EMIGRATING TO SYDNEY & Breaking into Film / Animation Industry

In this double-episode, Debbie Steer, supervising producer at Flying Bark Productions based in Sydney, Australia, she shares her entertaining story of getting a foot into the film industry door, working her way up the ladder to reach the top, her mindset towards decision making, and why she doesn’t miss Manchester too much.

Ok, she’s in Sydney so for anybody who appreciates sunshine, the last one is not difficult to guess but I promise it’s an entertaining episode!

-LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION HERE-



So, we met in Manchester as two young struggling filmmakers, around 2006, I think?

That’s right.

And then one day you dropped a bombshell like, ‘Hey guess what? I’m moving to Australia,’ out of the blue and it was so random and so quick. So I was wondering can you take me briefly back to that time? How did that come about? 

Yeah so basically, as you know, we were both struggling filmmakers and we were taking very different courses but at the same time we were just both trying everything. So with me I’d just gotten a job at the film council and I was like a coordinator, so I mean, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after uni, so I just kept trying different things and I kept landing jobs in production departments or camera departments.

So this one was a production coordinator for a few of the film council films that had been funded. And my role was just to help the producers coordinate the shoots really and it was a very random job in Liverpool, so I was driving there every day [from Manchester] and on my second week, I got a phone call.

I think it was around February, March and I’d gotten a phone call from an email I’d sent in January – it was a very random email that I sent to literally my mum’s best friend’s brother-in-law in Australia who owned this company that I didn’t know much about. It was called Animal Logic which is a sort of animation production company and visual effects production company. They’ve done like Happy Feet and the Peter Rabbit movies to name a few. I didn’t actually get in straight away, I had a really bad interview because I was so nervous with one of the producers and then the second producer called me and he was a lot more chilled and he didn’t ask me very difficult questions so we got on really well over the phone.

And yeah, so that’s pretty much where it stopped and then this job started in Liverpool so I just went along with that and then after my first week he called me back and said, ‘When can you start?’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry? You’re in Sydney and I’m in Manchester!’ because he asked me to start in a week. And I said, ‘Uh…can we make it three?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine!’ So yeah, that was it. I would have to pack up and leave Manchester and get on a plane. 

It was funny because he didn’t even finish the interview. He kind of just chatted to me and said, ‘Yep, you’re hired’ and that was it! ‘Just get yourself here.’ 

When you sent that first email to your mum’s friend’s brother-in-law, you weren’t expecting anything, it was just like just one email? 

It was one of many. Not to Australia but one of many I sent around you know, to production companies. There was a few that I really wanted to work with in the UK and you know, it’s really hard to get your foot in and that’s the thing with the film industry. Especially because I really wanted to work in film and not TV. 

It’s really hard to have anyone look at your CV when you’ve just got nothing but uni and a few bits and bobs in there. It was just a really lucky break – sometimes that’s how it works. You just happen to have sent an email at the right moment in time where they were like, ‘Oh that person would do and they don’t have to look for you,’ and that’s what happened. 

What was the exact job? 

Production assistant.

Right, so for a job that’s relatively low down on the ladder, was it unusual for them to hire from [10 thousand] miles away? 

It is really unusual and the reason was that I had saved some money and as you know, I’d already done positions much higher up as a producer and production manager which is all the roles that you have in between.

So I’d already like done much more senior roles but not to the size of the company that I was applying for. So this one was going to be a completely different kettle of fish because there’s going to be much bigger productions, much higher budget Hollywood productions.

But were they short of people at that time in Australia? 

No, there wasn’t any limitation because the UK and Australia have a working holiday visas, so it was just like a gap year visa that I got in with. They’re still available now. You can still get to Australia up until you’re 35, I think. Obviously not right this second with Covid but um.. yeah. 

So before Australia did you ever consider going to London? Because as a filmmaker in Manchester that’s what we think about. 

Yeah, that was my big plan. I just really wanted to get into an independent film company that was doing all of these really cool arty films that you know everyone’s heard of. I was just trying to find one of those companies because my end goal was just to be able to understand the industry and understand how to create an independent film and build my career from that point. So I just really wanted to get into any kind of independent film company and I ended up getting into a pretty big company instead. 

Exciting! Okay, so tell me about those last few days leaving Manchester. Was it a tough decision? Did you consider not going? 

I think to me I just felt like it was gonna be a working holiday at the time. So I’d already packed everything up. I had some savings, I was just gonna take it like a working holiday. 

Had you been to Australia before? 

No! 

Wow! You’re just an adventurous soul. 

I don’t really have a problem with setting up somewhere new and meeting new people and things. I kind of have a lot of confidence in myself that I can solve situations. I don’t come from a very well off family at all, like you know, we were on the dole and stuff like, my mum was working at Tesco for a long time. And she’s a widowed mother so I’ve been working since I was 13 in a part-time job and never stopped.

