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.

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Why I Adore… Bliss

By David Evan Giles

When I read the May edition of Why I Adore –  Briony Kidd’s article about Picnic At Hanging Rock (dir. Peter Weir, 1975), it reminded me that Picnic At Hanging Rock was one of the two films that fundamentally changed my mind about Australia. I’d happily wax lyrical about Picnic for another thousand words, but I am going to focus on the other film that grabbed my imagination and gave me a shake. Bliss (dir. Ray Lawrence, 1985) was the other film that rocked my world and rattled loose some ugly, ingrown preconceptions about this country. I want to tell you all about the extraordinary “Bliss effect”, but it will help if I set the scene a little first.

Growing up in London, before Picnic At Hanging Rock came along, all I knew of Oz was based on Rolf Harris on the BBC and the tricky presence of my Australian stepmother. (I don’t mean that Nerelle herself was tricky.  My mother’s early loathing of Nerelle was, on the other hand, pretty spectacularly tricky. Some divorced parents try to be civilized but my mother was made of altogether more incandescent stuff and so she ground her teeth at the sound of a wobble board  – and please didgeridon’t. You get the picture.)

While other boys were learning about soccer teams and the cool makes of car, I was glued to the Saturday afternoon movie, learning by heart the credits as they rolled past on everything from Randolph Scott Westerns to black and white stories of British wartime pluck. One of those films selected apparently at random by the lonely programmer deep in the bowels of BBC Television Centre was Smiley (dir. Anthony Kimmins, 1956), about a kid in the Outback having some very simple, innocent adventures. It is far from a classic, but there was something about Smiley that touched a nerve.  There was space and freedom and an echoing emptiness under vast, limitless skies. Nothing like the life I led in West London. That film made the first crack in my Pommy prejudice.

My ignorant prejudice against Australia as narrow or somehow in the shadow of the Mother Country or, perish the thought, a poor cousin of California, all of those illusions were swept away.

Then, a few years later came Picnic At Hanging Rock. While Briony Kidd’s essay explored the horror genre aspects of Picnic, my friends at University and I were overwhelmed by the sense of loss the film captured so powerfully. The film touched that sense in all of us – we were there at the very beginning of our adult lives, falling as helplessly in love as only the naive and unwounded can, and Miranda walked into our imaginations and vanished, leaving not a footprint behind for us to follow. We yearned and pined en masse. Being privately educated British boys, we felt for Dominic Guard in his feeble scrabbling amongst the rocks even as his incompetence embarrassed us. He did not belong there and neither did we – but then I secretly wanted to discover my inner John Jarratt, the man with hair on his chest and some survival skills who had a much better chance of finding those lost girls. More than anything, I wanted to escape the narrow skies and narrower conventions of the cloisters where I grew up.

And then came Bliss. While Picnic At Hanging Rock is artfully crafted, perhaps helped by the fact that it sits so comfortably in its Gothic horror genre, Bliss, adapted from the novel by Peter Carey, is an exploration of ideas. Despite its three AFI Awards and 10 more AFI nominations, and the close encounter with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, for me it stumbles as often as it succeeds. Its changes in tone and its uneasy shifts between the naturalistic and the surreal make it seem a little awkward. And yet, as I watched it again just last week, the ideas it explores are as affecting today as they were 27 years ago.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter that it is so strange, flipping between the madness of Buñuel and the mundane tedium of the suburbs. Perhaps it is not important that it never settles into a rhythm or a style, or that the cast’s performances swerve between gentle humanity and broad pantomime. Its most recognisable narrative through-line is an improbable love story between a disillusioned advertising executive, Harry Joy (Barry Otto), and a call girl, Honey Barbara (Helen Jones). It doesn’t seem to matter that this comfortable narrative is at odds with the film’s political ambition to expose Western materialism as a sham that causes deceit and suffering, misery and death (or near-death in Harry’s case). In spite of being jarring and genre-crossing, somehow Bliss just works.

There are reasons why this movie works and they cannot be just personal to me. After all, the film was showered with prizes so I am not alone in loving it. What first struck me was how bold it was, technically and artistically. When Harry ‘dies’, the crane shot as he floats above his own body went a very, very long way up – an image so strong that it caused me to hire the DOP on a project years later. When Harry’s wife, played with merciless self-mockery by Lynette Curran, is unfaithful to him while he is lying in bed recovering from open heart surgery, he smells sex on her – and live sardines fall out of her knickers onto the floor of the ward. Apart from the fact that a shot like that would probably not be possible today without losing the Humane Society’s stamp of approval, when I first saw it, I laughed out loud and was awe-struck by the boldness of the idea. My reaction was to think, “If these people have that kind of creativity and ‘bugger what you think of us’ attitude, I want to know more about this culture”. My ignorant prejudice against Australia as narrow or somehow in the shadow of the Mother Country or, perish the thought, a poor cousin of California, all of those illusions were swept away. The whole film was original and bold and, above all, unapologetic.

