Nov 052015
 

I first started working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Sydney when I was 17 years old, joyfully working on some of the crappiest cartoons ever made. I remember that time as one of great personal triumph, but also profound and enduring heartbreak.

The inbetweener: cartoons

I’d wanted to work in animation since I was 8 years old but thought such a career wasn’t even possible in Australia because I’d never seen a cartoon with Australian voices. When attending a weekend animation seminar at the age of 15 however, I learned that many American cartoons on TV were actually made at a big animation studio in Sydney; Hanna-Barbera. This was an alleluia moment for a lifelong cartoon nerd and I set about getting a job there. After mailing them letters and drawings for a year or more, they finally responded by sending me a drawing test. Using character model-sheets as a guide, I was to pose Hanna-Barbera characters in as many different situations as I could. The model-sheets were from “Kwicky Koala”, the last ever cartoon by Tex Avery, a TV series that was made in Sydney the year before. (The characters “Ratso the rat” and “Dirty Dawg” were where the great Tex Avery ended his career, but where I started my own).

Hanna-Barbera liked my attempts at drawing their characters and called me in for an interview, and Dad accompanied me on the long train journey from my hometown to Sydney. While the typical animation/cartoon portfolio of today is badly drawn anime, back then it was poor man’s Frazetta; lumpy drawings of awkwardly posed, axe-wielding barbarians, accompanied by equally misshapen warrior maidens in brass bikinis, whereas my own portfolio consisted of a few illustration jobs I’d done in my hometown. When I showed my T-shirt designs, cartoons for the local newspaper, and some illustrations for the school magazine, to my surprise and delight Hanna-Barbera offered me a job on the spot. I was 17 years old and could barely contain my excitement, and it took the tag-team of Mum and Dad to calm me down and counsel me not to throw off my final year of high school with only a few months till my final exams. To stop my teen-whining about their repressive parental fascism, they compromised by allowing me to work at Hanna-Barbera during term breaks in my final year of high school.

In September 1981 I was unbelievably excited to have several weeks working as an animation assistant, an ‘inbetweener‘, at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. I stayed with my Aunty Marg and Uncle Keith near Manly Beach, and caught the 144 bus to St. Leonards and the Hanna-Barbera studio, where I worked my arse off every day and eagerly stayed late most nights. Every animation studio I’ve worked at since has at least one annoying spotty-faced, cardigan-wearing, eager beaver, and in 1981 it was me; “Animation! Oh boy!” One memory of this time which doesn’t involve me sitting at a lightbox and quivering with febrile excitement from head to toe, was going into downtown Sydney to see a new movie that everyone at the studio was talking about; “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” which had just opened in Australia. Hollywood’s early 1980s power couple of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just produced a bouncing baby mega-hit and I was working in showbiz myself. Life was just peachy-keen. When my time as an inbetweener was over I went back to finish high school as per the agreement with Mum and Dad, secure in the knowledge that I’d lined up a job for myself when I finished high school (which was just as well, because a few months later I botched my final written exam so it’s fortunate that I wasn’t relying on my HSC marks to get a job). Hanna-Barbera had a late-starting season in 1982 and the timing was perfect, as my family had a lot going on that year and I was glad to be with them.

My mother had given birth to the last of her seven children, my brother Alex, in mid December 1981, and began having mysterious seizures culminating in a particularly terrifying fit after she’d come home from hospital. In the many years since, I’ve often thought about the unbelievable bad luck that not only did my mother have that seizure at all, but that it occurred at the exact moment she had a pan of boiling water in her hands. One minute earlier or later and her hands would’ve been empty. She’d have still had the seizure but would’ve fallen to the ground otherwise unscathed and been spared the intense pain of being doused with a spilled pan of boiling water. So much misery hinged on the quirks of an instant. Apart from the agonizing burns this brought her, it also made for a puzzle of symptoms for the doctors to pick through; partial paralysis, ongoing seizures, burns, all after a history of blood clotting.. Which were causes and which were effects? Answering these questions was the focus of early 1982, when Dad (and later myself) accompanied Mum to Sydney for a variety of medical tests and examinations at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Back then they didn’t have the wonderful brain imaging gizmos available today. I’ve recently had brain scans aplenty and the resolution these days is surprisingly clear, but in 1982 the images were hopelessly vague and ambiguous, like photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as likely to cause wooly theorising. There was a dark smudge on my Mum’s brain scans but what was it? A blood clot? Or perhaps something more sinister?

the inbetweener: brain scans

With any other organ in the human body, the very next step would be surgery to find out what that ominous shadow actually is. However, cutting into the living human brain – the repository of what makes each of us actually ‘us‘ – is only a last resort. First, many tests were done in an attempt to surmise what that shadowy thing might be but they were all inconclusive, and the mystery of what horror lurked inside my poor Mum’s head was not resolved until she underwent a brain biopsy; the crude and invasive process of opening up her skull and cutting into her brain to look inside. When Dad and I visited Mum after this grim procedure her head was shaved and the horrifying scars on her skull were bandaged, but I was keenly aware of their presence. She had pipes going into her nose and mouth and was connected to electrodes and monitors. It was a nightmare image that haunts me still. She was weakly conscious though, and gave us a reassuring little smile before needing to rest. It was a sombre ferry ride back across Sydney Harbour to Manly. Although I’d always thought she’d pull through her ordeal, and had blithely reassured her many times, I finally sensed in that knowing part of my guts that my dear Mum would actually die, and when we got back to my Aunty Marg’s house I lost my composure and broke down in grief at the realisation.

The doctors soon confirmed what I somehow knew; she had terminal brain cancer and not a blood clot as was previously hoped. Mum decided to return to our hometown rather than submit to a treatment at a Big City specialist hospital that would not save her, but merely prolong a hospital stay far from her family and her newly-born child. We all returned to Armidale to await the inevitable and Mum was setup in her own room at the hospital near our house. Depending on her strength sometimes Mum would come home for the day, where our focus was on her comfort and hers was on getting to know her youngest child, Alex, (who was not even one year old when months later Mum finally died). I’ve recently had to endure a tiny fraction of the physical difficulties that my Mother went through, a mere crumb by comparison, but I now have a visceral reminder of what a brave and wonderful soul she was. I already knew this, and felt it keenly, but more recently my appreciation for her ability to persevere bravely in the face of hopeless heartbreaking hardship now verges on awe.

One night, after hospital visiting hours were over, I went to the Drive-In with my mates to sit in the back of my mate Phil’s ute, and watch a movie and drink. Drink quite a lot, in fact. I’d already downed substantially more booze than my meagre alcohol capacity, when I stuck my head in the cab to ask Phil to pass me another bottle, at the precise moment he slammed the door. It should be noted here that the door to Phil’s ute was ‘sticky’ and always required an extra HEAVE to close. A force that was applied to my skull, and it rang like a gong from the mighty blow. There was much hilarity, even from me, and as I lay down in the tray of the ute I heard my own laughter as if from afar but could feel no pain, which should have been a sign. The chattering voices of my mates faded in my head, leaving me in a mental still point as I looked up into the star-mottled blackness of the night. Without the distractions I’d prepared for it, my mind dwelled on horrifying realities- the cruel specifics of my mother’s predicament and the fact that she’d soon leave us forever hit me every bit as hard as the truck door had pounded on my skull, and I started to quietly sob. At first my mates thought I was joking, but quickly realised what was happening. They drove to pick up supplies, and took me out into the bush someplace where they built a fire and we sat and talked through the night. I cannot now remember the details of what was said. I was drunk, and probably mildly concussed, but I do remember how much it meant to let out my grief while being supported by my friends.

