culmination of 17 years and six films in the J.R.R. Tolkien canon; “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” slated to bow in 2016; and the upcoming “Avatar” films. Then on to other projects, both large and small.

Peter Jackson has five companies in Wellington, but Weta Digital is the best known, thanks to its visual-effects breakthrough creations such as Gollum, Caesar, Smaug and the Na’vis.

Joe Letteri, the company’s director and senior visual effects supervisor, says, “If we can shoot it live-action, great. If not, we’ll do it digitally.” (Letteri is in the above photo, flanked by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.) The company’s executive producer David Conley adds that Weta Digital is unlike traditional visual-effects houses. “We try to give filmmakers a comfortable space to make their own movie. We don’t want them to feel trapped by the process. We don’t tell you how to shoot the movie; we help you get to where you want to go.” The tools are constantly evolving. Techniques for creating Gollum got much more sophisticated between the 2001 “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” and the first “Hobbit” film. As a sign of the growth, the company created 24 digital characters for the first “Hobbit,” and about 60 for the second. The third film, still in progress, will be a quantum leap above that.

Though the tools are different, Letteri says that the team — including VFX supervisors Dan Lemmon, Eric Saindon and Guy Williams — uses the same process as 20 years ago: “We meet every day. We run this like a film set, with dailies, constantly revising stuff. Everything is reassembled in new ways, using new techniques, but it’s traditional: It’s story-driven, and it’s about characters.”

Weta Digital was founded by Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk to create 14 effects for the 1994 “Heavenly Creatures.” Two years later, they created a then- astonishing 400 effects for “The Frighteners.” In the past two decades, the company credits include the six Tolkien movies, “King Kong,” “Avatar,” and this year’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the final “Hobbit.” The company, 75% owned by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, employs about 800-1,000 individuals, depending on the number of projects. It’s located in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, in seven reconverted buildings, including a former home for wayward girls, a one-time dairy and record-pressing studio. All of these buildings are connected to each other, and linked to Jackson’s other four companies via a private fiber loop.

One example of Weta’s work in character development is dragon Smaug’s wings in the first “Hobbit,” which became like hands for the second. Weta Digital and Jackson liked the idea of giving Smaug the ability to hold onto the platforms and pillars in Erebor.

One breakthrough was the invention of Massive software for the 2001 “LOTR.” Massive enabled crowd movement in which each person or creature has a “brain.” So 200 horses can gallop together, but each will have distinct movements, and that gave credibility to the epic battle scenes.

The motion-capture creation of Gollum was another turning point.

Human and creature faces were challenging since there are so many interconnected facial muscles, not to mention skin colors and textures.

The key came in designing King Kong for the 2005 film. Computer artists designed a gorilla’s skeleton, then added a muscle system, then fat and tissue, skin, skin color, then fur. The next target was to do the same with humans, which happened with the 2009 “Avatar.” The Weta team are quick to dispel actors’ fear that they will be digitally replaced.

Letteri says of Andy Serkis’ performances, “We took what he did and heightened it.” To create the Na’vi version of Sam Worthington, the Weta team asked themselves, “Can we match the performance and get Sam’s eyes, expression, appearance and emotions?” The answer was yes, and there will be more breakthroughs on the next three “Avatar” films. And, on the creature side, Benedict Cumberbatch worked with them to create the physical and vocal characterization of Smaug.

Conley adds that Weta wants to enhance, not replace, the actual performances and below-the-line work (ranging from design to visual effects).

“We like to work with designers and have them build the costume, for example, so we can understand their intent and things like how the fabric moves. We never change their vision; we just give a digital interpretation of their vision.” Though the digital world can be confusing to many, Weta Digital folks say it’s all about collaborating with filmmakers and giving them new tools.

Letteri dubs it “immersive filmmaking.”

Tim Gray – Variety – October 22, 2014

Take more risks in British TV drama, says Charles Dance

Charles Dance
Dance in ITV’s dramatisation of the 1666 Great Fire of London, The Great Fire. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/Ecosse Films/ITV

It is fair to call Charles Dance a veteran of UK television. His four decades of screen credits include some of the most critically acclaimed dramas, from Jewel in the Crown and Rebecca to Bleak House and Game of Thrones. Yet having worked through what he calls “the golden age” of British TV in the 80s, he is firm in one belief – that the current state of television in this country is shamefully bleak.

