At The Movies

Design, animation and visual effects company Animal Logic holds its own against the best of the best in Hollywood – discover how these 'Aussie upstarts' have made their mark on a global scale, while maintaining a strong connection with UTS.

Think back to 1991 when Animal Logic launched a modest visual effects operation in Sydney using a credit card for funding. No commercial internet. No email. No 3D computer graphics.

"The most advanced form of communication was a fax machine," recalls co-founder and Chief Executive Zareh Nalbandian. "When you consider building an international client base and business with a fax machine and put it into the context of what we do today, that demonstrates the rate of change that has occurred in the sector."

Now regarded as one of the world's leading design, visual effects and animation studios servicing the film, television and advertising industries, Animal Logic is renowned for its technical standards and the development of revolutionary software products. For Nalbandian and co-founder Chris Godfrey, it is a far cry from the early days when a silicon graphics computer work station cost anything from $100,000 and $1 million and his team had a company party to celebrate an 8MB upgrade for one of its computers.

Owls and penguins stills from two animated movies

On the back of The Matrix with an Academy Award for its ground-breaking visual effects, another Academy Award in 2007 for its animation work on Happy Feet and its input into a string of other box-office hits, Animal Logic has put Australia on the map for international animation production. Yet Nalbandian still sees his 250-strong team – working out of a studio in Sydney and an office in Los Angeles – as David taking on the Goliath of the Hollywood film business.

"Oh, we are still Aussie upstarts," he says, noting that competition comes from the likes of giants such as DreamWorks, Pixar and Fox's Blue Sky Studios. "But I think we feel a lot more secure about our ability to hold our own against anyone in the world. That helps our confidence."

Screen success

Any discussion of animation in Australia invariably includes Animal Logic. Aside from the Academy Award for Happy Feet, accolades have come for its work on feature films such as Babe, The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Moulin Rouge!, Hero, Australia, 300 and, more recently, The Great Gatsby and Legend of the Guardians. It will release Walking With Dinosaurs this Christmas, while there is great expectation around the looming release next year of The Lego Movie.

The company's television and commercials output has also been prolific. While Nalbandian says every project has contributed to Animal Logic's evolution, "you can't help but have some favourite children". The Matrix trilogy holds a special place given it made the world sit up and take notice of the company, while Moulin Rouge! ("a home-grown Aussie film") and Happy Feet ("definitely a game-changer") get a mention. He also nominates Chinese movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers as important developments for the business – for their creative credentials and the chance to forge a place in the fast-growing China market working with director Zhang Yimou.

Photo of a desk and still of Lego characters

Nalbandian, whose role spans producing films to negotiating the big business deals with clients to secure major film projects, is proud of the role Animal Logic has played in developing proprietary software tools and techniques that have helped revolutionise the animation and visual effects industry.

"We've helped create popular culture with those," he says.

While he puts some of the company's success down to being in the right place at the right time, he credits Godfrey with creating a culture of excellence.

"We believe that if you do great work, good things will come," Nalbandian says. Animal Logic has also been able to juggle the sometimes competing demands of art, technology and business. "This company is very competitive and works very hard for its place," Nalbandian says.

Great talent pool

In tandem with great work is a requirement for great people and to that end, Animal Logic has benefited from a flow of outstanding UTS graduates. The list includes Justen Marshall (software development), Steve Agland (technical director) and Aidan Sarsfield (computer graphics supervisor). Sarsfield has a Bachelor in Industrial Design from UTS and sits on the Executive Council Advisory Board of the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building.

Still from The Great Gatsby movie and a pre-render special effects shot

Renowned for his work as character supervisor on Happy Feet, Sarsfield enjoys his complex role in animated features that can involve 80 lighters, 40 animators and 30 visual effects artists working on a project at one time. "You have to enable a workflow that has all of those people working simultaneously and sharing things between each other," he says. "It's a very complicated and energetic process." Sarsfield says despite the talent at Animal Logic's disposal, egos rarely get in the way. "It's one of the most collaborative enterprises that you could possibly imagine. Everybody is passionate about what they do."

Sarsfield has been at Animal Logic for about 14 years after graduating from UTS and then working as a product designer for Mambo. From an early stage in his career, he loved the freedom of visualising things using computers.

"You could create the most fanciful ideas and not be limited by your ability to build a model or your ability to sketch it."

Strong UTS links

Nalbandian also has UTS connections through his role on the Vice-Chancellor's UTS Business Advisory Board. He welcomes the position because "over the years we've had a great intake of graduates from UTS".

"Not only is there great training within the University, but there is a great training for industry that we really appreciate."

Nalbandian says Animal Logic seeks to support the training of undergraduates with workshops on animation, while it is also eager to engage in research projects with postgraduate students. He believes there should be more partnerships between industry and universities.

"UTS just seems to be a little more open than most in terms of being able to embrace that collaboration," Nalbandian says.

Sarsfield also acknowledges the strength of UTS graduates who have joined Animal Logic. "It's a very steep learning curve for anyone walking into Animal Logic," he says. "So the UTS grounding and the education that you get is an incredibly good starting point. Probably the most important thing in any of our teams is the ability to collaborate – and that is one of the things that we see most from graduates at UTS." His own stint at UTS in the early to mid-1990s holds fond memories for Sarsfield, who recalls a "melting pot of people and ideas" as students from a range of faculties combined to explore and improve their design and creative skills. "That was really beneficial and enjoyable at the time."

Sarsfield says another strength of UTS courses is that they educate students about how to make creative decisions and solve problems within a minimum timeframe and with budgetary restrictions – a skill that is highly relevant today in the animation and visual effects industry.

In his role on the Executive Council Advisory Board, Sarsfield says he appreciates the chance to give something back to the University and contribute to decisions that will shape the learning experience of students into the future.

Focus on the future

As Animal Logic puts the finishing touches on The Lego Movie, which is expected to be another big hit for the company, Nalbandian is conscious of staying ahead of market trends and creating great intellectual property. The company has set up a division, Animal Logic Entertainment, allowing it to expand from producing work for others to developing its own projects.

Nalbandian admits that picking market and technology trends in animation is not easy as the industry grapples with movies versus streaming versus mobile devices versus interactive gaming.

"We are also very tuned into what those changes are and how we should adapt."

One development to which the film industry must respond, according to Nalbandian, is the growth of the Chinese film industry, with its box-office forecast to outstrip the US within the next decade. "Given where we are in Australia we have to be active participants in that market and Animal Logic is very much focused on that."

See more of Animal Logic's animation work on the TOWER app (for iPad and Android)

Words: Cameron Cooper
Image: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole Copyright © 2010 Warner Bros. Pictures; Happy Feet Copyright © 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved; on location at the Animal Logic office; both bottom images: The Great Gatsby Copyright © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures; LEGO® Star Wars®: The Padawan Menace™ Copyright ©2011 The LEGO Group / ©2011 Lucasfilm