(L-R): Director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight instructor Alan Tang, crew camera operator, and Simu Liu on the set of Marvel Studios' 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings', shot at Fox Studios Australia, Sydney. (Photo: Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.)

Ausfilm will convene a working group to address below-the-line workforce capacity with the Office of the Arts, Screen Australia, the state screen agencies, AFTRS and NIDA, with aims to ultimately develop a national framework to support growth.

The organisation has also hired Susan Danta to the newly-created role of workforce capacity strategy executive in order to drive associated initiatives.

The move comes after Ausfilm commissioned an audit into Australian production infrastructure and capacity from Olsberg SPI.

Ordered after the Federal Government added an additional $400 million to the Location Incentive Program last July, the Olsberg report found Australia is facing capacity constraints in key roles such as line producers, 1st assistant directors, unit production managers and location managers, as well as positions across post-production, visual effects and animation, particularly VFX producers and supervisors, animators and technicians.

There are also shortages in specialist roles such as special effects supervisors and in special effects for hair; positions that require significant on-the-job training and experience.

Why look at skills now?

With Location Incentive Program helping to create a consistent pipeline of international work, Ausfilm CEO Kate Marks tells IF it seemed appropriate to begin to formally address skills and infrastructure pressure points.

Indeed, since the additional $400 million was added to the incentive, there have been a flurry of projects lured to our shores, including features Ticket to Paradise, Thirteen Lives, Escape from Spiderhead and Blacklight, and series such as The Wilds (season 2), The Tourist, Pieces of Her, La Brea, Nautilus, God’s Favourite Idiot, Irreverent, Joe Exotic and two seasons of Young Rock.

Over the past 18 months, Australia’s attractiveness a production destination has certainly been bolstered by its relative grip on COVID-19, but Marks estimates around 65-70 per cent of those productions were already due to shoot here.

Ultimately, Ausfilm’s aim in commissioning the Olsberg report, hiring Danta and convening the working group is to see Australia continue to compete as a production destination, and in the long-term, increase its market share.

“Remembering it was an Ausfilm commissioned report, it was very much done through the lens of international production. But of course, we know that the constraints that a being felt both in terms of both infrastructure and workforce are much broader than that and across the entire industry, Marks says.

“To the same point, we hope that the work we’re about to undertake will benefit the broader industry.”

The Olsberg study, which consisted of desktop research, industry consultation, and an industry survey, found that Australia is perceived as a trusted and leading destination for international filmmakers, with highly regarded crew. It is able to compete globally with other territories such as Canada, the UK and Georgia in the US.

Further, the report puts forward that with the Location Incentive Program and a global content boom, Australia is now in a strong position to move away from past ebbs and flows in international production and see continued growth.

It suggests if the Australia addresses constraints in its workforce and infrastructure capacity, there is the opportunity to increase levels of production 10 per cent year-on-year.

“If we don’t address some of these issues, do we have the same chance to continue to grow? That’s questionable,” Marks says.

While the report notes that Australia could do with another large-scale studio facility, particularly on the east coast, Marks notes that stages can be constructed relatively quickly. Financial incentives too, can be implemented and adjusted quickly to meet need by governments. Growing the capacity of the workforce is a longer-term issue, which is where a co-ordinated approach, across government and industry, would be of benefit.

On the ground

The workforce capacity constraints highlighted by the Olsberg report largely mirror those found by a Screen Producers Australia survey conducted in April. At that time, two-thirds of producers surveyed reported these skills shortages were the most significant issue facing their business in the short-term.

However, many of these skills shortages were not new – simply exacerbated by the recent boom. Production accountants in particular have been a known area of strain for some years.

Nor are such skill shortages unique to Australia. In the UK, training body Screenskills has also identified shortages in a significant number of roles, including production co-ordinators, production managers, 1st ADs, editors and 2D animators.

Production manager Jennifer Cornwell, whose recent credits include Ticket to Paradise, Extraction 2, Thor: Love and Thunder and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, has noticed of late a marked shortage in fellow production managers, as well as line producers and travel co-ordinators, and a “desperate” need for more accountants and financial controllers. Further, she sees a shortage of costume supervisors, ager/dyers, camera and Steadicam operators, and DITs.