The long-awaited telephone call from Hanna-Barbera finally came. They wanted me to start work for good but once again it was not a simple decision. Now the issue was not finishing high school, but that my Mother was terminally ill. Mum however was adamant that this time I go and start work so that’s what I did, vowing to travel home each weekend from Sydney. I regret that decision with all my heart now, and wish I’d stayed home in Armidale till the end. All these many years later a few more months with her would be so much more valuable to me than a few months being an inbetweener on “The Animated Mork & Mindy show”. If I could go back in time I’d counsel my younger self much the way my parents had coached him the previous year; ‘don’t throw this time away, you’ll regret it later‘, but in mid 1982 I moved to Sydney to live with my Uncle John in Manly Beach and start work at Hanna-Barbera in earnest. My first day on the job there was one of those snafus that often happen in production, where the person who’d interviewed and hired me the year prior, and who’d finally called me down to Sydney a mere few weeks earlier, no longer worked at the studio and his replacement had never even heard of me. When I suggested she call the other guy for clarification it transpired that he’d gone to England. In the days before email, getting prompt feedback in such circumstances was out of the question so that was a squirmy moment to be sure. Thankfully, she gave me another try out and I re-won my spot as a member of her department, and threw myself into the work with nerdy teen intensity, coupled with the need to distract myself from bigger realities. After years of yearning for it I was finally working in animation at last, though not under ideal circumstances.

the inbetweener: desk

When not at work, I spent many weekday evenings at the cinema, and 1982 was a great year to use movies as a distraction from my troubles, with “Blade Runner“, “Road Warrior“, “Wrath of Khan” “ET“, “Tron“, “Tootsie“, “Poltergeist” and other such fantastic faire. Ironically, all these years later, re-watching the escapist movies that helped me hide from my emotions back then brings back that complicated mix of real-world feelings to me now as fresh as ever. In fact, there are a few movies from that time that I simply cannot watch at all, especially one that my Mother herself loved, often playing the soundtrack music in her hospital room that year (merely hearing that melody now, over 30 years later, brings on a tidal wave of raw emotions from that time).

After working Monday to Friday in Sydney, I caught the Friday NORTHERN MAIL TRAIN at around 9:00 PM from Sydney’s Central Station for the chilly overnight journey to the New England Tablelands, finally arriving at Armidale at about 8 AM Saturday to be with my dying Mother and family. Rural NSW trains had some truly antiquated rolling stock as late as the mid 1980s with compartments that seated about 8, and they weren’t heated even in winter. Sometimes the conductor would toss a heated brick ‘foot warmer’ under the seats. City folk unfamiliar with this drill were aghast; “Is that it?!” they’d cry, dressed on the assumption that there’d be heating. We country folk wore sturdy greatcoats and Ugg boots (which were merely a cheap way for Aussies to keep our feet warm till LA super-models ‘discovered’ them). We’d laugh hollowly that, yes, the pathetic brick was the extent of the heating and add that the really chilling part of the arrangement was that the brick would be long-cold before we got to the really icy spots in the mountains. We’d offer a blanket and thermos of warm drink to the newbies lest we shared the compartment with a frozen corpse by Murrurundi. Many people, including Australians themselves, are unprepared for the fact that anywhere in Australia is COLD but my hometown, and the New England Tablelands region in general, will take those people’s breath away in the winter. The journeys were slow, with the train splitting at Werris Creek and if the cold didn’t mess up your sleep then 30 minutes of to-and-fro shunting sure would. I’d finally be getting to sleep when we arrived at Armidale. I remember at least one time when I dozed through the stop and poor Dad had to step on it and drive to the next town and meet the train there (at Dumaresq or Guyra).

The travel schedule was punishing but my time away from the sorrow each week, and the distractions of work and travel, allowed me to compose a cheerful demeanour when visiting Mum, as the last thing a terminally sick person needs is visits from hangdog sad-sacks. In my weekly visits home, Mum was curious about my new life as a worker in the Big City. She’d always taken a keen interest in my adventures even when I truly had none, and ever since I was a small boy it was a ritual of the day to sit with Mum in the kitchen after I’d come home from school. She’d take a quick break from whatever she was doing (probably preparing food for her brood) and have a cuppa with me and ask about my day in school or how things went with various of my mates. Now that I was working she was full of curiosity and enthusiasm for this seemingly exotic new life I’d somehow found for myself, asking me about the details of the job and my new life in Sydney. Often in my life since I’ve thought how my Mother would’ve liked certain things in my adult life. To meet my girlfriend, hear of my adventures abroad, or my professional exploits. I know too that my siblings who are now parents themselves wonder how Mum would have enjoyed being a grandma (for the record, I think she’d have liked it very much, and would’ve been a wonderfully attentive grandparent). So I feel blessed that, in my case, Mum was able to see me start my own career and express her joy at seeing me finding my own way in the world.

the inbetweener: hospital

As the months of her decline wore on, Mum’s communication skills suffered due to the expanding evil in her head, so she mostly listened while we did the talking, but the spark of her keen intelligence never left her eyes. Intelligence minus the ability to communicate may seem a contradiction, but I’ve recently had the experience myself of desperately trying to speak from within a mind that has lost the neural connections to speech. It is utterly terrifying, though in my case I saw daily improvement rather than daily decline like my poor Mum. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one-by-one as time wore on, she never gave in to ‘why me’ bitterness. One of the incredible qualities that my Mother possessed was her warm stoicism, and although all of us around her were increasingly distressed by her tragic situation, I never saw Mum herself rail against the cruel circumstances that had befallen her. The cancer robbed her body of the ability to speak at the precise moment when she had so much to say, and this often made her heartbreakingly frustrated, but her ordeal never caused her to vent at medical staff, God or Fate. Now that I’m more than ten years older than she was then, I’m even more amazed at the grace that this brave young woman, my dear Mother, brought to her plight.

I remember my Sydney-bound return journeys, as the train rushed through spectacular sunrises over the coastal regions around Gosford, the verdant beauty at odds with my sadness at what I’d seen that past weekend. My head out an open window, the wind tousled my hair as I swept past beautifully lush mountainous areas over foggy deltas, and inlets flecked with low morning cloud, and ruminated upon my Mother’s increasing frailty. The train click-clacked over railway bridges and through towns as I came closer to Sydney and prepared for the work day ahead. At Central station I’d grab something to eat, then transfer to the North Shore Line to St. Leonards, and go to the studio. It was a strange double life; shuttling back and forth between inanely detailed work on a cheesy animated TV cartoon in Sydney, where none of my coworkers knew of my family’s predicament, and being at the bedside of my dying Mother in a small country town, where the entire community was aware of our tragedy. My job-title that year was ‘inbetweener’ but it summed up the half-here-half-there state of my existence as well. Weekdays in the city, overnight journeys to weekends in the country, then catching the Sunday overnight train back to Sydney to be at work again on Monday morning, all through the mid-year winter months until November 1982, when Mum finally died, about a fortnight after her 39th birthday.

The day before, my Uncle Keith had phoned me at the studio to say that Mum had taken a turn for the worst and I should head home to Armidale immediately, by plane if possible. Flights were all fully booked so once more I caught the overnight train, and arrived too late. She had died in the night. Tears did not come to me that day. Instead, I was left with a hollow empty feeling. Cancer creates disorienting shifts in the apparent progress of time. It is both excruciatingly slow – a death rattle prolonged over months – and shockingly fast, as the person appears to age years overnight. The grieving process is drawn out into a gruelling emotional marathon, and the horrified realisation of loss happens long before the death itself. With me, it had been back on the day that Mum had her brain biopsy, I’d felt the cold and terrifying certainty of it, wept in anguish at what was about to happen and I’d been grieving ever since, but the actual day of her death I was numb as a plank. It is a sad and terrible thing to watch someone that you love deteriorate in front of your eyes. There can be an impulse to stay away and spare yourself the sight of someone who was once a powerful presence in your life reduced to a mere wisp, and that inclination brings with it stabbing pangs of remorse. I myself felt a strange relief after my Mother died and hated myself for that at the time, and for a long while afterwards, even though I knew that my Mother too was grateful to be done with her pain.

the inbetweener: Mum's grave

As her body failed her and she prepared for her end, Mum was in many ways ready to go, though she made it quite clear that she would whole heartedly regret not seeing her children grow older. Mum died in the company of my brother Rob, who was 12 years old at the time. In those last days, when she was so weak as to be drifting in and out of consciousness, family & friends were taking turns to visit Mum and read to her despite being outwardly unresponsive, hoping that she might hear our voices and be comforted. Rob was reading to Mum when she suddenly woke up. As Mum’s friend Phyl rushed to find a nurse, Mum’s eyes looked at Rob, and then she died. This was a shocking burden for a 12 year old boy to bear, but I told Rob many years later, in his adulthood, that I will always be grateful that he was there, so that poor Mum did not regain consciousness in an empty room with nobody she loved by her side at the end.

