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South Australian Location Spotlight: Coober Pedy

20 December 2021
Shantae Barnes-Cowan as Shanika in Firebite, Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+
Shantae Barnes-Cowan as Shanika in Firebite, showing the sort of other worldly underground caves that can be found in Coober Pedy. Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+

From the spectacular, lunar-like landscapes of Mortal Kombat’s Outworld, to the underground vampire lairs of AMC+ series Firebite, the South Australian outback town of Coober Pedy offers a range of unique and dramatic locations for all screen productions. 

Situated 840km north-west of state capital Adelaide, Coober Pedy is known as “the opal capital of the world”, its moon-like landscape dotted with mine shafts and piles of loose stones from opal mining activities.

The town is also famous for its network of underground homes, known as “dugouts”, with about half the population living in residences carved out of the hillsides – some spreading up to 450sqm underground.

“Coober Pedy is a unique location offering arid desert vistas, pock-marked mining landscapes, and a visceral underground world of tunnels and chambers difficult to replicate or find in one place. It’s also an accessible town with a rich filming history and dependable climate.”

— Paul Ranford, producer, Firebite
SA producer Paul Ranford

Going underground

New AMC+ and See-Saw Films vampire series Firebite recently wrapped shooting in Coober Pedy, using both underground and above-ground locations.

Directed and written by Warwick Thornton and Brendan Fletcher, the series was actually created with the town specifically in mind.

“It was: did you know there are a quarter of a million abandoned mine shafts around Coober Pedy, in a town of like 5,000 people? A quarter of a million holes! Wouldn’t it be cool if there were vampires in those holes?” said Firebite writer/director/producer Brendan Fletcher.

“The pitch for (Firebite) was always Coober Pedy, it was always vampires in the mining tunnels, the mining tunnels leading to the towns. What a great concept for a vampire show!”

Rob Collins as Tyson and Shante Barnes-Cowan as Shanika - Firebite _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+
Rob Collins as Tyson and Shante Barnes-Cowan as Shanika in an underground lair in Firebite, Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+

“Coober Pedy formed the basis for all design elements of Firebite, from the colour palette to tunnel studio sets. The actual landscape itself and the myriad of tunnels and caves elevated our production values exponentially.”

— Rachel Gardner, executive producer, Firebite
Rachel Gardner, executive producer of Firebite

“Our lair set, which we shot on location in Coober Pedy, would have been outside of the scope of our budget to replicate in a studio. Likewise, above ground, the uniqueness of the landscape provided us with exterior locations that look heightened and stylised and outside of the scope of our budget to replicate,” said Firebite producer Rachel Gardner.

“Other than the visual uniqueness of the location, the people of Coober Pedy make this a special filming location. The community welcomed us with open arms and bent over backwards to support us in making our series.”

Producer Paul Ranford agrees: “The Coober Pedy and Umoona Community were welcoming to us and to filming on the traditional lands of the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunjtjtjara people of the western desert.”

Callan Mulvey as Josiah - Firebite _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+
Callan Mulvey as Josiah in Firebite in front of the fictional “Opal City” sign, a stand-in for Coober Pedy’s famous town sign. Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+

“Coober Pedy, it’s the most beautiful man-made disaster in the world. It is ugly, beautiful… it’s just mineshaft after mineshaft, treeless plains – so cinematic. If you’re going to make a film about vampires, it’s probably the best place to make it.”

— Warwick Thornton, writer/director, Firebite
Filmmaker Warwick Thornton holding a microphone

Rob Collins as Tyson - Firebite_ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+
Rob Collins as Tyson in Firebite, shot in Coober Pedy. Photo Credit: Ian Routledge/AMC+

Kanku Breakaways and The Painted Desert

Lying 32km north of Coober Pedy, the Kanku Breakaways are colourful low hills so named for having “broken away” from the nearby Stuart Range, and have been featured in films such as Mortal Kombat and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

As the day goes by, the passing of the sun changes the desert colours, creating stunningly surreal scenes.

Further north lies the Painted Desert, where dramatic rocky outcrops of yellow and orange splash purple and black shadows as the sunlight shifts.

Behind the scenes of Mortal Kombat in Coober Pedy, photo by Todd Garner
Behind the scenes of Mortal Kombat on location in Coober Pedy, photo by Todd Garner
JOSH LAWSON as Kano and JESSICA MCNAMEE as Sonya Blade in New Line Cinema’s action adventure “Mortal Kombat,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Mark Rogers
Josh Lawson as Kano and Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade in Warner Bros / New Line Cinema blockbuster Mortal Kombat, which shot in Coober Pedy. Photo by Mark Rogers.
Behind the scenes shot of Mortal Kombat filming on location in Coober Pedy, photo supplied Todd Garner
Behind the scenes of Mortal Kombat on location in Coober Pedy, photo by Todd Garner.

“I couldn’t be more impressed with the locations. I really don’t think we could have made (Mortal Kombat) as gritty and as authentic and as epic in visual scale anywhere else. I don’t know where else we would have found the locations we needed in Australia.”

— Simon McQuoid, director, Mortal Kombat
Simon McQuoid, director of Mortal Kombat

The Moon Plain

About 18km (11mi) north-east of Coober Pedy lies the famous Moon Plain, a stark desert of grey, soft clay dirt dotted with fossilised shells and dramatic cracks that look positively extra-terrestrial.

The unique landscape has been used as a backdrop for many screen productions including Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Pitch Black and Red Planet.

“South Australia is pretty unique in that you can have a world like Coober Pedy that has looks nothing like anywhere else on the planet, then you can be down the next day in the South Australian Film Corporation’s Adelaide Studios, and you’re working in a state-of-the-art studio environment. I can’t imagine shooting Firebite anywhere else except South Australia.”

— Brendan Fletcher, writer/director/producer, Firebite
Brendan Fletcher, director/producer/writer of Firebite, image from

Coober Pedy is just one of the many stunning and diverse filming locations on offer in South Australia, all accessible by road or air from capital city Adelaide.

Combined with outstanding production incentives, flexible facilities at the SAFC’s Adelaide Studios and an array of award-winning world-class post-production and VFX companies, South Australia is the perfect location for screen productions of any size.

This article first appeared on the Ausfilm website on 2 December, 2021.

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