Perth, the capital of Western Australia, is an extremely isolated city. In many respects WA is a world apart from the rest of Australia, having a tiny population, a huge geographical size (twice the size of Texas), and lots of desert.
We were never part of the Australian film renaissance which produced films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Breaker Morant and Mad Max. That all happened in a place we call “The Eastern States”. We stood by and watched as Miller, Weir, Beresford, Schepisi, Armstrong, Noyce and the others took off to Hollywood on the back of their classic films. (And good luck to them, geniuses all.) Western Australia was not even a footnote in the Australian film landscape.
When I was growing up the local industry was small – three local TV stations and that was pretty much it. The Film and Television Institute in Fremantle was the haven for independent filmmakers, who made films on the scent of an oily rag. Luckily (and with the help of talented friends) I got into Swinburne Film and TV school in Melbourne, so I was able to get a solid grounding in the skills and mindset of independent filmmaking with good teachers, inspiring role models and a few extra resources. (That film school has now moved to the Victorian College of the Arts.)
When I got out of film school I returned to Perth and directed my first short drama, Sunkissed Goodbye, (from an original script by Kiff Newby) supported by the small local film agency, the WA Film Council.
It was the early 1990s. For some reason there began been a slow and steady build-up of prominent documentary production in Western Australia. With the support of the newly-created government agency ScreenWest, companies like CM Films, Electric Pictures, Prospero Productions, Malcolm Douglas Films and Artemis International began to draw attention and win awards with a slew of cutting-edge documentaries. Check out their websites to see their early work. Within the relatively small Australian industry these quality producers drew a lot of attention, and filmmakers from other parts of the country began to commute here to make their films.
Those companies are still thriving today and producing many broadcast hours of exciting documentary material for the national and international markets each year, in collaboration with world-class broadcasters such as ABC, SBS, ITV, BBC, NatGeo, Discovery, NHK, ZDF, History Channel and Arte. Perth now boasts a mature and active documentary industry with a talented gene pool of highly experienced creative and technical crew.
Parallel to the development of the doco sector was the emergence of a thriving industry based on children’s drama series. The pioneer of this was Paul Barron, famous in the West for being one of the first to attract international investment into Australian television production. This has seen the production of a broad range of children’s series which have screened all over the world including Clowning Around, Parallax, Stormworld and Lockie Leonard, along with many others too numerous to mention.
Following in the footsteps of these pioneers have been a flood of newer documentary and drama filmmakers. Perth is now bubbling with production houses, and filmmakers are working steadily in documentary, TV and feature film drama, lifestyle, music videos, advertising and corporate sectors.
In the past few years, ScreenWest have been heavily promoting Western Australia as a production centre for feature films and high-end drama series, and we’ve seen an explosion of production in new parts of the market. Series like The Circuit, animated series like Dogstar, innovative youth-oriented docos like mY Gen, web-based series, and feature films such as Mad Bastards, Blame, The Tree and Wasted on the Young have all been successful around the globe. As a viewer, I highly recommend all of them.
That’s only one part of the story – along with everywhere else WA has experienced a rapid expansion of TV stations, satellite and digital TV, web broadcasting, multimedia and other sectors. I haven’t touched on the huge contribution the ABC and commercial stations have made and continue to make to the local industry. The FTI is still going strong, and I enjoy teaching the students there from time to time. The solid core of doco and drama production I talked about is going from strength to strength, putting our stories into the world, generating wealth in the economy and creating work for new generations of filmmakers. If you were/are a part of WA film and TV history add your own experiences below…
I’m proud to be working in this industry which is filled with creative professionals, cool people who are grounded, dedicated and hugely skilled at what they do. It’s an exciting and optimistic time to be making films in Perth. With Australia’s growing connections to China, I’m happy to be playing a small role in the next phase by editing CM Films‘ international co-production, the Chinese feature film Deep Sleep No More.