The first time most of her children had ever experienced the death of a loved one, it was of their own darling Mother. Children usually ease into awareness of death as firstly, older, more distant relatives die, but all our Grandparents and many Great Aunts attended Mum’s funeral, and most of our parish was there too. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on me to this day, it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, at 39 years old, survived by a husband and 6 of her kids, including an 11 month old baby; it seemed so unfair that I was coldly angry about it for quite some time. Try as I might, I could not adopt my Mother’s warmly humane stoicism back then, much as I admired it, but I try to apply her example in my life now. There is an instinct in all of us to help our friends through the dark passages in their lives by pointing out a ‘silver lining‘, and while there’s sometimes wisdom to that approach I’ve never found any optimistic consolation to offer when someone dies. There is no ‘upside‘ to it. We must accept that death inevitably happens to us all, good people as well as bad, healthy as well as sick, young and old alike. Personally, I believe that there’s no divine reason for it, but by the same token, there is no one to blame for it either.

The year I started working in animation was a landmark year for me, and one full of conflicting emotions, both then as it happened, and now as I reflect back upon it. Joyfully, I finally got my foot in the door of a job I’d always dreamed of but as I crossed that exciting threshold, tragically, my young Mother was stricken with terminal cancer and taken from us. Even now, the feelings from that long-ago year are brought vividly to life each time I go back go to my hometown, as my visits there have been so infrequent, living abroad for nearly 30 years. Perhaps we all feel the death of our own childhoods, often associated with a specific place, but the year that I turned 18 and my childhood officially ended, was the exact same year that my Mother died. My trips back to Armidale are always ever-so faintly tinged with sadness, because I associate them not only with the end of the childhood I once had there, but with my sad journeys home in that last year of my beloved Mother’s life. But, as the first-born of all her 7 children, I was was blessed to have had Mum’s loving guidance all the way up to my own adulthood, unlike my younger siblings, so I consider myself very much the lucky one among us.

the inbetweener: family photo
Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982

Oct 052015
 

Restricted media is everywhere in the 21st century and parents worry that their children will see something raunchy or violent on a computer but it was difficult for we pre-internet kids to see such material. In 1979 I was 15 years old, unable to get into an 18+ movie and envied schoolmates with older siblings who’d sneak them into the drive-in the boot of their car, to guzzle beer and watch the 1970s greats of Ozploitation; FANTASM, STONE, PATRICK, THE MAN FROM HONG KONG or the greatest drive-in movie of them all…

MAD MAX!

the Nightrider

“You listen bronze! I am the Nightrider! I’m a fuel injected suicide machine! I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller!”

I finally saw it in 1982 when I turned 18. Crudely made but with flashes of sheer brilliance, it was essentially George Miller‘s film school. His only formal film training was a brief film workshop (attended while in medical school in the early 1970s) where he met his creative collaborator and business partner, Byron Kennedy. Their first short film, VIOLENCE IN THE CINEMA: PART 1, was made in 1971 and their next step was to make a feature film. Although the Australian government was funding films, Kennedy & Miller knew that MAD MAX would be a tough sell,  so they sought private investors instead. Miller raised extra funds working as a mobile emergency doctor, with Kennedy as his driver, and the vehicular trauma they witnessed undoubtedly found its way into their film. Like another former medical student turned storyteller, J.G. Ballard (author of the novel, CRASH) Miller explores the fetishistic relationship between humans and their cars in MAD MAX. Miller’s medical background (and sense of humour) are evident in ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky being named for 19th century pathologist Carl von Rokitansky, (inventor of the procedure for removing internal organs in an autopsy).

The setting is ’a few years from now’ when society is in decline. MAX ROCKATANSKY is a lawman working for the MFP (the “Main Force Patrol”) operating out of a rundown “Hall Of Justice” (complete with its own BOM BOM BOM musical sting). Though representing the forces of  law & order, MFP officers look like either young leatherboys or archetypal degenerates circa 1955, clad in Lenny & Squiggy’s black leathers. Their boss is chief FIFI MACAFEE, though named like a burlesque dancer he looks like a circus strongman or a bouncer at a gay bar. Burly, bald, moustachioed, and constantly bare-chested in his black leather pants, Fifi tries to keep Max focussed on the MFP mission of controlling wild motorcycle gangs, while Max worries that he’s becoming brutishly like the goons he’s supposed to stop.

Max & Fifi

“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

Growing up in rural 1940s/1950s Australia and not going to film school meant that Miller wasn’t exposed to many filmmaking traditions (he’d never heard of Kurosawa until after making MAD MAX, for example) but he cites classic silent films and watching drive-in movies without sound as influences on his own cinematic grammar. MAD MAX was punk filmmaking, not just its gritty subject matter but its inventiveness. Full of raw energy, you can see the filmmakers learning their chords as they play. Need a stunt? Just head out somewhere remote and do it. When the director is a qualified ER doctor you deal with safety problems as they arise, and arise they did. Joanne Samuel got the role of Max’s wife, JESSIE, when the original actress broke her leg in a motorcycle accident (on her way TO the shoot, ironically) a crash that also injured and briefly sidelined Grant Page, the stunt coordinator. Miller’s bold vision was matched by the crew’s daring, and it wasn’t only the stuntmen who outdid themselves. Cinematographer David Eggby strapped himself to the back of a speeding motorbike to get a visceral hand-held POV shot of the 120kph rushing road and speedometer. These days, computers can deliver a shot from any angle the director imagines, but in 1977 it required a crew both inventive and bold enough to deliver.

A motorcycle gang wants to avenge one of their members, who died in a game of road ’chicken’ with Max. These Droogs on wheels are given to buffoonish-though-sinister antics, and led by the charismatic TOECUTTER (played with bug-eyed psychotic gusto by Hugh Keys-Byrne). Toecutter doesn’t actually have a villainous moustache to twirl, but to compensate, his lone eyebrow appears to twirl itself instead. To escape the stresses of dealing with this band of twerps-cum-perps, Max takes a holiday with his wife and infant son, but the vengeful gang, still mincing about like a wannabe Shakespeare troupe on peyote, finds Max’s family, as we knew they would.

Jessie & Sprog

“In the roar of an engine, he lost everything and became a shell of a man.”

Needing to cast and equip a bikie gang, legend has it that Kennedy & Miller simply got a real gang (The Vigilantes) and paid them in slabs of beer. I miss that 1970s-1980s era of cheap DIY cinematic invention, where the creativity of the director and resourcefulness of the producer were the best special effects in the budget. Miller has said that initially, setting the film “a few years from now” allowed for broader action that might be implausible in the real world, and setting the story in a decaying future society explained the shabby buildings and remote locations of the shoot, but later this became central to the MAD MAX series.

Partly inspired by actual riots during the 1970s Energy Crisis, Miller & Kennedy (and journalist turned screenwriter James McCausland) explored the idea of a society disrupted by global energy decline taken as far as it would go. Miller’s youth growing up in the 1940s/1950s car culture and wide open spaces of rural Queensland, and that several of his friends died in car accidents while young, were parts used in the assembly of MAD MAX’s distinctive chassis. The influence of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, BULLIT and vigilante justice films of the 1970s, like DIRTY HARRY and DEATH WISH, became the narrative engine, and Miller’s flair for visual story-telling became the nitrous-oxide fuel for one of Australia’s first anamorphic wide-screen films, and Miller excelled at composing for this format, especially when the camera was moving.

The turning point comes when Max’s family is killed, and he becomes just as twisted as the road rabble he clashes with, exactly as he’d feared. While DIRTY HARRY merely flirted with the idea of a lawman crossing that line, MAD MAX goes all the way. In a climactic sequence that shows Miller’s genius for kinetic cinema, Max becomes a killer himself, hunting down the baddies one by one in his Black-on-Black super-charged V8 INTERCEPTOR.

Revenge

“I’m scared, Fif. You know why? It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it.”

