Co-editor Stevie Nelson gets a tour of Sydney from member Colin McDougall
Stevie: HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN LOCATIONS? HOW DID YOU START & WHAT DO YOU PRIMARILY WORK ON?
Colin McDougall: Born and raised in Sydney, I completed study in horticulture and then landscape design and worked as a landscape designer for 15 years. This was at the time when drafting moved from hand-drawn to computer- based design and after spending many years with my head in a computer in AutoCAD, I decided this was not the career I had envisaged. I decided to go back to University to study land resource management and while studying, I started working in catchment management with the municipal water authority and lasted around seven years before the politics became too much.
After taking a year off and traveling around the world with my wife, I was looking for a new career move and had always been interested in film. In 1999, I spoke with a friend of mine, location manager Annelies Norland, to find out exactly what she did. She ended up offering me a job scouting on the Australian feature film Soft Fruit and I haven’t stopped working since. I primarily work on Australian and international feature films, tele-movies and TV series, with the occasional
commercial to fill in between longer form projects.
I also regularly work for international productions that are investigating the feasibility of basing their project in Australia. They are often undertaking a duel investigation into the financial/logistical feasibility while also assessing whether the project will be a good fit from a location/creative point of view.
Stevie: WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE PRIMARY DRAW FOR FILMING IN & AROUND SYDNEY? WHAT KIND OF “LOOKS” ARE THERE?
CM: I think the primary draw for filming in Sydney is the huge diversity of locations combined with an attractive incentive scheme and a wonderful environment to live and work.
Due to our English heritage, Sydney has a strong European look with much of the early architecture. It can also double for many older districts in some North American cities. Sydney’s modern architecture is often a good fit for any generic modern cityscape. We also have residential neighborhoods that are a great match for US or European houses and streets. Sydney is also surrounded by waterways, from the amazing harbour to miles of beautiful beaches and rivers.
Having Fox Studios Australia located only 10 minutes from the center of the city is also a very convenient place for a pro- duction to be based when it has a combination of soundstage and location sets.
Further out from Sydney, we have a wide variety of landscapes from rainforests, deserts, mountains and, of course, beaches, rivers and grass plains—all of which are used for the setting for many productions.
Stevie: WHAT TYPES OF PRODUCTIONS FILM IN SYDNEY?
CM: Many Hollywood feature films shoot here, including Star Wars: Episode II and III, all three Matrix films, Mission: Im- possible II, Superman Returns, The Great Gatsby, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine. We currently have Ridley Scott’s next installment of the Alien franchise in production. We also get a number of other international films, includ- ing Bollywood and UK features, international commercials, TV series and tele-movies. Australian feature films of various sizes are also regularly in production. Local TV dramas are very strong at the moment and there are usually many proj- ects in various stages of production at any one time.
Stevie: WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU FACE IN YOUR JOB?
CM: Paperwork has definitely become more arduous, from per- mit applications, location agreements/releases, to contracts for private location owners. Things just keep getting more complex. I now have more team members on each project just to cover the increasing external and production requirements. Managing the issues associated with high-frequency filming locations is always a challenge. It is totally understandable when residents and business owners get upset when they are impacted by our activities on a regular basis. I always find good, clear, regular and honest communication is the key to finding solutions to these issues.
Stevie: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES TO FILMING SPECIFICALLY IN SYDNEY?
CM: Sydney has become a very busy city with more than 4 million people. Filming has all the challenges faced in most modern world cities. Coordination across all the government agencies and authorities required can be quite a challenge, especially for a large production with significant impact. Our local film office, Screen NSW (New South Wales), does a great job helping to coordinate and liaise with various government bodies. Screen NSW in consultation with many government agencies and the film industry, developed a “Filming Protocol” which was enacted into legislation in 2008. Signaling the support of the NSW government to screen productions by establishing a presumption that approvals for location filming should be supported wherever possible, the Protocol is a document that sets out a framework for all the various councils and other state government agencies (permitting authorities) to classify various film projects (based on impact) and then assess the project/proposed filming activity for permitting. It aims to develop a consistent approach across these various permitting bodies throughout the state. It also sets out a fee structure for permits (based on cost recovery) and sets out concessions for parking of essential production vehicles.
