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Practical VFX disappearing from Australia

John CoxOscar-winning VFX artist John Cox says practical effects and creature design will become a lost art in Australia, as an increasing number of professionals are leaving the industry due to the lack of work.

“There’s been no international production in Australia, and the majority of specialists have left the industry,” Cox told Encore.

The last animatronics project that John Cox’s Creature Workshop worked on was Nim’s Island, shot on the Gold Coast in late 2007. Since then, production attraction has been affected by external factors such as the US writers’ strike, the possibility of an actors’ strike, the global financial crisis and the rise of the Australian dollar.

“It’s been one hit after the other, and we’ve seen lots of production houses close and shrink down. The industry review should have been done last year. The government has been unable to respond quickly and tie the rebates to the Australian dollar,” argued Cox.

The situation has been aggravated by the evolving possibilities offered by CG VFX, which have reduced the number of overall projects requiring animatronics and creature suits.

According to Cox, part of the success of many 1980s films – such as Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Gremlins, Harry and the Hendersons – was due to their use of animatronics, but if they were to be re-made today, they would most likely be created with CG effects.

“Would these CGI projects appeal to people? Would the audience like to see a CGI to that type of story, or would they want to see a practical approach?” he questioned.

There may not be as many film and television creature projects as in decades past, but there are still some being shot in other latitudes. Unfortunately, and although Cox’s work is well-known internationally, getting long distance jobs is no easy task

“Most of these projects are American-financed, and the design work takes a long time, so people that live in California prefer to work with companies that are 10 minutes down the road, because they can be more hands-on,” said Cox.

The company has downsized and, to retain its three full-time staff, it will soon have to lease part of their 1100 square metre studio to reduce its overhead costs.

In order to survive, John Cox’s Creature Workshop has also moved into other areas of sculpture work, using their five-axis router to produce physical copies of digital designs.

“I’m embracing digital technology. I saw the writing on the wall years ago, that CG was making such big leaps that they’d be able to do everything, including fur work on creatures, and get any type of emotion and movement in the character’s face.

“But it only exists in the computer, inside a little box and on the screen, so I’ve worked on the technologies that can take a digital file and turn it into a real-world object. That is where we’re positioning our company,” explained Cox.

Using this technology, Cox recently created full size replicas of Speed Racer’s Mach 5 car for Warner Bros.’ promotional efforts, as well as a giant prehistoric crocodile for the Sydney Wildlife World Park and 22 Sesame Street characters for Sea World on the Gold Coast.

Cox will also host a two-day VFX workshop on April 19-20, focusing on workflow, materials and processes such as mixing and mould making.

“Unless you see someone doing it right in front of you, it takes you a number of years to find a technique that works. Some courses touch on moulding and casting, but that’s about it; other than that, you really have to be self-taught, by trial and error, and it takes a long time to get the answers that you need,” explained Cox.

The workshop will feature some of the pieces that form part of the company’s travelling exhibition How to Make a Monster. The collection has just returned to Queensland after a tour of Australia, New Zealand and the US, and it represents a source of income that requires little involvement other than setting it up and moving it to the next location.

More details about the workshop are available here.

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