DB – Hi again everyone. Today, I’m talking to Justin Dix, the founder of Wicked of Oz studios. Justin has created award winning prosthetic makeup effects, props, miniatures, animatronic characters and set pieces for feature films and television. Some of the big name movies he’s worked on are Star Wars Episodes 2 & 3 (Attack of the Clones and Revenge of Sith), Charlotte’s Web and The Bank Job. He is also one of the hardest working people in the industry that I’ve seen. The sheer amount of projects that he’s been on and the quality of work has totally blown my mind! Hi Justin.
JD- Hi David, thanks for the introduction, it does feel like I have done a lot in a lot of different fields, possibly due to having a lot of experience in multiple areas of film making. Before wanting to write, produce and direct I always wanted to be a special effects makeup artist. Pre internet I collected every movie magazine and book I could, Starlog, Fangoria, you name it. I absorbed as much as I could and taught myself FX and Miniatures, but I always felt that films and the US film industry was a universe away, on a pedestal I could never reach.
Like many effects people of my time, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin whom I idolised, I helped out friends who were making films, and I did this for years. It was a great proving ground and no risk way of learning, and as information was scarce, you had to make up a lot of what you were doing yourself, come up with your own methods and techniques.
DB – Justin, most of the really amazing special effects that I’ve seen come out of Australia in recent times have come from your studio. There is such a wide variety too. Can you tell us a bit about the different things that you create?
JD – The goal with my studio Wicked of Oz has to remain malleable, to not just be exclusively a special effects makeup studio, I’m happy to try anything, regardless if we had never done it before. In fact, it is still evolving, today we are primarily a film production studio, developing projects of mine or others to produce, all the effects and miniature experience only adds to our skill set and manages to produce bang for our buck.
I primarily like to do as much in the camera effects as possible, from creature suits, to miniature set and vehicles and prosthetic makeup, it helps with everything from the actor’s performance to getting a gritty and tangible realism that can’t be achieved without a fifty million dollar VFX budget.
I think it was when the second pirates of the Caribbean came out and I saw those CGI make-up of Davey Jones and his crew, I was looking at the screen and was trying to work out which bits were real and which bits were digital as it was some of the best silicone makeup I’d ever seen, then, when I found out the entire thing was digital, my first thought was, practical effects are dead. I really did, I know a lot of other people did too. That’s when I thought that you need to evolve to survive and I focused my attention on scripts and production to produce my own projects, ones that embraced old school techniques including miniatures and fx makeup.
But old school techniques didn’t die out, in fact there has been a resurgence of late, with big films like the Force Awakens which have actively promoted and called attention that they are back to old school methods. This is what I want to do with my own films but also to anything I work on for anyone else. In fact, I had the great fortune to show (Super Producer) Gale Ann Hurd a mood piece I’d done for one of my films called Declassified that was made in a day, with no VFX and utilizing miniatures and practical effects she was blown away saying ‘Now that’s film making’.
DB – Most here are dying to hear about your involvement in Star Wars. You were a Droid Technician in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of Sith.
JD – I do consider myself one of the luckiest people when it comes to joining the film industry ‘Officially’, when I say officially, I mean getting paid to work in film. Prior to that I was doing lots of stuff on lots of other people’s films for free, including Dan Armstrong whom you interviewed recently. Dan and I go way back, like twenty-five years, and are good friends.
Star Wars was my introduction into the film industry, and it was huge. Not only was I lucky enough to work on the film, I feel I got the perfect job, in the perfect department, which was the droid unit. Mainly because it was a very small unit, only five of us, and I was pretty much responsible for the aesthetics and manufacturing of the robots and parts in that unit. There are far too many stories to go into but I lived out a Star Wars fans fantasy almost every day. Including becoming friends with Anthony Daniels and have memories that my twelve-year-old self would never have believed possible.
One story that remains an incredible memory is actually not when we were filming but when we used to meet and greet kids and their families for make a wish foundations or other charities. I would bring the families into a studio where we had set up R2-D2 and C3-PO resting near a couple of full sized space ships, I’d do the usual shtick ‘Who know who these robots are’ the kids and parents would all scream out, but then I would go to the back of 3-PO and flick a switch, his lights would go on and he’d greet them all, then bang R2’s head waking him up. To see the expression of not only the kids but their parents was unforgettable and it projected me back to when I was a ten-year-old looking at the Star Wars poster at the movie theatre, and to this day those parents still probably did not realize that it was actually Anthony Daniels inside the suit (the actual C3-PO), he was a very giving that way and it made us all feel incredible.
