“What I wish you knew…”: Top tips from Australian film and TV publicists – Part 2

There’s a lot that can be done strategically and cheaply to attract eyeballs to your screen projects, according to publicists within AACTA’s Media and Public Relations Chapter. There are also some very common mistakes you can avoid.

In this ongoing series, we highlight the skills and expertise of publicists within our AACTA membership, inviting them to share tips, tricks and insights borne of long experience in our particular industry. We’ll also ask these publicists to name some of the frequent frustrations they encounter in the line of duty, in order to better assist our filmmakers to promote their work.

You can read our first installment of this series, along with tips from Louise Heseltine over here. This week we talk to Sarah Finney, whose varied career – including a stint working with us at the AFI | AACTA – has given her a wealth of top tips.

Sarah Finney

Sarah got her start in the screen industry while still at Melbourne University. She worked in production roles, including as an assistant to the producer of Once Were Warriors, Robin Scholes, before working as a unit publicist on feature films AmyThe Craic and One Perfect Day and completing further studies in communication at RMIT. Sarah then joined exhibitor and distributor Dendy as Victorian publicist, working on the publicity and promotions campaigns for a range of quality local and international films.  After three years at Dendy, Sarah joined Lonely Planet where she worked on high profile brand and product campaigns including the ABC TV series Going Bush with Cathy Freeman and Deborah Mailman. Moving to Canberra, Sarah worked in Public Affairs for the Australian Government’s overseas aid agency, AusAID, being posted to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta before becoming Media Manager. Sarah then worked in communications for the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) where a highlight was helping to bring attention to the restored version of Wake in Fright. She returned to Melbourne in 2010 to work with the Australian Film Institute on media, industry and member communications, and of course the AFI Awards! Most recently she’s been managing unit publicity on the mini-series Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Southern Star John Edwards) and drama series House Husbands (Playmaker Media/The Lantern Group).

Here are Sarah’s answers to our questions:

The best kinds of publicity for an Australian film are… Lots of it! Start your publicity campaign as early as you can to build awareness, and establish a website and social media presence at the outset. Utilise your main cast. Launching a new face can be as compelling as promoting established names, and don’t limit yourself to the film and entertainment sections or programs of the media. Be creative!

The most effective thing a film producer/film director can do to help sell their film to local audiences is…. Hire a unit publicist as early as possible! Seriously, know who your audience is and make sure you target them through the publicity and marketing. Support your distributor. Work with them on the campaign, listen to their ideas and expect to be challenged. Be prepared to go on the road to promote the film. Red carpet premieres are great fun but some films are better served by doing a publicity tour to major capital cities and even regional areas, rather than having one big (and expensive) bash.

Melbourne’s Kino Cinema organised word of mouth preview screenings with members of the financial sector to promote THE BANK in 2001.

The most important thing for a distributor or exhibitor to consider when publicising an Australian film is… In distribution, allow enough time to generate as much publicity around the release as possible. You can have a terrific advertising campaign but you need PR to match it. Australian films are very labour intensive from a PR perspective but as a publicist very rewarding when you have been part of the team since script stage. And of course, harness word of mouth. If you have a great movie, show it to people, get them talking about it! While online and social media are increasingly important, traditional media shouldn’t be overlooked. Australian films don’t have the advertising budgets that major US releases to, so publicity plays a much bigger part.

Exhibitors are at the coalface, dealing directly with audiences and can really help sell a film at a local level. If you’re an exhibitor/theatre, you can:

  • Organise word of mouth previews.
  • Find out if there’s a local connection with the cast or crew, perhaps they can do an event or some publicity for you.
  • Consider whether the film will lend itself well to group bookings and identify groups to target. Sometimes it’s really clear, a film is based on a classic book which means school groups will be interested. Maybe it would be a good fundraiser. When I was at the Kino, our CBD location worked to our advantage with Rob Connolly’s The Bank. I recall we had around 6 – 8 paid preview screenings, all group bookings from the financial sector – ANZ, Esanda, Westpac, ASX. They had a great night out, we got box office and helped generate word of mouth ahead of the film’s opening, and the film performed particularly well at our cinema, especially the early evening sessions for the ‘after work’ crowd. For the employees of these banks and finance companies, it was a rare chance for them to see their world up on screen. Always look for these opportunities.

If there’s one mistake that gets made when it comes to publicity for Australian films it’s… In my view, there often needs to be a more intensive word of mouth preview screening program. The more people who see the film in the 6 – 8 weeks prior to release the better. If they like it they will tell their family and friends, and it takes time for word of mouth to filter through. If there’s a secret twist or some other reason why you can’t preview yet, then you will need to build that awareness another way.

The story of the restoration of WAKE IN FRIGHT became an essential part of the publicity for the film’s re-release in 2009.

One of my favourite campaigns for an Australian film was…. At the NFSA, I worked on the re-launch of the lost Australian classic Wake in Fright. The film had been recovered and restored, and to prepare the film for release, as well as working with Madman on the campaign, I undertook extensive research and interviews to tell the story of the making of the film, its original release, loss, recovery and restoration. It was a fascinating journey and a very satisfying one, not just to see audiences discovering this forgotten film, but also to share the story of the original production, the quest to find the original negative and the artistry involved in putting the film back together again. The media really embraced the story and helped Wake in Fright find a new audience, and it was a great opportunity to raise the profile of the NFSA, because Wake in Fright made the work of the NFSA accessible and relevant to audiences.

I think that Hopscotch’s campaign for The Sapphires has been excellent. Of course it helps to have a great movie to promote, but they have really got the film out there and I hope everyone sees it.

I also think producer Robyn Kershaw and Roadshow created a terrific campaign for Bran Nue Dae. They were very innovative, establishing an online and social media presence very early on. One strategy was to give ‘fans’ the opportunity to vote for one of two very different poster designs. Key art is crucial and the producers and distributor of Bran Nue Dae engaged directly with audiences to find out what artwork they responded to and this became part of the campaign itself, as it went viral and helped promote the film.

An innovative strategy by Roadshow to involve fans in choosing the key art for BRAN NUE DAE.

My other top tips are: You only have one chance to build your arsenal for publicity and promotions and that is during production. Make sure you make the most of this time with:

  • Stills photography, an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) and behind-the-scenes shoot. These are critical. In regards to stills, you need, strong, clear, well-lit images. It is really important that key scenes are photographed and that there is sufficient light to ensure the images are bright enough for editorial use. Time on set is very tight, but if it’s a crucial scene from a publicity perspective than those extra few minutes spent on holding the set up for stills will mean you have what you need to secure feature stories and interviews, particularly cover stories in newspapers and magazines. You need scene stills and portraits of the cast and if budget permits, doing a studio photo shoot with the cast is really useful as it means your distributor or network have plenty of imagery for publicity. Investing in an EPK shoot means that you will have plenty of material for use online, through social media and DVD extras. There are production companies who now specialise in this and can work with you to shoot what you will need to promote the film across multiple platforms, especially social media.
  • Media visits to set: the variety and volume of media visits to set during filming is determined by a range of factors and in some instances, it is not practical or appropriate. In television it is not uncommon for a drama to go to air while it is still in post-production and given the condensed time frame, media visits to set help build awareness prior to the launch of the show. The timelines can be very fluid and it can mean that delivery is very rushed, so it helps to have an agreed schedule for publicity materials as well as other delivery items. Each project is different but where possible I try to keep media visits to set brief and to a minimum and ensure that there is as little disruption to filming as possible. Media usually require short interviews with cast while on set and I try to identify the best days in the shoot schedule to accommodate media without demanding to much of the actors or assistant directors. There was intense media interest in Howzat and most of the key TV press visited the set. The cast and crew were very good-humoured about it all, especially Lachy Hulme (Kerry Packer) who the media were most interested in! Lachy always found a few minutes in his very demanding schedule to do publicity.

Intense media interest in Lachy Hulme’s performance as Kerry Packer in HOWZAT helped to generate buzz. Photo: Natasha Blankfield.

In my time working in the industry, the most exciting changes to PR for film have been…. Probably digitisation and the evolution of online and social media. While a distributor or TV network might ultimately market a screen project, now everyone can help build awareness of a film or TV show for social media, especially the cast. Starting with candid Instagram pictures that cast and crew Tweet from the set, to unveiling the official website and launching the trailer online – it all helps. But you need to be strategic about it and have someone coordinating it all. Discuss this with your distributor and decide who will be leading this early as there needs to be a cohesive online presence, one official Twitter account and one Facebook page.

In my time working in the industry, the most disturbing changes to PR for film have been…. The consolidation of the media industry. While digital has brought amazing opportunities and new channels, especially through online and social media, it has also seen the rise of “shared content”. I think it is a great shame that newspapers around the country are merging and as result there are fewer opportunities to reach audiences.

Thanks for your time, Sarah and for sharing these great examples! You can also follow Sarah on Twitter at @SarahLFinney.

