/News 26.05.23


Set against the vast expanse of South Australia’s Outback, the remarkable underground town of Coober Pedy has emerged as a coveted international filming destination offering a range of unique and otherworldly locations.

From the ethereal ambiance of Ivan Sen’s desert noir Limbo (2023) to the high-octane action of blockbuster Mortal Kombat (2021), AMC+ vampire series Firebite (2021), and the futuristic interplanetary landscapes of Fox’s upcoming unscripted format series Stars on Mars (2023), a range of international screen productions have found a home in Coober Pedy as a versatile and dynamic setting that can bring any story to life.

Upcoming FOX series Stars on Mars has recently wrapped filming in Coober Pedy, South Australia. Image courtesy Fox Entertainment.

Situated 520miles (840km) north-west of state capital Adelaide, Coober Pedy is known as ‘the opal capital of world’, boasting a sun-baked lunar landscape dotted with mine shafts and mountains of loose stones from mining activities.

The town is famous for its network of underground homes, known as ‘dugouts’, with about half the population living in residences carved out of the hillsides. Descend beneath the ground and you’ll discover a labyrinth of underground houses, hotels, shops and even churches, as well as grand, cathedral-like passages with soaring ceilings carved directly into the rock, unlike anything else on earth.

Coober Pedy boasts a versatile range of filming locations within a relatively small area. From arid desert landscapes to underground tunnels, filmmakers can easily capture a variety of visual contrasts and atmospheres without extensive travel. Additionally, the region’s remote and untouched nature ensures a pristine filming environment, free from the distractions and limitations of more heavily trafficked areas.

When new FOX reality TV series Stars on Mars went looking for a location to replicate the enigmatic landscapes of the Red Planet, they found their perfect match in Coober Pedy.

With its expanses of red desert, unique geological formations, and otherworldly ambiance, Coober Pedy creates an uncanny double for Mars, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the series as its celebrity contestants navigate the challenges and trials of the Martian-inspired competition hosted by Star Trek legend William Shatner. Stars on Mars premieres on FOX (US) on 5 June.

“We’re thrilled to bring the production of Stars on Mars to Australia, providing hundreds of jobs within the Australian entertainment industry, while also showcasing Coober Pedy. This unique and stunning location offers the ideal setting to recreate the surface of Mars, and we are excited to film the US version of Stars on Mars here for FOX,”
– Chris Culvenor, executive producer Stars on Mars

Forthcoming FOX series Stars on Mars saw US celebrities experience life on Mars on location in Coober Pedy. Image courtesy Fox Entertainment

Further enhancing the region’s interplanetary reputation is the famous Moon Plain, located about 11miles (18km) north-east of Coober Pedy, a stark desert of grey, soft clay dirt dotted with fossilised shells and dramatic cracks that look positively extra-terrestrial. Stars on Mars is the latest production to take advantage of this spectacular lunar backdrop, which has also featured in films Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Pitch Black and The Red Planet.

Other unique locations in the region include the Kanku-Breakways – colourful low hills so named for having “broken away” from the nearby Stuart Range, which have been featured in films such as Mortal Kombat and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and the Painted Hills, where dramatic rocky outcrops of yellow and orange splash purple and black shadows as the sunlight shifts.

Kanku-Breakaways, Coober Pedy, South Australia. Photo credit South Australian Tourism Commission.
Painted Hills, Anna Creek Station, Coober Pedy, South Australia. Wrightsair Scenic Flight. Photo credit South Australian Tourism Commission.

So unique is Coober Pedy, the place has actually inspired a number of major screen productions to be created specifically for it.

Director, writer and producer Ivan Sen says his internationally acclaimed feature film Limbo, starring Simon Baker, was always planned for Coober Pedy after he visited the region several years ago.

Simon Baker in Limbo, in one of Coober Pedy’s many carved-out rock caves.

Sen was inspired by both the underground and above-ground locations and the region’s expansive white terrain which was perfect for shooting in black and white, offering a dramatic backdrop that heightened the impact of both visuals and characters.

“There’s been so many film productions go out there over the years but I wanted to put a different angle on the place and really show that underground living culture as well as everything that happens above ground. It also lends itself to black and white really well, it has an incredible contrast range and the whole story just really grew out of that incredible location,” Sen told the ABC.

“Like all my stories, they come from location and the power of that place is what feeds the characters and the story. I think that’s how you feel the film has grown out of this incredible place,” he told In Daily.

“There aren’t many places in Australia where you can shoot in black and white properly with a full tonal range, but Coober Pedy is one of very few”
– Ivan Sen, writer/director/producer, Limbo

Limbo uses Coober Pedy’s dramatic underground and carved-out locations to stunning effect.

Star Simon Baker also praised Coober Pedy, telling ABC: “It’s a fascinating place. It has a particular energy to it that does embrace you after you’re there for a little while.”

Limbo has been lauded as a cinematic tour de force following its world premiere In Competition at the 2023 Berlinale, receiving four stars from The Guardian and being described as “visually striking” by the Hollywood Reporter.

Alexis Lennon as Jesse, Simon Baker as Travis Hurley and Natasha Wanganeen as Emma in Limbo, which was filmed in Coober Pedy.

AMC+ and See-Saw Films vampire series Firebite, from writer/director Warwick Thornton and Brendan Fletcher, is another production created with Coober Pedy specifically in mind. The series shot in the region in 2021, using both underground and above-ground locations.

Fletcher shared the concept behind the show and the decision to film in Coober Pedy, “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? So the pitch for the show 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.”

Writer/director/producer Warwick Thornton with actor Shantae Barnes-Cowan behind the scenes of Firebite in Coober Pedy. Photo credit Ian Routledge/AMC+, copyright See-Saw Films

Producer Rachel Gardner said 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,” she said.

“Our lair set, for example, 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. 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.”

“South Australia is pretty unique in that you can have a world like Coober Pedy that 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

Behind the scenes on Firebite in Coober Pedy. Photo credit Ian Routledge/AMC+, copyright See-Saw Films

“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, and the Coober Pedy and Umoona Communities were welcoming to us and to filming on the traditional lands of the Antakirinja Matu-Yankunjtjtjara people of the western desert,”
– Paul Ranford, producer, Firebite

Shantae Barnes-Cowan as Shanika in Firebite, which was filmed in Coober Pedy. Photo credit Ian Routledge/AMC+

Even 2021 action blockbuster Mortal Kombat took inspiration from Coober Pedy, with producer Todd Garner telling GQ: “South Australia informed a lot of the script, based on the locations we found here. The quarries, and Coober Pedy… it’s really lent itself to being able to give this movie a lot of different looks.”

“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. Adelaide and South Australia are a filmmaker’s city and state – there is a history and a pedigree here, but it hasn’t been overshot, it hasn’t been over-utilised, so it’s actually just sort of sitting here waiting to be harnessed for what it really has.”
– Simon McQuoid, Director, Mortal Kombat

Josh Lawson as Kano and Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat. Credit Mark Rogers
Behind the scenes of Mortal Kombat in Coober Pedy, South Australia. Photo by Todd Garner
Mortal Kombat on location in Coober Pedy, South Australia. Photo by Todd Garner

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

Combined with outstanding production incentives, flexible facilities at the South Australian Film Corporation’s (SAFC) 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.

To find out more about filming in South Australia:
visit the SAFC’s Locations Gallery online at safilm.com.au/locations 
or contact SAFC Head of Production and Development, Beth Neate at [email protected]