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Aussie accents define the world of Ga’Hoole in this latest Australian big budget animated movie, as producer Zareh Nalbandian of Animal Logic tells Andrew L. Urban.

Imagine Lord of the Rings with American accents, quipped Zack Snyder, the American director of films like ‘300’ and ‘Watchmen’ as he prepared to cast and direct ‘Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’hoole’. It was part of a conversation with the film’s producer, Zareh Nalbandian, who heads up Sydney based digital effects house and now fully fledged production company, Animal Logic.

"an Australian-set animation fantasy adventure"

The two men were talking about casting the voices of the characters and as Nalbandian’s company had developed the adaptation as an Australian-set animation fantasy adventure (based on the popular books by Kathryn Lasky). They agreed that the Aussie accents would define the world of Ga’Hoole.

Speaking from Los Angeles on the eve of the US premiere (Sept. 19), Nalbandian says “it was a creative choice which really added to their characters.” Their characters are owls, as everyone knows by now, and the film’s Australian sensibilities seemed a natural fit. All the dialogue was recorded a year before the animation team created the visual characters. For the Aussie cast, it was a hoot (pardon the pun) to come back and see their voices in the beaks of the fabulous owls.

Even American actor Jim Sturgess – who plays the hero, Soren - had an Aussie dialect coach, to ensure he fitted in. He is surrounded by some of Australia’s most popular actors, from young stars like Abbie Cornish, Emily Barclay, Joel Edgerton, Deborra-lee Furness and Sacha Horler, through Hugo Weaving, Anthony La Paglia, David Wenham, Richard Roxburgh and Geoffrey Rush to veterans like Sam Neill, Bill Hunter and Barry Otto.

Expat Aussie superstar Ryan Kwanten voices Soren’s older brother, Kludd, whose jealousy has terrible consequences and Britain’s fabulous Helen Mirren makes a vocal guest appearance as Nyra.

The epic story of a young owl (Soren) desperate to save owlkind from the evil Pure Ones, has been adapted from book to screen in what Nalbandian describes as a “groundbreaking film; technically, it’s the most visually complex film I’ve ever seen. Six years ago it would have been impossible to make; even three years ago it would have been ambitious …” Which is just about when Animal Logic began developing it.

"a series of happy coincidences and relationships"

Nalbandian was flying back from Los Angeles after delivering Happy Feet (on which he was one of the producers as Animal Logic did the digital work) when he read enough of the books on the plane to get excited by the idea of a movie adaptation.

In the following year, Animal Logic “bet the bank” on the Ga’Hoole project and worked up the concept, including a mock trailer to show how it might look, which in turn hooked Warner Bros – who in turn showed it to Snyder … who immediately wanted to get involved and direct.

“We had a great relationship with Warner Bros and also with Zach, with whom we worked on 300,” says Nalbandian. “It was a series of happy coincidences and relationships that made it possible to happen.”

It was a huge undertaking; it took 100 person-years just to develop the software required, which (among many other things) allows Snyder his trademark 1500 frames per second slo-mo footage of Soren flying through rain and through fire. The visual effects required the team to create all the most challenging elements, “plus billions of feathers,” adds Nalbandian.

“We used rendering power about 6 or 8 times what we had on Happy Feet,” says Nalbandian. “At the peak of the work, we had 400 people at work, speaking 22 different languages . . . but they did have one common language, and that’s visual.”

Apart from the technicals, there were other big ticket items: 35,000 TimTams and 36,000 beers were consumed during production, as well as 11,000 kilos of chicken. But then at peak, there were 400 people working on the film.

"physical veracity"

Although there is no motion-capture used in the film, Snyder wanted physical veracity – his stunt crew had wings strapped to their arms to perform the martial arts, which were used as a visual guide by the animators.

Nalbandian is “very proud of this film – I think we’ve raised the bar … again.”

By Christmas 2010, Nalbandian hopes to announce Animal Logic’s next animated feature – and by mid 2011, their first live action feature. “We plan to keep making great movies, not just animated movies. Movies with a point of difference . . . films of significance.” Nalbandian is clearly moving Animal Logic into full sclae production, and he says it’s only possible because of the Producer Offset scheme, which provides a rebate of up to 40% of qualifying budget expenditure (similar to schemes elsewhere in the world) and which enables Australian production companies to work on a global scale.

Published September 30, 2010

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Zareh Nalbandian


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