Next fortnight’s PR Spotlight will be Screen Australia’s Media and Public Affairs Manager, Teri Calder, and following that, veteran Australian publicist Catherine Lavelle, managing director and founder of boutique PR agency CLPR. If you’re a screen publicist and an AACTA member interested in contributing, please email editor@afi.org.au

*The 15 chapters within the Australian Academy of Cinema & Television Arts are: Actors, Animation, Cinematographers, Composers, Costume Designers, Directors, Editors, Executives, Hair & Makeup Artists, Media & Public Relations, Producers, Production Designers, Screenwriters, Sound, and Visual & Special Effects. More information on membership and chapter allocation can be found here on the AACTA website.)

“What I wish you knew…”: Top tips from Australian film and TV publicists – Part 1

If you work in the Australian film and television industry you already know how essential it is to find an audience for your work. It’s a matter of survival! But when there are limited funds to actually produce the films and television programs, often made on the proverbial smell of an oily rag, there’s very little left over for marketing, advertising and publicity.

A lack of funds is no excuse for poor planning, leaving things to the last minute or simply hoping for the best, according to publicists within AACTA’s Media and Public Relations (PR) chapter. In fact, there’s a lot that can be done strategically and cheaply to improve your chances of breaking through the information overload and finding the right audience for your stories, according to our publicists, and there are some very common mistakes you can avoid.

The Media and PR chapter is one of the 15 chapters of accredited screen professionals which constitute the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.* This Media and PR chapter encompasses A-list agents, film writers, critics, marketing specialists and publicists. It’s this latter group of publicists that we’re showcasing in this new blog series.

An experienced publicist knows how to target the right media for the right product, providing information and story angles on your film or television program, so that journalists, commentators and opinion-makers can talk about it through their own channels, whether these are print, online, radio or television. This involves careful planning, often many months ahead of a film’s release or a television show’s broadcast.

A publicist’s mailing list is gold. He or she (though in Australia at least, it’s more likely to be ‘she’) will make sure your press release finds its way to the right inboxes; that your beautiful key art, stills photography and behind-the-scenes videos are seen and reproduced in all the right places.

A publicist’s work might involve the following tasks: offering and organising the media’s interviews with lead actors, writers or directors;  organising set visits for industry journalists to get the inside story on ‘the making of’ a production; setting up promotional word-of-mouth preview screenings; coordinating a social media strategy combining Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Pinterest; and a host of other activities aimed at getting the word out.

A good publicist is an informed, resourceful and trusted colleague – not just for their clients, but for members of the media who are always searching for good stories, clear and engaging photos or film clips, and access to quick facts. A good film or television publicist actually loves good film and good television, and though they’re paid to find the good aspects of a production, they’ll try to work with things they love and believe in.  In our experience, there are many such people working with admirable dedication within the Australian screen industry to keep the media engaged in our products.

No matter how well-connected, persuasive and organised a publicist may be, they can’t make the media like your product if it’s lacking in appeal, but they can give it a red hot chance of being seen and being considered for its news and entertainment value.

In this ongoing series, we’ll highlight the skills and expertise of publicists within our AACTA membership, inviting them to share tips, tricks and insights borne of long experience in our particular industry. We’ll also ask these publicists to name some of the frequent frustrations they encounter in the line of duty, in order to better assist our filmmakers to promote their work.

Louise Heseltine

Louise Heseltine

First up is Louise Heseltine, who has worked in PR for over 10 years in Australia and overseas, including implementing campaigns for the Melbourne International Film Festival, Melbourne Queer Film Festival, St Kilda Film Festival, AFI Awards, IF Awards as well as some of Australia’s most well known producers, directors and productions, including The Slap, The Straits, Bogan Pride, Rogue, Matching Jack, Last Dance, Em4Jay, Jerrycan and Saved. Louise has worked at the 2005 and 2009 Toronto International Film Festival,  2012 Sundance Film Festival and is currently working in Los Angeles, where she’s worked with Stan Lee, Robert Evans, independent filmmaker Bert Marcus, the Gersh Agency and the American Film Institute.

We asked Louise to complete these sentences, and if there’s one take-away message from her answers, it’s to start your campaign as early as possible – something she notes is done far better in the US, where publicity starts as soon as a project is announced.

The best kinds of publicity for an Australian film/and or Television show are … Early publicity! There are several millions of people you need to reach out to, to let them know your film exists and why they should go see it and you can’t do that in a week.  The more time the better.  I currently work in the US where PR campaigns start as early as 12 months ahead, so by the time the film hits the theaters, everyone is aware of the film.

The most effective thing a film producer/film director can do to help sell their film to local audiences is…. Again, start early! Even if it’s just through social media with a Facebook page at pre-production stage with casting announcements.  You need to start raising awareness and interest as early as possible so you can build and grow your audience through the various stages of production, post production, festival screenings and then finally theatrical release. It’s also really important to know and understand who your audience is.  Clients always want the big articles in mainstream newspapers or interviews on commercial radio/TV, but if they are not your audience then readers/listeners are not going to be interested and it’s a wasted opportunity.

The most important thing for a distributor or exhibitor to consider when publicising an Australian film is… I think the approach to PR should be a lot more strategic when it comes to promoting Australian films.  There are a few distributors out there who know this and are fantastic at utilising PR.  Australian films don’t have the P&A [Publicity and Advertising] budgets that US films do, so you can’t just rely on interviews and reviews to run in the week of release. So much more can be done.  People need to remember PR isn’t just about media coverage. This is especially important to consider when TV shows and films are distributed differently through online or VOD platforms.  There is still a place for traditional PR, but room needs to be made for more innovative methods.

If there’s one mistake that gets made when it comes to publicity for Australian films it’s… Waiting until one-to-two weeks before the film is released to start raising awareness. When competing against blockbuster films which have massive budgets, films with smaller budgets need to start early in order to ensure awareness is raised.  There is often a fear that if you start too early, people become fatigued by the time the film is released in cinemas.  This is not true – if the campaign is implemented strategically, people will be waiting in anticipation for the film to be released.

As a publicist, I wish my clients would… Put more emphasis on PR. PR is often a last resort if there is leftover money in the budget.  In the US, PR is the first thing people think about and the campaign starts from the moment a project gets announced in the trades. Again, PR is not just about securing interviews/reviews – a strategic publicist can be brought on from day one to create and manage social media, the website, producing press materials, media meet-and-greets with key cast and crew, managing teaser clips or behind the scenes footage… and so much more. I remember watching online the audition tapes for Red Dog [which were released on social media] about 6 months before the film was released – so simple, yet so engaging. (See below.)

As a publicist, the aspect of my job which gives me the most joy is… Allowing me to work directly with creative people who constantly inspire me.

One of my favourite campaigns for an Australian film or TV show was…. That’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is! I loved all my clients and their projects, but if I have to single one out I would have to say The Slap.  We worked with the ABC and Matchbox Pictures (who lead the team behind The Slap and who are so innovative and creative)  to come up with PR ideas that fell outside the square.  For example, premiering the first two episodes at MIFF and generating that early buzz.  Matchbox Pictures are also one of the loveliest groups of people to work with – always a bonus!

A favourite campaign of Louise Heseltine’s – THE SLAP. The first two episodes premiered to great buzz at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival.

My other top tips are…  Make use of social media; it allows you to directly speak with your target demographic and start building an audience from an early stage.  A social media campaign does, however, need to be implemented strategically and consistently.  Updating your Facebook status once a month is not enough. I think people become afraid that if they are engaging in social media more than once a week it, then people get annoyed.  People get annoyed if you are bombarding them with useless or repetitious information, but if the interaction is newsworthy, informative and engaging, then people won’t ‘unlike’ and you will only grow your audience.

My other tip is good, strong, clear, light images.  The more the better! So many times we arrange reviews and interviews and then when it comes to supplying the media with images, we are given dark, blurry or non-descript ones which will never be used. I’ve had journalists say to me that the review was going to be a feature review, but because we didn’t have strong enough images, it became a 200 word capsule review. A picture really can tell 1000 words.

In my time working in the industry, the most exciting changes to PR for film and television have been….  The move towards online and social media has been the biggest change in the industry and because it can be so niche, we have the ability to reach out to target audiences directly and this is a huge advantage.  An interview in a major newspaper doesn’t always correlate to ticket sales.  It varies from project to project, but often we have more success when PR runs across targeted online media rather than commercial mainstream media outlets.  You also don’t always have to spend thousands of dollars on mainstream media – a campaign across a smaller outlet can often be much more effective for a fraction of the cost. While I believe there will always a place for traditional PR, people are sourcing information very differently to how they were five years ago and an interview in a major newspaper won’t always correlate to ticket sales.

In my time working in the industry, the most disturbing changes to PR for film and television have been…. The competitive nature of media – it’s all about exclusives and who gets first break. Unfortunately clients don’t often understand why they can’t get coverage to run across all outlets. I also find it very disturbing when you work on a project that is sponsored by one media outlet, and the competing media outlet won’t conduct interviews as a result.  I’ve even had conversations with certain media outlets who will not conduct interviews unless you advertise with them!

Thanks for your time, Louise, and best wishes in LA!

