Judas Collar Exclusive: How to make a film starring camels

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Cast and crew on the set of Judas Collar.

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Western Australian writer/director Alison James and WA producer Brooke Tia Silcox have released their critically-acclaimed, award-winning short film, Judas Collar online for a limited ten-day release as part of the film’s 2020 Oscars campaign. Judas Collar is one of less than 200 short films in the entire world which has qualified to be nominated for a 2020 Oscar.

Here’s, James talks us through the making of her remarkable, must-see film.

Article by Writer and Director Alison James

Judas Collar is a story that made me quit my job as a television documentary director and decide to take the plunge into the world of directing drama. When I discovered that individual camels known as ‘Judas’ animals were collared with a tracking device used as bait to betray their herd to hunters – I knew it was a story I wanted to tell as a drama and not a documentary. But how the hell do you make a film starring camels? 

The first step was teaming up with producer Brooke Tia Silcox and proving to our investor Screenwest that we could actually pull this off. We tried to get a letter of support but many camel wranglers we spoke to said what we wanted to do was impossible. We finally found camel owner Chris O’Hora in Kalamunda who’s domesticated camels stared in Christmas nativity scenes and he was up for the job.

I love practical effects and coming from a documentary background, I think there is a visceral feeling that you get from shooting practically that the audience can really feel. And from a production perspective – we simply couldn’t afford much CGI. So we knew early on we were going to film real camels without ropes and a real helicopter that would require some incredible flying.   

Alison James and Brooke Tia Silcox on the set of Judas Collar.

We cast the camels as you would any movie – with auditions and test shoots. Sonic, the lead camel was such a blank canvas emotionally and had such beautiful and empathetic eyes – real star quality – but she was the one camel we were told wasn’t up for the job. She was young and headstrong and was called Sonic because she had a tendency to run off…. but of course we cast her anyway.  

DOP Michael McDermott and I had a lot of discussions about how to achieve something really cinematic while at the same time working within the technical constraints of filming camels in the remote desert. He fitted out a four-wheel drive with a front and rear Movi unit on a stabilization arm, which is a kind of steadicam. It meant we could film at the camel’s eye-line and reset the shot just by driving back and forth, without moving Sonic. We could also travel at high speeds over rocky and uneven surfaces and still get smooth, cinematic shots.  Camels run at over 40kmph and we had to keep up. 

Directing the camel performances was something we became much better at as the shoot progressed. And I say we because this was a team-sport. For each shot the crew would create a pen for all the camels so they didn’t run off. We’d then separate Sonic from the herd and she would walk back to them. We positioned ourselves in between Sonic and the herd to capture the action without ropes. 

After a while we realized that the further away from the herd she was, the faster she would run back to them. And if we needed her to stop or turn we would use other camels, pellets, calling her name or basically trying anything that might capture her attention. Some shots we got lucky the first time, others took four solid hours. 

Filming the helicopter action sequences was incredible. We had found an amazingly skilled pilot Clint Archer who had actually done some of this culling work and he would use the helicopter to muster the camels into the direction we wanted. Our armourer Dave Norton-Woad was cast as the hunter as we knew he’d need to negotiate some serious flying while firing off blanks. 

While the story was completely scripted and storyboarded, of course you re-look at absolutely everything in the edit. Lawrie Silvestrin had the perfect background in drama and documentary, which meant he could look at footage with fresh eyes and re-purpose, slow  down or reverse tiny moments to increase a scene’s emotional impact. His background as a sound editor on the film Babe was hugely valuable in building the vocalisations or ‘dialogue’ of the film.

A scene from Judas Collar.

With much of the location sound un-useable due to the crew calling to the camels while shooting, sound recordist Jason North and designer Chris Goodes worked together to build the entire film soundscape from scratch. We even put a radio-mic onto the camel to capture breathing. 

Composer Ash Gibson Greig was an early collaborator on Judas Collar because without dialogue for exposition, music would be an integral part of the camel’s emotional journey. Cello felt like the instrument that most connected to the voice of the camel and so we limited ourselves to a score that used only cello and supporting strings. Using live cello recordings, the score became a vital part of the storytelling. 

Everything feels easier in retrospect but this was an incredibly tough shoot. We had eight flat tyres, two bogged vehicles and a blown head gasket on our camel truck, filming in searing hot desert conditions. I’m so proud of what our small team has been able to achieve, in one of the most isolated capital cities in the world.  

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