I never had a period where I didn’t have a job. So I just always knew what to do and I think a lot of my confidence actually came from – I don’t know where it came from – I think it’s from my parents but I’ve always been able to just adapt to the situation.

I think one of the big things that helped is I was always working through a temping agency so every few weeks I’d be in a different company, different environment and you kind of get really used to figuring things out really quickly and knowing how things work. And I did that for a lot of my uni years so I just always felt quite comfortable with starting a new job because I was always being thrown into different companies from a young age. 

So April 2008, you land in Sydney Australia. What do you remember about that trip? About landing there? 

Well I was really lucky in that I have a very extensive family of cousins – there’s 15 cousins on my mother’s side – and they live all over the world. And I happen to have only found out after I got the job that one of my cousins lived in Sydney, so I messaged her and she was like, ‘Hey you can just bunk with me until you find your feet,’ and so she picked me up.

So it was a bit of an easy ride at the beginning. And then I had a about a week to settle in because yeah after that phone call I booked my flight two weeks later. 

What were your first impressions of Sydney compared to Manchester? 

It was warmer than I expected even though it would have been autumn, like April. The funniest thing was, I was wearing like these vests, t-shirts and walking around with my bare arms and feeling quite hot and people around me were wearing coats. It was so bright, that’s the other thing, it’s unbelievably sunny like there’s a different degree of light. I can’t go outside without sunglasses whereas in the UK I could.

And the sky is generally quite clear and vibrant. I think the funniest thing to me was just the taxi radio was on and listening to the accents and just laughing to myself going, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ and you know, just the talk radios and the really funny adverts like everything just had a really odd tone to it. And I wrote this email to everyone and it was like my diary. Everyone just wanted updates all the time and I started sending them regularly. 

I know! I remember those massive long emails from you. One of the first things I remember was – I’m sure it’s not politically incorrect to say this but – you were saying, ‘There’s no chavs here. That’s one thing I noticed is there are no chavs!’

I remember that! Yeah the kids here are so respectful. They’d be on the bus and get up for the old people, they’d move her back and they were all quiet. You don’t hear people listening to horrendous music on their phone in the bus at night and things like that. Like everyone is quiet and like minds their own business. 

I wonder where that comes from because I think everybody who leaves Manchester notices this – which is the young people. I don’t know if it’s the same now. Maybe it’s different now but that was the first thing I noticed when I came to Europe and young people – the look in their eyes are just different. They just look way more innocent and way more um… the only word I can think of is innocence.

Whereas the young people in England, well especially Manchester, they’ve lost that innocence somehow. I don’t know how or where, how that happens. They’re more street savvy, I suppose, if you put a positive spin on it. 

Yeah and I must say I’ve seen more of that flavour in the suburbs. It’s just Sydney itself is actually quite affluent, I think that probably helps. So I think that it does happen but it’s probably in a different area than where I generally hang out.

How often did you go back to visit? 

Obviously at first, it was very easy to just dry up my savings account because my pay was quite low. It did run out quite quickly because I decided to get a place in Bondi Beach and I was slightly living beyond my means and going through my savings quite quickly. But then I had a reality check and moved somewhere I could afford but it was still lovely. 

The first time I came back was actually 2009 and the lucky thing was that the production that I got thrown into was so intense that I ended up banking, I think it was 11 weeks of overtime or time in lieu. So I ended up taking eight weeks out and went to the UK and then I actually got to visit a cousin in the US as well and things like that, and went to Mexico and had a little round-the-world trip. But after that it’s been really hard to take any time off. The more senior, the bigger positions I got, the more I was needed. But yeah I’ve pretty much managed to sustain once a year back to Manchester – obviously up until Covid. 

Basically after you landed there, you had these once a year visits but you knew straight away this was going to be your permanent home. You fit right in. 

I actually took to the job like a duck to water and I got a promotion within a month of starting and became a coordinator which was like the next level straight away, which is great for my bank balance too. And then my boyfriend at the time came after six months or so – they actually sponsored me to stay which is like a work sponsorship and they could prove that I had the skills because of my adjacent skills in other productions – so he came and he really didn’t like it. Because he came in summer.

So I arrived in April, I think he came like October, November and in summer it gets 35 degrees. And unfortunately my apartment in Bondi didn’t have any air conditioning and it was all windows and we were in like this glass house.

But you liked it?

I was fine, yeah. 

What is it that somebody from the UK doesn’t like about Australia? Just the heat? 

I mean if you’re fair skinned like he is it’s just, he couldn’t go outside because he’d just get really severely burned. The sun is another level. It burns. I mean I’m half Indonesian so I’ve got darker skin and I can tan but here I’ll still burn. 

But you survived.

It comes back down to personality. I’m just more like, ‘Just live with it.’ It was uncomfortable some days. We got this system going where we’d wet entire beach towels and go to sleep with them on us and pull them back with a fan. And then he wanted to spend all day in the cinemas and in the shopping centers because he couldn’t stand the heat and I just wanted to be outside and go to the beach. He just wasn’t interested so there’s a lifestyle compatibility thing in the end and so even though he was on my visa at that point he kind of decided to come back to the UK and we had to split up.