Next week’s PR Spotlight will be on Sarah Finney, who got her start as a teenager on film crews and has worked on everything from Dendy Cinemas’ national campaigns, to the NFSA’s restoration of Wake in Fright, the AFI Awards, the Logies and most recently, Channel Nine/Southern Star’s recent Television drama Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War.

In coming weeks, we’ll be profiling a number of other publicists from within our AACTA membership, including Screen Australia’s Media and Public Affairs Manager, Teri Calder, and veteran Australian publicist Catherine Lavelle, managing director and founder of boutique PR agency CLPR. If you’re a screen publicist and an AACTA member interested in contributing, please email editor@afi.org.au

*The 15 chapters within the Australian Academy of Cinema & Television Arts are: Actors, Animation, Cinematographers, Composers, Costume Designers, Directors, Editors, Executives, Hair & Makeup Artists, Media & Public Relations, Producers, Production Designers, Screenwriters, Sound, and Visual & Special Effects. More information on membership and chapter allocation can be found here on the AACTA website.)

AACTA Member Spotlight: Leah Curtis, Composer

Leah Curtis – Composer

Screen composer Leah Curtis grew up in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, listening to the lilting scales of piano lessons conducted by her mother in the next room. At sixteen, she entered and won the Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year in a national competition run by Shakespeare’s Globe Centre of Australia. After claiming her tremendous prize – a two week study tour through England, and a commission to compose for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra – Curtis turned her ear to film and television music composition.

Over the years, Curtis has worked both in Australia and internationally, on everything from television’s The Simpsons, Seventh Heaven and Jag to feature films including romantic comedy Something Borrowed, horror films One Missed Call and The Cave, dramas like Swimming Upstream and Sophie Scholl: The Final days, as well as a number of short films. She has also been awarded the Fulbright Fellowship, the Queen Elizabeth II Trust Award, the Reg Waite Award, a Composition Fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival and a Hollywood Music Award for her exceptional work in music composition and orchestration.

Now based on the West Coast of the United States, Curtis composes and produces original music soundtracks and scores for film and television, as well as for orchestras, choirs, choreographers, solo artists and game developers.

Despite thorough consultation and research, when it comes to deciding on what music will make the final cut, Curtis ultimately relies on her intuition and instinct. Like many of us, music is what ignites her emotions and unites a film’s images and sounds. Curtis believes music’s elusive but commanding presence is where its greatest power lies – in its unique ability to capture the intangible essence of a film or television story. Curtis’s advice for all those fresh-faced composers out there, still carving their niche, is to never stop learning, adapting or harnessing the inherent possibilities of every scoring or recording session.

Read on for Leah Curtis’s answers to our questions about career choices, working style and aspirations. It’s clear she’s exceptionally gifted, hardworking and never afraid of accepting a challenge.

Leah Curtis is one of our most recent AACTA members. We are proud to have film and television makers of this calibre as a part of the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad. (You can check out our previous AACTA Member Profiles here.)

AFI | AACTA: Can you tell us about your formative years?
Leah Curtis:
I was born in Canberra with two older sisters. Dad was from a farm in the Monaro country and Mum, a piano teacher, was originally from Melbourne.  Our adventures growing up ranged from exploring Namadgi in the bush, to visiting national treasures in the city. Seeing the handwritten scores of Mozart and Beethoven up close at the National Library is one memory that’s stayed with me.

AFI | AACTA: Where are you living now?
Leah Curtis:
I moved to Sydney when I was 18, [then] trained for six months in composing and conducting in the US before moving back to Sydney and graduating in music from UNSW and in screen composing from AFTRS. I then ventured to Los Angeles. I divide my time between recording, mixing and collaborative meetings in LA and composing in a 1920’s craftsman bungalow outside the city, surrounded by towering eucalypts that connect me with home.

Leah Curtis

AFI | AACTA: What do you remember most about your childhood?
Leah Curtis:
Growing up, life was filled with a rigorous routine of orchestra rehearsals and music lessons, with the occasional wild runs with eyes shut through Nakaya’s beautiful Fog sculpture at the National Gallery with my friends. For true escape, the family would set up camp in the bush fishing, or helping my aunts and uncles sheep shearing in the spring. There was a daily soundtrack of piano music at home with Mum’s teaching; a comforting cycle of music every half an hour, starting with scales.

AFI | AACTA: When did you realise that you wanted to be a composer?
Leah Curtis:
I was 16. I was drawn to a competition being run by Shakespeare’s Globe Centre of Australia. There were categories for acting, directing, production design and music composition. With music being central to everything I was, I thought composing would be a lot of fun. I spent my evenings at the piano with manuscript and pencil in hand. I dived into composing straight after Mum’s last piano student had left, creating music that swept through the drama of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing. I harnessed the energy of my friends to perform my new works and entered the competition.

The result of my first composition was a two-week study tour of England as Young Shakespearean Artist of the Year, and a commission to compose for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It was more than my 16-year-old self could have imagined.

England was a brilliant, adventurous and rewarding experience. I travelled with four equally excited Australian teenagers taking in nightly theatre in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon. Too excited to sleep en-route, we were led up to the cockpit to talk with the pilots and see the lights of India below.

For me, at 16, composing meant hours at the piano lost in the music, the challenge of bringing stories to life through music, sifting through whatever books I could find on instrument ranges and techniques, working with incredible musicians, and adventurous international travel. I needed to take a chance on this.

AFI | AACTA: What project did you cut your teeth on, metaphorically speaking?
Leah Curtis:
I think the teeth cutting continues.  Every project teaches me something new. Every film needs its sound uncovered from nothing.

To Rest in Peace, an American Kuwaiti war film by director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, was the first recording session I conducted at Capitol Studios. It was also the first time that I felt truly confident and relaxed leading and conducting everyone through the complexities of the score while still being completely immersed in and focused on leading the recording. It was exhilarating and honestly, for me, the most incredible part of the whole process. Both the score and the film have gone on to do well at Dubai, the Cannes American Pavilion, and won the HMMA for Best Song. It was also a very rewarding creative composer-director collaboration. The director and I were both aware of our creative process as the scored developed and as the film took shape.

Leah Curtis with the scoring team for TO REST IN PEACE at Capitol Studios

When I first arrived in LA, I took on an internship with composer Alf Clausen on The Simpsons.  Being involved in the weekly spotting and scoring sessions at Fox’s Newman Scoring Stage was an invaluable insight into the protocol and the complexities of the specific roles that exist across large film music teams. This was in direct contrast to my Australian experience, where smaller teams need to be more flexible, multitasking across the board. I gained a deep respect for the psychology behind conducting and rehearsing an orchestra through the recording process, and the leadership choices involved. This experience has greatly impacted and informed the way I now approach conducting and leading recording sessions.

Over the years, I’ve orchestrated for some exceptional international composers, requiring me to delve into the intricacies of their music, including Alex Wurman (composer of Anchorman, Something Borrowed and March of the Penguins) Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil (composers of Sophie Scholl, The International and Run Lola Run).

AFI | AACTA: What does a typical working day entail for you?
Leah Curtis: When I’m in full composing mode, I have long days of writing. It is intensive and focused and I’m fully absorbed by the music. The success of this time is largely determined by the depth of research and immersion that has come before it.

By this stage, I have already developed a core musical language for the film consisting of authentic musical resonances (these might be rhythms, harmonic progressions, textures, tonal qualities, or sonic spaces) that have come from intense sketching, research, immersion in the screenplay and time exploring the vision with the director.

From here, I endeavour to take creative risks to make a score truly unique, and an authentic part of the film. I keep referring back to our original ideas as I approach major scoring decisions.

My long days composing are sustained with some yoga or a dance class so I can completely disconnect and recharge. I upload progressive drafts for the director and editor, and we check in with each other. Otherwise I’m in meetings, researching, sketching and working with the music contractor and making sure all of the details that go into preparing an original score come together.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you find inspiration for your compositions?
Leah Curtis: Inspiration can come from anywhere – a memory, a fabric, the rhythm of a character’s dialogue, the visual rhythms of the film, the quality of light, a vivid colour, a facial expression, or simply delving into the subtext of a scene that might not yet be fully present. Anything can spark an idea. I rely on my own strong internal criticism and judgment to determine if an idea resonates.

For the short film Exitus Roma, the director shared rich historical accounts of the fall of Rome in 410AD. These intense, beautiful and sometimes poetic descriptions sparked musical approaches. I sought out specific Ancient Roman instruments for the score and was informed by the gravitas of the epic time.

For the war drama To Rest in Peace, I discovered an American ethnomusicologist, who is a fellow Fulbright scholar based in Kuwait. She documents, researches and collects local music – such incredibly detailed work. She opened up a rich and authentic window into the world of Kuwaiti and Arabic music. Reaching out and connecting with colleagues such as this is a treasured part of my role as composer.

I often write specifically for the musicians I contract and their own unique abilities. Each player brings inspiration as I write with them in mind.

Leah Curtis finding inspiration in Park City

AFI | AACTA: Can you describe your creative process?
Leah Curtis: I’m very aware of the creative process. Over time, I’ve come to recognise specific moments as key milestones, and feel that I can sense when to forge ahead or when we need to dig deeper or look further before moving onto the next step.

