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Aussies continue to shine overseas

by Di Campisi

At the 2016 Creative Arts Emmys last weekend in LA, two talented Australians each took home a coveted statue for their outstanding work on one of the world’s most popular television series.

Television juggernaut Game of Thrones dominated with nine wins at this initial awards ceremony of the 68th Emmys, to honour outstanding artistic and technical achievement.

Brisbane-born Deborah Riley collected her third Emmy for her work on the HBO tentpole series, for Outstanding Production Design, while Glenn Melenhorst from Australian animation and visual effects studio Iloura’s Melbourne facility won his first Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects as VFX Supervisor on ‘Battle of the Bastards’, the epic battle sequence in season six between hero Jon Snow and his army of Wildlings, and the Boltons, led by Snow’s nemesis Ramsay Bolton.

When the Emmy nominations were announced in June, HBO’s VFX Producer for Game of Thrones Steve Kullback observed that Iloura deserved much of the credit for ‘Battle of the Bastards’. He said, “We are up close and personal in this battle with CG horses and collisions right in front of the lens and we constantly needed to review Iloura’s shots side by side with the photography because it was hard to remember and even harder to see the difference between what was shot and what was added. Amazing.”

Image: Some of the VFX scenes created by Iloura for Game of Thrones : Battle of the Bastards. (Photo credit: Iloura)

Riley took over as production designer on Game of Thrones in Season 4, and won Emmys in 2014, 2015 and again in 2016. Collecting her 2015 Emmy, Riley said, “From an art department point-of-view, we have a lot of people working with us and this award belongs to them as much as anyone else. Painters, plasterers, carpenters, sculptors, greensmen, set dressers, props people, upholsterers, a whole team, an army of people who give all they’ve got to make the show what it is.”

Riley and Melenhorst are among scores of examples of Aussie world beaters in the screen industries, a list which expands continually. Both cut their teeth on films in Australia and have worked on numerous international productions.

NIDA-trained Riley worked her way up through various roles in the art department on The Matrix, Anna and the King, Moulin Rouge, 21 Grams, Nim’s Island and Jindabyne; Melenhorst is well-known for his work on Ted, The Wolverine, Sanctum and The Bank Job and as VFX Supervisor on Australia and Bran Nue Dae.

Riley is grateful for the production experience she garnered in Australia. “The early years I spent in the Australian film industry was the best introduction I could have had. I was lucky to have a dream run on some fantastic films, which would have been difficult to match anywhere in the world”, she told Fairfax Media in 2015.

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road dominated the 88th Oscars® in 2016, winning six of its ten nominations, the most Academy Awards® ever won by an Australian film. The film earned Oscars for Costume Design (Jenny Beavan), Film Editing (Margaret Sixel), Makeup and Hairstyling (Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin), Production Design (Colin Gibson)/Set Decoration (Lisa Thompson), Sound Editing (Mark Mangini and David White) and Sound Mixing (Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo).

Most of these winners honed their craft on screen productions in Australia which primed their international careers. Gibson, for example, designed the bus for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, having started out in the props department on films such as Flirting, Sirens and Bliss.

Australia’s most prolific Oscar® winner, Catherine Martin, has four gold statues along with five BAFTAs and a Tony Award. When she won the Best Costume Design Oscar in 2014 for The Great Gatsby, she acknowledged “my incredible team, my golden girls”, referring to a group of talented Australian women who have sewn her costume creations for more than 25 years.

Australia has some of the finest screen talent in the world, both in front of, and behind the camera. Our award-winning actors, creative heads of department, efficient crews, skilful technicians and craftspeople are world renowned for their expertise, experience, work ethic and ‘can-do’ attitude and our list of success stories is long and growing.

The conquest of Hollywood by Australian actors has been unstoppable over three decades. Of course, there’s Cate, Nicole, Russell, Naomi and Hugh and Geoffrey Rush – the first actor to win the Oscar, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice Movie Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for his portrayal of David Helfgott in Shine. Plus Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, Guy Pearce, Jack Thompson, Anthony LaPaglia, Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Joel Edgerton, Melissa George, Miranda Otto, Mia Wasikowska, Portia de Rossi, Rose Byrne, Isla Fisher, Simon Baker, Rebel Wilson, Chris Hemsworth and many more.

‘Gumleaf Mafia’ and ‘Aussiewood’ are terms coined to describe the proliferation of Australian actors in Hollywood. Casting directors often credit the success of our actors in securing parts in US blockbusters and top-tier television programs to solid training and experience.

Intrinsic to Australia’s world class film and television creatives is the apprenticeships they serve on local productions, and the opportunities that often presents for them to work on international productions filmed here and overseas.

What else drives this overrepresentation of Australian talent in the screen industries? Australia has some excellent educational facilities – AFTRS, RMIT, WAAPA and NIDA all boast impressive alumni. Since 2007, the federal government’s various rebates and offset programs have generated an increase in domestic production of both local and international films, contributing significantly to the sustainability of the industry and providing our creatives with opportunities to grow their skill sets and enhance their CVs. Screen Australia’s investments in such films as Paper Planes, Oddball and Last Cab to Darwin paid off handsomely in 2015 with a record-breaking year for homegrown films at the Australian box office.

The government has also taken measures to strengthen Australia’s copyright laws to curb high levels of online piracy which jeopardise the screen industries’ viability. Legislation passed in the Australian Senate last June allows rights holders to seek site-blocking injunctions for websites facilitating piracy. Village Roadshow and Foxtel separately launched legal action in early 2016 to block a handful of infringing websites, and the Federal Court is expected to hand down judgments on those cases soon.

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald op-ed piece Screen Australia Graeme Mason said, “When I have attended international markets, I am repeatedly told how talented we Australians are as storytellers – actors, directors, producers and crews – often by the world’s most influential players. I wonder sometimes whether back home we get just how respected and recognised our screen industry is on the world stage.”

Long may it continue.

Update: Since this story was posted, Australian Ben Mendelsohn won a best supporting actor Emmy for his role as Danny Rayburn on the Netflix series Bloodline, beating a strong field of nominees including Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage and Kit Harrington, and Game of Thrones set a new record for the most Emmys ever awarded to a narrative series.

Di Campisi has spent most of her 30-year career as a film and television publicist, including ten years with Paramount Pictures Australia and seven years with the Seven Network. Now a freelance consultant, she works with various screen industry clients including Creative Content Australia, the Australian International Movie Convention, and CinemaLive, and in 2015 she did unit publicity for Jeremy Sims’ film Last Cab to Darwin.