Creating crazy creatures for the big screen

It was 1974 and a 14-year-old John Cox had stayed up late to watch the original King Kong.  Before the closing credits climbed the screen, Cox knew it was a movie that would influence and define his future. 

He wasn’t wrong. From that day forward, Cox had a dream of creating giant gorillas and scary dinosaurs for the big screen.

Fast-forward to 2017 and that dream is a reality. Cox is the founder of John Cox’s Creature Workshop – a Gold Coast business producing large scale sculptures for feature films, commercials, public art and theme parks.

The business boasts a state-of-the-art facility home to laser scanning, 3D modelling and five-axis router services – all of which has helped John Cox’s Creature Workshop to build an unparalleled reputation in the film industry.

Cox has worked on big blockbusters such as Narnia – Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Nim’s Island, Peter Pan, Scooby Doo, Crocodile Dundee in LA and Inspector Gadget 2.

Most significantly, Cox received a 1995 Academy Award for Visual Effects for the movie Babe – a career highlight.

“It came completely out of the blue – we had no idea that we were going to win anything because we thought we had been too clever for our own good,” he says.

“We actually had to let people know that there were robotic animals in the film because people just watched it and it went straight over their head.

“The thing with a lot of the visual effects awards is that there is ground-breaking visual technology used that doesn’t always get noticed because it is so seamless – people don’t understand what goes into making some of these movies.

“For example, The Perfect Storm – people just assumed it was filmed in a boat in the water, but it wasn’t. They were in a tank, and basically 20-feet away from the boat it was all digital; they created digital waves. At the end of it all, the director was able to say, ‘okay, I want a wave to be hitting the boat at this exact time’ and they were able to time waves using their technology.”

Meanwhile, in 1999 Cox was elected as a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

He was also awarded the 2006 Kinetone Award for significant contributions to the Queensland Film and Television Industry and was the 2007 Australian Film Industry (AFI) Awards winner for Visual Effects for Rogue.

While he has had a long career in the film industry, Cox says that now it is just 10 per cent of what his business does. This is a result of the digital age emerging in the 2000s.

“We always knew that digital was going to overtake us and we would be out of the job at any minute,” says Cox.

“When we saw Jurassic Park we knew we wouldn’t be asked to do big dinosaurs again because they could create the creatures on computer screens. And when we saw Stuart Little, we knew we wouldn’t be asked to do furry creatures anymore – it could all be done digitally.

“At the time the only reason we were still getting asked to do big projects was because digital was too expensive – but that was obviously going to change.”

Cox saw the writing on the wall early and diversified his offering. He invested big bucks in a machine that allowed him to cut ‘digital characters’ into physical characters. This would provide actors with real life versions of digital creatures to work with while filming.

The machine is also now used to create physical versions of the actors themselves.

“The stunt world noticed a drop in what they were being asked to do because digital can do a perfect copy of a famous actor and put them in a really dangerous situation,” says Cox.

“I thought if they already have the digital copies of the actors, then why not use my machine to cut a physical copy and give that to the wardrobe department.

“It means they have access to the actors seven days a week, 24 hours a day if they need it. They can stick pins in them, they can draw all over them and they are light weight so they can be picked up and moved around.”

Cox is currently working on Aquaman, offering this service for the five main leads.

Away from the film industry, Cox is currently working on a four metre sculpture of an aboriginal elder with another artist from Melbourne.

He is also behind the renowned sculptures of Maddie and Mike that sit at the Broadwater Parklands and is often featured in the Gold Coast’s Swell Sculpture Festival.

To view his work, visit: johncox.net.

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