Many critics deplored the vigilantism. Critic Phillip Adams made exploitation cinema himself (producing ‘THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY McKENZIE’) but preferred raunch over violence, and his review in The Bulletin entitled ‘The Dangerous Pornography of Death‘ called for Mad Max to be banned, saying that it had ‘all the emotional uplift of Mein Kampf‘. MAD MAX actually was banned in Sweden and New Zealand for fears of copycat violence by real life motorcycle gangs. For the American release, Australian voices were overdubbed (not restored till the 2002 DVD) and Tom Buckley of The New York Times called the film ‘ugly and incoherent’ but TIME’s Richard Corliss praised it in his review entitled ‘Poetic Car-nage’. While the Critics debated its merits, MAD MAX became a drive-in hit around the world. 1970s Australian cinema was a two-step of art house (THE LAST WAVE) and grind house (ALVIN PURPLE) culminating in MAD MAX as its biggest success at decade’s end. On a shoestring production budget of AU $350,000 it made US $100 million at the box office which till THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was the best budget to box office ratio in cinema history.

Some find MAD MAX too crudely made to enjoy (especially viewers who saw ROAD WARRIOR first) but apart from getting to see a brilliant director’s raw and inventive feature film debut, I appreciate seeing the last sad gasp of society before the gangs took over completely, and witnessing the last remnants of Max’s own normalcy before he became a ‘man with no name’ type. This chapter of the MAD MAX story can certainly be skipped, but there’s resonance in seeing the beginnings, before Max lost everything and he, and the world around him, went MAD.

In any vigilante justice flick the escalation of violence inevitably gets personal- after all, we bought a movie ticket to see MAX get MAD- but the price of vengeance is that Max himself becomes a hollow man. His decency and role in society gone, the only place left for him is with the wild marauders. A wandering lost soul, he heads off in his iconic black-on-black Interceptor.

The Road Warrior

“..A burnt-out desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland.”

Much of the editing of MAD MAX was done by George Miller himself and working around his own shooting mistakes during a one year editing process was a painful lesson, but one that would serve him well when the success of MAD MAX allowed him to make a sequel and try again. After MAD MAX broke internationally and was compared to other stories, Miller reflected that each culture has tales of wandering antiheroes and began to see Max as another version of that. With a copy of THE HERO’S JOURNEY under his arm, Miller and co-screenwriters Brian Hannant and Terry Hayes set about crafting a taught script of a post-apocalyptic wanderer, a ‘western on wheels’. After MAD MAX finished shooting in 1977, the car used as Max’s Interceptor (a 1973 Ford Falcon GT Coupe with a V8 engine and the front of a Ford Fairmont) became the property of the production mechanic, and Miller bought it back for the sequel. With a wily bunch of stuntmen, the great Dean Semler as his cinematographer and the red desert of Broken Hill as his canvas, Miller made a film firmly in the ’Outback Gothic’ tradition (of films like WAKE IN FRIGHT, WALKABOUT, and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK) but with a post-apocalyptic angle all its own.

ROAD WARRIOR
A montage about a global energy crisis leading to war is shown in black-and-white and mono sound, shifting to widescreen colour with a Dolby Stereo mix (the first ever in Australia) focused on the ROARING bonnet-mounted Supercharger on Max’s black Interceptor. The car is now weatherbeaten, as is Max himself, and he’s acquired a Blue Heeler copilot named DOG. An even more outlandish gang than the previous film confronts Max, but they get the worst of the vehicular altercation. Max slams on his brakes to sponge precious petrol from the wreckage with his hankie, and is hissed at by WEZ, an angry bloke with eyeliner, Mohawk, arseless chaps and twink boyfriend. They fang off on their Kwakka, popping a wheelie as they go. This opening sequence is Miller’s way of telling us that we are further down the descent to total societal ruin.

Wez

“YOU! You can RUN, but you can’t HIDE!”

MAD MAX 2 (as it is known in Australia) came out in December 1981, but I saw it in 1982 when I was 18 years old and working at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by artists and would sneak around the studio after hours, fascinated by their work. I loved seeing Brendan McCarthy‘s animation-layout sketches and personal doodles pinned on a wall and I’ve followed his comics work ever since. (I had no idea he’d eventually help shape the 4th film in the MAD MAX series over 30 years later but I’m sure a lot of the demented brilliance of FURY ROAD is his influence). He’s said in interviews that, like most people in Australia that year, he was thunderstruck by ROAD WARRIOR and it was for him the imaginative cinema moment that STAR WARS was for most people.

Seeing ROAD WARRIOR was a rush, and full-page advertisments in the Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed “It’s OUR Star Wars!” Nowadays, WOLVERINE, THOR and other characters in Hollywood productions are acted by Australians, but there was barely any Australian fantasy or Sci-Fi growing up in the 1970s. A cheesy TV show from around 1970 called PHOENIX FIVE and The Australian ‘Eagle pilot’ in SPACE 1999 were about it, and when the MAD MAX films burst onto screens in the late 1970s and early 1980s they had the OZ Sci-fi scene all to themselves. ROAD WARRIOR seemed uniquely Australian and established Mel Gibson as an international star (with only 16 lines of dialog) and George Miller as The Kurosawa of the carburettor, the David Lean of machines, and the John Ford of the chopped Ford; a visionary cinematic communicator.

In ROAD WARRIOR, towns are long-gone but there’s a vestigial community in a fortified oil refinery. This would’ve been a village of Japanese peasants in a Kurosawa film, a town of dusty frontier folk in a Leone western, or a cavalry fort encircled by Apaches in the John Ford version, but in Miller’s film it’s a community wearing white cheesecloth despite pumping oil all day. Their adversaries are post-apocalyptic banditos; musclemen driving souped-up V8s, and angry bondage bikies, (including Wez, he of baboon-arsed trousers and Kaja-Goo-Goo boyfriend that we met earlier). These MTV dudes are led by LORD HUMUNGUS, a body builder in a hockey mask, who vows to nick all the Goodies’ oil, but though they try repeatedly, his wasteland vermin can’t get at it. Likewise, the goodies led by PAPPAGALLO plan to take the fuel to the coast and start a new society, but are thwarted by the surrounding bondage-clothing convention and hotrod show. Stalemate. There’s much posturing and breast-beating, especially when Wez’s boyfriend is nailed in the noggin by a deadly razor-boomerang hurled by FERAL KID, a bloodthirsty urchin in rabbit furs and chainmail glove. Max is introduced to this inter-community standoff by the GYRO CAPTAIN, a gangly pilot with bad teeth.

Gyro Captain

“Look, we had a deal. I show you the gas, and you let me go!” “The arrangement was I wouldn’t kill you.”

Though outrageously broad, ROAD WARRIOR is a fantastic caricature of the way our society actually is; driving full-throttle to our own brink. For all the ingenious hot-rodding on display as the leather hordes encircle the cheesecloth compound, none of the mechanical invention has been applied to fuel efficiency and Wasteland barbarians have not yet figured out that driving souped-up gas-guzzlers to get the gas is a self defeating strategy. “Excuse me, Mr Barbarian guy, but why are you all blasting around in V8s?” “To get the guzzoline!” “Why do you need so much gasoline?For our thirsty V8s!” “But why-HeAdBuTt “No more talk!” Perhaps the meltdown of society somehow destroyed all the minivans, Honda Civics and sensible clothing? Or maybe just one sand dune over from Miller’s camera there actually is a posse of equally rabid wasteland dwellers who’ve fetishised sensible mall-wear and drive solar-powered cars and electric-hybrids?

Kennedy & Miller were able to raise ten times the budget for the sequel, though paltry by Hollywood standards this was the biggest Australian budget ever at the time. The added scope that this gave Miller, plus what he’d learned on MAD MAX and a great crew to support him, allowed his imagination to run free, in much the same way that Wez is let off the choke-chain by his boss, to somersault and headbutt goodies, hiss and run around with no pants. The clever production design of Graham ’Grace’ Walker and costumes of Norma Moriceau made for one of the most visually distinctive (and copied) films of the 1980s in a perfect marriage of concept and budget. In a desolate desert setting, second hand clothing is cleverly repurposed- punk rock wear and S&M gear mix with Cricket and Rugby padding- saving on sets and costumes while the Cargo Cult aesthetic is extraordinarily visually striking and true to the story of a society in decline.

