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Ash Bolland in his studio

Ash Bolland’s natural approach to Vivid LIVE

Sydney creative Ash Bolland will give life to a modern Micrographia at this year's Lighting the Sails

Matthew Drummond
Online Editor

In 1957 when Jørn Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera House was first revealed to the public, the report by The Sydney Morning Herald quoted one person who likened the Danish architect’s vision to “something which might have crawled up from the ocean.”  

60 years later, a giant sea creature is exactly what Sydney is going to get.

Underwater squid-like marine life is prominent in the kaleidoscope of images that twist and buckle in Audio Creatures, the name for 2017’s Lighting of the Sails that is the glowing centerpiece of Vivid, Sydney’s festival of light, music and ideas. 

“Essentially the idea is taking the Opera House and making the whole building turn into something that produces audio and is organic,” says Ash Bolland, the Sydney creative responsible for Audio Creatures along with celebrated Brazilian sound designer Amon Tobin. 

“I’ve always been interested in nature and its relation to what’s made by humankind. How do we meet in the middle? What destruction occurs between the two?”

Making things come alive has been a through-line of Bolland’s career – his distinctive advertising campaigns for HBO and MTV saw his clients’ lettered logos transmogrify into creatures that seem to combine insects, plants and alien beings. The Opera House’s sails provide a formidable canvas, but to Bolland’s eye the building is already a living organism.

“To me the Opera House looks like a very organic, repetitive structure. That’s what I love about nature, the repetition.”

Ash Bolland

“I always see the Opera House as shells. People call them sails but I don’t see sails at all. To me it looks like a very organic, repetitive structure. That’s what I love about nature, the repetition” he says. “By repeating the same thing something simple becomes really complex.”

Ben Marshall, the Head of Contemporary Music at Sydney Opera House and the festival curator for Vivid LIVE, first encountered Bolland’s work in the early 2000s: Marshall was working part-time promoting nightclubs while Bolland did the artwork for flyers. He predicts Bolland will do even bigger things after Lighting the Sails.  

“His capacity to very closely observe the world, seeing all the awe and wonder in the tiny details, has always impressed me," Marshall says. "The Opera House is the perfect commission for him – the organic, architectural and mechanistic all combining – and the work that’s resulted is just breathtaking.”

A particular obsession for Bolland as he created Audio Creatures has been a book called Micrographia, published in 1665 and filled with drawings showing microscopic details of insects, animals, minerals and plants. Its creator, Robert Hooke, had invented the first microscope that resembled the modern instrument. Hooke’s drawings of fly eyes and the details of bird feathers, according to a foreword in a recent reproduction, set the standard for 200 years.

“It’s mind-blowing,” says Bolland of Hooke's hyper-detailed drawings, one of many books that fill the shelves of his studio in Sydney's Chippendale, along with films, artworks and odds and ends. There are nautilus shells – a recurring theme of his work – and seed pods that get more and more more intriguing the closer you look. There’s also a miniature sculpture of the Opera House.

40-year old Bolland has worked as a filmmaker and director, but also as a writer, cinematographer, 3D artist, concept designer, graphic designer and a musician. In all of these roles he’s self-taught.

Born in New Zealand, he left school when he was just 14 to play in bands. His first work as a director was making a music video for his teenage friends, giving him an early taste for crafting stories for the screen.

For a decade he was the owner and director of a creative studio called Umeric. It was here that he conceived HBO’s Unexpected campaign, and created an award-winning campaign called ‘Genetically Modified HD’ for  MTV that featured a giant nautilus floating in gritty urban locations and, seemingly, laying eggs like a upending bag of marbles. It saw Boland named as a finalist at the Shots New Director Award in 2011. 

Robert Hooke's Micgraphia
Robert Hooke's 'Micrographia,' first published in 1665.
display insects in ash bollands studio

Behind the scenes at Ash Bolland's studio

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Elastic band ball in Ash Bollands studio
Bolland: “By repeating the same thing something simple becomes really complex.”

Having always loved movies, he’d long wanted to make a feature-length film but thought he lacked the skills. Until, that is, he looked back at his decade at Umeric.

“After all of that work, I realized ‘oh, I’m actually a director,” he says. 

In 2010 he was approached to direct a remake of the 1978 Irwin Allen killer bees horror class The Swarm. His music video Exit for the band Simple Plan, is a powerful filmic narrative that tells a story of people working in slave conditions making business shirts in Thailand. It was created in collaboration with MTV’s Exit Foundation, which seeks to end human trafficking and exploitation and was released in 68 countries.

Now he’s spending his time between Sydney and the US West Coast where he’s working on his first feature length film – although he’s not yet able to provide any details. He’s also opened the Australian and New Zealand arm of Interrogate, a collection of directors that includes Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan. Plus he continues to craft some of the most ingenious advertisements for brands like Imax and Foxtel and Nintendo’s Super Bowl commercial.

Bolland’s work shifts back and forth between visual effects and live action. It was the MTV commercial, with its urban nautilus, that prompted the Opera House to get in touch and suggest he develop a concept for Vivid LIVE.

Audio Creatures will see the Opera House shift between a myriad of animal forms, with a metallic-like chrysalis periodically bursting into new life. The work hints at Bolland’s fascination with the relation between nature and machine.

But should anyone among the hundreds of thousands who’ll see his work lit up across the Opera House wonder ‘what’s it all about?’, Bolland’s response is simple.

“I just hope that people find it entertaining and they see some cool shapes and buzz out on it and enjoy it," he says. "Thematically there’s not a lot of narrative, it’s not the medium for that. I think it’s about showing that people can express themselves on buildings and architecture and be super creative, and hopefully it makes them look at it and think; ‘I can be super creative in my life as well.’”

Ash Bolland is directing Lighting the Sails: Audio Creatures at Sydney Opera House from 6pm to 11pm, 26 May to 17 as part of Vivid LIVE. Audiences unable to witness Audio Creatures in person will be able to stream the full broadcast of  'Lighting the Sails' LIVE from the Sydney Opera House Facebook page from 5.45pm AEST on Friday May 26.