The American poster for ‘Bliss’ takes a different tone.

Bliss had another effect. Having grown up in England during the height of the industrial chaos of constant strikes and power blackouts, I had developed a leaning towards conservatism. (I know, I know, I could lose my AACTA membership for saying such a thing – but there is a happy ending!) There is a scene in which a disillusioned corporate executive drunkenly reveals to Harry that his company has a ‘cancer map’ – a map showing where all the cancers are concentrated and which industries are in those areas as the probable causes of those cancers. He unfolds a map of NSW marked with cancer clusters and explains that the whole Western world is built on things that cause cancer. That single scene changed how I saw the world. It doesn’t matter that it may be an exaggeration – what matters is that it made sense and matched what I was reading in the newspapers. When lead in petrol was shown to be causing brain damage in children, the oil companies did not go into overdrive to remove the lead – they went into overdrive to delay having to do anything about it. Bliss’s cancer map was telling the truth. I started going green from that moment on.

Ray Lawrence showed such a flash of genius in casting Barry [Otto] for the role and gave him all the support he needed to let him be the heart of the film.

Because this frequently manic film has a split personality, it moves from the frenetic to the serene. After being stuck in a hotel room for days, claustrophobic, chaotic and airless, and then a mental hospital, Harry ends up in a rainforest. Again, this lad from Notting Hill was blown away by the very possibility that you could do such a thing. In England, we had The Good Life on the BBC, where two nice people turn their suburban garden into a self-sufficient mini-farm. It was a warm and funny sitcom – but it was clearly never going to be practical and it didn’t stop them breathing the polluted city air. In Australia, according to Bliss, you could get into your car and drive to a real rainforest.  Just like that. That was very definitely not part of the British experience and it fed the desire to come and be a part of the film culture in Oz.

But more than anything else, what held the film together, and made it make sense, was the humanity of Harry, played by Barry Otto. There is such a fluid quality about Barry’s movements, in how he wears his clothes, and a lyricism in his speech, that all seems to communicate a freedom in his thinking. Ray Lawrence showed such a flash of genius in casting Barry for the role and gave him all the support he needed to let him be the heart of the film. Before Bliss, I had seen Australian actors being bold and strong and stolid. Harry was the first character I had ever come across who was confused and questioning and obviously needing to be brave to ask those questions – the sort of questioning that is more typical of European cinema that deals in shades and colours instead of black and white, yes and no.

Honey Barbara (Helen Jones) and Harry Joy (Barry Otto).

So why do I adore Bliss? I have a list of ‘top ten’ films that stretches to nine pages of A4, but in that list there are relatively few movies that, on their own, have presented an idea so potently that they have prised away a prejudice and opened my eyes to new ways of seeing the world. Kandahar (dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001) did it. The Circle (dir. Jafar Panahi, 2000) did it. Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1995) and American History X (dir Tony Kaye, 1998) did it. And Bliss did it in spades.

‘Waiting for the Turning of the Earth’

On a very personal note, I have to close by telling you a small story – and it’s all about hope and tenacity making your dreams become realities. I saw Picnic At Hanging Rock when I was about 20. I saw Bliss when I was about 26. I immigrated to Australia when I was 28. Over the years, I wrote and produced a couple of features and then went into a long mixture of script development hell and personal development purgatory. When I was 49, I was given a grant by Screen NSW to emerge as a Writer-Director and I finally got to direct Anne Louise Lambert  – Miranda from Picnic At Hanging Rock – and Barry Otto together in a short film called Waiting For The Turning Of The Earth, for which I was honoured and deeply touched to receive an AACTA nomination. This was a dream come true for me and a validation of the choices I had made that had led me to that moment. And another reason why I adore Bliss.