Max’s attempts to go it alone leave him with a dead dog and a wrecked ride. The very definition of a reluctant hero but with no options left, Max helps the oil-pumping community with their escape (Mel Gibson saw Max as a “closet human being” trying NOT to do the right thing, remembering where heroics got him). Cue one of the most spectacular action climaxes ever put to film, that not only defined a post-apocalyptic aesthetic and genre, but established a template for ALL action films that would be strip-mined for years. While the townsfolk escape and their compound explodes (ROAD WARRIOR’s only set and the most expensive set ever for an Australian film) Max, Pappagallo, the gangly Gyro Captain and the delightful young brute with the killer boomerang distract the marauding loons as Max drives the tanker of gasoline out into the desert.

the shell

“YAHHH!”   “Get the shell!”

The 1980s was a golden era of movie stunt work when extraordinary martial arts prowess in Hong Kong films left me slack-jawed with amazement, but the Australian speciality was spectacular vehicular mayhem as seen in the MAD MAX films, and especially ROAD WARRIOR. Stunt supervisor Max Aspin and his team of stunt-grunts deserve much of the credit for making this movie as viscerally exciting as it is. Amazingly, nobody was killed, but there were some serious accidents. In one of the most memorable stunts, 21 year old stuntman Guy Norris, on his first movie gig playing one of the marauding bikies, hits a wrecked car and flies off his bike and launches through the air aiming for an off-screen pile of cardboard boxes. Instead, he on-screen smashes his legs against the car, and cartwheels towards the camera, causing a painful injury (a smashed femur) but the shot was left in the movie because it was so spectacular. Norris was on set doing work a few days later (with his broken leg just off-screen) and 34 years later he’d be the stunt supervisor on FURY ROAD.

Unlike the critical controversy over MAD MAX, reviews for ROAD WARRIOR hailed it as one of the best films of 1981. Richard Corliss, the first major critic to champion MAD MAX, was even more effusive in his review ‘Apocalypse POW‘ and others such as Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert followed suit. By 1982, I thought that #2 was the magic number, as STAR WARS, STAR TREK, JAMES BOND and MAD MAX had all turned in second films that were far better than the originals. ROAD WARRIOR’s influence rippled throughout the 1980s and beyond, in knock-off movies (such as EXTERMINATORS OF THE YEAR 3000, THE NEW BARBARIANS, 1990 BRONX WARRIORS and EQUALIZER 2000), music videos, and comics. Over 30 years later it still holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as of May 13, 2015) and filmmakers such as James Cameron, David Fincher and Guillermo Del Toro have listed it as a film favourite.

At the very end of ROAD WARRIOR, Max finally smiles when he realises that he was part of a bait and switch- the tanker he drove was full of sand and NOT the gasoline, which was safe with the fleeing oil-pumping folk. We realise that the story is a reflection on long-ago events narrated by an old man; the brutish Feral Kid grown to be leader of his ‘tribe’. Clearly Max made huge impression on him long ago; a post-apocalyptic SHANE.

The Feral Kid

“In the fullness of time, I became the leader, the Chief of the Great Northern Tribe. And the Road Warrior? That was the last we ever saw of him. He lives now only in my memories.”

ROAD WARRIOR was intended to be the final chapter in Max’s story and George Miller turned to other things, including directing a segment for Steven Spielberg’s TWIGHLIGHT ZONE. Kennedy & Miller had planned to make a post-apocalyptic LORD OF THE FLIES film, when it was suggested that Max should be the adult who finds the children and it became the third MAD MAX instalment instead. In 1983, Byron Kennedy died in a helicopter crash while scouting locations and, understandably, Miller lost interest in directing it after the death of the friend who’d helped him create the franchise. So Miller’s friend George Ogilvie stepped in to help direct.

BEYOND THUNDERDOME
High above the outback we see a car pulled by a team of camels in the desert far below, and the driver atop this strange wagon is suddenly knocked out of his saddle by two flying con artists, one of whom looks like The Gyro Captain but is called JEBEDIAH and the other who’s obviously his child. The unseated wagon driver picks himself up, and we realise it’s Max, in Bon Jovi’s mullet. He runs off in pursuit of his stolen wagon, following a breadcrumb trail of junk tossed out the back by the monkey he’d nicked from Indiana Jones.

Jebediah

“Sayonara, sucker!”

The trail leads to BARTERTOWN, where a bloke gets fancy with some Benihana knives and Max says, ‘Oi, the monkey isn’t the only thing I nicked from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’ and BLAM, blasts the knife-wielding dude right in his busby with a sawn-off pumpy.

A mate of mine did storyboards on BEYOND THUNDERDOME and said that Warner Brothers were all over it from the very start, unlike the previous film where they’d merely handled distribution. Chasing a bigger audience for a return on their investment, Warner Brothers wanted a PG 13 rating and softened the humour, tone and action. In exchange for this compromise, there are more production values onscreen but not always to good effect. Maurice Jarre seems an ideal composer- after all, his score for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the classic soundtrack of the classic desert epic. However, his score for MAX OF AUSTRALIA, with full orchestra, vocal chorus, four grand pianos and a pipe organ, sounded like a romantic broadway show in parts, and the copious didgeridoo sounded like a 1980s QANTAS TV commercial in others, and had me pining for Brian May‘s melodramatic score for ROAD WARRIOR.

Max’s snazzy gunplay draws the attention of AUNTY ENTITY, the mayor of Bartertown whose job is providing plot exposition to an accompaniment of tootling 80s sax riffs provided by a blind dude in a nappy. Aunty ‘splains that Bartertown has moved beyond guzzoline to a fuel provided by pigs. METHANE production is monopolised by a symbiotic duo named MASTER/BLASTER; the hulking body is called ‘Blaster’ and ‘Master’, the brains of the duo, is a dwarf even more manipulative than Tyrion Lannister. Aunty wants to topple Master/Blaster and needs Max to challenge Blaster in the THUNDERDOME; a sort of post apocalyptic gladiatorial arena cum law-court, with a Vampire Gameshow Dude as referee.

The Thunderdome

“He’s the ball cracker, Death on foot. You know him, you love him; He’s BLASTER! The challenger, direct from out of the Wasteland. He’s bad. He’s beautiful, He’s crazy! It’s the MAN WITH NO NAME!”

Despite the added agility from bungee cords, Max has the bone marrow pounded out of him. Then, in the nick of time he defeats Blaster. The huge helmeted and previously terrifying baddie is unmasked and; ‘AW.. he’s a total sweetie under there!’ Signifying that the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK swipes (act 1) are over and that the RETURN OF THE JEDI swipes (act 2) have begun. THUNK! Blaster’s dead. Aunty & Gameshow Vampire Dude banish Mad Mullet from BarterTown, wearing a clown head and seated backwards on a mule..

Re-watching the opening sequences from BEYOND THUNDERDOME recently, I remembered my 1985 excitement that Max was set free from vehicular chases to be an action hero that could deal with various conflicts in a potentially unlimited number of different ways. BEYOND THUNDERDOME’s many great ideas that entered the cultural vernacular are all from this first part, such as the word ‘Thunderdome’ itself, meaning an intense throwdown (“Bro, my employee review was a total Thunderdome.” or “My girlfriend went Thunderdome on me at her sister’s wedding” etc). There’s been an actual  BEYOND THUNDERDOME inspired fight venue at BURNING MAN, and speaking of that, it’s hard to imagine Burning Man looking as it does today- or even existing at all -without this movie (Burning Man 2015 looks like a snapshot of Bartertown 1985). BEYOND THUNDERDOME has phrases that I still hear quoted today; “Two men enter, one man leaves” or “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, DYIN’ time is here!” and so on. Despite some patchiness here and there, the recent re-watching of the film was very entertaining until Max gets banished from Bartertown. Then I suddenly remembered.. “Oh no…”

The Lost Kids

“We’s heartful to you, Captain Walker. We’s ready now. Take us home!”

Max is found by an oasis of wholesome kids in blonde dreadlocks. The traditionally spare dialog of MAX movies is replaced with the constant jabber of Blonde Ewoks in a RIDDLEY WALKER pidgin, as the cute primitives mistake Max for their messianic saviour (IE: RETURN OF THE JEDI swipe #2). The leader of the Lost Children, SAVANNAH NIX, pouts when Max denies that he’s their saviour, and in frustration, she and fellow believers head into the desert looking for the promised land, obliging Max to follow, and they all end up back at Bartertown..

