The Kiwi who will bring the Opera House to life

The Sydney Opera House is one of the world's most coveted public canvases. Michelle Langstone meets the expat New Zealander whose artistic vision is bringing it to life

Sydney’s Vivid festival has become Australia’s most popular public art event since its inaugural outing in 2009. Last year 2.3 million audience members took in the displays adorning the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Museum of Contemporary Art, and around eighty more spaces in between.

Arguably, the heart of the three week spectacle is Vivid LIVE, which sees musicians from across the world performing in and around the Opera House; the jewel in the crown is the lighting of the sails with an animation set to music.

Ben Marshall, curator of Vivid LIVE, describes the ambition of the project “We try to go for things with rigour and beauty and virtuosity...using the building to champion works that maybe aren't part of the normal traditional arts conversation. The Opera House is a spiky avant garde building, it’s not a staid Victorian monument — it ought to be doing these sorts of things.”

The Opera House is one of the biggest public canvases in the world, and the commission coveted. This year, the creative chosen is expatriate New Zealander Ash Bolland.

Bolland, 40, is a graphic designer, musician, writer and director. Originally from Palmerston North, he emigrated to Australia in 2000 and since then his award-winning commercial work has been harnessed for giants like MTV, HBO, Nintendo and Sony.

Says Marshall: “His ideas knocked us out of the park, really, and the passion he brought to it — he understood immediately what a fun canvas it would be to play with.”

Ash Bolland is one half of Interrogate, a Sydney-based film company he shares with another ex-pat Kiwi, producer Tara Riddell. It’s a working relationship that spans a decade, and includes Vivid LIVE, where Riddell liases between Ash, the festival itself, and Spinifex, the design and animation company tasked with the practicalities of the projection.

His creation is Audio Creatures, a 15 minute animated loop of imaginary beings that move across the sails to music composed by acclaimed Brazilian electronic musician Amon Tobin. Early renderings show incredibly intricate, other-worldly yet strangely familiar creatures, that morph to music in a way reminiscent of the undulating tentacles of an octopus. The effect is alien-like, somehow futuristic, and totally hypnotic.

I speak to Bolland in Interrogate’s office in Chippendale, a loft-style space with exposed brick walls and high, wide windows that flood the room with autumn light. There’s a drum kit in the corner and at Ash’s desk is a little ceramic model of the Sydney Opera House. Closer inspection reveals a salt and pepper shaker that divides between the second and third sails, fitting neatly together when not in use. It’s an object referenced often, as he navigates the design challenges of a truly unique building.

You’re largely self taught — is that right?

Yeah. I left school at a very early age. I was playing in bands. My partner at the time was doing her film design degree and I used to sneak into polytech and learn how to use the computer and stuff like that. The other students used to get really annoyed by that. I used to do it just to make band posters and do motion stuff.

So with every job you’ve done, you’ve picked up what you needed to know as you go along?

Totally. The first film work I did was the music videos for our band. I enjoyed the process of that. This was in Palmerston North. We had a camera and the first version of Premiere — the editing program on our computer.

So it’s a fluid process? Does it change quite a lot?

Yeah. It’s like catching up with old skills. It’s like getting back on the horse a little bit, and working out how you want to ride the horse again. Because you don’t want to ride it the same way like you used to. You want different adventures. So there a few creatures [in this project] that are based off old work. Back then there was a rush to get them done, now I redo it and go “right, well this is how I’ll actually do it now that I’m 10 years older.”

There’s a current running through your work that has a kind of childlike naivety and sense of magic or wonder.

That’s my favourite thing — everyday ordinary things with extraordinary stuff brought into it. That’s my favourite stuff from artwork to everything. Ever since I was a little kid of 5 or 6 I would always imagine that magical stuff happens to everyday things. I think that was from watching 80s films and Steven Spielberg — E.T and all that kind of stuff.

You’re a father to two small boys; does it feel that the world is opening up again in another way because you’re seeing life through the their eyes?

Yeah totally. My upbringing was a little tricky — single parent and all that kind of stuff. My grandad was pretty much my father figure. Through my parents separating, I didn’t see my dad at all growing up. The films and stories I like, a lot of them are about childhood. And the fantasy thing is a substitute for a father or some kind of love. I think that’s pretty interesting.

