'Ascendant'.

It was always going to be a big ask for Stage 23.

Antaine Furlong’s sci-fi thriller Ascendant (formerly Rising Wolf) required the visual effects company to provide more than 400 VFX shots, including 2D composites, photoreal 3D environments, and complex supernatural effects sequences, all while navigating a global pandemic.

However, through the use of cloud rendering, an expansion of their team from four to 15, and a transition to a largely remote workflow, Stage 23 managed to overcome the odds to bring Furlong’s vision of a dark, near-future Shanghai to life.

The independently-funded feature, which is about a young environmentalist who awakes in the elevator of a super high-rise building at the mercy of her tormentors, is scheduled for release at the beginning of April, having been filmed at Fox Studios last year.

Written by Furlong and Kieron Holland, the film stars Charlotte Best (Home and Away), Susan Prior (The Rover), and Jonny Pasvolsky (Westworld).

Producing alongside Furlong are Drew Bailey, James Vernon, and Kirsty Vernon, while Bec Kemp and Elizabeth Harris join him as executive producers.

Stage 23 co-founder Christian Debney told IF the scale of the production had allowed the company to show what they were capable of.

“One of the main things we learned is that work of this scale and quality can be done with a small team,” he said.

“Speaking to other people about the size of the project and the quality of the work, we got the sense it would normally be left to one of the bigger studios to handle.

“It was initially going to be less than 100 shots but the more we worked with the director and the editor and realised what a key component the VFX was becoming, it ended up being more than 400.”

“We worked out ways of streamlining the whole pipeline in such a way a small company like ours can do.”

Debney founded Stage 23 with Jonathan Hairman after the pair worked together on Swinging Safari, on which the former was 2nd unit director and the latter was visual effects supervisor.

The company has since done visual effects for a range of film and television productions, including 2067, The End, Go Karts, Palm Beach, and Judy and Punch.

Debney, who has also directed music videos and made animations for the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, said Stage 23’s relationship with post-production house Spectrum Films and its managing director Josh Pomeranz had played a part in its progression.

“I’ve done a few projects with Josh and he trusts the quality of our work,” he said.

“We were introduced to the director and producers via Spectrum, and they liked our approach and enthusiasm.

“We did a few 3D tests and we won the job.”

Antaine Furlong’s film could soon open more doors for Stage 23, which is currently in talks for other film projects, while also creating its own IP in the form of psychological thriller Encircled.

Debney said he expected the company to benefit from Australia’s increased production slate amidst the worldwide pandemic.

“We’re finding that the Australian film industry is just booming at the moment,” he said.

“I think the ripple effect of more people coming over here to shoot will be that companies like us and maybe some of the smaller VFX houses will be able to produce more work.

“We’re certainly getting more calls than we have been the last few years, so I think it’s just a matter of taking advantage of it.”

Ascendant will be released in cinemas April 8 via Maslow Entertainment.

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