Some areas in the central city are currently experiencing significant disruption to transport and parking due to major infrastructure projects.
Any additional disruptions due to filming activities would be very hard to get approved in these areas. Fortunately, we have a smaller satellite city in the western parts of Sydney called Parramatta, which has some excellent streetscapes and buildings to work for city locations.
Parking, of course, is an ongoing issue in the city area of Sydney that we share with many cities worldwide. Often, we use sites that are vacant and awaiting redevelopment; however, these options come and go. Sometimes there is just no viable option for base camps or even for essential working trucks so we have to base ourselves on the out- skirts of the city and “go guerrilla”—ferrying gear into the location via smaller vehicles.
Stevie: WHAT ARE A LOCATION MANAGER’S FAVORITE “LOOKS” OR LOCATIONS IN SYDNEY? WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITES & WHY?
CM: Cockatoo Island is a decommissioned navy shipyard under management as a heritage precinct. It has a wide variety of industrial warehouses/ buildings, from a fort dating back to convict days to massive industrial buildings that were integral to shipbuilding during the first and second world wars. The whole island is now managed as a heritage public space and filming can be arranged here scheduling around other events and users. Cockatoo Island was a key filming location for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I really love this location as it gives a variety of looks on a large industrial scale, combined with large open spaces.
Another favorite is the suburb of Redfern, located right on the edge of the inner city. It has a long history as a working- class suburb with many of the local residents from families that have lived and worked here for generations. Until recently, it managed to largely avoid the gentrification that has transformed many working-class suburbs around Sydney. It does, however, still have many areas that have great gritty residential houses and streets that work well for different projects.
A sensational, self-contained “go to” location in Sydney is Parramatta jail—a disused prison developed more than 100 years, so there is a range of prison buildings from the original stone cellblocks to more modern administration and holding cell facilities. Production vehicle parking can be contained on the site and of course, it is very secure while filming!
Stevie: WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE OR MOST MEMORABLE FILMING EXPERIENCES?
CM: There are so many, from chasing crocodiles in Kakadu National Park in the tropical north of Australia with a National Geographic crew, to flying in helicopters over the remote southwestern coast of Tasmania, to scout locations for a major US feature film. It’s hard to pin it down to a few.
The Australian feature film Tracks was filmed in part in Cen- tral Australia at Uluru. This was an amazing and memorable experience, not just working in the very remote desert, but also having the opportunity to work closely with indigenous elders. Uluru is a sacred site and there are strict rules govern- ing the use of its image. It was a great opportunity to get their perspective and insights firsthand and to get to know them in the process.
I also once worked on a Bollywood film called Heyy Babyy, which was also quite memorable. We had a full Australian crew as well as a full Indian crew on the production. Of course, we had many singing and dancing sequences to be filmed in various locations around the city. Some required us to shut down city blocks while we had hundreds of dancers of all kinds of nationalities, dressed in their national costumes, dancing to the ever-increasing volume of the playback music.
In December 2010, Oprah Winfrey brought 300 of her biggest fans on an eight-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Australia to film four special episodes of her show, titled “Oprah’s Ultimate Australian Adventure.” I had a great time flying around Australia with the producers finding the best holiday experiences we could put together for her guests and the filming of the show. We arranged to take around 150 of them to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge via the commercial climb operators’ “Bridge Climb.” That was quite the logistical exercise coordinating to get them to all arrive on top of the bridge at the same time.
In 2013, I worked on an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) TV political drama series, The Code. We wanted to shoot our Federal Parliament House in the nation’s capital, Canberra.
This was quite a challenge. While they commonly had news crews reporting inside the House, they had never allowed a drama to film. This took quite a bit of work to negotiate, with many meetings and endless emails and discussions. At the eleventh hour, we finally got the formal permission and access to film. It was quite a logistical exercise to get all the equipment and crew through the security checks each day.However, for me, it was quite an experience getting access to areas of our Parliament House that very few people see, and of course, experiencing firsthand the workings of the Parliament House staff.
