The House That Cohen Built

The House That Cohen Built

Ten years is a bloody long time by any stretches of my own imaginings. I’d call it one third of my life if I was being completely dishonest about my age (I’m about five years off) and I was certainly a lot thinner in the waist and thicker in the hair back then.

On this day ten years ago my Troll Bridge roto-monkey and I were driving through the Snowgum blanketed hills of Mount Bulla looking for the perfect location to shoot what was then to be the first ever Discworld film. With script in clenched fist and Conan soundtrack pumping on the stereo, both he and I explored those Australian Alps high on caffeine and our own dreams for the future.

Snowgum Films was born that day.

Fan films were peaking at the time and I was relatively young, fresh-faced, and completely unaware of my own limitations. Taking what I had learned on the internet and liberally applying it to what I thought I knew in theatre, I attempted to create Discworld history in my own very small way.

With Terry’s blessing and now miles below those mountains in my mouldy little flat in St Kilda, I started to piece together the first incarnation of Snowgum Films. I cobbled together friends and family and contacted people who I had never met before for help. The team solidified, and many of those “early adopters” are still part of our core cast and crew today.

The roto-monkey back then was Brendan Penny – he’s now our Special FX Supervisor. Our work experience kid (Emily McGregor) now heads our art department as Production Designer. Sven Skildtbitter is still our chief call for arms and armour, and we still cast John Jenkins in almost everything.

And together we followed what we would whisper in hushed tones: “the dream”.

The Original Troll Bridge Crew

So I had a crew, a cast – and a script – but I still didn’t have any money. My day job of tearing cinema tickets and upselling popcorn wasn’t really going to provide a decent means of funding, so I put a small call out for donations and was able to raise $5,000 AUD for our first attempt at Troll Bridge. This was a stupidly huge amount of money to me, and after successfully obtaining it I felt like we could shoot the world.

Or at the very least a continent.

While I didn’t realise it at the time, this would place Troll Bridge as one of the first ever films to be crowd-funded… an entire six years before Kickstarter even existed. Think on that for a moment.

Many of the other original cast and crew from those days moved on of course, either overseas or onto bigger and better things, and calling the shoots exceptionally tough is an utter understatement. The money turned out to be stretched nonsensically thin, it was a two hour drive to and from location, make-up had to be applied in the back of a bus, our green screen was the back of some cinema banners painted green, and we all came home sunburnt even though it was blisteringly cold. We all learned what a foul mistress windburn was on those early frosty, hell blasted shoots.

And even though it was a pain in the arse, and a lot of the time we were either starting or finishing at 3:30am, we still made a film. Sure – it wasn’t a particularly lush film – but we made it nevertheless, and it had heart and it had passion, and I loved it. And I made more mistakes than I could count. I also learned very quickly that theatre isn’t like film, and that some things you can get away with in one medium, you can’t in another.

And I especially learned the importance of a budget.

But we began post-production nonetheless, and on the side I started writing and directing other short films in an attempt to figure out what I had done wrong with Troll Bridge. My first film afterwards was The Morning After and it is no coincidence that it is essentially a silent film in one controllable location. I knew I had some shit to learn.

My friends and team grew, and before long I’d meet FX guru Dale Bamford and actor Troy Larkin, who would both follow me on many adventures to come (the latter of whom I have almost killed on countless occasions). On the tech side of things there was Saraj and Yun and later on Egan. My life partner, Alena, tirelessly supported me and by extension the company; and before long I’d meet and work with Ahren Morris. He would later become my business partner, half owner of Snowgum Films, and one of my closest friends. Comrades all.

I’d also get to meet Terry Pratchett, to which I would show off the Troll Bridge rough cut.

Terry Pratchett and I Meet Part I

He liked it (which was nice) and gave me some tips like “let me write the prologue in the future”.

I hope he wasn’t too surprised when I emailed him later giving him the opportunity to do so for the pickups.

