Why I Adore…The Horror of Picnic at Hanging Rock

by Briony Kidd 

I’ve always been interested in ghost stories and the macabre, but it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began to identify as a horror fan. If you’d asked me earlier, at film school, I would have said I was into directors such as Jane Campion, Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch. Big genre names like Carpenter, Craven and Hooper were barely a blip on my cinematic radar. It surprises me now to recall that I didn’t attempt anything in horror back then (although in retrospect, my pretentious first-year film, about a woman who has a nightmare about a wolf, was hinting in that direction).

I wonder how much that stems from a subconscious understanding that horror was a masculine form of expression. Certainly, I was seemingly incapable of recognising that Jane Campion’s The Piano, a film that I admired greatly, could be traced directly back to the Gothic tradition from which so much of the genre is descended.

Perhaps for the same reason, I’d never thought of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its girls in pretty dresses and largely feminine perspective, as a horror film. It was, however, a film I knew had deeply affected me.

I would’ve been about eight when I first saw it and I remember debriefing about it with my sisters and cousins, with that gossipy blend of fear and prurience that might have marked playground discussions about Freddy Krueger’s latest antics. We wondered, Joan Lindsay’s ploy having worked, if it had really happened, and the wondering made it all the more seductive.

I still recall the feeling it evoked in me, and shadows of that initial effect linger when I watch the film today. It’s something visceral, as much a product of the juxtaposition of music and moments of awkward emotion— a scream, a look or a physical gesture— as to do with the story itself (although something similar is achieved through dialogue, with phrases like ‘red cloud’ and ‘in her drawers’ creating an image in the mind’s eye).

The overall effect is difficult to define but I’ll give it a go. It’s a film that evokes a sense of mystery and dread but also a compelling spiritualism. This is most obviously embodied in the subplot incident of Albert being visited by his sister Sara in a dream, his bedroom ‘bright as day’ and smelling of pansies. Why include this hint of a ghost story, or astral projection? It’s off-topic. Sara’s death has nothing to do with the rock directly. I think it’s important because it reinforces the idea of spiritual connections—between people and between people and places—that are beyond life and death. The film suggests connections to Aboriginal mythology in its depiction of the rock as a place of immense power. It explores the White Australian experience of existing on an ancient land while having limited understanding of it, and the potential for that to be both marvellous and terrifying.

And yet, the Aboriginal tracker who appears in one scene barely registers, showing no more likelihood of knowing what the hell is going on than any other man in the search party. This detail, insignificant as it seems, hints that the colonial experience depicted is only a wrapping for the deeper intent of the story, being an exploration of female sexuality and identity.

Is Picnic at Hanging Rock then an example of what is some are these days calling ‘female response horror’?

Okay, the film’s director and screenwriter are both male, but the story’s originator (Joan Lindsay) is not. There’s a tradition of female authors using horror to express their most intimate fears, going back to Mary Shelley and later embodied by the likes of Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. Is Joan Lindsay (and Weir, continuing what she started) part of that continuum?

I’d be interested to know if there’s been much written about either the book or film from a feminist perspective, and there’s still a lot I don’t know about it all—what Joan Lindsay’s life was like, what drew Weir to the material. But for the moment, I’m more interested in where it sits within the frame of genre.

The film is a whirlpool of emotions both primal and complex. It explores sexuality, repression, love, romance, guilt, shame and obsession, using the setting of a girls’ school in 1900 as a sort of laboratory for psychological observation. In this sense it’s a horror as you might so describe Persona — that of the human psyche stripped bare.

The menacing and mysterious Rock

And yet, with its ‘true story’ conceit, slowly building to a horrifying reveal (at the midpoint rather than at the end) and heavy reliance on music, it’s also a horror film in the more literal sense, and we can see how films like Wolf Creek and Lake Mungo have carried on in its ‘metaphysical Australian Gothic’ footsteps.

On still another level, it establishes a sense of its own mythology (as was Lindsay’s intention), so that we feel it’s part of a larger truth. It cleverly evokes a nostalgia that lets us view the story through a lens of memory, so that we almost feel that it’s something we ourselves have experienced and now recall, ‘a dream within a dream’.

All these elements add up to one of the most accomplished examples of psychological horror you’re ever likely to see.

It’s particularly impressive that the lack of ‘answers’ to the mystery depicted doesn’t at all diminish the film’s effect. The Blair Witch Project, another successful horror film in the Picnic tradition, shows that that’s a strategy that still works. Audiences don’t feel cheated if there’s enough else to think about; they feel exhilarated.

But Picnic at Hanging Rock has long since attained the status of a worthy cultural landmark, a shining beacon of the golden age of Australian cinema. Partly for this reason, the image many people have of it is as a period piece with girls floating around in white dresses, all old-fashioned and chocolate-boxy, and basically irrelevant.

I contend that actually watching the film, as opposed to catching glimpses of Miranda’s retreating back in jingoistic montages or in government funding body brochures, puts pay to that view.