These imaginary creatures bring to mind Hayao Miyazaki — that sort of fantastical realm where everything and everyone has a secret life. Is he an influence?

That’s the number one most watched film in our household — Princess Mononoke. Amon and Charlie, my sons, love that one. I’d love to make a film like that. The thing about that film that’s incredible is that it’s “versus nature” but everybody is great! 

Michael Haneke is like that as well. To me he is exactly the same as Miyazaki. Akira Kurosawa is the same. We are all these things. I’m interested in that in art.

Ash Bolland is motivated by making the everyday extraordinary. Photo: Tara Riddell

Do you go to see a lot of visual art?

I wish I did. Most of the time I push into films. I try to watch a film a day. With visual art, every time I go to do it it’s like when I go into nature and forest — I think “Fuck! I should do this more, what am I doing?” I’m pretty ignorant about that stuff, but I also do it on purpose I think. With film you just totally destroy it and you know how it's made and you reveal the magic and watch frame by frame because I want to make that. But for some reason with art, when I go into a gallery, I like to sort of take my shoes off and put my feet on the grass. Every time I do it I realise I should do it more.

The creatures you’re designing for VIVID LIVE all have distinct personalities. Did you have a clear narrative to start, or has a story evolved from their behaviour?

Obviously when you have a feature film, when you have performances and actors, that’s usually about a character overcoming a problem or dealing with a situation. And then you have the kind of films that are more just totally emotionally based and then you can get other films that are just totally plot based. But at the end of the day they’re trying to depict an emotion. With this, they are creatures that are just based around an emotion. So that’s when talking with [composer] Amon Tobin came the idea of Audio Creatures — one creature can be a lot more violent and the sound is a lot more violent, and the way it moves is a lot more violent. And so that’s clearly narrative. And then you go into the next one and it’s more ethereal and it’s pretty and you’re evoking that feeling of that.

The feeling is the narrative?

Because there are no characters or dialogue saying how they're feeling or how they will act, it’s more about an image that portrays that emotion, and that’s where the narrative comes from. And audio is always a good way of doing that.

Amon Tobin, your composer, was on your hit list of people you’d like to work with.

When his first album came out it was a huge game changer for me. I’ve always been interested in rock and independent music, but also electronic music from Laurie Anderson and people like that. Amon’s music reminds me of that. So I’m quite blown away that he is interested and wants to do it.

Are you in a process where you make a creature, you send it to him, he interprets that into music and then feeds it back to you?

With commercial work and narrative driven stuff, usually audio comes last. But I don’t want to do it like that with this at all. I just wanted to show him the imagery of the creatures and he can react to say what it feels like and what it sounds like. The first conversation I had with him was the other day on Skype. He came at it and said “Are we writing a score with this? What do you see with this?” And I said “I don’t want to tell you how to do it, and I don’t want to show any references of music.” Because I don't believe in that. So I said “Why don’t we just say words? This one’s noisy. This one’s pretty. This one’s drony. And then you go and jam out and react to that.” So that’s where we’re at at the this stage.

That seems like an organic process.

I grew up with that in directing as well. For sure you need direction, like you need a goal or a premise — “This is where we need to go”, and we will agree on that. But once you engage the artist, you don't want to show an artist how to paint a wall green, you know?

Does the shape of the Opera House present design complications?

If we break down the Sydney Opera House, it’s five shell shapes. We are limited within that shape. We can’t go over the edge. We have to express the feeling or the design that feels like the building is coming alive. And within that space we have to make the creatures all look different. So it took me a little bit of time to work that out. And the thing that I wanted to do was not just project something that you could just put in a theatre, or put on anything. It was important to me that it doesn’t feel like a sticker.

Audio Creatures is a work born from feelings — is there something you hope audiences will feel when they see it?

If you could do it like it’s not just a video projection, if you could do it like it was real, it would be like that creature was really sitting there. When you see at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and all those scientists are interacting with the giant spaceship and they are buzzing out on it? That’s the goal.

*The Vivid festival runs for 23 nights from Friday 26 May to Saturday 17 June 2017 in Sydney.

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