The overarching stages for a score are: research and immersion; core musical idea development; spotting with the director and sound team; composing; rewriting; orchestration; and preparing for recording; scoring session; conducting; and mixing.

On some films, such as Damien Power’s A Burning Thing and Sophia Savage’s Empyrean I’ve continued to compose the music after having specific isolated instrumental recording sessions. I adapted this process to achieve the separation of sounds and a level of control to finely craft these scores. Some projects go straight from recording to mixing, so this is quite a different approach adapting to the needs of the film and the collaboration.

The first part of the composing process is being quite precious about the very first read through of the screenplay and capturing those immediate instinctual reactions, as this is the only time you experience the story without knowing what will happen next.

From here, I delve into research, historical and musical references and begin to develop a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the story and its subtext.

One of the key moments in developing the score is unlocking the sound of the film.  From this point onwards, everything makes sense and starts to flow. That is why the research and immersion prior to this point is so essential.

I find that leaving some space at the end of the research phase helps everything I’ve explored and absorbed make sense in a new way. It now resonates closely with me and in the context of the film. This is probably the most difficult part of the process. You trust that this balance of immersion and distance will lead to the right material.  To do it well you remain open and somewhat vulnerable. It’s often in those moments when I have some distance from the work that core ideas arrive.

AFI | AACTA: When do you know youve got it right? Do mood and momentum play a big part in your final pieces?
Leah Curtis: There’s a pivotal moment in scoring when the relationship between the film and music transforms. It is when you take a deep breath, lean back, and spontaneously respond to the film. It’s when you’re brought fully into the picture. This connection might be through laughter or awe or tears, but you can sense it deeply. Even though you’ve seen the same scene many times, this time for some reason it is different.  It’s when it no longer feels as though the images are separate but that they are part of a whole and you are now somehow within it.

Leah Curtis with the scoring team of TO REST IN PEACE at Capitol Studios

AFI | AACTA: Youve worked on everything from Something Borrowed, One Missed Call, The Cave, Swimming Upstream, Sophie Scholl: The Last Days, To Rest in Peace and Exitus Roma. Whats it like working across film, television and shorts? Do you find yourself adapting your work processes to suit the different mediums?
Leah Curtis: Television production operates in fast weekly cycles and the musical language is something that is developed ahead of time. Film tends to have a longer creative arc in process, often starting with musical considerations and sketches in pre-production. Every project has a similar sequence in development that is adapted and tweaked to suit the creative and technical demands of the project. My roles on these projects have ranged from music preparation, orchestrator, and assisting the composer through to scoring and conducting. It has been terrific to work my way up through all of these key roles to the composer/conductor chair.

AFI | AACTA: Is there a significant difference in the way that you work when you are working on an Australian independent feature in comparison to a more commercial Hollywood blockbuster?
Leah Curtis:
I approach every film with the same two questions. Firstly, what would be the best possible creative solution for this film (without any budget or logistical considerations)?  Then, and only then, what are our resources and constraints and how can we produce this score as close as possible to our vision? Creativity first in concept, then in execution.

My work on large Hollywood productions has so far been as orchestrator. The challenges for this role include dealing with large orchestral recording sessions and extensive scores, and making sure the music perfectly represent the composer’s vision. It’s an incredible thrill helping to bring it all together.

When I approach Australian independent projects, I’m encouraged and inspired to bring a sense of stylistic freedom to the music that mirrors the essence of the other filmmaking elements.  As composers, we can bring this same level of originality and diversity to the score as other departments do with their own contributions. The greatest challenge and most brilliant opportunity here is working without a prescriptive sound. Unlike Hollywood projects, which can sometimes expect certain genres to conform to pre-existing musical conventions, independent Australian films offer the opportunity to be original and pioneer approaches in developing a score that parallels the originality and thoughtfulness of an independent cinema that is unburdened by a large studio system. I think Australian composers are finding more strength and courage in their stylistic approaches to soundtracks. With active scoring stages and more frequent sessions occurring across the country we no longer have to reinvent the process every time a film score is produced. The momentum behind local talent, support and experience is building.

Composing the score for Damien Power’s A Burning Thing led us to this somewhat unbridled approach, exploring Australian 80’s rock and Indie-folk music and working out how these particular sounds could permeate the film and help carry the narrative.

Leah Curtis coaching singer Teri Reeves on the set of EXITUS ROMA

AFI | AACTA: What are some of the ways you have refined your skills and changed your working methods over the course of your career?
Leah Curtis: I now have a greater awareness of the musical possibilities that are available at different stages of the scoring and filming process. I love guiding directors through the music process and working with them to find an approach that will work perfectly for the film. I relish conducting musicians on the scoring stage and having to think on my feet. I also feel like I now have a sense of how to execute and when a break is needed and how to offer my collaborators enough direction, space and trust for them to produce their own best work.

I love that I’m thrown new musical challenges regularly. Recently, for Exitus Roma, I wrote a song based on a stunning Classical Latin poem by the Emperor Hadrian from the end of his life. I coached Teri Reeves (from NBC’s Chicago Fire) to sing on camera, in a boat in a massive water tank for our overnight shoot. It was freezing and exhilarating bringing the music to life under the stars, and wonderfully unique to be a part of production.

Leah Curtis supervising the overnight water tank shoot on EXITUS ROMA

AFI | AACTA: Is the craft of screen composing becoming more difficult with the cheapness and prevalence of electronic sound banks and pre-recorded music? Are composers often considered an unnecessary expense for low budget projects?
Leah Curtis: Music can bring so much to a film.  For lower budget projects, and any film really, music can be the element that ties the film together, creating unity. Music connects the audience with the story in a way that is unique and direct, you feel and sense it but don’t necessarily hear it. It’s almost subliminal.

For me, authentic instrumentation is critical at every budget range. I don’t believe you can essentially emulate everything a live player can bring electronically, and working with live players who’ve invested themselves fully in that instrument will always create a more direct human connection and add to the production value of the film, even at the lowest budgets and with a single player. I’ll absolutely use electronic instruments for their own sake and make creative choices that embody the right sound for the world of the film as a whole.

The cinematic combination of music and image is powerful.  That is why temp music (temporary music that is used in editing or as a stylistic placeholder in the edit) is something that needs to be carefully considered in its use, and particularly in exposing the composer to it while they are developing their own ideas, as it can [detrimentally] influence creative outcomes and possibilities.

AFI | AACTA: Can you talk about the qualities a screen composer can bring to a project apart from original music?
Leah Curtis: The composer/director relationship is unique in film. There are many parallels between our roles. The director leads the actors on set, while we lead musicians on the scoring stage. It’s a very similar process, a different expression of the same story. I’ve often found that the language and vision the director shares with the actors effectively connects and resonates with the musicians.

The composer opens up another, potentially very powerful avenue with which to tell the story. A truly great score is able to evoke the essence of the film and reveal the subtleties of its message, even when it is experienced without picture.

AFI | AACTA: Are there particular directors, producers and editors that you like working with?
Leah Curtis: I’ve loved working with directors and producers from vastly different backgrounds. These include Australian (recently Damien Power and producer Joe Weatherstone), Indian, American and Kuwaiti (multiple projects with Fawaz Al-Matrouk) directors. LA draws directors from all over the world. It has been an enriching and diverse experience working here, yet I am excited by the possibilities inherent in creating independent Australian film and the demands that are unique to home. I hope that the international demands I’ve been exposed to will give me an awareness and openness with which to approach productions from home.

My musical collaborations have been significant and are a major reward for the work I do. Recently, I worked with Lisbeth Scott who is the featured vocalist for two title tracks of my film projects, one in Latin, the other in Arabic.  Lisbeth is the voice on Narnia, Munich, Avatar, Iron Man 2 and so many other stand out films.

AFI | AACTA: Over the years youve won the Fulbright Fellowship, the Queen Elizabeth II Trust Award, the Reg Waite Award, a Composition Fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival and a Hollywood Music Award. How does it feel to receive such widespread recognition for your craft?
Leah Curtis: Each of these Awards has helped me significantly at different stages along the way. They’ve enabled me to spend precious time at USC’s film music department, being part of the Aspen Music Festival and mentored by leading figures in film music. Each one has also helped me connect with similarly aligned colleagues, or be reached and challenged by new collaborators. They have also provided me with the encouragement required to keep moving forward in what is an unpredictable and challenging industry. My role requires the synthesis of so many different skills (musical, creative, technical, diplomatic and dramatic).

AFI | AACTA: Do you think this recognition has assisted you in obtaining new projects?
Leah Curtis: The recognition from my peers in the US and Australia has encouraged me to keep taking creative risks in my work. It has given me a sense of passing through the different milestones along the way and allowed my work to reach new audiences and filmmakers for which I’m grateful. When conducting the last note on the scoring stage, particularly after you’ve existed inside the world of the project for so long, it is often hard to gain perspective on what you’ve created.  This external response can shed light, a different perspective, on what it is that you’ve created and how people connect with it. Frequently, this connection is with filmmakers who then become my next collaborators.