The idea of Max encountering a LORD OF THE FLIES Tribe of Lost Children might have worked if the kids had resembled the Feral Kid; wild yet appealing in a brutish way that never played for any sentimentality whatsoever. Unfortunately, the Tribe of Lost Children is straight out of PETER PAN- very wholesome very blonde and very boring. BEYOND THUNDERDOME lacks any charismatic villain like Toecutter or fantastic henchmen like Wez. Perhaps the film may have worked better starting with a classic MAD MAX vehicular chase that introduces Max to (a less annoying) band of kids and climaxes with the THUNDERDOME fight? With some editing, even the version we have could be made a lot better (I wonder if there’s a fan edit of this film?) As it stands, it is full of good bits but lacks the cohesion to be truly great and 1985’s BEYOND THUNDERDOME was a replay of the 1983 end-of-franchise souring of RETURN OF THE JEDI. Both trilogies started tasty, got even tastier, then ended with an undercooked third course.

Whether this was due to two overseeing-companies (Kennedy/Miller & Warner Brothers) or the merging of two storylines (MAD MAX & sci-fi LORD OF THE FLIES) or the merging of two Georges (Miller & Ogilvie) something was awry. It’s tempting to think that if Miller had directed the entire thing it would have worked, but George Miller himself credits Ogilvie as a mentor (they’d collaborated on several mini series BODYLINE, THE COWRA BREAKOUT, and THE DISMISSAL) and Miller claims that BEYOND THUNDERDOME is his favourite of the three 1980s Max films. Though it’s definitely the most ambitious and there’s a great movie in there struggling to get out, it is (for me) the least satisfying. However, I credit the 1980s MAD MAX films for trying something very different with each movie.

The MAD MAX franchise swipes from itself (Act 3) when in the last 15 minutes of BEYOND THUNDERDOME a ROAD WARRIOR-style truck chase is tacked-on for the climax. Having helped another group trying to build a viable community, Max is left behind yet again, as the annoying kids fly away with Jebediah to establish a colony in the nuked-out shell of Sydney. 

Sydney

“Most of all we ‘members the man who finded us, him that came the salvage, and we lights the city, not just for him but for all of them that are still out there.”

It seemed that the MAD MAX film series was complete, but after about 15 years, in the late 1990s/early 2000s a fourth film was rumoured, and I followed the on-again-off-again MAD MAX reboot saga; Mel is not interested, so a grown-up Feral Kid movie is planned, possibly starring Russell Crowe, but then Gladiator happens, Russell gets huge, and Russell is out. Mel is back in, but September 11th 2001 happens, which kills the US dollar and Max’s budget, and Mel is out. Heath Ledger is in, Heath is dead. Mel is back, Mel melts down, and Mel is out. Tom Hardy is in. The desert at Broken Hill is covered in wildflowers delaying production, for a year. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong and then some. Meanwhile, in that same 15 year period, many of the fantastic cinematic worlds of my youth were mauled by their original filmmakers; STAR WARS, ALIEN, INDIANA JONES. Although Max had owned the post-apocalyptic film genre back in the 1980s, now that we’ve had THE ROAD, the PLANET OF THE APES reboots, TERMINATOR reboots, the I AM LEGEND reboot, INTERSTELLAR, HUNGER GAMES and a horde of ZOMBIE movies, would he have anything fresh to offer? Consequently, I was both interested in, and afraid of being let down by FURY ROAD and tempered my enthusiasm right up until the theatre lights dimmed on opening weekend..

FURY ROAD
Film franchises are rebooted every few years, restating the ‘origin story’ each time, but not so with the first MAD MAX movie in three decades. George Miller allows us to briefly absorb a scene of Max and his iconic Interceptor; a two-headed lizard scurrying in a barren desert shows the effects of nuclear war, and Max stomping and EATING that same lizard shows how far he’s fallen since DiNKi-Di dog chow was his favourite food. Then the movie starts: anaemic marauders chase after Max, capture and take him to be enslaved in THE CITADEL; the crib of IMMORTAN JOE. He’s the meanest desert warlord since Jabba the Hutt, demonstrated vividly when Joe applies Trickle Down Economics on the desert-dwelling saps below. These are the random citizens we saw in the first MAD MAX movie, who now pick through the dust for scraps left by the muscle men in hotrods. There’s evidence of nuclear fallout in the the chronically sick WARBOYS, and the infertility/breeding obsessions of the villain. While tooting on an asthma inhaler (that he nicked from Darth Vader) Immortan Joe discovers that his 5 WIVES have been set free by one of his hench-lieutenants named FURIOSA, and they’ve escaped in her truck, called a WAR RIG.

Immortan Joe

“I want them back, they are my property!”

FURY ROAD was utterly bonkers in the best possible way. Fever dream imagery strung on an action-narrative thread, where each action and shot were intricately choreographed like an insane diesel ballet. Emotions and themes were expressed in a dance of human bodies and auto bodies done with real vehicles and flesh-and-blood stunt crew, elevating it to another level of beauty and wonder. I’m often mystified by real dance, actual poetry, true opera and genuine ballet, but respond to poetic balletic and operatic qualities used elsewhere, such as this nutty masterpiece. George Miller once said that he wants to make pure-cinema films; understandable to foreign audiences even without subtitles, and that’s exactly what he’s done. MAD MAX’s post-apocalyptic world, where civilisation and humanity have been stripped bare and the protagonist is reduced to his monosyllabic basics, is a laboratory for Miller to explore the limits of non-verbal cinematic communication. Zach Snyder’s SUCKERPUNCH, or the Wachowskis’ SPEED RACER were praised by some as pure kinetic cinema, but left me utterly cold, and I suspect that Michael Bay has always strived to make a film like FURY ROAD, but all he can manage is a Michael Bay movie. What FURY ROAD has, that so many similar similar movies lack, is clear visual staging, superlative action choreography and inspired editing, resulting in a transcendent cinematic experience. Filmic visual language, and the boldest world-building since 1977’s STAR WARS, tell us all we need to know, and with hardly a word spoken.

In the 1970s-1980s MAD MAX movies, Max had witnessed the end of society and thus would’ve been of the same generation as Immortan Joe. Although Mel Gibson has fallen from grace in recent years, an older weatherbeaten Mad Mel would’ve been interesting to me and Mel’s recent rocky history might’ve added interesting shadings to this story of a broken man who redeems himself, but Tom Hardy was incredible and I quickly got used to his younger Max. In this reimagining, Max is the same age as Furiosa and thus couldn’t remember the time before the fall of society 30-40 years prior, so he may not be the same Max that I once knew. That Max was a  cop with a wife and toddler son but this Max’s flashbacks were of a 10 year old girl and a variety of other as-yet unknown characters. Various fan theories attempt to explain this, and other fan theories about those fan theories aside, the MAD MAX movies were never a ‘saga’ with a beginning middle and an end. To me, they seemed to be yarns about a wandering antihero, told by other characters touched by him. ROAD WARRIOR was narrated by the Feral Kid, and THUNDERDOME was narrated by Savannah, both having become community leaders via the long-ago assistance of Max. There was no narration in MAD MAX, but it may have been told from the point of view of Max’s boss, Fifi, remembering a gifted young man who fell to savagery, becoming a symbol of the lost potential of humanity. In FURY ROAD the narration is by Max himself, effectively denting my pet nerd-theory but the broader point still holds; looking for timeline continuity in the MAD MAX series is not what these films are all about. Miller may intend to change Max’s back story in this ‘reimagining’ and in typical Miller style, screen time isn’t wasted on jibber-jabber. We just need to trust Miller and hold on because his War Rig is already moving.

A cock-blocked Immortan Joe calls his Warboys to back him up as he chases his 5 Wives, who are high-tailing it to a promised land called THE GREEN PLACE. The most anaemic Warboy of all is NUX, who uses Max as a mobile blood-bag strapped to his ride. Although Immortan Joe has the management style of Joe Stalin, any warlord who has a blind guitarist and albino taiko drum crew on retainer as part of his war party has a lot of post apocalyptic panache. Meanwhile, the chase enters a cyclone and Max gets free, only to have a savage brawl with FURIOSA.

Max vs Furiosa

“Each of us in our own way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy… me, or everyone else.”