“We need to look to our laurels a bit with television in this country”, he said. “ I don’t think enough risks are being taken in drama television in the UK and I think a lot of programme makers are underestimating the intelligence of the viewing public, basing it all on ratings. Just because 12 million people watch a pile of reality TV shit about something or other, that doesn’t mean that’s the only type of programme you make.

“There’s great swathes of people now who don’t watch any British television, because there’s nothing there worth watching.”

Such a damning condemnation of the current state of British television comes just as Dance’s latest television project, ITV’s dramatisation of the 1666 Great Fire of London, makes its television debut this Thursday. The four-part drama was written by ITV’s political correspondent, Tom Bradby, with Dance playing the fictional villain, the King’s ruthless intelligence officer Lord Denton.

Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones
After four years playing Tywin Lannister in the hugely successful American production Game of Thrones, Dance is vocal about what British television needs. Photograph: Damien Elliott/Game of Thrones

Yet, after four years playing the vicious Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, the HBO fantasy show that has been one of the biggest success stories in television in recent years, the opulent American production has made the 67-year-old lament the days when British television led the creative agenda.

“We used to have this reputation in Britain of having the finest television in the world and it was, for a long time,” said Dance. “America, for a long time, would look at what was going on on this side of the Atlantic, at quality television like Brideshead Revisited and the Jewel in the Crown – well now it’s the other way around.”

The problem, he says, lies in the unwillingness to financially invest in drama and says recent attempts by British television to emulate American hits have come across as nothing more than “an am-dram performance”.

“We are not amateurs so that’s not good enough,” Dance continued, getting increasingly more irate. “And certainly the BBC seem to be more interested in real estate than new drama.”

Indeed, the actor is adamant that if the original plans for Game of Thrones, a show filmed in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, to be a co-production with the BBC had gone ahead, “they would have pulled the plug after two seasons.”

“You know what would have happened, they wouldn’t have spent enough money,” he added. “What I see happening a lot of the time in this country is we spend 100 and try and make it look like a thousand. And a lot of the time, we don’t pull it off. American networks like HBO spend money and they spend it in the right way.”

Dance’s solution is simple. “We have to take risks in British television” he said. “It has to stop playing to the lowest common denominator and patronising people. And I’m certainly not the only actor who thinks British television needs a bit of a kick up the arse.”

The Great Fire
Dance praised the ambition of The Great Fire where parts of the set were burnt to the ground. Photograph: Patrick Redmond/Ecosse Films/ITV

Nonetheless, he saluted the “ambition” of The Great Fire, which saw ITV spend more than £1m on a purpose built set of restoration-era London, only to burn it to to the ground in the filming of the four-part drama.

Despite admitting the prospect of playing yet another villain was “quite tedious”, it was a personal interest in the period of Charles II’s return to the throne and the conspiracy theories that abounded around the events of 1666 that eventually convinced Dance to put aside his dislike for “those dreadful periwigs” and accept the role, alongside Broadchurch star Andrew Buchan and Danny Mays, who plays famous diarist Samuel Pepys. He revelled in the interesting parallels between the state of politics then and now.

Dance said: “I think it’s a great era in history. There had been this sterile period after Charles I’s decapitation, the Cromwellian rather severe and puritanical era whcih was very dull for a lot of people. Then the monarchy was restored and there was this great feeling of optimism. But Charles II just turned out to be this louche party animal who was completely out of touch. It was a bit like, in my mind anyway, the day that Tony Blair swept into power and the piece of grey flannel that had been flying from the national flagpole was pulled down and this big smily, ‘everything’s going to be alright figure took charge’.” Trailing off with a deep laugh, he added: “Little did we know…”

However, his recent years working on Game of Thrones, a show rife with sexually explicit scenes, clearly had an impact on the actor who bemoaned the absence of the illustrious libertine, the Earl of Rochester, from the new drama.

“It’s quite a tame portrayal of Charles II’s court, which was actually quite sordid,” said Dance. “ I’m surprised Rochester doesn’t appear somewhere in there, swanning around, behaving appallingly and quoting vulgar poems. I would have liked it to have been a lot raunchier.”

The Guardian,