AFI | AACTA: What have been some of the biggest hurdles youve faced during your career? What have been the highlights?
Leah Curtis: To write film music you need an incredibly vast skill set – to be able to compose, conduct and produce scoring sessions. You also need to be able to collaborate and align your vision with that of the director’s while still taking creative musical risks. You need to be able to intelligently break down the story’s drama and subtext and do all of this within a set deadline and budget. There are many things to master. Identifying all of these and tackling each hurdle has been a challenging and exhilarating ride. I know that if something scares or intimidates me, then it’s a good indication that I need to get in there and try it or learn it. So far, I’ve come out relatively unscathed.

Leach Curtis conducting the Orchestra at Fox Studios in Los Angeles

The biggest highlights thus far would have to be conducting my debut scoring session at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, studying with John Corigliano in Aspen and all the challenging work and creative collaborations with different directors. The biggest thrill for each project is often the scoring session, being able to work with world class musicians whom I’ve admired growing up, and working with the director through this as it all comes together.

One of my biggest highlights and milestones was receiving the Fulbright Scholarship, as so much has come from this: Aspen, USC, presenting at Screen in Scotland and at Music and the Moving Image in New York. I’m very grateful for all of the wonderful opportunities that it has provided.

AFI | AACTA: Can you name three mentors or people who have inspired and nurtured your creativity over the years?
Leah Curtis: I’ve long admired the Oscar and Pultizer prize winner John Corigliano for his music style and approach. I strongly identify with his fluid integration of contemporary classical and film music (The Red Violin, Altered States). My first Fulbright goal was answered when I was accepted to study with him at the Aspen Music Festival. By watching his films with him, and having him critique my own scores he has greatly influenced my work.

I am also very grateful to the Australian composer Christopher Gordon (Master and Commander, Maos Last Dancer) for giving me my very first film music department role in On The Beach. He has been an open and generous trailblazer, helping lead the way for film scoring in Australia, and has taught me so much over the years by inviting me to scoring sessions in Sydney and Los Angeles.

Gary McPherson, now Director of the Melbourne Conservatorium, sat next to me when I had my piece performed by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra at 16. He encouraged me to study music and has been a terrific mentor guiding from a distance over many years.

Two of my high school teachers, Manette Johnson and Muriel Hilson, who were fiercely intelligent and visionary, were also critical in informing my early experiences of literature and art. Every musician who plays one of my scores offers me something new in their playing and helps guide how I write. Of particular mention is the contemporary flautist Kathleen Gallagher.

AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming Australian musicians and composers wanting to break into the industry?
Leah Curtis: Be open and easy to get along with. Take creative risks, be willing to learn and be challenged. One piece of specific advice would be to really understand the possibilities inherent in every recording. This is a critical step in the overall process. It requires a strong vision and a smart use of resources to create the best possible score. This is where creative ideas really manifest. Enter the session prepared, be confident and open, and leave with a score that is perfect for that film.

AFI | AACTA: What is your all-time favourite Australian film or television series? Why?
Leah Curtis: I’m drawn to Australian films that have tapped into the subtleties of our sense of people and place. Oscar and Lucinda is a film that has stayed with me. Cate Blanchett’s approach to character (in whatever she is in) and Gillian Armstrong’s direction have inspired me greatly. I also love the emotional intensity of Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. I am very excited that colleagues in the US and abroad are now anticipating new Australian films and taking notice of the unique perspectives that we have to offer.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your time and for sharing so generously about the process and craft of your work.

Other links

Leah Curtis’s Official Website:

Previous AACTA Member Profiles are here.

AACTA Member Spotlight: Nikki Gooley – Hair & Make-Up Artist

Hair and Make-up Artist, Nikki Gooley

Nikki Gooley is a Sydney-sider from way back. She was first inspired to experiment with elaborate hair and make-up designs when, as a teenager, she attended Dawn Swane’s theatrical make-up workshop for City Road Youth. Despite dousing her Red Setter in talcum powder and removing the eyelashes of her favourite doll, Gooley’s flair and finesse shone through, and now she transforms the faces of many a famous actor in such productions as: Spider and Rose, Dance Academy, The Matrix, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, X-Men and most recently, The Sapphires.

Gooley was nominated for an Academy Award for Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith in 2006 and in the same year won a BAFTA for her outstanding work on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Gooley is an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Honorary Councillor for our Hair & Make-Up Design Chapter. She is a strong advocate for her craft and is currently campaigning to have a Hair & Make-Up Award introduced into the AACTA Awards, to formally recognise the high level of skill and talent involved.

Gooley is also a firm believer in the medium of film and its unique ability to capture the subtleties of skin texture, shadow and light.  She describes herself as an artist who likes to build up a “look” by embellishing what is already there rather than having to scale back prosthesis. When asked what advice she’d give emerging artists she adamantly states: “Look at the big picture. It’s not just about applying a bit of lippy!”

Read on for more insight into Gooley’s career choices, her working style and inspirations. It is evident that she’s exceptionally hardworking and never afraid of accepting a challenge. Her answers also provide great insight into the highs and lows or the less salubrious side of working in Hair and Make-Up Design.

Nikki Gooley is one of our highly regarded AACTA members. We are proud to have film and television makers of this calibre as a part of the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad. (You can check out our previous AACTA Member Profiles here.)

AFI | AACTA: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Nikki Gooley:
I was born in Sydney and grew up in the inner west.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you live now?
Nikki Gooley:
I’m in Sydney now but I’ve also spent a number of years living in London.

AFI | AACTA: What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Nikki Gooley:
Vivid childhood memory? There are so many, argh where do I begin? Covering my dog – a Red Setter in talcum powder from head to toe so he was white not red. Pulling out my doll’s eyelashes and crying because they wouldn’t grow back!

AFI | AACTA: At what point did you know that you wanted to be a hair & make-up artist and how did you go about realising it?
Nikki Gooley:
While I was in high school I was a part of a youth theatre group called City Road Youth Theatre. During the school holidays, we attended workshops in everything from lighting to costume design. One of them was a theatrical makeup class and a student from Dawn Swane’s Theatrical Make-Up Workshop came and did some demos. I was hooked from that moment on.

I went to school with the actress Joy Smithers, and I think I got inspired by our conversations and dreams about working with the fashion make-up artist Smilka, who we both admired. I left school and did a fine arts diploma. I then went onto Dawn Swane’s Three Arts Makeup School.

AFI | AACTA: What was your first major project?
Nikki Gooley:
My first film was a low budget film called Unfinished Business, directed by Bob Ellis and shot by Andrew Lesnie. It was so much fun! Another great creative job was P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan.

AFI | AACTA: As an established hair and make-up supervisor, do you still perform hands on work or is it more high-concept work and overseeing a team of artists?
Nikki Gooley:
Yes, I am very hands on, as hands on as I can be. Sometimes it just isn’t feasible, but if I am given the time, I like to be as practically involved as possible.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you find inspiration for your designs? Can you describe your creative process?
Nikki Gooley:
Inspiration is everywhere. I usually draw on things from other design areas, for example production design, colours, magazines, art galleries and landscapes. If time allows, I put a style book together, or mood boards to add textures, colours and hair shapes, etc.


AFI | AACTA: What does a typical working day on set, for instance on a high concept project like Narnia, entail for you?

Nikki Gooley: A typical day starts very early and I begin working on the lead actor, applying their make-up, wigs, facial hair or picking the crust out of their sleepy eyes! It is all very glamorous! I have breakfast and then it’s onto the set. On really busy jobs you can sometimes be in the make-up bus for hours. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of de-rigging, cleaning and plotting the next day. It can be a very late finish. The Make-Up Department relies heavily on the strength and co-ordination of the Art Direction Department.

AFI | AACTA: What was the brief you were given for the hair and make-up on The Sapphires?
Nikki Gooley: The Sapphires
was an extraordinary film to be a part of. Director Wayne Blair wanted the girls (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell) to stay true to who they were in terms of realising their characters’ personas. They wouldn’t be living on a mission looking like Beyonce so I used very little make-up on them to begin with. Not even mascara, I had to keep them looking youthful and fresh. I increased their performance make-up and threw on some hair pieces as they matured and went to Melbourne for their audition. The fashion of the time was varied so not everyone would have had the latest Vogue look – much the same as today. We added extra hair pieces to Cynthia’s character (Miranda Tapsell) because she was the one who thought she would be famous! At the end when the girls perform for their family, I kept it fresh again, even though their lives had changed forever.

‘Staying true to the characters’ personas’ – the hair and make-up for the four leading ladies of THE SAPPHIRES evolved as they did.

Nikki on the set of THE SAPPHIRES

AFI | AACTA: I can imagine that you are often called upon by friends and family to assist in creating the perfect costume for dress up parties?
Nikki Gooley:
Yes, family and friends love having their hair and make-up done … Kid’s fancy dress etc.  It’s a big pressure – sometimes they can be your biggest critics!