So I think he stayed for six months and I just kept getting promoted and extended and things and I was like, ‘I think I’m gonna stay. I think I can make something out of this,’ you know? And that was the difference. 

That’s what I meant like, visas aside you knew that this is a place you wanted to stay. Was there ever a thought of going back to Manchester or to England? 

I think my main factor if i’m honest is that I had seasonal affective disorder. Not diagnosed but I knew I had it because in the UK in December, I just couldn’t get out of bed for anything except when I really absolutely had to and it was such a struggle. And I’d go straight back in bed the minute I could and I was like sleeping for really really long periods of time.

I just hated the winter in Manchester unfortunately. It really affected me and not seeing the sun. I mean I’m just a completely different person here and I just knew that for my mental health – at the time there wasn’t all these words right? – but I just knew for my well-being that I really needed to stay. 

You need vitamin D.

Yeah I just needed to see the sun every day. I go outside every single day without fail. I need to see trees, I need to see the sun and even if it’s raining I still go out. And here you just get percentage-wise you just flip whatever Manchester has on its head and that’s how many sunny days I get versus cloudy days.

So it’s the inverse. Well it makes sense it’s on the other side.

It’s the absolute inverse. I have a dog so I walk her every day without fail and I’ve probably used the raincoat twice this year. I mean sometimes it’s just spitting and I don’t wear a raincoat for that because I’m from Manchester [laughs].

But you know, I think I’ve put a rain jacket on my dog twice this year and most of the time it’s just totally fine. It’s still lovely to be out and even in the middle of winter it doesn’t ever get that cold because it’s quite a sunny winter.

Okay let’s talk a little bit about your work. So what do you do today? How do you describe what you do today? 

I’m trying to think of what my title is. I kind of change it every day but whenever you see the credits on a tv show or something or a film, the Producer is generally the main person who manages the project and manages all the crew and with animation that’s a lot of people in-house. Like, you know we have a huge animation studio. And right now I manage several of those.

So I look after certain projects within the company so it’s called a Supervising Producer so I look after 250 crew but I don’t get to meet half of them. It’s a big beast and obviously once you kind of get away from the day-to-day, you’re kind of more talking to funding and clients and like just generally merging the entire production in a more global level, so sort of overseeing, you know making sure there’s enough office space and equipment and things like that. 

And can you name some of the projects you’re most proud of?

With this kind of capacity, I’m mainly concentrating on TV productions now. So I’ve done The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There’s a new show called Lego Monkey Kids that will be out very soon in the UK. I can’t tell you any more details but that’s uh been going really really well. It’s actually about the Monkey King.

Oh, awesome! So it’s martial arts.

Yes! And then a few times I’ve worked with Lego a few times, so I worked on Lego Batman and Ninjago. Um… what else? … I’m going blank. [Laughs].

Tell me about how you brought back hand-drawn animation. 

Oh yeah that’s a little bit of an achievement. I mean, I wouldn’t say it was my achievement per se but more like a joint effort. But basically so Australia used to have a Disney studio but they shut it down because of costs. The dollar was going really well for Australia and the minute that happens, the U.S. can’t afford it anymore and all of those guys kind of went on to do different types of roles but traditional animation wasn’t really being done in Australia at all until my crew came along. 

We got the chance to do a test for The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but my team was really small at the time – about 15 or so. Nickelodeon would send out a test to all these companies to see who can draw them the best basically. And they loved our test and they asked us if we could do the whole show and we were like, ‘I’m sure we could find all these ex-Disney animators and tell them to come back.’ All of us went in so naively. And Nickelodeon didn’t know about all this stuff.

We just thought that we’re gonna find all these people. We were in touch with a lot of them. The ex-Disney guys were so excited about this coming along but t the end of the day I think the technology had moved so fast and they had been away from the industry so long – because they were drawing on paper and we were on digital tablets. And so we ended up kind of just building the team up from scratch again. 

So yeah started off with 15 and now with 250 people and it’s become a really really popular medium and it was thanks to Nickelodeon for working with us. I think it had been like 10 years since Disney shut down. We just struck it really lucky. We found some really amazingly talented younger generation locally and we’ve just built it from there.

Your career path has been super inspiring and you’ve achieved so much since landing there as a naive girl from Manchester. Do you look back on that journey and ever think about it? 

Yeah, it’s 13 years now. Since then I’ve got my citizenship in Australia and obviously found my footing in the industry here. And I haven’t told you but I’m pregnant! 

What? Okay! Oh my god! Are we saying this on the podcast? Do you want me to cut this out? 

It’s fine! [Laughs].

Congrats! Oh man! We were talking last time about how I always see you as a motherly person and you said, ‘I don’t need kids because I’ve got 200 kids.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah that’s Debbie!’ That’s how I see you. So wow! Yeah congrats mate! That’s the next chapter!

(Conversation continues…)


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