What I most love about the film is its stylistic boldness. It’s not a timid film, and it’s not particularly tasteful.

‘Tastefulness’ I define as that constraint which holds artists back, having a sense of what is required, the right gesture at the right time; a sense of nuance and maturity and delicacy. I don’t believe in it, hence my attraction to horror.

Interestingly enough, the psychological horror film, of all horror subgenres, is the one that is supposedly subtle. It’s also the genre that I’m most particularly drawn to. At this point I may be in danger of falling into a rhetorical wormhole of some kind but bear with me.

I think Picnic at Hanging Rock proves that psychological horror has no greater obligation to subtlety than any other kind of horror. It involves less blood and gore—but its ideas, and the impact of them, must be just as shocking. This can’t be achieved without taking artistic risks, and lots of them.

Consider the almost ham-fisted cutting back and forward between a shot of a white swan and a shot of Miranda. That’s symbolism of course, an ‘art-house’ technique. But consider: Michael is cracking up. He’s obsessed with Miranda, he’s fractured by his experience on the rock. He’s having flashes of remembering a girl he only ever saw once in his life and he thinks she’s like a swan. He doesn’t just think once that she’s like a swan, he’s bloody obsessed with it.

‘What some would call profound I say is verging on cheesy…’

What some would call profound I say is verging on cheesy… but I like it. It’s the sort of thing that works in a horror film to show that a character is losing their mind. You can’t be in any doubt about such things you can’t afford to wonder, “Well, is this character happy or sad or what?” You must know what they’re thinking, and if they happen to be thinking something weird and nutty, Well, you know what? I’m just going to show it (so thought Mr Weir).

Neither does the film hold back camera-wise, with its dreamy soft focus, its use of slow motion and and randomly inserted close-ups of wildlife. The cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful, channeling Frederick McCubbin one minute and Monet the next, but doesn’t turn its nose up at a zoom when the mood strikes, and why not?

Musically it’s similarly unrestrained, with its potent blend of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Georg Zamfir’s panpipes, and original score by Bruce Smeaton—most memorably a fugue-like piano piece resplendent with Mellotron ‘choir,’ highlighting the ascent. It’s a glorious mash-up, and it’s intense.

The music drives the story, as with any successful horror film, and it drives the story into places neither the viewer nor characters themselves understand at all. The score knows things we don’t know; things that we probably shouldn’t want to know about, but that compel and fascinate us.

And what about that hysterical scream, accompanied by a zoom, when ‘the little dumpy one’ realises that her friends Miranda, Irma and Marion are going to keep walking up and up to the top of the rock and they’re not going to turn back, no matter how much she whines or pleads? Like zombies in reverse, the girls leave Edith relentlessly, embracing their deaths (their ‘doom’) with inhuman resolve.

That’s the moment when the film fully reveals itself, and it’s as thrilling as anything in Night of the Living Dead.

Like all great filmmakers, Weir understands the potency of the human face on screen. He calls it “the great invention of cinema, greater than sound or colour, 3D or CGI.”

I would extrapolate from this to say that fear evoked merely through violence or gore will never match the shock of a character’s realisation (and ours, through them) that everything they thought they knew has been overturned.

Nothing matches our horror at seeing reflected back at us what we innately know; that we will never truly understand.

END

[Images kindly sourced with permission from the National Film & Sound Archive]

About Briony Kidd:  Growing up in Tasmania, and graduating from the VCA Film School in Melbourne, her most recent film, The Room at the Top of the Stairs, is a Gothic melodrama, described by Fangoria as “a haunting, poetic tale [that] absolutely sticks in your bones.” It has screened in numerous film festivals around the world, including as a semi-finalist at Moondance and the Canberra Short Film Festival and an Honourable Mention in the Best Director category at the Vancouver Viscera Film Festival. In 2012, with Rebecca Thomson, Briony founded the Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival in Hobart. Briony has several feature film projects in development as a writer/director, including a psychological ghost story called Salt of the Earth and a ‘giallo’ style horror film.

http://strangerwithmyface.com/ | http://www.thetopofthestairs.com/| https://twitter.com/#!/BrionyKidd

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. Most recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City.  Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Lateand most recently Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ’Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.


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AACTA Member Spotlight: Matthew Moore – Actor, Writer, Director

Matthew Moore

Actor, writer and director Matthew Moore

Matthew Moore caught the acting bug at the tender age of 11 when he reenacted Burke and Wills’ journey across Australia for his Year five class. Since then, he’s honed his craft by studying at WAAPA and scoring a supporting role in The Dish, thanks to his exceptional graduation performance. Over the years, Moore has worked across film, television and theatre, acting in everything from Home and Away, All Saints and Rake to The Dish and Burning Man. He claims his meatier rolls have come straight from the great bard himself, Shakespeare, but that the most fun he’s had was playing Jodee in Rob Carlton’s entertaining TV drama, Chandon Pictures.

