Antony Tulloch began his career as a lighting assistant. These days, he's in charge of Melbourne's version of Hollywood.
Docklands Studios doesn't have the glamour of the US movie capital; motorists on the city's Bolte Bridge would barely notice the hulking grey sheds metres from the tollway. But inside these soundproof behemoths, new worlds are being built.
"We're the factory, we create stuff. It's manufacturing but every product that comes out is different," Tulloch tells AAP.
These days those products - feature films and TV shows - are world class, including the hit streaming shows La Brea and Clickbait.
Production for the Robbie Williams biopic Better Man is underway and the science fiction series Metropolis is slated to begin filming in coming months.
The recent completion of the biggest studio at Docklands so far means the facility has the floor space to compete with Fox Studios in Sydney and Village Roadshow on the Gold Coast.
The $46 million Studio Six could comfortably fit a four-storey building, has a specially reinforced floor that can support a 20-tonne machine and even a 10m by 20m pit that can be filled for shooting underwater.
Major international production companies are taking notice, according to Tulloch, who is dealing with calls from US and UK filmmakers as AAP tours the studios.
"There's a whole set of different eyeballs looking at us now because we've got 100,000 square feet of stage space available," he says.
Walking through the so-called "elephant doors" of each sound stage, it's possible to get an idea of the large-scale sleight of hand that is the magic of Hollywood - or rather, Docklands.
On one set, a moody streetscape is taking shape, complete with lampposts and cobblestones, autumn leaves and cracked bitumen.
Front-on it looks entirely realistic but a step to one side reveals the bricks are merely painted plaster on plywood screens.
It's a massive effort to make sets that may only be on camera for a moment, according to Tulloch, but there are big benefits to studio production.
Filming on location means having to contend with noise, weather and building codes, and keeping cast and crew well fed during long days of shooting.
"If you feed them you can control them, otherwise they might just go to the pub," he jokes.
Melbourne producer Naomi Mulholland is a 20-year veteran of the screen industry and a familiar face at Docklands Studios.
Growing up, she was told to steer away from a career in the arts but the advice didn't stick and her work has taken her all over the world - even up the Eiffel Tower to film Rush Hour 3.
"We're all adrenaline junkies to be honest, we all work under that pressure and stress ... it's possibly not a good thing," she laughs.
Her first Docklands production was Ghostrider in 2005, at the time the biggest feature film shot in Melbourne.
Most recently, she worked on the number one Netflix hit Clickbait and the yet-to-be-released Shantaram.
When Mulholland began working in Australia after getting her start in London, there was intense competition for the small amount of work available.
But things have changed, she tells AAP, with old hands encouraging up-and-coming local talent and Australian film technicians also finding success overseas.
Still, a film and television career is not for the faint of heart, Mulholland cautions.
"It can be a lot of rejection ... but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, especially now there's so much work here."
The year before the pandemic hit, the state government-owned studios made a profit of about $2.5m but the real point was always growing the industry.
State and federal incentives have of course had a hand but shows like Clickbait and La Brea aren't immediately recognisable as locally made.
For all the industry's recent successes, Australia is still a difficult market for home-grown shows and funding remains a challenge, according to Tulloch.
So what will it mean for local screen culture if its big-budget productions can't be recognised as Australian?
"Whether it's tall poppy or whether it's cultural cringe, I don't know the answer. But ... there is still an undying storytelling ethos in the Australian industry that will continue to exist," Tulloch says.
Mulholland's side hustle is one example - at home with her second child, she and a friend wrote a comedy series, Sonia and Cherry, for YouTube - which has since won Screen Australia funding.
If a script shot in one day on a shoestring budget can succeed, maybe anything is possible in the world of Australian film.
In the 1970s, Australia produced about 10 features a year, with an average budget of $21m in today's money. In 2020/21, despite the pandemic, it made more than 40, with an average budget of more than $500m.
When Tulloch started off driving generator trucks and dragging lighting cables in the 1980s, did he ever imagine the size of the industry now?
His answer is, perhaps fittingly, a little bit Hollywood.
"It was the stuff we were dreaming of ... to be working on shows with big, big stars, to be working on shows with big aspirations and big ambitions. It was always the dream and now it's real."
Australian Associated Press
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