From the very beginning, Miller set his MAD MAX films at an unspecified point in the future so he was not bound by mere realism. They are broad, operatic and even cartoonish but within that neo-mythological framework, Miller explores real-world issues. Many viewers respond to feminist themes (clearly Max has come a long way since Phillip Adams accused him of being ‘a special favourite of rapists, sadists, child murderers and incipient Mansons‘ in 1979) while some male fans groan that their macho-male-movie-icon has been reduced to a supporting character in his own movie (and to women, no less). These angry boys in their “No Gurlz Allowed” treehouse forget that Max was always a passenger in stories driven by other characters’ goals; Max’s boss Fifi in the first film, Papagallo in the second, and Aunty Entity and Savannah (yes, women) in the third. I admit to an internal groan when Charlize Theron was cast, but in my case it was fear of Hollywood meddling, THUNDERDOME-style, and because I’d been soured by her role in PROMETHEUS, another franchise restart by a 1970s director-hero that was (for me anyway) a total clunker. I need not have worried because Charlize Theron was utterly fantastic in this movie. Using her dancer training she expressed so much in movement, and nuanced acting evoked the complex inner life of the marvellous character Furiosa, all with little dialog.

Some dismiss FURY ROAD as merely a ‘two hour chase sequence’, but watching two hours of complex action staging and never losing sight of what is actually happening is extraordinarily rare. In most action movies today, the objects moving through frame and the cameras themselves both flail in an attempt at dynamism, but create an incoherent mess. Batman enters, there’s a flurry of shaky-cam shots, and 10 baddies are suddenly on the floor. In FURY ROAD, Miller trusted us to figure out the details as we watched, and we could follow because he gave us the information to do so, visually. This craftsmanship alone would have left me in awe of FURY ROAD but it also had astonishing thematic and emotional weight embedded in its beautifully kinetic Busby Berkeley routine. In a standard action movie, the action is sandwiched between moments of character and plot development, but FURY ROAD attempts to advance character and plot through the action itself. This clearly doesn’t work for everyone, but for me this ‘two hour chase’ is brimming full with stories of human desperation and redemption, the healing power of empathy, and that to truly overcome oppression the answer is not escape but to change the status quo.

Max grudgingly becomes Furiosa’s ally and helps her and the 5 Wives fight off the BMX Bandits and the Spiky-Car Club. Cirque du Soleil collides with a mobile Monster Truck show, as every colourful kook in the outback is after them. Max, Furiosa and the 5 Wives finally escape from this rolling Burning Man and Survival Research Laboratory parade with some boy-howdy fancy shootin’ and Smokey and the Bandit style purty drivin’. They arrive at the fabled Green Place, but Furiosa is bummed to discover that it’s dry and shitty-looking as everywhere else. The consolation prize is meeting some really cool old bikie grannies called the VUVALINI. Max finds a lightbulb in the desert and holds it over his head; ‘Hey, Let’s turn around and storm Joe’s Citadel!’ 

Fury Road

“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!”

Internet articles cite ‘secrets’ that make FURY ROAD work (‘It’s the editing!’ or ‘It’s the framing!’) which is like saying that the secret to Gene Kelly’s tap dancing is his right foot. As with any complicated process it’s the coordination of many steps that creates cinema magic (a much less catchy title for a Vimeo video). FURY ROAD rises above other action movies due to clarity; its various pieces fit seamlessly together as a unified whole. The ‘secret’ to the flabbergasting Hong Kong films of Jackie Chan, versus his flatter Hollywood films, is that Chan was empowered to approach his Hong Kong films holistically; involved in direction, and stunt-coordination, and performing, and editing. Whereas in Hollywood he was simply an actor/stunt performer. The career of Buster Keaton too shows a contrast between amazing films where he was involved in the entire process, and his later MGM films where Keaton only had limited input. FURY ROAD works because George Miller’s vision was applied throughout all phases of production:

STORY: George Miller wrote FURY ROAD without a script but storyboards were the equivalent, allowing all elements to be planned visually long before photography began. Comics/storyboard artist Brendan McCarthy was credited as co-screenwriter because Miller appreciates visually-scripting for a visual medium, an approach dear to my heart. (Many animated projects I’ve worked on were largely written with visuals and, whatever the credits say, the script sometimes transcribed the storyboards, rather than the other way around). DESIGN: Production designer Colin Gibson and costume designer Jenny Beavan did amazing work that facilitates the fast cutting. The Warboys’ distinctively anaemic pallor not only works for the post-nuclear story but allows them to ‘read’ clearly as they leap about. Vehicles too each had a distinctive silhouette and this wasn’t simply about looking ‘cool’, but looking cool in service of clarity. Because cinema is images in time, design is important. The audience could visually process the fast-cutting action because of design choices as much as anything else.  STUNTS: The long production delays allowed stunt coordinator Guy Norris to run computer simulations to test safety and coordinate the weights of stunt performers and vehicles. Then those stunts were practised over and over again, before the beautiful butoh dance of human bodies was eventually caught on camera. CINEMATOGRAPHY: Miller knew that certain sequences would be edited incredibly rapidly, so traditional composition rules were broken to centre the action, because the human eye takes time to adjust to the composition of each new shot, and Cinematographer John Seale talked Miller into multiple secondary cameras to capture the action. Miller didn’t want yet another drab monochrome post-apocalyptic movie, so the only other place to go was supersaturated and the distinctive teal and orange colour palette of the movie is the work of Colorist Eric Whipp. EFFECTS: Having made action movies in the analog 1980s, and then worked in computer animation in the 2000s, Miller was supremely qualified to know how to use both digital and practical effects each to their best advantage. Digital effects were used to enhance the landscape, combine shots, remove stunt rigging and for greenscreening Charlize Theron’s prosthetic arm. Even the sequence which is obviously heavily CGI, the dust storm, was shot practically first. EDITING: Margaret Sixel‘s background is as a documentary editor, and her skill at sifting through loads of footage to find the ideal cut was used to great effect, when 480 hours of footage supplied by Seale and Miller were whittled down to 2 hours and 2700 shots.

Furiosa finally confiscates Immortan Joe’s asthma inhaler but she’s fading fast due to her accumulation of wounds. Then, in the most touching post-apocalyptic moment since WALL-E, Max heals her with his own blood. Furiosa returns to the Citadel a conquering hero, and waves goodbye to Max as he rides off into the sunset, like a YOJIMBO of the Wasteland. 

The Citadel

“I am the one that runs both from the living and the dead. Hunted by scavengers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this wasteland, reduced to one instinct: survive.”

Max, Nux, Furiosa and the 5 Wives were tools of the system but inverted the roles they were exploited for. Nux was taught to sacrifice himself for Immortan Joe but used this Kamikaze role to thwart him instead. Furiosa was a lieutenant of the Citadel but used her trusted position to liberate its victims. Max was as a mere blood bag for the Warboys but used this role to nurture his former adversary Furiosa back to life. The implications for broad societal change are clear, but FURY ROAD can also be seen as a rebuke to Miller’s filmmaker colleagues. As if to say; “You may be working on a mere franchise movie, nevertheless you should imbue it with ingenuity and excitement, and some challenging themes as well.” Innovative films of the 1970s and 1980s became the template that Hollywood still regurgitates decades later but this sad trend could be exciting if even half those ‘blockbusters’ were made in the spirit of FURY ROAD.

When so many of my filmmaker heroes have made un-engaging films in recent years I’d wondered if directors inevitably lose their edge with age, but feared that the problem was actually my own jaded soul. However, in a gift from George Miller, I was immersed in wonder by a film at the age of 51, and learned that a 70 year old director can still give a masterclass in action filmmaking. Seeing this director who dazzled me in my teens do it again in my middle age is one of the many pleasures of FURY ROAD. Even though Phillip Adams still hates Max, most other critics are enthralled by George Miller’s film. After redefining action cinema in the 1980s, Miller went into animation and has not directed a live-action film since 1998. Now he proves that he’s still one of the great directors of his own generation and serves notice to the current generation too. It’s sad that George Miller says he only has two more movies left in him at his age but I eagerly wait to see what they’ll be, whether about pigs, penguins or ’pocalypse.

