Zareh Nalbandian (Photo: James Horan)

The current production boom is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for Australia to re-establish itself as a powerful filmmaking country, according to Animal Logic co-founder and CEO Zareh Nalbandian.

Animal Logic celebrates its 30th birthday this year, during a period that Nalbandian regards as “healthy and busy” for the industry.

The executive reflected on the success and challenges that have faced the company over its three decades last week in a conversation with Margaret Pomeranz, an event organised by the Australian Consulate-General in Los Angeles together with Australians in Film, Ausfilm and Screen Australia.

There are few Australian screen businesses that can boast the international name recognition of the studio, having crafted visual effects and animation across projects such as The Matrix, Moulin Rouge!, Happy Feet 1 and 2, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, The Great Gatsby and the LEGO franchise.

With teams spanning Sydney, Vancouver and LA, in recent years the company has also broadened into creating its own IP, via the family-focused Animal Logic Entertainment and the genre-focused Truant Pictures. Among its credits are Peter Rabbit and its recent sequel, as well as the upcoming film The Shrinking of Treehorn, to be directed by Ron Howard via its partnership with Imagine Entertainment.

Nalbandian founded Animal Logic in 1991 with Chris Godfrey, born from a desire to collaborate with like-minded people and focus on producing great work.

The duo had previously run software company Discreet Logic, which they started in Australia and then set up in Montreal, before later selling.

It was an acquisition of the Video Paint Brush Company that led to the creation of sister company, Animal Logic.

“We had great people that came with us like art director Felicity Coonan, who is probably Australia’s first pioneering digital artist. Others, like David Booth, who’s now a principal of a company called SlateVFX, and Lynne Cartwright, who was the Animal Logic VFX supervisor on The Matrix movies,” Nalbandian told Pomeranz.

“There was 12 of us, so it wasn’t a huge team, but like-minded people who just wanted to do great work.

At that stage, starting the company was a leap into the unknown. Nalbandian said they never would have gotten past “first base” without the relationships they cultivated.

The company began by working on advertising campaigns, alongside other businesses like David Deeneen’s Filmgraphics. Producer Andrew Mason introduced the company to Alex Proyas, and then Barrie Osborne and the Wachowskis, which led to its work on The Matrix.

“It’s always been one relationship leading to another,” said Nalbandian.

“We worked with George Miller on the titles for the first Babe movie, but then worked on visual effects for Babe Pig in the City, which brought us together for Happy Feet.

“We worked with Zack Snyder on commercials, and then we worked on 300, where Grant Freckleton, our art director, broke the back of the look of that film, in terms of how to translate the graphic novel to the screen. Then with the success of 300, he ended up directing a movie I produced called Legend of the Guardians.

“Similarly with the LEGO movies, we produced a short called The Padawan Menace. I’d been working with Dan Lin on a couple of things and then he introduced me to The LEGO Movie.”

Among the key changes witnessed of the 30 years are of course that in technology, with Nalbandian noting they established the company before the internet, in the days when the best form of communication was the “colour fax machine”.

However, for the CEO, the heart of Animal Logic’s culture remains at the cross-section of where creative meets technical.

“It’s still about the convergence of creativity and technology. How do we keep those two things in balance, keep pushing forward and surprise audiences?

The course for Animal Logic has not always run smooth, with the fate of the company often subject to the whim of the dollar, government policy and the cyclical nature of industry. But Nalbandian reflected that every year has led to innovation.

“We’ve had some really horrendous years financially because it’s such such a cyclical industry. But we’ve never had a bad year creatively,” Nalbandian reflected.

“If I look back with the 30 years we’ve been doing this as an exercise, every year I could point to something wonderful that the team produced, some new ground, that we broke or a new relationship that we built.”

It was on George Miller’s Happy Feet that Nalbandian felt the company went “from shotmakers to filmmakers”, and ultimately began to move towards developing its own IP.

“It inspired me to develop and and tell our own stories, which started with the Zack Snyder film Legend of the Guardians.

“Since then, we’ve invested a huge amount, and developed a wonderful slate of family films. We’ve forged a partnership with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s company, Imagine Entertainment. We’ve got incredible relationships with studios like Warner Bros, Paramount, Netflix and Sony.

I‘ve seen the company progress from being a service company to being a great partner for studios, but also telling our own stories, and developing IP and owning and controlling it.

“I think it’s so important for Australia, because otherwise we become a backlot service country. As opposed to when I was growing up in the film industry, which was a real renaissance in Australian films, when great stories were being told. They were part of our national culture. There were incredible emerging filmmakers who went on to take over the world. We weren’t a backlot facility. We were truly visionary filmmakers. I hope that Animal Logic, in its own way, can contribute a little bit towards that as an industry.

Reflecting on the journey, Nalbandian is most proud of the jobs Animal Logic has created, the careers its started and the industry it has had a hand in growing.

“At the core of it is that idea of getting great jobs for young people who can get to stay in Australia and then work on movies and TV that are as good as any in the world.

“What excites me is that we can actually affect popular culture around the world out of Australia. We don’t have to always import our culture. We can also export it.”

As for the current production boom, he hopes the settings that have helped encourage it will last.

“I just hope that we can keep those policies, and keep that consistency of projects coming to Australia, or emerging from Australia, so that we don’t have a brain drain.

“That’s the thing that hurts us the most, is when there are lags in production, lags in activity, and you lose live-action crew, digital crew, filmmakers. They leave and sometimes never come back. It’s so sad to see that. But I do think that we’re going into a real period of strength, and I hope that’ll see us grow and solidify and be stronger than ever.”

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