PH: What are you up to today?
JC: These days I’m mainly involved in large-scale sculptures, both for myself and for assisting other sculptors to achieve their visions. We do a lot of prototyping for different industries out there and we still do various bits and pieces for films that require specialist sculpting skills.
How has your career changed?
My trajectory has changed somewhat. It’s been an interesting 38 years in the film industry in that I started out making props and sculpting creatures and things. In 1978, the year after Star Wars came out. That year I met a guy called David Pride, and David and I both had an interest in Star Wars and how it was achieved, so we set about building our own motion control camera system. There were only two or three in the world at that time, and they were in the US, and I think there was one being built in the UK.
So technology’s been a large part of what you’ve done since the beginning?
Absolutely. That motion control camera was the first of its kind built here and that was in service until about 1991. By then, digital was coming along and so you didn’t need that type of motion control work anymore. In 1982, David went on to form Mirage Effects and I went on to form John Cox’s Creature Workshop. I was more interested in building the stuff that was in front of the camera.
What kind of stuff?
More organic monster-type things rather than spaceship-y stuff. So David and Mirage, they went one way and did a whole bunch of films, model work and commercials, and I looked after them doing all the sharks for Dead Calm, I was known as the animal guy.
Babe was a groundbreaking project for its time, and you were given an Academy Award for your involvement. What was it like working on such a big project?
It was a great project to be a part of. On Babe, I looked after building all of the sheep, mice, puppies, the robber’s dog and chickens, and Robotech looked after doing all the robotic components for it, which then plugged into Jim Henson’s control system. This was all leading-edge technology at the time and the American company Rhythm & Hues were brought on board to look after the new area of doing digital work on live animals. Up until then, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park were the two big standout films that had used digital. No-one had done fur before, so Rhythm & Hues really had their work cut out for them. So that was real cutting-edge technology from the animatronics side, which was probably one of the first times that robotic animals had been put out in the great outdoors alongside their real life counterparts and were delivering performances and dialogue with real animals. It was really cutting edge.
What was it that attracted you to making creatures?
When I was growing up in Sydney, probably from age nine through to 14, every Saturday afternoon Channel Seven had movies on. There was no televised sport and the movies that they would play would be Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or they meet the Wolf Man or One Million Years B.C., or Jason and the Argonauts. All of these great science fiction and fantasy films used to be on every Saturday afternoon. When I was 14, I saw the original King Kong – the black and white one – and that was it for me. That was an absolute lightbulb moment where I said, ‘That’s what I want to do, I want to make dinosaurs and giant gorillas’. So, the next day I went up to Caringbah Public Library and looked up everything I could about how special effects were made in films.
Even though you were first drawn to monsters, you ended up being the ‘animal guy’; It’s led to some pretty interesting public art projects…
Looking at my trajectory through film, even though it was monsters that got me into it, I got known as the animal guy because I could make replica animals that looked exactly like the real thing. I’ve made polar bears and koalas, sheep and sharks – you name it. A project came along which we had been discussing in-house about doing large-scale public artworks where you make 20 or 30 of these sculptures and you get artists in to paint them. Then you put them out in the public domain for two months, people look at them and then they’re auctioned off and the proceeds go to a good cause. We had everything sussed up until the point of the auction, where do the proceeds go? It was a real stumbling block.
Funnily enough, within the same period, I got a phone call from one of the councillors down Currumbin way, Councillor Chris Robbins, and she said that one of her constituents had come to her with a photo of this project that was in London at the moment called Go Gorillas, which was a whole bunch of gorillas they’d had artists paint. She thought we could do something here on the Gold Coast and involve Currumbin Wildlife Hospital. That was the missing piece. So we all got together, and we formed the project Animals with Attitude, and the koala was basically the animal that had to be created. So we’ve done two lots of koalas for Animals with Attitude, 51 have been made and all the proceeds go to the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital.
Did you find it easy to transition from movie sets to the art world?
Absolutely. Because I started out as a sculptor. In the sculpting side of things, everything I’ve learnt over the last 38 years on sculpting, moulding, casting, finishing, is all adaptable to so many different things, which is why I’m getting so many calls from other artists to get me to help them and mentor them to get their sculptures done.
Are you able to name a favourite from your collection?
That’s a difficult one, but I’d have to say the crocodile we did for Peter Pan was astounding.
What was astounding about it?
We had a very specific set of problems. So I called in some cluey people who knew about hydraulics and another group that knew about controlling hydraulics and converting a controlled system into a performance system so that it’s not just you throwing a lever backwards and forwards. You’ve got hand controls that can control numerous motions at once. That crocodile was able to do absolutely everything. It was just spectacular but the entire sequence was cut from the film before it was even shot.
The director was two weeks behind filming with the kids and one of the American producers said, “We’ve got to cut our losses here. You’ve got to concentrate on the kids and the crocodile cave scene’s got to go.” So instead of shooting for five days for the entire sequence where the crocodile is introduced as a character in the film, they gave the second unit five hours to shoot a close-up on his eye opening and that was it. That’s all that was in the film.
Which of the films that you’ve worked is your favourite?
My favourite film that I’ve worked on would be Babe. Everything about the film was great: the crew, the locations, the end product. Sometimes you do work on shows that don’t end up looking like what you had hoped they’d look like. The film that actually took us most by surprise was Pitch Black because it was shot in pitch black and we really couldn’t see much of what we were shooting and we sat in the cinema and saw the finished product and went, “Was that what we worked on?” (Laughs) Because it was just fabulous, they really did such a wonderful job with that movie.
Who are some of your influences?
Ron Mueck, an Australian who does large-scale hyper-realistic people. His work is spectacular. As for 2D artwork, there are so many illustrators. Frank Frazetta is first on the list, followed by JC Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, a lot of Disney stuff. I really love the design work that they’re doing with all of their creatures at the moment, like Zootopia – the design work on that was just gorgeous.
Speaking of Disney, I recently saw an advertisement with one of those Na’vi creatures from the movie Avatar. It involved a very lifelike animatronic. Do you think that advances in technology are going to bring animatronics back to the film world?
I hope so. One of the four guys who received an Academy Award with me for Babe, Neal Scanlon, he was working for Henson at the time. He’s sort of been enticed out of semi-retirement to look after all of the animatronics and creature work in the Star Wars movies. So they’re currently doing lots of work with creatures, people in suits and remote controlled animatronic heads and stuff. That’s where it is at the moment in film, which is great.