Feb 252009
 


Earlier I mentioned Arthur Filloy‘s Airplane drawing blog, Drawn Patrol. He now has another blog called PISSTAKE PLATOON which likewise showcases old drawings done at work, though this time the focus is not on planes, but general silliness; Caricatures, in jokes and other drawings done to amuse each-other while we all worked on mind-numbingly terrible Saturday morning cartoons. If you worked in the Sydney animation community from the late 1970s through the 1980s then check out Arthur’s new blog. You may see some familiar faces, perhaps even your own. More and more people are digging through their old stashes of art and submitting pics to the blog; I am scanning mine at the moment, so there are likely to be updates each week for the foreseeable future

May 262008
 

Years ago, I worked at a studio where a lot of extra-curricular funny drawings were done by the crew. We drew caricatures of eachother, or of people seen on the streets at lunch hour, and we traded goofy doodles about funny things that happened around the studio, in-jokes and other silly stuff, and I joined in all these shenanigans as best as I was able.

One of the drawing battles I was happy to watch from the side lines was the ongoing airplane drawing contest between Simon O’Leary and Arthur Filloy. Both of them were, and still are, incredible cartoonists and mad-keen airplane enthusiasts. They would outdo eachother in drawing great caricatures of fantastic aircraft; both real and imagined.

Now, all these many years later, Arthur has a blog showing those great old drawings. Please visit DRAWN PATROL to see doodles of real planes (such as this cute little ME 262 drawn by Arthur) or drawings of made-up Soviet fighter planes, experimental aircraft of the Luftwaffe, or failed aircraft of the RAF and Japanese air force (complete with bogus engine specifications and made-up aircraft histories). With any luck Arthur will set up other blogs for his hilarious Star Wars sketches and very funny fake Japanese toy designs…

May 302007
 

These days, many artists (even those still in school) have their own web-sites, with links to artists who have influenced them. Hop-scotching around the internet from site to site has been a great source of inspiration for me in recent years. You can see links to artists that I admire on my LINKS page, but some of those who have influenced me the most have been those that I have worked with personally, and in many cases they don’t have websites and are therefore unknown by people who have not worked with them too.

Part One: Early Influences
I didn’t attend art school. When I started working in animation, at the age of 17, I was trained on the job and there wasn’t time for much “proper” training in the midst of production. So, while a lot of people remember the early influence of their art teachers, I am grateful to those few artist/co-workers who took time to show me some tricks and give encouragement when I was starting out, and had even less idea of what I was doing than I do today. Here are a few of the cartoonists who influenced me early in my career.

JON McCLENAHAN is an American, but he entered the animation industry in Australia, which is where I met him, when I started out at Hanna-Barbera’s Sydney studio, as an inbetweener. Jon was already an animator and he was the first artist ever to take an interest in me and I owe him a lot for that. He gave me encouragement and help with some animation I was doing in my spare time, because I was getting frustrated with being an inbetweener. Partly due to that after hours experimentation, and Jon’s encouragement, I did eventually get a chance to animate. Jon was, and still is, a very focussed, hard worker and he got a lot of work done by staying in his chair all day and drawing, rather than yakking with co-workers, which was my habit back then. I have since acquired his ability to work hard, day after day, but sadly I have never been able to apply Jon’s straightforward approach to creativity; he doesn’t second guess himself, and forges ahead with his first idea. I admire that approach very much and tried to adopt it for myself, but sadly I am rarely happy with my first idea, and so my method is is to “noodle” and try alternatives and throw away a lot of work along the path to making something I am proud of. Years later, after Jon and his family had moved back to his home town of Chicago, I had a chance to work with him at his own studio, called STARTOONS. Fans of Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, Tazmania and other quality TV cartoons from the 1980s and early 1990s may have heard of that studio because many of the funniest (and Emmy winning-est) episodes of those popular shows were animated by Jon and his crew.

Jon and I haven’t worked together for many years but we are great friends to this day.

Simon and Chris. These guys are often mentioned in the same breath by people who know them, because they are such complementary friends. When I first started working, they were like the big brothers I never had as a kid. In addition to picking up a cynical sense of humour that I hadn’t really earned yet, I learned a great deal about animation and cartooning from watching these two blokes:

CHRIS HAUGE has animated on the influential Gorillaz videos, including that first one for “Clint Eastwood” that blew everyone away (I must have watched it about 100 times). He did those when working in London for Passion Pictures. Before being part of that buzz, years and years earlier, Chris turned on a light bulb over my noggin when he was the first animator who explained to me that animation wasn’t just individual drawings or even pretty drawings… it is the relationship between those drawings that is important; he made me think about TIMING, which is something that he excells at himself. Chris showed me how to plan out the action in thumbnails first so as not to jam too much “stuff” into a scene, and ensure that the drawings each had enough screen time to “read” for the audience. That may seem obvious, especially to those of you who have had formal training, but it was a revelation to me when I was 18. (He later tried to teach me to surf, with much less success. My thrashing and splashing around made him look “uncool” in front of his surfer peers). As well as enjoying working with Chris at Hanna Barbera in Sydney, I also learned a lot from him when we both worked on commercials at Colossal Pictures in San Francisco (my favourite company I ever worked at). Chris now has his own animation studio in Sydney called HALO PICTURES with not only a great showreel but also a great location; near the beach. (Being close to the surf was one of the major factors in choosing a studio location for Chris).

Chris is the only of my art-pals on this list who actually does have a website, so please check out his animation for GORILLAZ and various other bits and pieces of coolness.

SIMON O’LEARY has worked on projects such as Disney’s Tarzan (in the Paris unit) and now directs commercials in Sydney. His cartooning ability, dry sense of humour and unpretentious approach to working were all major inspirations to me when I started in the animation industry and he inspires me to this very day. He is one of those guys who can do FUNNY drawings… drawings that’ll make you blow your coffee out your nose; you are laughing so hard. This is especially so when he busts out a savagely accurate caricature of a co-worker (or YOU) or a funny doodle based on something that happened at lunch hour. For 25 years or so Simon has both written and drawn a comic strip called Fred Gassit which runs in the Australian Motor Cycle News magazine (and several other motorcycle magazines around the world). While the strip is ostensibly related to the world of motorcycling, the humour is really about Simon taking pot-shots at the world in general, via the persona of Fred; a sarcastic dog-like character who is a cantankerous bastard but appealing none the less (much like Simon). Both the humour and the artwork are vulgar yet sophisticated (much like Simon), which is a winning combination for me; the hardest laughs happen when neurones within the low-brow and the high-brow are firing simultaneously. I have a collection of these strips that is a treasured possession I look through when I want a laugh or need to swipe ideas on how to draw a vehicle, a goon, a bikini babe, or anything for that matter. To my mind these cartoons are insanely funny and I wish that Simon was rich and famous as a result, but the fact is that he doesn’t even sign them let alone “promote” them. Self-promotion is not what Simon is about. Which explains why he doesn’t have a website and why you probably haven’t heard of him.

I have worked with Simon in Sydney, Paris and San Francisco and I look forward to working with him again some day.

DEANE TAYLOR may best be known as the Art Director on the Nightmare before Christmas (and a spin-off game). He also did design work on the animated shows Cow and Chicken and I.M. Weasel by Dave Feiss (yet another animation hero of mine, from later in my career). But years before that, Deane ran the layout department at Hanna Barbera in Sydney. After I had been animating for a few years, Deane offered me a chance at learning layouts under his supervision. Consequently, most of what I know today about composition I learned from Deane, or picked up by working with him and watching him go. He was the most prolific artist in the department. He has a very dynamic drawing style, featuring a clever use of shape and silhoette, that many of his trainees tried to copy, but nobody ever matched Deane for graphic dynamism and energy of line. He taught me some simple compositional guidelines that I learned to apply over and over again, but apart from art tricks, he also showed me quite a bit about work ethics and attitude. Even though the shows we worked on were pretty crappy in those days, and many people just went through the motions when making them, Deane was one of the few who tried his hardest on every show, no matter what. He took pride in his work. He respected people who did a good job on whatever they were given to do, rather than those people who will work on only 2 cylinders, saving themselves for the big deal job on the distant horizon.

Deane taught me to always think of how to “plus” the material that came across my desk. That is certainly what he always does.

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I am very lucky in that I have worked all over the globe, at some really great studios, on some quality productions, with loads of amazing artists over the years… but these guys listed here had a huge influence on me, disproportionate to the quality of the projects we worked on together. In many cases the stuff we collaborated on was a lot of crap, yet these artists are still some of those that I respect the most.