About David Evans Giles: David moved from Notting Hill in London to Australia in 1988. After writing and producing a TV series broadcast on Channel 9 (Your Home, one of the first home renovation shows), he teamed up with another writer to create what became Paradise Road, raising a major proportion of the finance for what was then the largest budget in Australian film history. Paradise Road starred Oscar nominees Glenn Close and Pauline Collins and Oscar winner Frances McDormand, and helped to launch Cate Blanchett’s feature career. David co-wrote and produced another feature film, Under The Lighthouse Dancing, starring AFI Award-winning actors, Naomi Watts, Jack Thompson and Jacqueline Mackenzie. The 23 minute short film Waiting For The Turning of the Earth is intended to launch his professional career directing drama. The film was made possible by a grant from Screen New South Wales under the Emerging Filmmakers Fund scheme and since receiving the nomination for an AACTA Award has been selected for film festivals around Australia and the USA. He is currently working on two feature films, The Human Condition, about how cancer is experienced in different parts of the world, and The Falling, a thriller.

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. More 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 Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, Briony Kidd explains why she loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman.

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.

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.

Why I Adore: Adaptations

by Popzilla

Cloudstreet Poster

The eagerly awaited 6-part adaptation of 'Cloudstreet' premieres on Foxtel's Showcase this Sunday, 22 May, at 8.30pm.

As much as I’m a film nut, I’m also a book nut. So when both media are awesomely combined – I’m as happy as a ham in mud.

I have to admit, I probably discovered books before I discovered film. But some of my most vivid child and teen memories arise from not only the musky damp comfort of books, but also the thrill of seeing them come to life on screen – through film adaptations.

Theatre works, comic books, games, pop-fiction novels, classical adaptations – I’m there. I might love it, I might hate it , but I appreciate the efforts involved in every little detail, to bring much loved, pop-culture adventures, or undiscovered tales to big or small screens.

Through  written stories, we discover (quite often in GREAT detail), heart rending family sagas (Cloudstreet; The Slap, Our Father Who Art in the Tree), quirky coming of age kerfuffles, seedy criminal underworlds (Truth), and even classic  poems  (The Man from Snowy River).

Great stories are already awash with all the colours and sounds of ‘the big screen’. So what happens when novels are translated onto big or small screens? There is a moment where you’re about to take a gamble –  into the cinema, or say, reserving a quiet weekend to open the first page of a novel just watched on the big screen… when some of us take a big pensive breath and say… “um, should I really be doing this?”

Will we love the film version just as much if characters are removed; plots changed and (gasp!) endings completely re-written? In speaking with friends, family, filmmakers, and some cranky librarians, I have found that not everyone immediately jumps for joy at the mention of an adaptation. No – quite the opposite.

There are literary purists who immediately promise to stay ‘true’ to the author’, to never forsake the written word for the big screen version. Not even choc-tops can lure them away from their musty pages. There are others who are bitterly disappointed in ‘crude adaptations’, and the impact the screen sometimes takes on a good story. And then there are those (just like me) who love the opportunity to see a story brought to the big screen. To revel in the backdrops, the little details, and even the changes that are evident in adaptations.

It’s kind of ridiculous I guess, but sometimes I also wonder about the correct order – whether I should be seeing a film before I read it the book it’s based on, or afterwards! Many a book has no doubt been improved by its film adaptation, not to mention the sudden increase in book sales. Film adaptations can quite often bring hidden novel gems to mainstream masses – something that has been hiding on dusty shelves just waiting for the chance to come to life.

And, yes, some books have been ruined by screen adaptation. Whether it’s overzealous screenwriters, directors, bossy-pants authors or badly cast actors – who knows who is to blame? Converting a book into film is a tricky business. Firstly – you have to secure the rights to the novel – and the cost ranges for script and development can be much higher than those associated with filming an original screenplay.

However, it must be said that adaptations can also raise books, games and comics to new heights – creating brand new interpretations (and new BRAND interpretations), even adding further value to a story… or film.

There’s also the question of what happens to the screenwriter after all the writing is  completed. Have they written themselves off the page and out of the film? (An interesting interview with screenwriter John Collee  (Happy Feet, Master and Commander) sheds some light on Collee’s screenwriting experiences in the biz.)

In honor of writers, screenwriters, and filmmakers everywhere, and to illustrate how wonderful they can be – here are (in no particular order) my ‘adored’ Australian film adaptations:

Puberty Blues

“You wanna go down the dunnies for a smoke?”

I love the teen awkwardness that is captured in this film, and the snapshot of 80s Cronulla. Based on the book by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette – not all of the book made it to the screen, but it is an absolute screen gem. And who could forget the theme song?