As I was fortunate enough to have Star Wars episode 2 as the first professional feature film I ever worked on, I thought I would walk away with all the secrets that had been locked away behind studio gates of how to make films, I thought I would walk away with an inextinguishable euphoria that could never be extinguished, but, it was different to what I thought it was going to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, it was my childhood dream come true, but it also made me understand how inefficient and wasteful the film industry was, in my mind I thought, no wonder these things cost 150 million dollars, there must be a better way.
It’s actually back then, in 2001 that I started writing my very first feature film, and since then I’ve written a dozen more, some with writing partners and some without, some of those scripts I’ve sold, one I’ve made and some I’m still developing. Ironically, while I sit here in LA writing this interview and churning up memories of my ride so far, the film I started writing on Star Wars back in 2001 will be my next production, in fact when I return to Australia we are jumping straight into it. It’s the film that will take everything I’ve learned and the relationships I’ve forged over the years, to do.
DB – After Star Wars, between 2008 – 2012, you did quite a few spots as a special fx make-up artist on shorts, such as Forged, Storm Warning, Dying Breed, The Loved Ones, Lake Mungo, Long Weekend, Gates of Hell, Beautiful, Damned by Dawn, Red Hill, 100 Bloody Acres, FH2: Faghag2000, and more. That is one helluva pace! We won’t be able to cover all of those in just this one article, but can you tell me the highlights and how some of them might have challenged you, and others helped hone your skills for your own later projects.
JD – In between those projects listed I worked on developing my own projects, obviously writing the scripts but also creating artwork, makeup test, production design, and I started traveling back and forth to LA to learn the next part of film making, how to get a project made, that is the hardest part of film making, ask anyone!
As far as some of the previous projects that have come through Wicked of Oz’s door I’d say the Loved Ones and 100 Bloody Acres were my favourite, and it’s not to do with the effects we did for them, although we are very proud of the work, it’s the people and ultimately the directors you work with which can make a film an enjoyable experience.
The Loved Ones director Sean Byrne and I hit it off straight away, I could tell he had a vision for the film and that vision was going to be crazy and unique, and it was, I loved the finished product, I really loved it and was so proud of it. Even if a film is not your own, when you have an experience like that you take some sort of ownership, you feel like you’ve contributed and without you it would not have been what it was. Every crew member on any film wants to feel like that, that’s why we do it, sure, it’s a job, but it can be more than that, and those are the memories and moments that make you continue in an industry that is super competitive and possibly one of the hardest jobs there is. I know some people will think it’s glamorous, and sometimes it is, but if you’re not super passionate about it and willing to work harder than you have worked before, it’s not for you.
The other project that is one of my favourites is 100 Bloody Acres, for the Cairnes brothers, it was the first film I did with them, Scare Campaign being the second. Those lads are like looking in a mirror, we’ve seen, loved and learned from all the same films in the 80’s golden era. To work with them is a pure joy, I not only want to give them everything they want on a smaller budget, but they allow me to go that extra mile. I know they will feel that I am doing them a huge favour but it’s reciprocal, by letting me off the leash, they are allowing me to experiment and to run around in the playground that I love dearly.
DB – In 2012, you directed and was a producer on the award winning feature, Crawlspace — a horror/ mystery/ sci-fi.
JD – My first feature film Crawlspace came from a film making frame of mind, ‘What can I make with the recourse’s at my disposal for a small budget’ But, I ended up making a film that was punching way above its weight. I have a lot of other scripts but they are kind of all epics. I know a lot of people when faced with budget restrictions will write a film set in one room, that’s kind of what I did with Crawlspace, although that room happens to be the underground tunnels of a top secret facility in the middle of the Australian desert. Funny thing is, in the end, we had 16 sets in the largest sound stage at the Dockland studios in Melbourne, I used to say we were the smallest show in the biggest shed.
I’ve mentioned it before but I’m a huge fan of all films 80’s, it was my era and it influences everything I love to do. Crawlspace was very much my love letter to this period, influenced by Alien, Scanners and The Thing just to name a few. As my directorial debut I’m uber proud of it and I still love to watch it, part of this is because I fell in love with my cast, prior to the project I did not know them, but afterwards and to this day I call them friends. That’s what the film industry does, it created mini families that are bound together by an intense shared experience, and if that experience was a joyful one, those friendships last a lifetime.
It’s been five years since Crawlspace and I do get asked why I have not made another film since then, the easy way to answer is that I have been, multiple one, they just that they never went got up to production. I’ve been in 3 yearlong contracts with various production of mine that I’ve written. Declassified was the first, literally after finishing Crawlspace I came to LA with the finished product under my arm, screened it and sold it to distributors, from there got an agent and manager pretty quickly and from then a meeting a Fox whom loved and contracted me to make Declassified, my head was spinning I thought I was living the Hollywood dream, but after a year of rewrites, we still had not made it, unfortunately when in a contract with someone like Fox your kind of stuck in limbo bound to that project and unable to do anything else.