Terry Pratchett and I Meet Part II

It wasn’t until much later we started talking about reshooting Troll Bridge completely from scratch. If we thought actual production was a nightmare, post-production was a hellishly knotted ball of misery. The sheer amount of ill preparation we did was starting to take its toll. We hadn’t shot any of the actual troll footage on location, and no matter what people may lead you to believe, unless you’re some sort of self-loathing masochist, rotoscoping beards and horse hair on DV footage is not particularly fun. And when we weren’t trying to chroma-key bushes out of frame, we were shooting troll animation plates in my shitty flat with a webcam.

I have never uttered the phrase “we’ll fix it in post” with such wild abandon and unreserved naivety ever again. The entire thing was a fractured nightmare in the highest order and entirely my own fault.

If only we could shoot it again, knowing what we know now…

It was a very drunken night when the idea first stumbled out of my mouth, and I blame it entirely on Dale and Emily (who would later form Nightshade FX) for not telling me it was a horrid idea. Perhaps it was the alcohol speaking, or from the particularly dark place my brain was at, but between us the idea sounded completely sane. Whole. Like a damn good idea. So the “dream” became born again in that particularly frosty kitchen, in that particularly nasty part of Coburg.

That house would also hatch Undead Ted.

A good deal of my psychosis owes its current state of health to that particular kitchen and company.

Troll Bridge became Project Phoenix, and we’d start from scratch. But THIS time we’d make it EPIC! With Sven now in command of an army, we marched out to Black Lake in rural Victoria and waged war against one another over three days. The flies were thick on the fake blood, which further congealed in the nooks and crannies of the armour. It was a sticky, messy, muddy affair. Cracked ribs and dislocations followed, in what was one of the most difficult shoots of our lives… and when it wasn’t sweltering, it was freezing, with many of the re-enactors, cast and crew camping at the location on rocky ground in windswept paddocks

Awesome, glorious, insanity.

With our new prologue shot, and what we thought was a pretty good trailer, we eagerly went to the various funding bodies here in Australia to sell them the “dream”. Surely after seeing what we had accomplished thus far, they would be tripping over themselves to take a bite of the Snowgum pie! I mean… surely we were made men and women now – we shot a bloody period piece war scene! Even Richard Taylor from Weta was impressed!

The funding bodies, however, were unable to help us. We couldn’t even get to the second phase of the submission process, but the evidence suggested it simply wasn’t Australian enough. It probably didn’t meet its Australian quota despite it being shot in Australia, with an Australian cast and crew. It didn’t speak of Australian culture, or help further solidify the Australian identity.

Apparently barbarians don’t feature heavily in our past (or so I am led to believe).

One particular funding body was however, fantastic to us, and seemed very happy to work something out on the provision the war scene was the film in entirety. After some careful explaining that this was just a preamble that had very little to do with the actual story, we hit a brick wall. We would not be able to proceed with Troll Bridge as a government backed project… the tax payers simply wouldn’t be happy with us shooting additional content (in this case, the plot) there simply wasn’t enough money to go around for the likes of us.

As fantastic as they were and very eager to help, we had to look elsewhere to make it work.

With the financial breakdown we had done for the funding bodies, we knew we needed a very modest $45,000 in raw material costs (closer the truth we needed $55,000 for it not to be a complete mess). Obviously this didn’t include paying for people. We were clearly floundering, we had no idea how to raise that sort of cash. Selling raffle tickets and fund raising cookies probably wasn’t going to cut it, and although I had previously considered selling my sperm and undergoing paid medical tests in my darker and poorer days, I wanted to find an alternative solution.

By this point Troll Bridge had eaten seven years of my life and the guilt of failing the people who had already contributed $5,000 was weighing heavily.

It was then that a fellow filmmaker by the name of Tim Ferris came up with the suggestion of crowd-funding via Kickstarter. There had been several Lord of the Rings success stories with the likes of The Hunt for Gollum and Born of Hope raising roughly $4,500 and $25,700 respectively. But given that Lord of the Rings has a much greater fan base than Discworld, and we needed a much greater figure, I was pretty confident this wasn’t going to work at all. But we owed it to our cast and crew and the original backers to at least attempt the impossible.

So on the 8th of April, 2011 we did. With nervous trepidation I announced our do-or-die plans to the world at the third Australian Discworld Convention in New South Wales. We had worked our arses off in making the best pitch video we could, if we were going to fail, I wanted us to fail knowing we had tried our hardest. “Good game everybody, we may have failed, but at least we failed trying, thrashing, with lungs full screaming at the sky in defiance!”

Cohen the Barbarian

Three months and $82,000 later, we hadn’t exactly failed, more-so set international records. At the time of success, Troll Bridge was the number one crowd-funded short film of all time in the world, but also the number one funded film of any kind in Australia. We had completely eclipsed all expectations (mostly our own) and Snowgum shortly found itself bathed in the neon green light of being given the go-ahead. There was a very vocal Troll Bridge fan base we were not entirely aware of who ensured we would spend the next three years working on the most epic short film ever attempted… for a given measure of epic.

We were all now well and truly living “the dream”.

With that money we built a set…

Shot on the set…

And shot some helicopter shots in New Zealand…

If we weren’t considered Australian, we would damn well embrace not being Australian. And now that we’re knee deep in post-production, we’ve pulled in people from all around the world to help. Troll Bridge has become well and truly international – a team effort by cast, crew and audience spread absolutely everywhere, and as such, is all the better for it!

Filmmaking is tough. Provided you are doing it right, it’s really, really tough. Sometimes it feels easy, at which point you push it back into an area that makes it tough again. If it isn’t tough, you simply aren’t trying hard enough. Like most arts; you fit it around your day jobs, you put strains on your relationships, you give up any semblance of a social life, and you scrimp together spare change and time by not going out, by not buying those things or holidays you think you need, and you do it all so you can simply have the honour… of working really, really hard at creating more art.

There are kickbacks of course. For Ahren it was meeting his fiancée covered in fake blood with her rubber throat ripped out on one of our shoots.

But for those of us who don’t find love on set, the reward is simply watching people consume the art. By being affected by it. By interacting with it. And that reward is best fucking reward I can think for anything, ever.

Ten years is a long time to be working on any one film. Of course, over those years we’ve also made a swag of other shorts, and music videos, and web serials and such, but Troll Bridge has always been the spine from which all the other work has hung and the epitome of short-form mass collaboration. It’s been the wind beneath our wings. The knob on the end of our wizard’s staff.

Troll Bridge Crew Mark II

Troll Bridge didn’t just put Snowgum Films on the map, it also built the map and spent ages getting the squiggly lines for the rivers right. It whacked mountains and forests and “here be dragons” on the map, and drew ships being eaten by krakens in the corners. Somewhere in the middle of all that insanity (lost on a trail in the Ramtops or bunkered deep beneath the East Pole) Snowgum Films the monster now flourishes and gnaws its teeth and stares at the world with hunger in its eyes.

Thank you for feeding that monster.

Happy Birthday!

So happy birthday Snowgum of the Films, son of Cohen the Barbarian! Here’s to the next decade, with many more to follow!

 
Daniel Knight
Creative Director | Snowgum Films

4 thoughts on “The House That Cohen Built

  1. Great story! I knew most of that that happened since the Kickstarter and very little what was before. Thank you for posting this. It’s very inspiring ;) And Can’t wait to see the film ;) Do you know what might be your next Discworld project (I would be very disappointed if there was none)?

  2. As one of those original backers for that first $5000, I’m so happy to see you guys are still going strong – if I had seen the kickstarter, I would have thrown more money at you, too :D

    Can’t wait for the finished product (as I said a decade ago :p)

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