Tony Assness, creative director

I signed up to a Faustian pact years ago and never looked back ...

He’s the man who bubble wrapped naked models and planted a ballerina inside a giant golden egg. Just last week, he was directing 1920s-era brides to dance in a giant vat of grapes. This is the unconventional genius of creative director Tony Assness. As one of the nation’s leading live event designers, Tony has staged extravagant parties, large-scale fashion shows, movie launches and corporate events. For the past five years, the Sydneysider has lent his talents to Brisbane Festival, crafting large-scale installations and directing the monumental City of Lights. This year, he’s teamed up with Cave Urban to create a massive 150-m long and 12-m high bamboo sculpture full of twinkling lights outside QPAC on the South Bank Cultural Forecourt. More than 1,000 bamboo poles have been harvested in Queensland to complete the Brisbane Airport Light Garden, which is a must-see at this year’s festival. Before the live arts spectacular kicks off this Saturday September 6, The Weekend Edition chatted to Tony about YouTube videos, his personal highlights and the sound of 80,000 people booing …

The Brisbane Airport Light Garden will take a team of ten people three weeks to build … What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
Making it stand up and not hurt anyone!

The garden is expected to invite an endless sea of selfies; will you be participating in that?
No, I’m personally not into new media, but I love creating things that are worth sharing and environments that inspire people to take photographs of them.

You’ve collaborated with artistic director of the Brisbane Festival Noel Staunton since 2010, which has seen you dream up incredible installations like the City of Lights. What’s been your personal festival highlight so far?
Everything I’ve done on Brisbane Festival has built on the year before – Noel has the miraculous ability to get something out of me that I didn’t know was there – he takes very calculated risks. It’s a great privilege to have been able to create all the elements over the past five years. A personal highlight was on the very first Santos City of Lights show – I had to get home the very next day after it started and I was feeling very tired and emotional and still very connected to the experience I’d just been through. I logged on to YouTube and there was one link to the show, which in my mind was shot by a father with a video camera in one hand and a toddler in the other – they were watching the show with the audio recording all their comments as the show unfolded. It was very moving to be able to hear the comments between the father and the child – it really is why I do what I do.

You also helped design two pivotal party scenes for the visually spectacular film The Great Gatsby; how did that opportunity present itself?
Well I’d worked with director Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin on quite a lot of other projects so they felt very comfortable with what I do. The shoot was four weeks away and they needed someone to work with who understood them and events in a way that could elevate the scenes and make them feel like a real party. I was on holiday and Catherine called me and just asked – it was as simple as that!

You’re the mastermind behind the 75th anniversary celebration of The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney launch of Moulin Rouge … what’s been your most lavish project to date?
Mmmm … I did the launch of Emporium Melbourne last week and we haven’t seen a party like that since pre-2008! Models in underwear dressed as 1920s brides dancing in a vat of grapes comes to mind …

How do these ideas usually come to you – are we talking waves of inspiration in your sleep, secret plans you’ve kept up your sleeve for years, or good old madness?
I signed up to a Faustian pact years ago and never looked back.

You once said that an audience simply wants an emotional experience, whether that’s to laugh, cry or be shocked. What’s the most interesting response you’ve had to one of your projects so far?
The sound of 80,000 people booing a show I spent six months working on when the sound went during the pre-match on-field entertainment of an NRL Grand Final, just before Billy Idol was to sing.

You grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Australia at the age of 11. Was the move liberating or terrifying?
It was traumatic, but character building …

What was the first paid project you ever worked on?
I assisted Kim Carpenter on The Oresteia for Nimrod Theatre in 1980.

Any major design fails you need to get off your chest?
No, I wipe everything – the good and the bad – and keep going.

What makes you happiest?
Reading books, looking at art, hanging with friends.

How do you personally define ‘success’?
Not defining yourself by what you do …


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