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Austin film studios spotlighted on Predators big day

By Richard Whittaker, 3:30PM, Tue. Oct. 19, 2010

Reconstructing the Predators set for the Blu-ray launch day at Troublemaker Studios
Reconstructing the Predators set for the Blu-ray launch day at Troublemaker Studios
Photo by Richard Whittaker

The international genre film press descended on Austin on Monday, nominally for the launch junket for Predators on Blu-ray. Yet it was also an opportunity for the local filmmaking community to show off the two facilities where the mandible-faced hunters threw down with Adrien Brody: Troublemaker Studios and Austin Studios.

It's easy to forget that those facilities are still relatively new. Austin Studios only opened in 2000, while Predators producer and Troublemaker-in-chief Robert Rodriguez described the development of his facilities as organic and somewhat accidental. He said, "Around Sin City, I remember walking from the office to the green screen, and I suddenly realized, wow, I have a studio."

After initial lensing in Hawaii, Predators used space on both lots. However, it was a sort of homecoming for Rodriguez, since 20th Century Fox approached him with the Predator sequel script he'd written for them in 1995. Special effects guru Greg Nicotero, who has been working with Rodriguez regularly since filming From Dusk 'Til Dawn in 1995, said, "Robert was really excited that we had predators walking around the parking lot. He was like, 'Man, there's a predator in the street!'"

Although he handed the director's chair off to Nimrod Antal, Rodriguez credited shooting in Austin, with access to his established small team of designers, artists and technicians, with bringing the film in so fast and so cheap. It went from script to screen in a year, which was such an accelerated time line that graphic designer Kurt Volk noted that they didn't even have time to get a Making of or Art of book into production.

According to Rodriguez's long-time prop designers turned production designers Caylah Eddleblute and Steve Joyner, that team mentality has allowed them to develop a very specific shorthand. Joyner explained, "We've been allowed, with Elizabeth [Avellan, producer] and Robert's help, to build our own miniature WETA or our own ILM." Because everyone knows everyone else, he added, there's no "covering your butt with memos."

Nicotero also testified to the benefits of that kind of working relationship when it came to the effects. He said, "What's been really great about the way Robert and I work together, and the way Nimrod and I work together is that we know which tool is required. There's never a struggle about it, because we've worked together for sixteen years. Everyone knows, this shot's a visual effect, this shot's a KNB puppet, this shot's a visual effect, and we hand off responsibilities for what best serves the movie."

Rodriguez said 20th Century Fox was impressed by how much film they got for their investment: Even more impressively, Predators broke the rules by coming in under budget (a particular rarity for Fox.) Joyner attributed to some simple production budget math. The normal ratio of raw construction materials to finished set is about three to one. So $1,000 of lumber, after paying labor costs, makes about $3,000 worth of set. However, by having his team and all their equipment already in place, Joyner estimated that the cost dropped by about a third, and that's a pretty good saving on a mid-budget picture like Predators. Joyner explained, "I'm not flying someone in from LA. I'm not putting them up in a hotel, I'm not hiring a rental car."

Part of what came out during the day was the idea of East Austin as a one-stop production shop. While Austin Studios has always been a space for hire, Predators marked the first production at Troublemaker lensed by a director other than Rodriguez. There was a lot of emphasis placed on the fact that, between the two, they have some of the largest and most advanced green screen facilities in the US.

Between Troublemaker's bespoke production design team and the engineering space available (as Joyner proudly pointed out, his team now even have metal casting facilities) there's a lot of talent and facilities available. Once Austin Studios take over the National Guard Armory in 2012, that'll add more studio space, as well as additional offices. Plus, controversial as the decision was at the time, the addition of Nashville-based Soundcheck Austin to Austin Studios is another part of the equation, adding equipment suitable for in-house sound work and post-production ADR.

The other important part of the Austin Studio expansion? As Avellan pointed out, the two studios will become neighbors, separated by only an access road.

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