Simon Rosenthal, Head of VFX at Australia’s Oscar and Emmy-nominated VFX house Iloura, speaks to us about the special effects industry, working with Seth MacFarlane, and how SpongeBob is more complex than Jon Snow.
Iloura is a company on the rise, having worked on recent blockbusters such as Ted, The Great Gatsby, Ghostbusters and Mad Max: Fury Road, for which they received an Oscar nomination. Seth MacFarlane calls Iloura’s work on Ted “the finest character animation I’ve ever seen on film”. And while Ghostbusters received initial criticism prior to the film’s release from fans overly protective of their beloved franchise, it’s had a strong showing, both critically and in the box office, since it came out.
To top things off, last week they received their first ever Emmy nomination for their spectacular work on the ‘Battle of the bastards’ episode of Game of Thrones – arguably the greatest battle scene ever seen on television. And this is what the show’s VFX producer, Steve Kullback, had to say about Iloura’s work: “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.”
It may seem like Iloura is an overnight success but the company’s history actually goes back some 30 odd years, making them one of the older players in the special effects business. They started with basic post-production services in advertising and then branched out into animation in 1999 when they decided to buy a local animation company in Melbourne. From there, it would be another six years before they tried their luck with feature films.
Their first US feature was Charlotte’s Web, which was shot in and around Melbourne and released in 2006. Since then it’s been onwards and upwards.
GQ: It’s pretty exciting you got nominated for an Emmy.
Simon Rosenthal: Yes it’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? It’s been 20 odd years doing this and we’ve finally got a nomination. In fairness we did get a nomination for an Oscar for Fury Road. But I think we’re a good chance with the Emmy so we’ll see how it plays out.
When did you start with the company?
I joined in '96 so I’ve been here for just over 20 years. I’ve been here for most of the ride. As indeed have a lot of other people. It’s a business that’s been able to maintain its core workforce, which has been fabulous. There are a lot of people here who’ve been here for a long period of time.
Is it hard getting work in the US, being based in Australia?
No. It’s our core target. In 2015, 96 per cent of our revenue came from the US market. And this year we’re expecting it to roughly be around 99 per cent.
So Australian VFX houses have a good reputation over there?
We do. But the other advantage of Australia is that you get a great rebate from the federal government so it’s a very attractive proposition. And the dollar is obviously low compared to the US dollar and that’s incredibly helpful. But we also just keep on churning out great work. Whether it’s us or Animal Logic, Rising Sun or Luma, there are some great facilities in Australia. And we can provide a great service to what I’d say is a fairly difficult industry – a highly competitive industry.
Switching gears to Game of Thrones, how long did it take to create that battle scene?
We were on the show for about eight or nine months. They were an incredibly organised, really efficient production. They’ve obviously done this for many years, so they knew exactly what they were doing. They know exactly what they need. And they were incredibly helpful all throughout the process. Eight or nine months is sort of our standard duration for a project.
Even for feature films?
Yeah. We were doing Ghostbusters at the same time. And that ran for pretty much the same period of time. Unless you’re getting into a heavy character animation piece. When we did SpongeBob, that was much longer. That was well over a year. So they’ve got to be organised and really have everything mapped out beautifully so that everything can fall into place and work.
How much creative freedom do you get?
Depends on the job. With Game of Thrones, these guys knew exactly what they want and how they wanted it to look. It was an exercise in working through how we would implement that; how we would make that happen. Other projects like Ghostbusters, we were given a little more latitude to help design and work with the ghosts to see what they should look like.
How closely do you work with the directors?
We tend to work with a visual effects supervisor: they’re the intermediary between us and the director. Occasionally we will work very closely with the director. We worked pretty closely with Seth MacFarlane on Ted. But normally you’d like to think there would be a bit of a go-between who can help us navigate the fairly complex process. It also depends on how many special effects house are working on a particular job. Sometimes there’s just one and sometimes there are a dozen, depending on the size of the job.
How do you deal with security in regards to spoilers and leaks?