Stevie: DOES NEW SOUTH WALES OFFER ANY INCENTIVES TO HOLLYWOOD FILMMAKERS?
CM: The NSW government is committed to making the state the most attractive destination in Australia for major screen projects. It offers incentives to eligible “footloose” productions to attract them to Sydney and regional NSW.
The attraction program is discretionary and incentives are provided in the form of rebates, which are generally formulated based on the Qualifying NSW Production Expenditure. The incentive is determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account demonstrable benefits, including job creation, NSW production expenditure, skills development and technology transfer.
These incentives can be accessed on top of the Australian federal government’s Location Offset, and the Post/Digital/ Visual Effects Offset and Producer Offset.
Stevie: WHAT ARE YOUR TOOLS OF THE TRADE?
CM: My main photographic tools are a Nikon D800 and a D750. My everyday go-to lens is a Nikkor 17mm-35mm f2.8. However, I also use a 24mm-70mm f2.8 and a 70mm- 200mm f2.8 for longer shots. Most of my day-to-day computer work is done on a 15-inch MacBook Pro and my archiving and backup of images are done on a bank of hard drives connected to a Mac Pro in my office.
I do all my photo organization and editing in Adobe Light- room and generally create reports and image documents in InDesign.
Probably the tool I use the most now is my iPhone 6, for everything from navigating and creating GPS tracks while scouting on the road, to getting sun path data or tracking weather on a radar app as it moves toward set, to give the ADs the heads-up of the approaching storm. I am now using the excellent camera in the phone more and more, especially to take image notes for later reference.
And of course, the Toyota Prado 4X4 gets me most places I need to go.
Stevie: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THE JOB?
CM: I love the way doors are opened to us, to experience worlds we would not usually have access to. I love that we get to see many hidden places that you would normally never be able to visit. I really enjoy that we get to meet interesting people from all sorts of professions and get a brief view into their world; from wealthy persons living in mansions, to loners living in the most remote parts of a big country. From meeting politicians to miners, it’s such interesting work we do.
I also get satisfaction solving a creative location problem, especially a difficult doubling problem. Maybe it’s trying to find a great match for a Malibu house, or it might be a London street. I love the feeling when you creatively crack it and the option also works well from a logistic and production point of view.
Stevie: WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO JOIN THE LMGI & HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A MEMBER?
CM: I joined the LMGI earlier this year. I believe joining the LMGI will help me get a broader perspective on our profession by being more exposed to how other location professionals approach their work, the challenges they face and how they solve them. I am also hoping to get the opportunity to meet more people who do what we do from all over the world.
Colin’s Private Tour
Well, of course, there is the world-famous Sydney Opera House. Another must-see place that not many visitors get to see is the Quadrangle building at the University of Sydney. It is the original building built more than 100 years ago and it looks like something out of Harry Potter. As the name implies, the build- ing is in the shape of a rectangle with an open-grassed courtyard on the interior and the detail in the beautiful carved stonework, including gargoyles as stone window frames, are simply amazing. Definitely a must see.
Paddy Pallin, which sells all sorts of adventure and outdoor gear, is located in the midtown area of St. George. You will find a great range of high-quality clothing as well as backcountry essentials such as boots, backpacks, flashlights, etc.—all the gear you will need when working in a remote location.
Sydney has a great blend of restaurants. Our cuisine is heavily influenced by our proximity to Asia and our growing Asian population. Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food are all popular. If you want to try something a little more special, try Toko in Surry Hills. It specializes in modern Japanese, and it has beautiful curving timber architectural details. I have filmed in this restaurant a number of times as it has a great look. Seafood is also sensational in Australia and you can choose from the very casual Aussie staple “fish and chips” to some really outstanding Australian seafood, at Flying Fish on Jones Bay Wharf.