Julian Poster

In what seems to have been a natural progression for Moore and his filmmaking talents, he has recently turned his hand towards writing and directing for the screen with his imaginative new short film, Julian. This shift to behind the camera appears to have paid off. Julian has recently earned Moore the Flickerfest Special Jury Prize for Best Short Film and the Crystal Bear Generation K+ at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February. He claims the key to creative success is simply not being afraid to create, of taking a good idea and making it into something tangible. Moore thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative filmmaking process and was particularly taken with his young cast. He is now keen to pursue a career that is both in front of and behind the camera. Perhaps, once again, inspiration can be traced back to Australia’s great auteur, Peter Weir.

Matthew Moore is one of our newest AACTA members, and we’re proud to welcome such emerging filmmakers into the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles with you as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home and abroad.

AFI | AACTA: Where did you grow up?

Matthew Moore: I was born in Frankston, Victoria but my formative years were in Canberra. I left Canberra at age 18 for University.

AFI | AACTA: What first inspired you to become an actor?

Matthew Moore: I wanted to be an actor from a very young age. I think the inspiration came from just doing it, experiencing it. I remember having to act out Burke and Wills’ journey across Australia in Year five and thinking then that this could be my thing. I would go to the local library and flick through old acting books. I’d pore over black and white photos of Ralph Richardson or Laurence Olivier wearing an outrageous latex nose, and be blown away by their ability to transform from role to role. By early high school, I knew that I wanted to audition for drama school.  But I kept it to myself until I absolutely had to come clean to a careers advisor in Year 12. Up to that point, acting was something I had only ever explored in drama class and in annual school musicals so I was hyper-aware of how ridiculous saying I wanted to act professionally would sound. My family was ultimately very supportive of my decision.

AFI | AACTA: You studied at WAAPA and were recruited for the role of Keith Morrison in The Dish, after Jane Kennedy saw your graduation showcase performance in 1998. This must’ve been an outstanding final performance and a bit of a dream come true. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like studying performing arts at WAAPA and then debuting in The Dish?

Matthew Moore: WAAPA was a special time for me and the work I did there still forms the foundations of my work. It prepared me for the industry. At that time, we had outstanding teachers at WAAPA such as Andrew LLoyd and Nick Enright. You’re working on your craft (voice, movement and acting) from 10am to 6pm, five days a week, and then performances on top of that, so it’s truly a vocational training. People either seem to love or hate drama school but I had a good balance of being challenged and nurtured.

Upon graduating, The Dish was my first professional gig. I had grown up listening to the D-Generation and watching The Late Show and Frontline. I was a huge fan of their (Working Dog’s) work. I remember in my first meeting with my agent, Lisa Mann, I said my dream would be to work with the guys from Working Dog. At the time, I didn’t know Jane Kennedy had seen my graduation show. A couple of weeks later, Working Dog asked me to fly down to Melbourne to meet them all and to discuss a role they had in mind for me. In hindsight, this may have set up somewhat unrealistic expectations for my next few meetings with Lisa Mann! Working on the film was as much fun as you’d expect. They are exceptional writers and have a great trust of actors.

AFI | AACTA: Since then, you have acted consistently across both film and television. Is there a significant difference to the way in which you approach these different formats? Do you prefer one to the other?

Matthew Moore: I really don’t have a preference. To be honest the majority of my work has been in the theatre. That’s where there is the most significant difference for the actor, the difference between the stage and any form of screen work. I think the joy is being able to work across stage, television and film. Each medium has different challenges and feeds you in a different way. The industry is likely to pull you in a particular direction but if you can find a balance it’s very rewarding.

AFI | AACTA: What is the meatiest role you’ve ever had?

Matthew Moore: Well the roles I would describe as ‘meaty’ would be the roles I have played in the theatre. That’s where I’ve had the opportunities to play some of the great roles in Shakespeare, Webster, Goldoni etc. In terms of film and television, I often think of what’s the most fun I’ve had. The most fun I’ve had in television was playing Jodee in Chandon Pictures, written and directed by Rob Carlton. I actually met Rob at the auditions for Chandon Pictures. I was the reader. We spent the day auditioning actors and just had a ball. He called me a week later and said he had written a role for me, playing Josh Lawson’s boss. Jodee was like a Wall Street Wolf. He was a finance man with a porche, a beautiful wife, a penchant for cocaine and happened to own a gay nightclub – only from the mind of Rob Carlton! When jobs are that fun, you just want the series to go on forever. Incidentally, it stopped at two series.

AFI | AACTA: Was turning away from acting towards writing, directing and producing your own short film a natural progression for you? How challenging and/or rewarding was this transition?