Picnic At Hanging Rock

It’s spooky, it’s kooky –just like the book, if not better! The BAFTA award-winning Peter Weir adaptation of the book by Joan Lindsay is still loved today. Just go to Hanging  Rock to hear Swedish backpackers yell ‘Miranda!!’ from the haunted peaks…

Oscar and Lucinda

A glass church. A GLASS CHURCH! I still can’t believe Gillian Armstrong mastered this complex and imaginary tale whilst auditioning Cate Blanchett for the world screen. And the chemistry between Ralph Finnes and Blanchett set the pages of this Peter Carey novel on FIRE!

 Romulus, My Father


Everyone is heartbreakingly beautiful in this AFI Award winning film adaptation of the book by Raimond Gaita. With the screen adaptation written by British poet Nick Drake, stunningly filmed by Shine cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, and an impressive directorial debut by Richard Roxburgh, even the author himself saw the film more than 20 times…

Playing Beatie Bow

Australia’s version of Labyrinth with kids instead of goblins. Adapted from the Ruth Park novel of the same name, I’m just hanging out for a film on Park to come out one of these days…

Praise

I just love it. The performances, mood and feel of John Curran’s 1999 movie completely match that of the book by Andrew McGahan.

http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/praise/trailer

He Died With A Falafel In His Hand


I know a lot of people who have yet to warm to this early 2000 flick. But for me, it captures so many true-to-life tales of share-house living, and has one hell of a kick-ass soundtrack. Noah Taylor is the bees-knees as a depressed and down and out writer living on the dole.

My Brother Jack

Some heartbreaking moments in this AFI Award Winning production starring Matt Day, Claudia Karvan, William McInnes and Jack Thompson. A 2001 made-for-television adaptation of George Johnson’s classic novel.

ADAPTATION AUSSIE!

Here are some upcoming adaptations to watch out for:

 Cloudstreet


I’m already taken in by the trailer! Written for the small screen by the author himself, alongside co-screenwriter Ellen Fontana.

Cloudstreet premieres on the Foxtel channel Showcase on Sunday, May 22 2011, 8.30pm.

The Slap

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1823011/

An eight part ABC television series adaptation of the bestseller by Christos Tsiolkas is to star a stellar lineup including Brendan Cowell, , Melissa George, Alex Dimitriades, Sophie Lowe, Jonathan LaPaglia and more.

Red Dog

The story of Red Dog is a well-known WA legend but it was popularised by English author Louis de Bernieres in his book of the same name.

The film adaptation directed by Kriv Stenders is based on the legendary true story of the Red Dog who united a disparate local mining community while roaming the Australian outback in search of his long-lost master

.Starring Josh LucasRachael TaylorNoah Taylor, Luke Ford and Bill Hunter with release set for August 2011.

Oranges and Sunshine


Based on the true story by UK social worker Margaret Humphreys about her expose of the scandal of Britain’s forgotten and abused child migrants (previously published as Empty Cradles), Oranges and Sunshine stars Hugo Weaving, David Wenham and Emily Watson. Set for release in Australia in June 2011.

LBF

http://www.lbfthefilm.com/

LBF is a ‘pop art film’ based on the novel Living Between F***ks by Cry Bloxsome from which it draws much of its wry narration. Paris-based writer Goodchild (Toby Schmitz) returns to Sydney for the funeral of his ex-girlfriend l and steadily veers off the rails. Starring Gracie Otto, Septimus Caton and Australian model April Rose Pengilly, the film also has a very cool little soundtrack featuring aussie bands Boy & Bear and Operator Please. Premiering at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival.

The Telegram Man

 http://www.thetelegramman.com/

Based on a short story by John Boyne, the award-winning author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Set in Australia, The Telegram Man is short film with a mega cast including Gary Sweet and Sigrid Thornton,and will be actor Jack Thompson’s first short film acting debut. Currently in post production and coming soon to a Film Festival near you in 2011.

Adaptation Websites

More? The story doesn’t end here folks…

Australian Adaptations

http://www.middlemiss.org/matilda/film-adaptations/

50 Upcoming Book-to-Movie Adaptations

http://www.nextmovie.com/blog/upcoming-book-adaptations/

Film of the Book: Top 50 Adaptations

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/apr/19/film.books

UK paper The Guardian provides a list of Top 50  usual suspects.

Top Grossing Film Adaptations

As declared by Forbes – there’s billions in the books!

http://au.pfinance.yahoo.com/special-features/top-gross-film-adaptations/index.html

From Page to Screen

Four part article written on worldwide adaptations – successful, unsuccessful and upcoming.

http://www.digitalfie.com/1466-from-page-to-screen-part-4-books-yet-to-be-filmed

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Do you know of any upcoming adaptations with Aussies in them?

Be sure to post below!

Also keen to know your own top 5 Australian adaptations…