When director Zack Snyder's animated fantasy adventure Guardians Of Ga'hoole opens worldwide in 2010, it will be Zareh Nalbandian's first credit as a feature producer - and Australia's first 3D feature.
Nalbandian is co-founder and major shareholder of the privately owned Animal Logic at Sydney's Fox Studios. The company measures up strongly against leading visual-effects designers: it helped the Wachowski brothers design The Matrix code, assisted Baz Luhrmann's vision of late-1800s Paris for Moulin Rouge, served up stylised Spartans in Snyder's 300, and helped George Miller win an Oscar and a Bafta for penguin musical Happy Feet.
Now the focus is Guardians Of Ga'hoole, financed by Village Roadshow and Warner Bros and about young courageous owls battling nasty rogue owls. The difference is Animal Logic is calling the shots, a big leap from being a service company, the guise it is presently working under on Luhrmann's Australia and Alex Proyas' Knowing. Nalbandian has worked hard to become a content creator in his own right so it is not surprising to learn he is a 3D trailblazer.
"The 3D movies that have come out have tended to be made after the production of the film," says Nalbandian. He suspects the situation is changing slightly, partly due to DreamWorks' 3D bias. "We will get all sorts of efficiencies and a better creative result by running the two processes concurrently. We always wanted to make the film in 3D but approval of a 3D stereoscopic version came after the 2D version."
The decision to produce a film in 3D adds 10% to the budget, says Nalbandian. In the world of CG film-making, dropping in a camera to add depth of field is much easier than if shooting live action. "There is a whole language to be developed using 3D cinematography," he says, "It changes your reading of a shot, a scene, the character's emotion. We'll have lots of fantastic aerial battles."
John Orloff (A Mighty Heart) and Sydney-based Scot John Collee (Happy Feet) have written the Ga'hoole script, based on the first three of US writer Kathryn Lasky's 15-book children's series. These were originally optioned by Warner Bros, which has a development deal with Animal Logic.
If the film is certified Australian on completion, it will be able to claim back 40% of its local expenditure under the territory's new producer offset. It already has a provisional certificate, despite Snyder being American.
"This may sound cliched but all we were thinking of was making a great film," says Nalbandian. "At the end of the day, if you don't make a great film and don't reach international audiences, you are doomed to fail... At the point when Zack came on board, there were so many Australian elements that I still felt the balance was there to support it but it wasn't the first consideration."
Ga'Hoole would have been less ambitious, less likely to succeed internationally perhaps, without the financial offset, he says. But the offset's real value is giving him more confidence to invest significant sums of time, talent and effort into development, the aim being to produce one film per year. Six animated features and several visual-effects films are now in development.
"If you don't do that (develop), you don't have creative control or a high level of ownership and you end up being relegated to being what the 15% offset (in place for offshore films) allows you to be, which is a location... or a facility for a US studio."
Animal Logic's Grant Freckelton was visual-effects art director on 300 and will be supervising art director on Ga'hoole. Snyder is still finishing Watchmen but talks regularly to Sydney via high-definition video conferencing.
Ga'hoole features the environments and natural landscapes of Tasmania - and Australian animals in the line-up of creatures. It will be unique, suggests Nalbandian, because although the tone will be similar to a Harry Potter or The Lord Of The Rings film, it will be entirely animated: "We are realising it with a high level of visual complexity and visual reality... it feels more like a live-action film with CG components than a traditional cartoon animation," he says.
Nalbandian emphasises great film-making is about great storytelling and characters, not technique, but Ga'hoole may help rewrite the computer-animation manual. An estimated 50 years of research and development will be involved.
"The level of technological development now taking place in the company surpasses anything we have done to date, and will have very positive flow-on effects for all the films we make from here on," says Nalbandian. He mentions, as an aside, Animal Logic's ground-breaking software allowing its 4,000 or so computers ("Enough to heat up a small city") the intelligence to predict usage in the hour ahead and power themselves up and down accordingly, saving electricity consumption.
"We had a trial by fire on Happy Feet and came out OK," says Nalbandian. "I am thoroughly enjoying it. The challenge is huge but I'm supported by so many talented people and am very confident. It's great for me in terms of personal satisfaction after all these years."
Zareh Nalbandian's Cultural Life
Favourite recent books The Guardians Of Ga'hoole series. I was inspired by Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy six years ago and was so disappointed by the film adaptation The Golden Compass.
Favourite recent films Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium.
Newspapers: The Sydney Morning Herald on a Saturday morning is an institution. I occasionally sneak a peak at the Financial Review.
Magazines I don't read them though I'm partial to architectural mags.
Where do you find inspiration' Travel, architecture, reading.