AFI | AACTA: What are some of the ways you have refined your skills and changed your working methods over the course of your career?
Nikki Gooley:
I don’t like fuss and I try and let looks grow, build things up rather than dismantling a look.  I learn something new on every job. There are always new products to experiment with, and because technology has changed – less being shot on film now and more on HD – it’s a constant trial, finding what products work and how they behave under lights and on the skin. I try to work with the skin and not cover it up too much.

AFI | AACTA: What aspects do you enjoy most about your work? What are the challenges?
Nikki Gooley:
The Sapphires was shot on film which was so beautiful. I think no matter how good the technology is, nothing will replace the layers of texture and lighting or the subtlety of hair and make-up that you get on film. There’s a richness that I just don’t see on HD.

There are always challenges, so many actually. All the little things that are needed to help an actor prepare and bring their character to life. It can be anything from ensuring that a nose hair stays in the same spot every day, or that hair colours are maintained or repaired, to continuity challenges like wind, rain and humidity. Then there’s dealing with make-up that won’t sit on the skin properly, or insecure wigs, kids with missing teeth, people with hangovers and directors who don’t know what they want, or simply a lot of people having a solution to a hair issue when they know nothing about hair! These are just some of the things that you come up against as a hair and make-up artist.

You’ve worked on everything from Spider and Rose and Dance Academy to The Matrix, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, X-Men and The Sapphires. How do you go about choosing a project to work on? What are the most important elements for you?
Nikki Gooley:
I look for projects that have an obvious design challenge – for example completely changing someone’s look  to tell a really fabulous story or negotiating new cultural challenges. I also like to know who the director, producer, cast and crew of a film are when I am contemplating accepting a job. I would love to be able to say that I only look at film’s story, director, cast and the types of make-up challenges offered but I also have a young family to consider, so they play a significant role as well.

AFI | AACTA: Are there particular directors, producers and make-up people that you like to work with?
Nikki Gooley:
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some of the finest people in the industry both here, in Australia, and overseas.

Once I read the script of The Sapphires, I HAD to do it! Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson had written one of the best scripts I’ve read in years.

AFI | AACTA: Is there a significant difference to the way that you work when you are working on local Australian productions in comparison to those bigger budget Hollywood blockbusters?
Nikki Gooley:
The difference between small budget projects and Hollywood blockbusters is the intimacy on set. There are usually so many more people involved in a big budget feature that the creative process can be a little more complicated.

Small budgets make you far more resourceful because you don’t have the same amount of cash to spend. Sometimes this works in your favour because it simplifies a look, but it can also be detrimental because you can’t give a look the same polish.

Nikki Gooley with her BAFTA Award for Best Hair & Make-Up

AFI | AACTA: You were nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 (Best Achievement in Make-Up) for Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and in the same year won the BAFTA Best Hair and Make-Up Award for your work on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. How does it feel to receive such international recognition for your craft?
Nikki Gooley:
Receiving recognition at an international level is really exciting. The awards are voted on by fellow make-up artists so it really is a great honour.

AFI | AACTA: Do awards help in obtaining further work?
Nikki Gooley:
Awards give you recognition and exposure, [and] depending on the size of the industry you work in, it can also determine the amount of future work you will be offered.

AFI | AACTA: You are also an honorary councillor (Hair & Make-Up Chapter) in the newly formed Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). How would you like to contribute to the Australian industry within this role?
Nikki Gooley:
I would like to see an Australian award introduced into the AACTA Awards for Best Make-Up. I will be campaigning on behalf of all of those great make-up artists who work really hard on minimal budgets to produce such great looks and contribute to the whole mood of a film.

Nikki holding her BAFTA Award for Best Hair & Make-Up for THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA

AFI | AACTA: What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced during your career? What have been the highlights? What are you most looking forward to?
Nikki Gooley:
Often, the biggest hurdle for make-up artists is receiving acknowledgement for our craft. It encompasses so much more than just a slap of make-up. It is a subtle, intimate and personal craft but the long hours are back-breaking. Hair and make-up plays a pivotal role in assisting actors to realise their characters, whether it is through simply trimming a mustache or applying lavish prosthetics and wigs, every little bit counts.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to name three people who have inspired or mentored you over the years, who would they be?
Nikki Gooley:
Producer Julia Overton had great faith in me when I was starting out. Patrick McCormack, another producer, and fellow make-up artists, such as Lois Burwell and Dick Smith were also strong influences.

AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming Australian hair and make-up artists wanting to break into the industry?
Nikki Gooley:
Advice … Look at the bigger picture. It’s not just about applying a bit of lippy!

AFI | AACTA: What is your all-time favourite Australian film or television series? Why?
Nikki Gooley:
Favourite Australian film – The Sapphires! – It’s part of our history, an incredible story, told through the eyes of some amazingly talented filmmakers, an Indigenous director, cinematographer and suite of actors. It’s beautiful, rich, funny and real! There are so, so many great stories out there that need to be aired in the mainstream.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks so much for your time and we look forward to working with you in the new Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.

AACTA Member Spotlight: Mandy Walker – Cinematographer

Mandy Walker on the set of AUSTRALIA

Mandy Walker knew she wanted to be a cinematographer from the tender age of 13. It was the only profession that united her deep loves of photography and the cinema so completely. As a child, Walker’s mother nourished her artistic tendencies with trips to the art gallery while her father whetted her appetite for foreign films with regular outings to the State Film Theatre in Melbourne.

Walker now lives and works predominantly in Los Angeles, but over the years she has shot a wide suite of Australian and international content, ranging from feature films to television shows and commercials. Her work includes: Australia, Lantana, Australian Rules, Love Serenade and Shattered Glass and advertisements for big name brands like: Chanel No. 5, Dior, Nike, Bonds, Telstra, Audi and BMW. Walker is enthralled by the collaborative process and loves working alongside talented and inspired directors who push her outside of her comfort zone.

Walker has been nominated and has won multiple awards for her craft both locally and internationally. In 1996, she won the AFI Award for Best Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film for Parklands and in 1997 was nominated for the AFI Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography for The Well.

Still a strong believer in the qualities of film as a capture medium, Walker has also embraced the digital revolution with open arms. When asked what advice she’d give up-and-coming cinematographers, her answer is simple: never stop learning, and be brave. Her favourite period of Australian filmmaking is perhaps indicative of this advice; she cites such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Breaker Morant and Gallipoli. These films had a unique cinematic style that went on to redefine Australian cinema internationally.

Read on for more insight into Walker’s early career moves, her working methods and her inspirations. It’s clear she’s been an incredibly self-motivated professional who’s kept extending her skills. Her answers also give great insight into the way each project can lead on to other opportunities.

Mandy Walker is one of our highly regarded AACTA members. We are proud to have film and television makers of this calibre as a part of the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad.

AFI | AACTA: Whereabouts did you grow up and what impact (if any) do you think this has had on the style of your work?

Mandy Walker: I grew up in Melbourne but I don’t think that it has affected the style of my work. I feel like I’ve been more influenced by photography, art and cinema from all over the world. My mother had taken me to galleries from the age of two, and my father to foreign film screenings at the State Film Theatre, when I was at High School. I do think that growing up in Melbourne has influenced my approach to my work. In general, I find most Australians have a great work ethic. They are quite confident yet humble in their attitude towards work, and working relationships.

AFI | AACTA: Where do you predominantly live and work now?

Mandy Walker: I now live in Los Angeles. Most of the commercial work I do is here in town, with some projects overseas. The movies I have shot have been in Australia, and Canada. However, I did recently shoot a telemovie in Boston.

AFI | AACTA: What is your most vivid childhood memory?

Mandy Walker: The most vivid childhood memories I have are of holidays at Australian beaches with my family.

AFI | AACTA: When did you know that you wanted to be a cinematographer and what training did you undergo?

Mandy Walker: I knew from the age of about 13 that I wanted to become a cinematographer. I had always loved photography and the cinema. So for me it was an obvious choice to combine the two. I had a small black and white darkroom that my father set up for me in the back shed and I made a few Super 8 films at High School. In my final year at Preston Technical College, I studied Cinema Studies.

Eventually, by ringing Film Victoria, and a number of producers shooting films in Melbourne, I got a job as a runner on a feature film. I made everyone on that project aware that all I wanted was to get into the camera department. Through these contacts and working for free as a camera assistant on a couple of documentaries and music videos, I got promoted to being a clapper loader and then focus puller on dramas and documentaries. In about five years, I was shooting small projects myself. Looking back, I’m really glad I moved up this way, as I was able to learn from the cinematographers I was working for and develop my own skills alongside them.

AFI | AACTA: You worked as a camera assistant for seven years before gaining the opportunity to shoot docos and short films. How did you get your first big break as a cinematographer and what was the first major project you cut your teeth on?

Mandy Walker: During my time as a camera assistant, I also shot small music videos and student films for students at Swinburne. This was how I really learnt my craft, by actually lighting and exposing film, trying out different ideas, making mistakes, and discovering what worked and what didn’t. Ray Argall offered me my first big break. At that time, he was a cinematographer on features and a cinematographer/director on music videos and documentaries. I had been working on some of his bigger multi camera set-ups for music videos and live concerts as his focus puller and camera operator. When he was to direct his first feature film Return Home (1990) he asked me to be his Cinematographer. I was only 25 years old at the time. I had learnt a lot from him over the years, and it was a great experience to finally step up to the position to collaborate with him as a director.