“When we go through the process of importing people, we always try, along with the union, to look at the skill sets that we’re bringing into Australia and how we can help educate our crew, so we don’t have to keep bringing them in,” she says.

In terms of training, Cornwell sees it vital Australia remain globally competitive as production destination as larger US projects offer opportunities of scale.

“The skills enhancement and the technology that we get on the big US productions is what I think will help Australian film,” she says.

On both Thor: Love and Thunder and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Marvel Studios ran a formal traineeship program with AFTRS, NIDA and other tertiary institutions.

Netflix has also sought to invest in skills development in Australia, launching in August a $500,000 partnership with Screenworks to train up-and-coming practitioners in regional NSW.

In VFX, ILM Sydney recently launched its Jedi Academy with the support of the NSW government.

Indeed, more production has meant more opportunity for many. There are numerous anecdotal reports of mid-career practitioners recently taking the next steps in their careers and moving into heads of department roles, something acknowledged in Ausfilm’s Olsberg report.

In Cornwell’s observation, many people have had the chance to step up quickly during the past 18 months, but “sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

To that end, the report notes those in their mid-career need to be given sustained support as they upskill so that they are ready to take on those senior opportunities. It also puts forward that many HODs leave Australia, and a significant number are of retirement age.

“This is not about flooding the market with emerging [practitioners]. It’s being strategic in where to we need to address focus, to match what the skilling requirements are for individual roles,” Marks says.

1st AD PJ Voeten, who has worked extensively with George Miller across his three decade career, agrees that many of the industry’s senior crew are ageing.

“We have up in our production office a pinboard of all the people’s faces that that are working on a show. I look at it and go, ‘This is definitely an older workforce’. There’s people I’ve grown up with; I’m old myself. I keep wondering where the green, new shoots are coming from.”

Voeten underscores the need for on-the-job training and would like to see greater attachment schemes in various departments. “It’s invaluable. It opens up doors; if you’re really good, people grab you. That’s all this industry does; you gravitate towards people who are smart between the ears.”

For locations manager Mary Barltrop, whose recent credits include Blaze, God’s Favourite Idiot and Extraction, the upswing of production of late has been “extraordinary”.

During that time, she says demand for location managers has outstripped supply, and within her own department, she has also struggled to find scouts and co-ordinators. To adapt, she has trained up people from adjacent industries, including from the events, music and hospitality industries.

“That’s at the coalface; I’ve had to do that on the fly as I’ve been working. It can only be a good thing now that that’s being formalised by the screen agencies and backed by the educational establishments across Australia.”

Susan Danta, Ausfilm’s new workforce capacity strategy executive.

A co-ordinated approach

While Olsberg report acknowledges significant strides across the country to see workforce capacity constraints addressed, it argues there is a lack of a co-ordinated national approach.

It’s exactly this that Ausfilm is seeking to address via the new cross-sector working group, with whom it will examine the outcomes from the audit and identify both short and long-term goals and actions.

Marks imagines these will include a mixture of formal and informal training, industry partnerships, and strategies to bring people across to the screen sector from adjacent industries.

As part of this work, the group will also liaise with the broader industry, guilds, MEAA and other industry organisations.

Danta, who started with Ausfilm this week, joins from AFTRS, where she recently led the research team and held roles as head of faculty and head of animation and VFX.

“Susan’s research experience intersects industry, education and government and her passion for the screen sector are complementary skill sets to lead this strategic work,” Marks says.

Looking forward, Marks is positive about scaling up the workforce, given the diversity of projects that are now coming here.

“A lot of the international clients that have come to us have said, ‘If we’re bringing productions to Australia, where’s the opportunity? Where should we be investing in the development of the industry?’

“Part of this process is to be able to [have] a framework, document or some information that we can share, to go ‘This is where we need support. These are some targeted opportunities.’ These clients do want to partner.”

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  1. What a shame we closed down the major training groups like Metro Screen (and the ones in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth) that trained so many below the line crew and that their report on training published several years ago was ignored by the organisations that now see a problem

  2. An 8-wk Metro Screen producing course was the bridge for me shifting from producing TVCs to film. Invaluable.

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