Matthew Moore: It was natural in that I’d always wanted to do it. When I was 16/17 years old I was equally interested in filmmaking and acting and made a couple of short films at the time. Then I just went down the acting path, training at WAAPA, spending years in the theatre and then on to working in film and television. By the time I looked up, more than ten years had gone by and I felt like it was time to start nurturing the filmmaking side of things again. I also felt it was important to create something myself. As an actor you are always helping to fulfill someone else’s creative vision. It’s a very healthy thing for an actor to do I think – to experience creativity from the other side and drive your own vision. I found it very empowering. It was great to work with all the different departments in a much more meaningful way. Film is so collaborative and by stepping behind the camera I really got to experience and appreciate the crew’s expertise much more.

Julian

Ed Oxenbould on the set of JULIAN

AFI |AACTA: Julian is your first short film. Where did the initial inspiration for this film come from? Was there anything in particular that you wanted to explore/capture in this film?

Matthew Moore: Before I had the idea for the film, I met Ed Oxenbould and Morgana Davies at an audition. They were both incredible little actors, both 10 years old, and I thought I’d love to make a short film with them one day, if I ever had the right idea. So, my initial inspiration was simply wanting to work with these two actors. About six months later, I had an idea for the first scene and the general conceit of the film. It was a good fit for the two of them. I won’t say what that general conceit was as there are some local festivals coming up and I’d love for people to experience the film afresh. The main idea I wanted to explore, however, was about a little boy who needs to speak his truth and identifying where that desire comes from. The original idea I’d come up with ended up becoming the icing on the cake.

AFI | AACTA: Is there a particular message that you are trying to communicate in this film or are you more interested in leaving it up to the individual to create his or her own meaning?

Matthew Moore: I think a level of ambiguity is always interesting and if you’ve managed to create discussion, I think you’ve had a win. The theme of speaking your truth is a clear one, I think, and the last line in the film gives a clue as to the side I personally lean towards. I certainly wanted the audience to follow and be with this little boy.

AFI|AACTA: Ed Oxenbould has been praised for his extremely convincing and disarming portrayal of the young Julian. Was this Ed’s first film performance?

Matthew Moore: Ed’s done some bits and pieces but he’s about to do a whole lot more. A friend of mine who is a writer saw the film, subsequently showed it to a very high profile producer and as a result Ed is about to make his debut in a new prime time TV show as a series regular. They cast him without an audition. I can’t say anymore than that at this stage. I believe it is being announced in the coming weeks. I’m thrilled for him.

Ed Oxenbould and Matthew Moore on the set of Julian

Ed Oxenbould and Matthew Moore on the set of JULIAN

AFI | AACTA: What was it like to be on the other side of the camera and to direct such a young person in this role?

Matthew Moore: Directing Ed and the other kids was really no different from directing adults. In some regards, it was easier. They are all very talented and professional. They had all been on sets before and knew the drill. They were open and available and took direction incredibly well. I think when working with kids it is important to have a very clear idea of what you want. We did have one rehearsal day, for an hour, where I got the three main kids together to run the main scene and I did have a moment that day, when I thought ‘Oh my god what was I thinking?’ The kids were sussing each other out and it was a little bit like spinning plates – one would get going and the others would lose focus. Sometimes I’d give direction and think ‘Nope, they’re not listening at all.’ But then we’d do a take and it would all be there. They were soaking everything up. Come shoot day, they were amazing. We had to move extremely quickly and they just bounced along. The best thing about Ed Oxenbould, Morgana Davies, Joseph Famularo and Will Cottle was that they are just such great people. They made the shoot fun.

AFI | AACTA: Julian has earned you the Special Jury Prize for Best Short Film at Flickerfest and more recently the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. How does it feel to have won these prestigious awards with your first foray into filmmaking?

Crystal Bear

Matthew Moore (centre) accepting his Crystal Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival with Festival Section Director Maryanne Redpath and Section Co-director Florian Weghorn

Matthew Moore: Flickerfest was the first time I saw the film on the big screen and in front of an audience. That was very rewarding in itself. Listening to people react and enjoy the film in a festival atmosphere. Flickerfest has showcased a lot of local filmmaking talent over the years, many of whom have gone on to make feature films. It was great to compete against some of those filmmakers, filmmakers I’ve admired for a long time.

The Berlin International Film Festival had always been a dream for me. In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to have a film screen in competition there. For some reason, it was the festival, of the big four, that had captured my imagination. So, it was quite surreal to experience it. Berlin’s an incredible city for artists all year round but during the festival it’s incredible. There are so many creative types in one place: directors, producers, writers, actors, cinematographers all smashed into Potsdammer Platz together. You’ll see an amazing Dutch feature in the morning, an independent American film in the afternoon, perhaps catch a program of shorts and then meet all the creative teams that night at the bar. You’ve seen all their work and they’ve seen yours. It’s incredibly exciting. Just in the shorts section alone, I competed against films from 23 countries. It’s like the United Nations of filmmaking. Winning the Crystal Bear at the end of those 10 days was very special. The whole experience has been an eye opener, a great focuser and very inspiring.

