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Australia may be Down Under, but two U.S. production companies with offices there - Chelsea Pictures and - are positively upbeat about the production resources available. "The crews are incredibly competent and work very hard," says Allison Amon, a partner at Chelsea, which opened its Sydney office nearly five years ago. "It depends on the project and the director's and DP's relationships, but we usually bring very few people over from the states."

Some of the most complex, effects-driven features of the past few years, including the Matrix trilogy, were produced there, so sophisticated motion-control rigs are in place, as well as the people who know how to create images with them, in the camera and in post. Fox built near Sydney several years ago a state-of-the-art shooting stage and postproduction complex, complete with restaurants and shops - "The most beautiful stages I've ever seen," says Amon. George Lucas had them booked nearly continuously for three years for installments of the Star Wars franchise, but they can become available for short shoots. Within a 25-minute drive from Melbourne is the Point Cook Horizon Tank, one of only three in the world. Built for the Hallmark miniseries Moby Dick, the tank is 360x312 feet in area and 7 feet to 10 feet deep, and above the high tide water level, offering a seamless view across the Bay.

Americans rarely decamp halfway around the world for interior shoots, however. The main idea, of course, is that it's summer down there when it's winter up here and a good time to shoot spots that will eventually hit the air when Americans are barbecuing and mowing lawns. The primary competition for this season-shifting currently is South Africa, which is marginally less expensive than Australia, but the Aussie crews are deeper and significantly better, says co-proprietor Frank Scherma, who has produced spots there since the early '90s and also opened an office about five years ago. Australia also offers a much wider variety of American-like landscapes, beaches, urban and suburban environments, especially if relatively nearby New Zealand's mountains and fjords are included. Not too long ago, Americans were content to season-shift in Florida, Texas or Southern California; in general, Scherma estimates that when travel costs are factored out, production is 40 percent cheaper in Australia than in the U.S. That figure is confirmed by Brandon Hooper, president of ProductionPoint Global Network, a Los Angeles-based agency that represents more than 50 production service companies throughout the world. He pegs the Australian key grip day rate at U.S. $320 (plus fringes), compared to $500 to $550 here.

"There are so many films shot in Australia that there's now a large pool of acting talent, and vocal coaches can usually solve any problems with accents," says Scherma. Talent buyouts are possible, and Chelsea's Amon is even more comfortable with the on-camera and on-mic talent pool, noting that she was in the process of casting a package for Red Lobster and Euro RSCG Tatham/Chicago that calls for 28 speaking parts. There can be some diversity issues, however, especially for principal roles. For atmospheric extras, though, Amon has found that some Aborigines can appear to be African, and many Australians are of mixed Eurasian ancestry that can read as Hispanic.

Moreover, in the past few years, American agencies have become acquainted with the postproduction capabilities of Australian companies such as Animal Logic and Engine, even for spots that weren't shot in the U.S.

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