It’s a truth universally acknowledged that an Aussie in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a sick ride. And cinematically, few people have worked on sicker rides than Academy Award-winning production designer Colin Gibson. Between The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’s (1994) iconic bus to the terrifying mechanical squadron of vehicles in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the former theatre actor has brought the full spectrum of Australian car culture to life on the big screen. Perhaps ironically, Gibson considers himself less of a “Ford versus Holden sort of girl” and more someone who’s “just fascinated by peoples’ passions”.
“Frankly, I have about as much interest in cars as Vin Diesel has in reality,” he said. “I’m not that wound up in it, but part of the production design joy and part of the collaborative wonderment is that I get to draw on the car culture of the mechanics and the panel workers and the engineers. The people who came to work with me on Fury Road, I drew on all of their talents. Our real job is just to invigorate each other’s passions and find the best part of those and use them in the work.”
He has collaborated on an exhaustive list of important and beloved Australian films such as Young Einstein (1988), Babe (1995), Welcome to Woop Woop (1997), Babe: Pig In The City (1998), and worked frequently with filmmakers like Stephan Elliott and George Miller over his 40-year career. When it comes to Australian car culture on film, there are few figures more instrumental than Gibson, who creates motor vehicles as more than just ‘rides’ that transport the narrative from point A to point B: they act as characters themselves. Or – as he calls them – “caracters”.
“They’re characters without a ‘h’: they’re caracters,” he said. “That’s basically my attempt to add a back story to everything. From set decoration to prop design to production design itself, you pretty much take the same approach you would as an actor: you try to find a backstory. You’re trying to make something so real that people can’t deny it, even if it is obviously an unreal object. It’s a bit like making a space, to which you can then bring grace.”
Having worked across multiple departments in the industry before “falling into” art direction and production design, Gibson said his proficiency across various roles has helped what he considers a key part of the job: problem solving. “I’m not much of a designer, I’m just a problem junkie,” he said. “Basically, you get to mull over problems.”
Some of the biggest and most consistent problems he has faced when creating ‘caracters’ on-screen is the duality of a vehicle that needs to look incredible, but also be a functioning and operational piece of the film that’s likely to experience wear and tear throughout production. “When we came to do the War Rig on Fury Road, Jacinta Leong – one of the art directors – put out a booklet that was 184 different pages of what may or may not happen to the War Rig in a linear shoot so that if we were shooting non-linearly – which of course we had to – we would know three other stunts had happened to it between Wednesday and Friday that would have dented this, broken that, and torn the door off. So how do you deal with that? At the same time, you’re thinking about where do they get the finishes they want to use and what are those finishes? George (Miller) had a fight with me and we had to minimise the amount of rust on things because he felt like he’d already done rust (in the other movies), so we were coming up with other ideas. The sand blasting and shiny was one that he took to, which was great… fortunately I came upon a material, which is some leftover sludge from fracking fuel and diesel, which was like this black goop. We figured if we covered the vehicle in black goop then every time we fucked something up or did a stunt that didn’t quite work or had to go backwards and forwards (in time), it was a lot quicker to black pitch over the problem than it was to bog, respray, and start again. So, you know, one leads to the other.”
On Mad Max: Fury Road – which saw Gibson win the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Production Design along with Lisa Thompson – the team came up with the concept that something had to “earn its place in the apocalypse”. That simple idea informed everything that appeared in the film, from floor tiles made from smashed mobile phone parts to 1959 Cadillac taillights used as decoration.
“I think my great horror is things just looking cool,” said Gibson. “That’s generally when you design something from the outside, like perhaps your own Facebook avatar. Then it’s always hollow, it’s always pretend. The honesty here is that I have to say a lot of these ideas were born from discussions with the genius that is George Miller himself. We hit upon rules that we had to operate under and those rules were: it had to be something worth saving, it had to be something that could be saved, it had to be something that could be repurposed not just as one thing, but as many things, and it had to be something with a sort of ongoing cool. That ‘cool’ was informed by things that were inherently beautiful, because there’s no reason that humanity goes out and decides ‘alright, it’s dystopia, the world’s a shithole so let’s build everything out of rusty barbwire and star stakes’. If you’re going to go out and drag something back across the desert, then you’re gonna drag back something shiny and beautiful that you can fetishise. That became part of what we called ‘the new aesthetic’. That’s what’s in all those lovely nursery rhymes and fables and grims: they all work and continue to work because they have within them something that’s important to humanity, something that rings a bell … it reminds you of something you don’t even know that you know. That’s what festishising and the objectifying of things does.”
Over a decade earlier on Stephan Elliott’s cult classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Gibson and his colleague Owen Patterson (The Matrix, Captain America: Civil War) had an altogether different issue.
“On Priscilla that bus had to do three or four things that we couldn’t afford for it to do, but we worked out ways for us to do it,” he said. “Even just finding the bus and the logistics that: we couldn’t afford to buy a bus and we couldn’t afford to hire any bus that really existed… Priscilla we had to do graffiti and yet we were shooting in and out of order and we only had the one bus, so we needed interchangeable side panels and to repaint the whole thing – that was our way around that. Each of those problems ends up adding a different flavour, texture and taste to the story. The words ‘production design’ mean that you have to design the production: you design how you shoot and how you operate at the same time. Then you also get to design how the people who are living in that world might have done what they did. It would have been far more sensible on Mad Max, for instance, to have 150 vehicles that all have the same carburettor. But that tends to be exactly the wrong way of thinking for a world where they were lucky if they could find one of anything, never two. So, the logistics become a little more difficult, but in the end the effort put into the world helps make each of those caracters a highly specific and storied object.”
Whether it’s Eric Bana’s love letter to cars and car culture in documentary Love The Beast (2009) or even vehicles as an extension of the villains in films like Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005) and Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), the versatility of “caracters” in Australian cinema is as expansive as the versatility of the storytellers themselves and what they’re trying to represent. “I’ve just always been fascinated by the smallest detail,” said Gibson, even if that detail is something to be used by a busload of drag queens or post-apocalyptic warriors traversing the wasteland.
“The layering and build-up of those details helps build a world that has its own internal logic. Then there’s what magic everybody else in the collaborative team brings and soon the story you’re trying to tell actually resonates more and more and more.”