Crystal Bear

Matthew Moore with his wife Genevieve Hegney and the Crystal Bear Award

AFI | AACTA: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career? What have been the highlights? What are you most looking forward to?

Matthew Moore: There are just so many challenging aspects of the industry that you have to navigate, particularly as an actor. I think, as actors, we try to make sense of these challenging aspects when often there is no sense to be made. Personally, I find not getting the opportunity to audition for a role harder than not getting a job. If you’ve had an audition, at least you’ve been in the mix and had an opportunity to act that day. More than once, I’ve had to fight like crazy to get into a room and then ultimately won the role. In terms of other challenges, watch Fiery Hawk on YouTube. Most actors I know who’ve seen it, regardless of personal success, feel like it sums up the actors experience… and it’s funny.

When I think of what my highlights have been I think of the people I have been lucky enough to work with. The relationships I’ve forged. The friendships I’ve made. For me, it’s the people. And what am I looking forward to? Well I’m looking forward to writing and directing more. I’m really excited by this shift and exploring my own creativity. I’m looking forward to nurturing my own ideas more and balancing that with my acting career.

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

Matthew Moore: I actually love the idea of having a mentor. Whilst I haven’t really had an official mentor, I have been lucky enough to have people champion me and I have very talented and supportive friends. So, I have to mention more than three. Two of my closest friends happen to be writer/directors, which has been very handy as I move into this area.

Michael Petroni wrote and directed Till Human Voices Wake Us and has been working as a writer in Hollywood for many years, having written such films as: The Rite, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of Dawn Treader and Queen of the Damned. Michael was the first person I pitched Julian too and he encouraged me to write it just as I had pitched it. As Michael is now spending more time in Australia, it’s been great to bounce ideas off him, read each other’s scripts and get his advice.

Tony McNamara, who wrote and directed The Rage in Placid Lake and has written a prolific amount of television including Tangle, Love My Way and The Secret Life of Us, has also been great to bounce ideas off. More importantly, he also makes a delightful roast lamb with baked vegetables.

Steven Soderbergh was great when I told him I was planning on writing and directing my first short film. He gave me a fantastic reading list along with a list of films to watch for their various filmmaking aspects. There were some for editing, writing, cinematography (colour and black and white) and of course for directing. So, I’ve been devouring all of that.

John Bell has certainly been the most supportive and nurturing in regards to my acting career. He has given me many opportunities to play some of the great character roles in Shakespeare.

Annie Swann is a wonderful acting coach for both stage and screen and has been great to work with over the years.

My wife, Genevieve Hegney, insists she is both my muse and mentor. She has certainly been incredibly supportive and is, of course, the first person I bounce ideas off.

Finally, I often think about the late Nick Enright, writer, director, actor and extraordinary teacher. I was lucky enough to work with Nick in my 2nd and 3rd year at WAAPA and to this day, I still carry his wisdom and generosity with me.

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

Matthew Moore: Create something. There really isn’t any excuse these days. The technology is just so accessible. Julian was made for $7000. We didn’t receive any funding. We raised the money through a quiz night and through the generosity of friends and colleagues who either contributed their time, expertise or money. During the festival run, we’ve been competing against some films with budgets of over $150,000 but the great thing about short filmmaking is that it’s all about the strength of an idea. If you’ve got an idea, grab a 5D camera and make it. Create something.

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

Matthew Moore: I have to mention a few…The first Australian film I remember really having an impact on me in my youth was Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. Gallipoli is clearly an important part of our history that continues to define us and somehow Peter tapped into that in a profound way. I remember someone making the observation that the film was just as beautiful as the letters and poetry that the diggers would send back to their loved ones. Peter Weir is one of the top filmmakers working in the world today. His body of work is incredible.

Proof is one of my all time favourite Australian films. I love a writer/director with a unique voice. Jocelyn Moorhouse created an intimate, funny and moving film about trust. What a great pitch line it must have been… “Well, there’s this blind photographer…”

I also clearly remember the first time I saw Romper Stomper, from writer/director Geoffrey Wright. I had never seen Australia portrayed like that before, it was like a slap in the face. What I remember most from this film is the energy with which it was made and the power of the three main performances. Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie and Russell Crowe.

Honourable mentions go to the Ausploitation films Razorback and Patrick for freaking me out and haunting my 10-year-old mind.

AFI | AACTA: Thank you for sharing your time with us.

AACTA Member Spotlight: Adam Howard, Visual Effects Supervisor

Howard on set of RUSH HOUR 3

Inspired at school by a dedicated and committed art teacher, Adam Howard is now one of Australia’s most prolific and experienced Visual Effects Supervisors. Starting his career at the ABC in Melbourne and at AAV (now Digital Pictures), with shows like the acclaimed children’s series Round the Twist, he moved to Hollywood 21 years ago, where he has since worked continuously, performing  wonders with technology to create convincing renditions of supernatural worlds, places and people. With four Emmy Awards and a credit list that includes everything from Star Trek, MacGyver, Lois and Clarke to Titanic, The Social Network, Harry Potter, X-Men and The Twilight Saga, Howard has assisted Hollywood giants such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to realise their own screen dreams. In this expansive Q&A with Adam Howard, he talks about getting his foot in the visual effects door in LA, and urges all those upcoming “tech-heads” to follow their passion as “crazy dreams CAN and do come true.”

