1 Cleverman, ACMI, Melbourne Image credit Michael Jalaru Torres, 2018
Cleverman, ACMI, Melbourne. Image credit: Michael Jalaru Torres, 2018

Take a sneak peek at stories, designs and props behind our Cleverman exhibition.

The following text is adapted from the audio recordings in the exhibition. Cleverman: The Exhibition has minimal text in line with the principle of "listen-first", which honours First Peoples oral storytelling, and invites the visitor to immerse themselves in the Dreaming.

Introducing the exhibition with ACMI Curator Kat Clarke

Kat Clarke introduces ACMI Cleverman

Dalk! Womenjika. This is a preview of the Cleverman exhibition that you can visit at ACMI in Federation Square. My name is Kat Clarke – I’m one of the exhibition curators.

Cleverman, the television series, includes two languages, Gumbaynggir and Bundjalung, from Northern NSW. In the exhibition we pay tribute to both of these languages and the people who speak them.

We also acknowledge the lands of which ACMI stands and we acknowledge the lores of Bunjil to be holistic to the Victorian First Nation people. So please be welcoming to guests, respect the lores of Bunjil, do no harm to each other or the land and its creatures, and do no harm to the children. For we are on the custodian lands of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation and this is a statement acknowledging their communities and all First Nations People of this country who have travelled to visit ACMI and the exhibition. We acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded and pay our respects to all First Nation people past present and future.

Designing the Bindawu with production designer Jake Nash

My name is Jacob Nash and I am the specialist production design and co-creature designer on Cleverman season one, and production and co-creature designer on Cleverman season two. The design of the Bindawu (also known as the Hairy People) began with a conversation with series creator Ryan Griffen. He talked about what he wanted to create and began with the stories from a known place, some of his personal experiences of being on Country. From there we discussed, ‘how do we take these experiences and creatures from our culture and convey them in a genre-based TV show, that would be broadcast around the world’?

At this point we were joined by Weta Workshop and they became our key collaborators in designing the Bindawu. Richard Taylor’s designers at Weta began the process of visually describing what the Bindawu would look like, by creating hundreds of creature designs which they would send to both Ryan and I. This left us to look through all these renderings and let Weta know what was working with each and how to move forward in the design process. Once we had found a visual language and hero designs for our Bindawu, Kath Brown and her hair and makeup team were brought into the conversation. It was another step in the conversation towards what the Hairies would look like. Kath’s job was to take the designs that we had created and transform them into wearable costumes, which she did beautifully by hand, over many weeks, knotting individual strands of hair into costumes. At this point the actors were brought in for fittings, the designs were refined and shaped to the body and ready for the screen.

Talking props with Weta's Luke Hawker

My name is Luke Hawker and I was the project supervisor for the props on Cleverman.

In the exhibition you can see a variety of props from Cleverman, like the humidi-crib, the laser, the Nulla Nulla and stand, and the facial recognition scanner.

At the manufacture department of Weta Workshop, we begin our work by interrogating the final technical drawings made by the production designer and then we start to build 3D models that combined the manufacture procedures with the prop’s intended function on set.

For Cleverman, we had to consider the electrics, such as battery operation and the electronics so that the props would function on set - we wanted the laser to throw out a realistic beam of light - and we had to consider how the humidi-crib would hold liquid and be lit up for the filming.

In the process of creation, we regularly refer back to the concept designs to make sure that in the workshop we are bringing to life these props in the way that it was intended in the illustrations.

Once we have the objects manufactured we start to decide how we are going to paint them and what type of finishes we’re going to use. As we move further towards the delivery, we need to think about how they are going to work under the duress on set, and problem-solve possible repairs so that the crew can replace worn components and clean them. Finally, we create a series of instruction or operational videos for the cast and crew which can be a really enjoyable part of the process where we also make suggestions about how to use the prop in relation to the script’s key plot points.

Creating the Blue Blast with VFX supervisor Darwin Go

My name is Darwin Go and I was the VFX Supervisor for Cleverman series one and two.

I worked across the process of developing and realising Koen’s Blue Blast – one of three of Koen’s superpowers that connect him with the past, present and future.

In the exhibition you can see a compilation and storyboards of Koen using his Blue Blast  – we first see it unleashed as an unconscious emotional response, then we see him experimenting with its power, and finally we watch as Koen harnesses it as a weapon. The power is directly connected to becoming the Cleverman.

During the pre-production for these scenes we worked with storyboard artist Peter Pound, the DOP and the directors to plot out each sequence according to the script.

Part of my work was to work out the look and feel of the Blue Blast and how to film these sequences. We wanted the Blue Blast to look spiritual and organic and chose to film mostly in camera with rigging work from the special effects and stunt team. We combined visual effects and special effects to achieve what we see on the screen. For the scene in the car park, we wanted to communicate emotional depth within the action. Here, Koen does not have complete control of his power and we see him recklessly shoot out a Blue Blast bigger than he intended.

To achieve this effect, we filmed the sequence in slow motion to capture the scale and the intensity of the blast, and show the physical impact on the characters around him. The special effects team set up a rig with a pulley system to pull the actors away from Koen, moving them to crash mats. We took alternate takes of the action and the background to aid us later in post-production.

We then had to rotoscope or edit out the crash mats and the rig. We replaced them with the concrete structure of the car park from the background. We then created shadows to provide realism. Lastly, we added the Blue Blast where we see it moving through each of the characters as it travels beyond Koen. A key concern throughout this process was to make the Blue Blast feel all-enveloping or circular and show it emerging from a single point in Koen’s chest. At the same time, we wanted the blast to pass through the other characters like a wave rather than, say, an explosion, as often seen on screen.

Creating the comic with publisher Wolfgang Bylsma

I’m Wolfgang Bylsma, the editor-in-chief and managing director of Gestalt Publishing, the company that publishes the Cleverman comics. I am also the co-writer of the comics along with the TV series creator Ryan Griffen. The Cleverman TV series introduced such a rich storytelling world that it seemed ripe for expansion. With such huge potential to build on characters already developed, situations and to provide backstory, I got in contact with Ryan Griffen to see if he would be interested to tell more Cleverman stories in comics. We had a few conversations about the kind of story we would want to tell in the comics which eventually led to Cleverman issue one.

Along the North and East walls are Emily K Smith’s rough sketches and flats for issue one of the Cleverman comic. Emily’s process was to create thumbnails of each page for the comic. Following editorial review from me, she would then proceed to full pencils. It is standard industry practice to ink over your pencils before colouring so you created very clean lines. We opted to colour directly over the pencil drawings instead, which gives it more of a tactile sense. The second issue of the Cleverman comic is drawn by Adelaide-based artist Paul Bulman. Across the South wall is a smaller set of Paul’s drawings. Paul works digitally, so all of his line work is created on a Wacom tablet, which renders the artwork directly into the computer. You can view and read issue one in entirety on the iPads in this area, it is also available in the ACMI Shop for purchase.