We’re pretty rigid with our security here. We get audited by the Motion Picture Association of America on a fairly regular basis. A lot of it is around physical security, but also digital security. So we’ve got some pretty good procedures in place. And contractually there are things that we can and can’t say, which is absolutely fine. We understand that. And you just have to adhere to them.
You’ve worked with Seth MacFarlane on multiple occasions: on the Ted films as well as A million ways to die in the west. How did that partnership come about?
We were working on Ghostrider and some of the people connected with that film were also connected to Seth on Ted. Now Ted hadn’t actually been greenlit by the studio yet at that point. My understanding was that Seth was looking for some sort of proof of concept to show the studio that this would actually work. So we did a test for him. Basically we brought Ted to life, and once it was greenlit, we were given the opportunity to work on the project based on the fact that we’d done this test for him.
That must have been a fun project.
It was a lot of fun to work on. We’re very careful with the way we select our projects. We want to enjoy working on them. You get the best results by immersing the team into a particular project so we’re very careful about the projects we choose. And Game of Thrones was a project that everyone was so incredibly enthusiastic and motivated about so that worked really well. Ghostbusters was another project that people here particularly enjoyed. It played to the strengths of the business around animation. You’ve got to pick horses for courses.
Are you happy with how Ghostbusters turned out?
There was a lot of bad press about Ghostbusters and I think it was unnecessary bad press prior to its release. The reviews and the box office have been strong so I would like to think that Sony is pretty happy with the result. I have no issue with the fanbase having a go at the film if they’ve seen it and if it doesn’t match their expectations but the reality is until you’ve actually sat down and watched the two hours of it, you’re really not in a position to comment.
Have there any projects that you weren’t happy with personally?
There have been some projects we’ve done where, in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have taken them on. And it’s not always the entire project. What they’ll do with projects is that they’ll break them up into sequences and they’ll give us sequence A, B, C and another visual effects house D, E and F and so on. And sometimes, while A and B may be incredibly suitable to the business, C may not be. And that’s when it gets a bit challenging, when you think, well actually this isn’t really our area of expertise. But I’d say overall, by virtue of our selection process, and making sure that we do pick the right job, they’re few and far between
How many artists worked on ‘Battle of the bastards’?
It was about 90.
That’s quite a lot.
Yeah, well as far the projects we do, they can vary from 30 to up to 120, 150 even. Depending on what the project is. It can be a challenge finding the right crew and the right skillsets for a job but you’ve just got to go through the process. We go through a vigilant recruiting and vetting process to make sure that the people we bring in are indeed the right people for the job.
So how do you feel about the Emmys?
We’ll just wait and see what happens over the next month or so. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed really.
How would you celebrate if you win?
I’m sure there would be a fair whack of champagne spread around. It’s a great landmark and a great milestone for the business if we win. It’s just so extraordinarily exciting. These opportunities don’t come up that often – to be nominated for an Emmy and for a project like Game of Thrones is just fantastic. So fingers crossed that it all comes off.
Will you be working on the show in future seasons as well?
Possibly. I would like to think so. It was an enjoyable experience. It was a tough experience but it was an enjoyable experience. So I’d like to think there’s an opportunity there. Obviously they’ve got another season coming up now and we’ll see how that plays out. We’d absolutely like to. But it depends on timing. It depends on what other projects we’ve got playing. We’ll just wait and see but I think the general feeling from the group is that it would be a fantastic opportunity to get involved again.
So what’s next for Iloura?
We’re finishing off a film called Deepwater Horizon, which is a really interesting looking movie. The trailer looks fabulous. We’re halfway through a film being directed by Angelina Jolie called First they killed my father, which again is a really interesting story. And then there’s a whole raft of other bits and pieces and some pretty exciting projects in bid that I can’t mention just yet.
And finally, what’s a dream project that you’d like to work on in the future?
A dream project would be an Animated Feature at the quality level of Pixar. Failing that, maybe a comedy directed by Seth MacFarlane starring lots of nasty creatures!