Australian reality studio Monkeystack wins big at Los Angeles Film Awards

Rhys Sandery, Chief Business Officer at Monkeystack

Monkeystack, a game design and animation studio in Adelaide, South Australia, picked up a win in the Best Virtual Reality category at the monthly Los Angeles Film Awards last month. The studio won for its work on Thin Ice VR, a 23-minute documentary. The film follows Tim Jarvis as he retraces the coast-to-coast journey of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Why was Monkeystack awarded?

The documentary, which also picked up a gong at the Cannes World Film Festival, shows the viewer how climate change has significantly impacted the region following Shackleton’s voyage 100 years ago. Monkeystack’s chief business officer, Rhys Sandery, said the award not only validates the project but also puts South Australia VR industry on the map.

“This journey started in 2018 around a discussion in a kitchen and us putting a whole lot of equipment and a whole lot of people on a boat to Antarctica. In documentary filmmaking, you send production crew away, and then they come back with a whole lot of memory cards, and you work out what film you are going to make. There is a lot of hope in documentary filmmaking, and this award validates that,” commented Rhys Sandery.

“It also helps us open doors and start conversations and from a future production point of view, it puts South Australia on the map as a place that can produce world-class work.”

In 2021 the South Australian Museum hosted the world premiere of Thin Ice VR. Director of the South Australian Museum, Brian Oldman said the museum was thrilled to present the world premiere of Thin Ice VR given its strong connection to Australian polar exploration.

“The South Australian Museum is home to a collection of Australian Polar Collection items – 110,000 to be exact. It was an honour to host this premiere, respecting the works of Shackleton but also delving into the issue facing our planet, climate change,” Oldman said.

How influential is VR in the film industry in Australia?

VR is becoming a burgeoning industry in South Australia which now has a string of firms developing immersive experiences. Studios aren’t only developing VR for games and film, but corporations and sporting clubs are looking for a new way to engage with staff and fans.

“We have a growing screen-based industry. What we have in South Australia is a very supportive and supported screen-based industry, and as a studio that has been around for a while, like the Rising Sun Pictures and KOJO, we’ve tried to form that industry,” Sandery said.

“Rather than being a bunch of disparate companies who are competing over the same resources, as an industry, we’ve tried to be a bit more generalist, and therefore provide a lot more employment opportunities to South Australian people that can stay in South Australia.”

What is the market offering of Monkeystack?

The studio got off the ground in 2004 with only a workforce of about three people. Monkeystack now employs up to 20 people, with that swelling to about 60 depending on what projects they have in the pipeline. Upcoming projects include animation for Disney’s new show “Koala Man” and a training module for the Australian Electoral Commission staff.

The studio will also finish its three-minute 3D animated film “Hike”, which was named a finalist for the Unreal Engine Short Film Challenge. The film touches on grief and growth by telling the story of a hiker who retraces a path he and his mother used to follow to scatter her ashes. Sandery called VR an “empathy machine” that lets the user have first-person experience.

“Putting the audience member as a participant in the story is where you get so much connection and engagement and empathy because they feel that they’ve experienced it, not just watched it. VR films are a new medium for people and shared VR experiences, in terms of something that you can go to a museum or a cultural institution with a group of people and share an experience is something which is kind of the next evolution of cinema,” he said.

“You had a standard cinema screen, and then everyone went big with IMAX, which was immersive screen-based and immersive storytelling, and now they’ve taken an IMAX screen and wrapped it all around you in a VR headset. I think to the audience, there is a certain amount of novelty to it, and there’s that attractiveness of tech, and it’s a cool thing to do.”