Mandy and Baz on the set of AUSTRALIA

AFI | AACTA: What is it about the art of cinematography that particularly excites you? What do you enjoy most about your work? What are the worst or most challenging/tedious aspects of the job?

Mandy Walker: I think what excites me most about my job is that it is full of many varied experiences and challenges. I am constantly having to think of new ways to approach ideas or situations and combine them with a certain style, or invent a new one. The worst part of my job is that I am away a lot from home and family. My parents and my sister and her kids, all my relatives, reside in Melbourne. My husband’s family is in Wollongong.

AFI | AACTA: You have worked on a number of critically acclaimed Australian and international films, among them Australia, Lantana, Australian Rules, Love Serenade and Shattered Glass. How do you go about choosing your projects?

Mandy Walker: I definitely have directors that I really want to work with, and that combined with reading a really great script is how I decide. I also never want to pigeonhole myself with a certain genre so I try to read a lot of different ones.

AFI | AACTA: How much input do you typically have in determining the right “look” of a film and how would you describe the communication process between director and DOP?

Mandy Walker: It really varies depending on the relationship I have with a director. I feel I have to be open and adaptive to this. I would never go into a project and dictate to a director: “this is how the movie should look”. Some directors come to me with a very clear idea of their references or vision, which I then interpret into a visual language. It is my job to figure out how I can achieve the director’s vision cinematically, in collaboration with the director then the art department and costume department.

Mandy on the set of a NIKE commercial

Then there are those directors who come to you with a clear idea of what they want to say in the film, but not a very strong cinematic vision. This process involves searching for and trying out different ideas and reference materials that might appeal to their style of story telling. I will glean [from] art galleries, photography and art books, and other movies to find influential images or scenes that I feel resonate with the story, emotions, and journey of the characters in our film. Depending on the project, this collection of references will vary from one or two key elements to a comprehensive list.

Mandy on the set of AUSTRALIA

For other directors it’s about how we approach shooting the locations we’ve chosen. For example, with Lantana Ray Lawrence wanted to use natural available light as much as possible to capture the atmosphere of particular locations. He did not want the actors to feel restricted so we used the minimum amount of equipment and lighting. In some interior scenes, it was just the actors and a camera in the room. For a cinematographer, this wasn’t easy as I couldn’t control the light. I always shoot tests before we start a main shoot just to make sure that our ideas work.

AFI | AACTA: Australia was a big budget Australian epic and Baz Luhrmann is renowned for captivating audiences with visually spectacular films. Was this film especially difficult to shoot? What were the most important elements for you in choosing how you caught the action on camera?

Mandy Walker: Baz is a very inspiring director, and one who has a clear vision of his movies before he goes into pre-production. He and Catherine Martin are extremely thorough with their visual presentations of ideas early on. Their historic locations, costume and character references are always very well researched. The visual language of their project starts there. Baz then brings on myself and other key crew to collaborate. Australia was sometimes logistically difficult to shoot but with careful planning and execution we ensured that we were well rehearsed and properly crewed. Overall, it was an exciting project for me to be involved in, and a very positive creative experience.

Mandy and Baz Lurhmann on the set of AUSTRALIA

AFI | AACTA: You’ve won and been nominated for multiple cinematography awards both locally and internationally. For example, you won the AFI Award for Best Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film for Parklands in 1996 and were nominated for the AFI Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography for The Well in 1997, as well as being awarded a number of ACS Awards and the Hollywood DOP of the year in 2008. How does it feel to be regarded so highly by your peers for your craftsmanship?

Mandy Walker: I am very proud and appreciative of this acknowledgement and forever grateful to the people who have given me all my opportunities over the years.

AFI | AACTA: You’ve filmed commercials for a number of big name brands (Chanel No. 5, Dior, Nike, Bonds, Telstra, Audi, BMW etc.) and won numerous awards for your work in advertising, including a Bronze Lion at Cannes Advertising Festival and a Clio Silver Cinematography Award. How does filming a commercial differ to a film?

Mandy Walker: I really enjoy commercials as well as films. Commercials are shorter, more intense than a movie, but always varied. I get to work with many different directors and can often try out new gear, film stock, shooting styles and cameras depending on what the job requires. I also enjoy working regularly with a couple of particular directors, who are very talented and inspiring. Steve Rogers is one Australian director that I try to work with regularly, both in Australia and overseas. I have shot most of my best commercial work with him.

Mandy on the set of a MERCEDES commercial

AFI | AACTA: Do you find that you have a greater level of creative freedom to experiment with shooting styles in advertising? Or are you more restricted by branding and/or commercial interests?

Mandy Walker: Again, it really depends on the director and their vision. A director who is talented will be on a project because of their talent. Most agency’s and clients trust them in their execution, and their choice of cinematographer.

AFI | AACTA: What do you think is the greatest challenge or problem facing cinematographers working within the new digital landscape?

Mandy Walker: I think new digital cameras with extra capabilities and an ever increasing workflow is rapidly changing the digital landscape. Cinematographers have to be up to date. We need to consistently be using and testing new technologies to see what the real advantages and disadvantages are.

AFI | AACTA: Do you have a preferred capture medium?

Mandy Walker: It depends on what the project requires. You need to consider what the main objectives and obstacles are; for example, [the need to be] fast and mobile, or shooting in 3D, or the types of lighting required. Basically, I prefer whatever medium best serves the particular “look” that we are trying to achieve. However, I do think that, at this point in time, film is still the most flexible when it comes to creating different looks in-camera. It still has the highest definition, contrast and colour range available, although some HD cameras are now much more sensitive to low light, and are better for night shooting and/or shooting in 3D.

AFI | AACTA: What has been the highlight of your career so far? And is there some other part of filmmaking that you’d still like to try your hand at?

Mandy Walker: The highlights of my career so far would be: being recognised by my peers; being invited into the Cinematographers guild of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; being accredited by the Australian Cinematographers Society and the American Society of Cinematographers; and most recently becoming a member of the Cinematographers Chapter of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.

On the set of RED RIDING HOOD

AFI | AACTA: Can you tell us what you’ve been working on most recently?

Mandy Walker: The last feature I shot was Red Riding Hood. Earlier this year, I also shot a TV movie for ABC America, and since then I have been working on commercials full time.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to name three mentors or sources of inspiration, who would they be?

Mandy Walker: The first would have to be my Cinema Studies teacher at Preston Technical College, Brian Simpson. He introduced to us a whole world of wonderful films, and taught us about the concept of genre, how a director’s cinematic vision can influence the story and create an atmosphere that affects the audience’s experience of the overall film. I still use the movies he showed me when I was 18 as a point of reference for my own ideas.

The second would be Ray Argall for training me in the camera department and giving me the opportunity to shoot his feature length directorial debut. He gave me a strong understanding and appreciation for the collaboration required between a cinematographer and director.

The third would be Jan Chapman. I was orginally involved in working on an episode of her TV series Naked which was directed by Geoffrey Wright. Jan also introduced me to Shirley Barrett and Ray Lawrence whose films I subsequently went on to shoot. She has always been an amazingly positive and collaborative producer and has greatly influenced my career.

AFI | AACTA: Are you often asked to describe what it is like to be a woman and a mother working in the intense and male dominated craft of cinematography? And if so, how do you respond to such a question? Do you resent it?

Mandy on the set of AUSTRALIA

Mandy Walker: I have never looked at this as an issue in my life or career. I have worked as hard as anybody else in my field and between my husband Stuart and I, we have made sure our daughter Ruby is a big part of our lives and is well looked after. As far as being a woman cinematographer, I see no reason why there are not more of us!

AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming cinematographers wanting to break into the industry?

Mandy Walker: I think the most important things are to be dedicated, collaborative, amiable, and willing to try new techniques and equipment. Shoot, try and test the ideas you have, discover what works and what doesn’t. Learn from all of this and be brave. You have to grasp each opportunity and never behave like you know everything because no matter how long you have been shooting there is always something new to learn and discover. At the end of the day, you are there with all the other departments to help tell the film’s story.

AFI | AACTA: What are your all time favourite Australian films or television series?

Mandy Walker: My favourite Australian films are Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, mainly because I love that particular era of Australian filmmaking. For me they are the original representations of an era of Australian cinematic storytelling.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your sharing your time with us.

Are you an AFI | AACTA member? Don’t forget to apply to win one of five signed copies of Australia on Blu-ray by visiting our Giveaways page. Click here to enter.

AACTA Member Spotlight: Jessica Hobbs – Director

Jessica Hobs on set

Jessica Hobbs on set DEVIL’S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

Jessica Hobbs is the director of many hours of groundbreaking, heart-stopping Australian television dramas, and though she grew up in New Zealand, we’re very happy to claim her as one of our own.

First inspired to work in drama, at age fourteen, when she saw Zeffirelli’s interpretation of the great tragedy Romeo and Juliet, Hobbs has gone on to perfect the art of empathetic, honest and affecting direction: from her early work on Heartbreak High through to THAT episode of Love My Way and her most recent outings on Curtin, Spirited, Tangle, My Place and the incredibly popular and AACTA Award-winning television adaptation of The Slap.

Over the years, Jessica Hobbs has won numerous AFI | AACTA Awards for Best Direction in Television and Short Film.* The Slap has also recently been nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best International Television Series. She is currently working on a two part telemovie Devil’s Dust for ABC TV. Spanning the 1970’s to the 2000’s, Devils Dust is a political thriller that deals with asbestos victim Bernie Banton and his courageous fight against James Hardie Industries.

Despite her wonderful credit list and ever-growing stash of nominations and awards, Hobbs still confesses to the odd moment of self-doubt, but believes the key to getting through is to retain your sense of humour, particularly when things don’t go according to plan.

In this interview, Jessica Hobbs talks about the particular challenges and advantages of working in the television medium. She shares her insight into eliciting the best performances from actors, and talks about the importance of a great script. Hobbs is generous with her praise for those who gave her a start and mentored her early steps in the industry and, in turn, she offers some advice for young directors just starting out.

Jessica Hobbs is one of our newly anointed Honorary Councillors for the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) within the Direction Chapter. We are proud to have film and television makers of this calibre as a part of the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad.

AFI | AACTA: You grew up in New Zealand. What was your educational path towards directing as a career – and directing in Australia?

Jessica Hobbs: I always had a strong interest in theatre and film but I didn’t know that directing was an actual career when I was younger. I do remember being shown Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at school when I was 14 and wondering who it was that got to create that world. But the idea of it as a proper job, as a career, that only occurred to me a few years later.

AFI | AACTA: Was directing something you always wanted to do, or a career which you fell into?

Jessica Hobbs: I decided when I was about 19 that I’d like to direct but it was a long time before I felt brave enough to tell people that that was my dream. I started working in the film industry in New Zealand at 21 as an assistant director and then a year or so later, I started making short films.  I spent many years working as an AD (Assistant Director) while trying to develop my directing skills. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started directing full time when Ben Gannon gave me my first big break, directing Heartbreak High. I spent two years directing on the show and it became a bit like a mini film school for me. Every six weeks, I’d get another two hours of story to work on. I loved the directorial process they had on that show. For television at that time, they gave the directors a huge amount of creative freedom.

Jess Hobbs onset DEVIL'S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

Jess on set DEVIL’S DUST, photograph by Matt Temple

AFI | AACTA: You’ve directed numerous television dramas – from Heartbreak High, Love My Way, Tangle and Spirited, to My Place and The Slap. What is it about directing television dramas that particularly appeals to you? What do enjoy least about it?

Jessica Hobbs: I love directing television and I feel that we’ve been very privileged over the last few years to see a big renaissance in the way that television is made. Television allows you the freedom to explore character development and story structure in greater depth over a longer period of time.

The less positive side of working in television is that it is always a race against time and budget constraints. But, I also see friends who are filmmakers having very similar struggles so perhaps the tyranny of trying to balance creativity and economic realities is across both mediums.

AFI | AACTA: In many of the aforementioned series, the characters and storylines are layered, complex and complicated. They often deal sensitively with fraught emotions or the personal intricacies of life’s ups and downs. I can imagine that this sort of subject matter could be quite difficult to direct. How do you go about getting such honest performances out of your actors?

Jessica Hobbs: I spend as much time as possible talking with them about the story and what we are trying to convey to the audience. Then, we break that down into what they feel it is that their characters want and how they are going to go about getting that.

Every actor uses a different methodology to perform. It’s important that I try to understand their way of working so that we can make the most of our time together. Ultimately, it is the actor who is up there on the screen, not the director, so it’s a big process of trust and giving them the freedom and space to try different things.

AFI | AACTA: In my opinion, you were responsible for directing one of the most moving pieces of Australian television history – that heartbreaking, earth shattering moment in Love My Way [spoiler alert!] when Frankie and Charlie’s world is turned upside down with the death of their only daughter. This moment in the series still resonates with its audience to this day. What for you were the most important elements in being able to do justice to such grief onscreen?

Jessica Hobbs: That was a beautifully developed moment by the writers before I even started the directing process. They had the guts to tell the story in that way and to stick with their idea that Lou’s death was just something that happened out of the blue. There would be no accident, no one to blame. In many ways, that spontaneity freed up my directing and made me conscious that I had to try and keep it very simple and real. It needed to feel like it was a real time experience and I think that’s why it made such an impact for the viewers.

Jess with Essie Davis onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

Jess with Essie Davis (Anouk) onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

AFI | AACTA: You recently directed two episodes (‘Anouk’ and ‘Hector’) of the popular Australian mini-series, adapted from the book of the same name, The Slap.  Did you choose to direct these particular episodes/character profiles? If so, why?

Jessica Hobbs: I can be honest now and say yes, I definitely chose Anouk but I initially tried to avoid the Hector episode – [producer] Tony Ayres corralled me into it so I blame him! It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Hector episode just that quite frankly it terrified me.  It was the opening episode of the series and it involved introducing all of the characters and the drama surrounding the slap, itself. I kept trying to off load the episode onto other directors but to no avail. In hindsight, I’m glad Tony pushed me towards it. The project was a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with a brilliant team of directors: Matt Saville, Rob Connolly and Tony Ayres.

AFI | AACTA: You were nominated for your first AFI Award in 2004 (Best Short Fiction Film – So Close to Home) and since then, have twice won the AFI Award for Best Direction in Television – in 2005 for Love My Way, and in 2006 for the two-part drama series about the invasion of East Timor, Answered by Fire. Last year, you were nominated again for the newly named AACTA Award for Best Direction in Television for The Slap. How does it feel and what has it done for your career to be nominated and win these Awards for your craft?

Jessica Hobbs: It was a great sensation to win those AFI awards. It does give you a wonderful feeling of peer recognition. I was immensely proud of both those projects so it was delightful to get the awards. Winning an AFI, or an AACTA as they are now known gave me confidence in my directing style and encouraged me to take more risks in choosing future projects.

Jess with her 2006 AFI Award for Best Direction in Television for ANSWERED BY FIRE

AFI | AACTA: The Slap has just been nominated for a BAFTA Award. Does international recognition feel especially gratifying?

Jessica Hobbs: Well, yes! I think for all of us on The Slap team, it’s been amazing seeing the program being so well received internationally. It has also begun to open up work opportunities for us in the UK.

AFI | AACTA: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career?

Jessica Hobbs: Trying to keep my sense of humour and not become crippled by self-doubt. I guess it is all part of the normal creative process but it can be very hard to cope with at times. Some things work brilliantly and others just don’t. I am finding that managing my emotional responses to all of that is a life long learning process, a bit of an emotional roller coaster.

AFI | AACTA: Is it difficult to maintain a work/life balance as a television director?

Jessica Hobbs: Yes, but I love the work and feel privileged to be able to do it. My children have a more mixed reaction to it but I’m trying to find a better balance for them.

Jess onset of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

Jess on set of THE SLAP, photograph by Ben King

AFI | AACTA: Which part of your job gives you the most joy?

Jessica Hobbs: The creative collaboration with writers, producers, actors, designers, cinematographers, editors – creative collaboration is the best part of the job for me. I adore working with people who push you to produce better work and open you up to all sorts of creative possibilities.

AFI | AACTA: Are there still particular challenges for women in the directing profession? Is there any advice you would give young women trying to get started?

Jessica Hobbs: I think the industry is very open to female directors now. My advice would be the same for anyone, both women and men, look at work that you like and try to work with the teams of people who have made the shows/films that you admire and keep doing your own work.

AFI | AACTA: Are you able to name three mentors who have significantly helped you or influenced you?

Jessica Hobbs: Ben Gannon gave me my first big break and a great piece of advice when I was starting out. He said that if I told the story well then he’d give me more episodes to direct. If it looked great but I didn’t tell the story well then that would be the end of it.

Meeting John Edwards, Claudia Karvan and Jacqueline Perske who all gave me the opportunity to direct Love My Way was momentous for my career. Those three people have had a significant and very positive affect on my directing work.

And Scott Meek [producer and former ABC Head of Drama] is a wonderful mentor to me and has been for many years.

AFI | AACTA: What is your all time favourite Australian film or television program? Why?

Jessica Hobbs: Oh god – picking one?!
Blue Murder for the effect it had on me when I first watched it. I had only just moved to Australia and was mesmerised by it. In terms of features, I still think it would be the experience of watching Samson and Delilah. I sat in the dark and watched in awe.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your sharing your time with us.

* AFI |AACTA Award Nominations and Wins:

2004 AFI Award for Best Short Fiction Film – Nomination
So Close To Home
2005 Won AFI Award for Best Direction in Television
Love My Way, Series 1 – Episode 8, ‘A Different Planet’ (Foxtel)
2006 Won AFI Award for Best Direction in Television
Answered By Fire (ABC)
2011 AACTA Award for Best Direction in Television – Nomination
The Slap – Episode 1, ‘Hector’ (ABC1)