Adelaide’s Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) has become such an international player its name regularly turns up on some of the biggest movies made: Harry Potter, Gravity, Tomb Raider, Game of Thrones, Mortal Kombat, Black Widow. Last year it won an AACTA award for The Eight Hundred, a Chinese war drama which was the second-highest-grossing movie worldwide in 2020.
RSP visual effects artist Julian Hutchens, whose work on The Boys, a superhero series streaming on Amazon Prime, helped put RSP on the shortlist of nominations for a 2021 Emmy, took his kids to see Jungle Cruise last holidays. They worked on that one, too.
“I got to sit back and enjoy that one because I’d worked on it a little bit but not extensively, so I went in pretty fresh,” Hutchens says.
The Emmy nomination (in which Hutchens is named) is the most recent evidence of the excellence of the work RSP produces from its offices in Pulteney Street, and its place as a major name in visual effects worldwide. In 2015, it was Oscar nominated for the delightful time-warp kitchen sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and at last year’s Oscars it contributed to two of the 10 films in the running for visual effects awards: Alita: Battle Angel and Captain Marvel.
The Emmy recognition for RSP’s work headed by Hutchens covered season two of The Boys, a tongue-in-cheek series about delinquent superheroes, based on a comic book.
Hutchens was born in Melbourne and studied design and multimedia at Monash University, followed by work on commercials and occasional features, but after working at a film house in London for four years, then Montreal, he and his family decided to return to Australia. Rising Sun Pictures was the only company that interested him and he moved to Adelaide to join it.
Before leading a team on The Boys, he had worked with RSP on Tomb Raider, Predator, Alita and Spider-man, followed by the Battle of Shanghai epic The Eight Hundred – which was temporarily pulled from release at the last minute by Chinese censors, apparently for portraying the Communist rivals, the Nationalist Party, in too heroic a light.
For The Boys, the brief was to work on a particular character from the superhero squad, a female called Stormfront.
“It’s quite a subversive, underground comic about delinquent superheroes who abuse their power while presenting this very clean image to the world, so it’s a fun place to play,” Hutchens says. “You get to play with celebrity and power, and the politics of the media and manipulation, all that sort of stuff.”
Stormfront is a former Nazi and a bigot – she views people without powers as inferior – who has the ability to discharge burning energy (basically purple plasma) from her hands. It set Hutchens and his team on a creative journey to discover what plasma was, how it behaved and how it could be wielded as a weapon.
“We did all these experiments with lasso-type animated effects, a sort of cord that she throws out that can zap things and bring them back,” he says.
What they were not to do was to create an effect based on electricity because it is the intellectual property of Storm, an X-Men character. But once they got further into things, the decision was made to embrace the qualities of electricity without the effect actually being it.
“We looked at all these crazy people on the internet who built their own Tesla coil where they have their own arcs of electricity that can zap nearby metal objects and we looked at those to analyse frequency and how many frames it’s on before it disappears and what shapes it creates,” Hutchens says. “It wasn’t so much a simulation, more just using nature to visually analyse it and understand what the qualities were that we needed to apply to our effect to make it look like that.”
Making a superpower fresh was hard, given the weight and inventiveness of powers and effects that have already been done. But the most successful ones are still those that are grounded in some way and Hutchens’s team worked to maintain that reality by shattering Stormfront’s plasma beams around objects and throwing off sparks just as electricity would.
They started out just on Stormfront but as the client got to know their work the brief expanded and they became involved in other aspects of the series.
“There were some gruesome shots we did where a guy called The Gecko can basically chop off limbs and grow them back,” Hutchens says. “There was a scene where he hacks his arm off and we had to design the effects of it growing back, so that was actually loads of fun.”
The reward for all this was to be shortlisted for an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Season or Movie, in company with some of the biggest productions of the past year, namely Star Wars: The Mandalorian, WandaVision and Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.
Hutchens was oblivious to the nominations being announced – he still doesn’t know how you even get nominated – but he woke up to a cascade of messages of congratulations and had to dig into a social media post to find out what he was being congratulated for. Having got this far, he will be tuning in to the Emmy announcements on September 19 (US time), although he has yet to find out exactly when and where they are on.
“It would have been really fun to go,” he says. “But it’s great; it’s validating that we can stand up on the world stage from a small city in Australia, and stand up against all those big movies and big shows and be contributing to it – and knowing the audience is enjoying it.”
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.