Howard loves the collective filmmaking process and the magic that can be created with new technologies, but at the same time admits that part of the art of visual effects is knowing when to capture scenes the old-fashioned way – in camera. A diehard fan of Peter Weir’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Howard remains in awe of the haunting simplicity and beauty of Weir’s Australian classic.

Adam Howard is one of our newest AACTA members, and we’re proud to welcome such accomplished filmmakers into the new Australian Academy. In coming months, we look forward to sharing more of these profiles with you as we turn the Member Spotlight onto more performers and practitioners – both those working at home, and those like Howard, who fly the flag abroad.

Note: If you would like to propose yourself or a colleague for the AACTA Member Spotlight interviews, please email membership@afi.org.au.

AFI | AACTA: How long have you been living in LA? Was it your work that first took you there?

Adam Howard: I have lived in California for the past 21 years.

I first came to LA with the dream of working on Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver. They were two of the biggest shows on TV at the time.  It was a bit of a pipe dream but I went for it anyway.

I had been trying to meet the head of the biggest post production company in LA, The Post Group for about two years but it was difficult doing it from Melbourne, pre-internet and pre-email. I had been talking with his client, who was the head of post production at Paramount Pictures, as I thought that might be a good way to get to meet with him. I called his client one day and he said, “look this is all well and good but you are so far away [in Australia] and I just don’t think I can help you”. I told him, “I am on Melrose Blvd about five minutes away from the studio.” He was very surprised, and told me to come right in. When I got to his office he asked if I had a [show]reel. I did have a reel, which I had created as a short film at AAV in South Melbourne [now Digital Pictures]. I asked him if he wanted to see it and he said, “no”. He then picked up the phone and called The Post Group’s assistant and told her that he had a guy in his office who had the very best demo reel he had ever seen! I nearly died.

I met with The Post Group but they told me that the could not hire me. A bit disappointed after all that effort, I went on to meet with Richard Edlund at Boss Films in Marina Del Rey. He liked my reel and said that he was planning to start a small “digital effects” department and that if I was ever back in LA he would give me a job. At the time, digital effects in Hollywood were in an extremely early stage of development and were only really being used for TV. I realised that the experience I’d had at ABC-TV and AAV with digital paint, effects and animation was going to be pivotal to my getting a job in LA.

Howard on the set of Star Trek The Next Generation

Howard on the set of STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION

So I went back home and after a short time, packed my  bags and made the move to LA. Unfortunately Boss had not made the move to digital quite yet and I ended up working for ABC Television in Hollywood. Seven months into my stay at ABC, the phone rang and it was the old head of The Post Group. He told me why he had not hired me. He was leaving The Post Group to start his own visual effects company called Digital Magic and he wanted me to join the company as the assistant to the senior animator on… Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver.

I started the following week and at the end of the first month there, the senior animator (who has sadly since passed away but who became a dear friend over the years) told me that he was leaving to go to Industrial Light & Magic to work on Hook. The following Monday, my boss came in and told me that I was now the new lead animator on Star Trek. About a year later I also became lead animator on MacGyver. So you see, crazy dreams can and DO come true!!!

AFI | AACTA: You were born and raised in Melbourne. What do you miss most about Australia?

Adam Howard: My family. My Mum and Dad live in Deepdene and my brother is also in Melbourne. My kids were both born in LA but they now live in Melbourne too.

The one thing that is really lovely to hear is when friends and co workers from the States go to Australia to do film projects either in production or post production positions, they always come back saying how much they love the country and the people. Aussies just have a truly beautiful way about them that is unlike anywhere else in the world. They are funny, warm and always make people feel at home.

AFI | AACTA: What first inspired you to work in visual effects?

Adam starring in NHK

Howard as a child star on the Japanese television show NHK

Adam Howard: I lived with my family in Tokyo Japan for three years between the ages of five and seven. I remember watching a kid’s TV show where there was a costume character man with a donkey’s head. The camera was on the ground in a sports stadium looking up one of the stairways between the seats of the stadium and this character was trying to run from the top down to the camera. He would get half way down and then pop back up to the top. He kept getting more and more frustrated every time his efforts were thwarted and I remember thinking…“I have no idea how that is happening but I want to do it”.

Shortly after, I ended up as a child actor on NHK in Tokyo, which was a blast. Then of course the big influence, was Star Wars. I doubt that there are many people working in visual effects from my age group who were not influenced by George’s amazing films. They just opened up the world to a whole new scale of storytelling and demonstrated how technology could be used to create visions on a much vaster scale than they had ever been created before.

