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NALBANDIAN, ZAREH – HAPPY FEET

FROM SHOT MAKER TO FILMMAKER
Zareh Nalbandian has worked with, for and among filmmakers for 30 years; but now, with his collaboration as an executive producer with George Miller on Happy Feet, he’s truly one of them, and that means story is king, as he tells Andrew L. Urban.


Only a visionary like Zareh Nalbandian would christen his pioneering visual effects & animation company Animal Logic. It was only 1991 but Nalbandian saw the digital future: he has long sight. Animal, he explained at the time, represents the instinctive world, while Logic of course refers to the rest. It’s a philosophical marriage of notions, and it has served the company well, as digital creative work expanded through the TV commercials world and – finally in 1996 into movies, when Animal Logic launched its feature film operations and based itself at Fox Studios.

"a strong portfolio of credits"

Since moving into feature film, Animal Logic has built up a strong portfolio of credits. Babe, Babe: Pig in the City, The Matrix, Matrix: Reloaded, Charlotte Gray, Moulin Rouge!, Hero and House of Flying Daggers are some of Animal Logic’s notable films, and more recently Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Stealth and World Trade Center.

But it took George Miller’s Happy Feet to propel Nalbandian and his company into being filmmakers pert se, not just service providers to the filmmakers.

“The biggest lesson we’ve all learnt in making Happy Feet,” he says, “is that story is king. In Australia we invest so little on script development … it’s such a huge undertaking to really develop a story.”

In the wake of Happy Feet, Nalbandian aspires to “develop and realise scripts and we hope to build up a real slate of them … but we’ll always work in partnership with others, as we did with Kennedy Miller.”

The driving passion is no longer the seamless FX work; Nalbandian now wants to take a more central role in the story telling process, intimately involved in the painstaking work of finding, developing and filming great stories. “What drive me is making great films,” he says.

The coming together of the digital world of Animal Logic and the live action world of Kennedy Miller posed some challenges, but it also developed extraordinary levels of collaboration that, in the process of medling the digital and live action paradigms, created a new one. In the process, Animal Logic and Kennedy Miller teams created story groups who would show their work to the entire team – which peaked at 550 or so. “And they all gave notes … so everyone was intimately involved in the story,” says Nalbandian. “That’s what helped make the film so much more complex, because different people would see different things.” Audiences, too, will be able to see their own takes in the film, as well as having access to all the elements and layers that are in it.

"to create brand new technique"

Dedicated character animators who worked at the digital end joined the voice actors to realise each character. The end result is a photorealistic world that is technically and creatively the equal of any digital film ever made. Among the highlights are the spectacular ice scapes of Antarctica, and some 300,000 thousand penguins dancing to their own choreography. What we see is talking penguins with feelings showing in their eyes, stunning ice, snow and water; but to achieve these visuals, Animal Logic has had to create brand new techniques and a whole infrastructure, things that have positioned it as a world leader.

“What it has meant for us internally,” says Nalbandian, “is that we have gone from being shot makers to filmmakers. And we’ve taught a whole new young talent pool (average age 27) what it means to be a filmmaker.”

Published December 26, 2006
 

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