I’ve done this several times, chasing the Hollywood dream, and also since making Crawlspace I’ve worked on other people’s film like 100 Bloody acres and NBC’s series, Hunters, and last year and going into this one I was working on a huge Chinese production for 9 months and so on which has absorbed another few years. So when you add it all up, five years just flew by.
But, with all that behind me and understanding the perils and pitfalls and putting it all down to a learning experience, I see the road ahead and it looks ‘Indie’ and it looks bright.
DB -I still consider myself a newcomer to the local film industry and the first I saw of your work was some amazing pics from the recent series, Hunters. Hunters was a pretty big one that aired on the Syfy channel. This one had slimy things with veins, cadavers and all sorts of stuff that you just don’t tend to see much of in local movies — at least not in this quantity and quality. Can you tell me a bit about the various things you created for Hunters?
JD – Hunters was an unexpected experience, I happen to be in LA when I got a call from Australia asking if Wicked of Oz would be interested in doing the effects for the show, they briefed me about it and I was super excited by the possibility but ultimately I said I’m not really interested in doing effects on other people’s shows any more and more interested in developing my own projects.
They then asked if I wouldn’t mind meeting the producer who was also in LA, Gale Ann Hurd. Well, now they really had my interest. ‘ Absolutely I’ll meet Gale!’ So I met her the next day at Valhalla Pictures which alone in an intimidating experience. The walls are lined with movies that shaped who I am, from Terminator, Aliens and the Abyss, this was a woman I’ve always admired and never thought I’d get to meet, let alone work with.
As nervous as I was, Gale and I got along great, in fact we talked more about my own projects I even showed her a mood piece I made for one of my underwater project which she loved. We finally got around to talking about Hunters and I walked away from the meeting elated, I was on cloud nine, but still not really wanting to jump on a show that would suck up another year of my life not working on something of my own. But that’s when I got the call, ‘Gale was very impressed and what’s to know if you’d like to Co-produce on Hunters as well as have Wicked of Oz do the effects. Well, that was a different story, so of course I excepted and it was back to Australia to work on one of the most intense productions I’ve ever worked on, basically TV is a different animal to film, don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but it was like making four feature films all that the same time.
What I loved about Hunters which was similar to previous films I’d done, we’d been given a lot of latitude to do and come up with whatever we wanted, obviously within the parameters of the scripts, but we came up with new gags and went practical where possible and did not default to digital. I even ended up directing some 2nd unit for an alien planet battle sequence which was ultimately trimmed down to fit within the running time, but it was a thrill to do regardless. I was very proud of my whole Wicked of Oz team.
DB – You have quite a few projects in development at the moment. Amongst them is Aries, Declassified, High Moon, The Colony, Blood Vessel and Riding Hood. Can you tell us anything about them?
JD – Wicked of Oz has a lot of productions in development, all of them genre as that is my love, and all of them utilizing what I have in my bag of tricks from practical effects to minatures. Again, the hardest part of film making is finding the finance. I heard a saying that the longest distance in the world is the between a person’s mouth and their wallet, it is so true. Getting a film up can be the most disheartening thing to do when you have that burning desire to tell your stories and bring them to fruition.
It is very easy to be seduced by shiny new things, opportunities that present themselves but ultimately end up absorbing your very precious time. The one piece of advice that I give often is ‘Take what is in front of you’ the problem is in the past I have not taken this advice myself.
As far as the projects that I do have in what I active development, there are a few that I have spent a lot of time on, getting virtually up to the stage of ‘ready to go’ from concept and production design, effects makeup tests, budgeted and scheduled, to fully storyboarded. That is the main goal for any independent filmmaker, just do as much as you can now without the burden of a production schedule looming over you, not only is there no pressure but everything you do now will serve you later. It’s all in the planning, planning, planning.
I can say that I’ll be going into production soon on my next film, in fact this year, you’ll have to watch this space.
My future goals are to make Wicked of Oz the premiere genre production studio in Australia, at this moment I can’t think of anyone else doing it in our country, and with my background, not only bring the projects I already have in development to audiences, but I hope to help facilitate a new generation of genre film makers in the future, I know it sounds like a big goal, but I’ve always dreamed big, funny thing is my reality always seems to exceed my dreams, so I’m very optimistic.
DB – Thanks for taking the time to chat to me Justin. Any links you would like to share can go in here: