After years in advertising, documentary and drama, it’s safe to say Christopher Nelius knows the camera. He also knows that very human form of obsession, when you find something that totally completes you – whether it be heavy metal in his work for Medibank, or the waves, in his acclaimed documentary Girls Can’t Surf, about those pioneers who called for gender parity in the sport. Oh, and he used to be a rock guitarist. So there’s that.
Christopher Nelius Serves The Story
The FINCH Director Talks, Music, Surfing, And Commercials
For a year after high school, Christopher Nelius hung out, listened to records, and played in bands. It was pretty much all he wanted to do. “I was just a full-on muso,” he says now. “I became obsessed with wanting to be a guitar player.”
The acclaimed commercials director, who has also made two full-length feature films – Storm Surfers 3D, which won the AACTA award for Best Feature Documentary, and Girls Can’t Surf, the highest grossing box office documentary in Australia in 2021 – knew that the real world was going to call him to eventually. One day soon, he’d have to settle down and get a job. But for a while there, he was happy getting very, very good at making music.
Nelius toured with Nikka Costa, an American blues singer, and he formed and joined a number of bands. Somewhere along the way, a friend suggested that he do a sound design course at AFTRS. Pleased by the idea that it would delay that grown-up stuff he knew would shortly come knocking, Nelius signed up for the course. Which opened a new path – he quickly discovered a talent for writing music for the screen.
“I started a composing business, doing music for ads, and a couple of feature films,” he explains. Inspired by what he calls “the laptop revolution” – the advent of ProTools – he became a multi-instrumentalist, able to create entire tracks from scratch.
But something was knocking on his door. And it wasn’t just adulthood. Nelius had also taken a job at the Australian office of acclaimed production company Working Title Films. “It’s an awesome company,” he says. “Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner – they made all the Richard Curtis movies, like Notting Hill. I had a job as a reader there. I would read scripts and books to potentially option. That’s where I really got into the idea of creating films; developing ideas. I really got the bug.”
So now, Nelius was at a crossroads. He had two choices. Live a life as a muso, composing for films. Or get into what had quickly become a burning passion – filmmaking. “I was comparing the two lives,” Nelius says. “One, as a muso, was you in the studio for ten hours, at home, and the other, as a director, was running around and filming, and working with people.
“There’s similarities too. As a director, you’re still using the ideas of emotion, time, it’s a temporal art. It has music in it. It’s musical; it has structure; it has composition. So it was the best of both worlds.” He chose direction. He made a television show, Storm Surfers, that eventually became a feature – a visually striking exploration of the interior lives of surfers. And then he made Girls Can’t Surf, a film about sport, sexism, and self-creation.
What lit him up then, as it does now, was collaboration. Indeed, working with others is the heart of Nelius’ creative practice, whether he’s making a commercial, or making a feature film. “I like working with people,” he says. “Over the years, you make creative partnerships with editors and DPs in particular. I still work with one of the editors I went to film school with. You create lifelong friendships through that collaboration.”
Those connections also extend across the camera line – Nelius is fascinated by casting, and feels that his commercial work is brought alive by spontaneous flourishes from actors he could never have predicted. “I’d never want to close off spontaneity,” he says.
“I’d always want to make time for that. My favourite bits in my work have always come from spontaneity – things that I didn’t see on the day that make it into the ad. That’s what I love about the collaboration aspect of film, which really relates to music for me. I love jamming. I grew up jamming. And the moments of spontaneity, and the riffing off other people, and finding a better idea – that really excites me in the ad world as well.”
Nelius’ commercials span a range of styles and genres. He’s made a deftly funny, slightly surreal film for Medibank, about a bear of a man who relaxes to heavy metal. He’s made the heartwarming, subversive film for Fight MND, in which a voice is returned to Neale Daniher, through the support of his friends. And he’s made a love letter to a car, in the form of his work with Audi.
But the throughline between these spots is what Nelius identifies as his interest in “surprise.” “I’m drawn to work that is surprising in some way – work that surprises you, and it results in an emotion,” he says. “Whether it’s a laugh, or a cry, or a sense of something being profound. I find that something with a surprise in it, that’s what gets me. It’s not just about aesthetics. It’s definitely not about cool camera transitions. Although when those techniques are servicing that idea of a surprise, it’s incredible.
“It’s all in the idea. Then the photography and performance and casting is all in the service of that. Going for the surprise, and the emotion.”
That’s one of the reasons, too, that Nelius is so drawn to advertising. He adores the compact nature of the form – what he describes as its “haiku-like quality.” He’s excited by exploring that in new ways; to keep moving, to branch more into comedy and drama, to find new ways of nailing that moment where, in the shortest of timescales, a work of art can delightfully throw you off. Like an unexpected note in the middle of a guitar solo, that makes the whole thing feel different, and new. Guess Christopher Nelius never really left music behind, after all.