PLACE TO SEE BY NIGHT:
The Sydney Harbour for sure. There are a few ways to do it. Take a cruise on one of the many different commercial operators on the harbour and see the city lights or hire a water taxi for a private tour. A great cheap alternative is to catch one of the many public com- muter ferries that head in many different directions around the harbour. Or even better, get down to the Cruising Yacht Club at Rushcutters Bay and hitch a ride as a crew member on a racing yacht and take part in the summer twilight races on the harbour. Always to be finished off with some good Aussie prawns (shrimp) and a beer or two while the sun sets.
A walk around the harbour front is also a great thing to do at night. You can walk from the restaurant district of Cockle Bay, through the newly redeveloped Baran- garoo area, under the harbour bridge and into the historic rocks area. From here, you can continue past Circular Quay, where ferries are coming and going to all parts of the harbour, finishing up at the Sydney Opera House.
BEST DAY TRIP:
The coast south of Sydney where I live is beautiful. Take a drive through the Royal National Park on the southern outskirts of the metro area and see beautiful wild beaches, following winding roads that take you through the rainforest, then come out to a spectacular view down the cliffs, headlands and beaches of the Illawarra coast at Bald Hill. Continue onto Sea Cliff Bridge, a suspended curving bridge built beside the cliffs and over the ocean.
If you have time, take the two-hour drive further south of Sydney to the crystal clear water and beautiful beach- es of the Jervis Bay Marine Park, which are reported to have some of the whitest sand in the world. I once sent a sample of this sand to another LA-based LMGI member for a project we were working on.Ithinkitcausedabitofastirinthe production office when a bag of white powder turned up in the mail.
I love the inner-city suburbs, includ- ing Surry Hills, Redfern, Newtown and Glebe areas, just to name a few. They generally have a very arty vibe, lots of great galleries, funky cafes with great
coffee and food and literally hundreds of restaurants to choose from. Of course, you will always find an Aussie pub on most corners to help quench a thirst. For a change of pace, get down to Bondi, which is probably Australia’s most fa- mous beach suburb. Many of the people working in our industry live here enjoy- ing a more relaxed beach lifestyle.
FAVORITE LOCAL ARTIST:
Brett Whiteley is my favourite visual artist. Unfortunately, Brett is no longer with us. However, you can still visit his warehouse studio in the suburb of Surry Hills where he painted many of his most influential works. The studio is now run as a gallery museum that displays many of the works Brett was working on at the time of his death in 1992. He is famous for his interpretation of the Sydney landscapes with many focused on the harbour where he lived nearby for much of his life.
Try the Opera Bar on the water’s edge at the Opera House. A great place to mingle with the after-work types on a Friday evening with beautiful views over the harbour to the city. If you would like a more edgy experience, try one of the many pubs in the very alternative suburb of Newtown and enjoy a drink with an inter- esting cross section of Aussie culture from hipsters to transvestites.
BEST PLACE TO HEAR MUSIC:
The best places to hear music are defi- nitely the pubs and clubs. You will find a wide range of styles of music from a singer- songwriter performing, to a lunchtime crowd of city workers, to a more upbeat Friday-night or Saturday- night rock band. The Basement is an inner-city music institution. It’s a very intimate venue, perfect if you like blues, jazz or rock. The Basement hosts great live performances. No matter where you’re standing, you can hear the music, see the band and reach the bar.
BEST VANTAGE POINT/SCENIC VIEW:
North Head has a fantastic uninterrupted elevated view all the way down the harbour to the city. Sydney Tower also has a spectacular bird’s-eye view over the city. You can also try the walkway along the Cahill Expressway with a great vantage for views of Circular Quay, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, although the classic shot is from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair in the Domain Park where tourists line up to get the clas- sic shot across the harbour to the Opera House in front of the Harbour Bridge.
Also try the coast walk from Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach, which starts at the iconic Icebergs Sea Pool, giving wonderful views of the beaches and sandstone cliffs that define the Sydney coastline. You will see beautiful houses hugging the cliffs, all vying for a view over the ocean.