AFI | AACTA: What do you enjoy most about your craft?

Adam Howard: Storytelling! It is all about the story. An old friend of mine, Linwood Dunn, was basically the creator of visual effects compositing when he created the Acme Dunn Optical Printer back in the early 20th century. He created the optical effects for King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane and West Side Story…Yes he was a legend! He once told me when I asked him what I should do [in order to have] a long career in visual effects…“You only have one job in this business and it is to serve the story. The minute someone looks at a shot and says, ‘Wow what a great visual effects shot!’, you’ve failed. You have to spend your entire life doing shots that no one will ever notice. It’s always about telling the story.”

I have lived by those words ever since and they have served me well. Thanks Lin.

AFI | AACTA: What does a typical working day look like to you?

Adam Howard: It really depends on the stage of the project. In pre-production a lot of time is spent in the office working out exactly how to pull off a shot and working with the director on pre-viz [pre-visualisation] to help tell the story the best way we can.

Once on set, it is really no different than everyone else’s day on the set – long hours, little sleep and high stress. But with everyone’s creativity running at full steam it is a wonderful experience. Some of the most fun days are the ones when a shot that has been planned for months has to be changed due to unforeseen circumstances, and you have to think fast and on your feet. There really is no substitute for experience in those circumstances.

Once we get to post-production, it is just about making sure that everything looks right and that you are giving your crew good, accurate and helpful direction. I think having sat in the artist’s seat for so many years has helped me as a Supervisor. Post-production crews on shows I have supervised can range from a small handful of people to a few hundred. I always appreciated directors and supervisors who took the time to really explain what they had in their mind’s eye, and I try to do the same when I am with my crews – down to the tiniest details.

Howard on location TWILIGHT BREAKING DAWN

Howard on location of TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN

Someone asked me once to describe what exactly it is that I do. Imagine that you have to show someone a photograph of a car parked in the middle of a busy bustling city but all you have to start with is an empty page. You have to create the car, the light on the car, the glass, the shadows, the reflections. Then you have to do the same thing for every other object in the photo. Not just the big things like buildings, the sky, trees and people, but also the tiny things like the rust on a water down spout, dirty smudges on windows, bird droppings on the ground, cigarette wrappers in the gutter. It might sound ridiculous but it is all those tiny details that are the things that fool a human brain into believing that what they are seeing is real. Now, do 24 of those images every second and make it feel real and you are on your way to making something feel totally believable.

AFI | AACTA: If you had to name three people who have had a significant impact on you over your life, who would they be?

Adam Howard: Well unfortunately I cannot name just three. There have been hundreds of people who have had a significant impact on my life but there are seven who I would like to mention in particular.

First and foremost is Rick Rowton. He was my art teacher at Scotch College in Melbourne. Rick had come from teaching art in the prison systems of Victoria to teaching us. What he brought with him was a mind that knew no boundaries in art. To him, everything was art and he let us all explore everything until we found the things we were passionate about doing. He was the one who recognised that I should be focusing on art studies and he helped my parents point me in the right direction. I will be forever in his debt. I consider him to have been my greatest mentor and a true friend. Sadly, he passed away many years ago and I never got to thank him personally.

Second and third: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

I can’t separate them as the films they made together helped shape the way I approach filmmaking. They are master filmmakers and I have been blessed to not only be inspired by them but also work with them on a number of feature film projects when I was working at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic].

Fouth: Harold Freedman.

Harold was the State Artist for Victoria and I was lucky enough to work with him on a couple of the big mosaic murals he did for public spaces in and around Melbourne. The main one I worked on was The History of Fire mural which is on the side of the Fire Brigade building in East Melbourne. I laid out a large amount of the fire in that mural along with David Jack and Joe Attard. Harold taught me everything I know about colour. The glass in those murals was my first real experience of mixing colour with pixels. They were just very large ones but the principal is the same. Up close it all looks like a bit of a mess but from a distance it makes a single, cohesive image.

Fifth: James Cameron

I worked with Jim on two of his films, Titanic and Ghosts of the Abyss. I also worked very briefly about seven years ago on some very early tests for the characters in Avatar. He tells stories on a grand scale and never takes no for an answer. The other thing about Jim is that he is one of the smartest people I know. When he asks you to do something, it is because he knows it will work. He is fascinated by the entire filmmaking process and brings that enthusiasm to his productions on every level.

Sixth: Jim Henson

I met Jim when I was about 19 and he offered me a job on The Muppet Show, if I ever made it to New York. I never took him up on the offer but imagine if I had! My entire life could have been very different. He inspired me to be unafraid of breaking the rules. The Muppets are a truly brilliant creation. He was able to tell stories to people of any age and nationality without the restrictions of language and have every one of those people understand exactly what he was saying. Not many people in this business can lay claim to that. He let people learn how to laugh all over again. That is an incredible gift to the world and he is sorely missed. He had the most incredible imagination, something I doubt we will ever see the like of again.

Seventh: Linwood Dunn

Of course. He was the original visual effects guy. He showed me what was important in this business and helped me understand how to go about doing it.

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

Adam Howard: Time away from family and friends. As the business has evolved, more and more production is done away from home due to tax incentives (in part) and so we have to go where the work is. I have been very lucky to travel all over the world doing this job but it is always good to come home at the end of the job.

AFI | AACTA: What have been the highlights?

Adam accepting an Emmy

Howard accepting 1 of his 4 Emmy Awards

A few things. The people first! Film crews and visual effects teams are a whole breed unto themselves. Thrown together from all walks of life and nationalities and in a very short time you become a family. It really is like that too, I’m not just saying it. I have stayed friends with people who I have worked with throughout my entire career. You spend so much time with people on a film, you end up with a very personal bond that lasts forever. Winning the Emmy Awards was amazing. I was nominated twice in my first year in the States and won both of them. It’s pretty hard to beat that. Another highlight was going to the Academy Awards the year that Armageddon was nominated for Best Visual Effects. We didn’t win but it was a blast just to be there and walk the red carpet.

AFI | AACTA: Has the nature of your work changed dramatically over time due to the advancements in technology and 3D imaging?

Adam Howard: It certainly has. When I first started in the business at ABC in Elsternwick I was working in the Graphics Department. We made all the graphics for all the shows and it was all handmade. There were no computers, there was no Photoshop and most importantly no internet. We had to do research and we kept every magazine we could get our hands on for photo reference. Then came the Quantel Classic Paintbox. I was one of the first group of paintbox artists in the world and I remember saying to the head of the department that I felt this was the next major industrial revolution staring us in the face. I was only about 17 at the time but it was just so obvious that this tool had the potential to have a huge impact on the way we did everything.

Adam with the Harry Potter cast and crew

Howard (3rd from the left) with the cast and crew of HARRY POTTER

Since then, of course, we have now come to live in a world unimaginable without computers. Visual Effects that would either have been virtually impossible or cost way too much to be practical can now be done at home. It is amazing how times have changed. It is always wonderful to see new technologies and new ways of thinking coming forward in this business. I think because we work in an industry which thrives on creating fantasy, we get the opportunity to try things that have not yet been invented and make them happen. Just look at the Star Trek communicator and modern day cell phones. They are one and the same. Buck Rogers’ fantastic laser beams are now standard in every DVD player.

On location of Unknown

Working with Greenscreen on the set of UNKNOWN (2011)

With all this wonderful advent of technology though, I think it is really important to remember as filmmakers that not everything needs to be done with a computer. Sometimes the very best way to get a shot is to spend the extra time to get it in camera. I had that come up just recently when we shot Unknown in Berlin, with Liam Neeson and director Jaume Colett-Serra. The car chase through the centre of the city could have been a huge green screen shoot but we all decided collectively that the best way to do it for the highest quality “look” was to pull out every different kind of camera and car rig around and put them to work. It made for a truly thrilling sequence, partly because the actors were actually travelling the streets of Berlin so their reactions were absolutely real.

AFI | AACTA: You’ve won four Primetime Emmys for your work on Star Trek and have been nominated for Enterprise. What does it mean for you to have won these awards specifically for your craft?

Adam's Emmy Collection

Howard's Emmy Award collection

Adam Howard: When I was growing up in Melbourne there were two nights of the year when I was always home watching the TV. Emmy night and Oscar night. I always wanted to go just to stand out the front and watch the crowd go into the ceremony, so to be nominated and then win was beyond a dream come true. I have been very lucky indeed. To be recognised for doing what is regarded in the business as the best work for the year is an incredibly humbling honour.

AFI | AACTA: What advice would you give upcoming Australian Visual Effects Supervisors wanting to make it in Hollywood?

Adam Howard: Never stop learning. Never give up. Never stop pursuing your dreams. Anything and everything is possible if you set your mind to it. Make lots of friends in the business in every facet of the business. This is truly a team effort.

AFI | AACTA: Do you see yourself returning to work in Australia in the future?

Adam Howard: I would love to work in Australia again. It is so exciting to see the wonderful and brilliant work that keeps on coming out of Australia. Australian film crews are regarded as some of the best in the world and it would be a great thrill to do a film there.

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

Adam Howard: Again, there are many but if I had to pick just one, it would be Picnic at Hanging Rock. Peter Weir is a genius. He created a film that is truly terrifying and yet all that scares you is purely in your mind. It is also one of the most hauntingly beautiful films to watch, thanks to Russell Boyd’s magnificent cinematography. Combine all that with David Copping’s wonderful art direction and Gheorghe Zamfir and Bruce Smeaton’s score and you have a true masterpiece of filmmaking.

It was a great thrill for me to work with Peter Weir on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He should be revered as one of Australia’s film treasures.

AFI | AACTA: Thank you for sharing your time with us.