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As members of the film industry’s less glamorous family, animators could easily be mistaken for a minority group, and when coupled with the burden of constructing their art-form in a relatively isolated, under-funded, culturally poor environment they could be forgiven for their inconspicuous nature. But the truth of the matter is a far different story. Australians punch well above their weight on the world circuit of animation. We have a creative soul and collectively pull together to dream and create in an animated frenzy of film each year.
Header images: Burley, Monkeynaut, Tarboy, Prof Pebbles, Supermarket Musical Massacre
Original publication: Metro Magazine 2008
Republished with permission
Three Australian animated features have been produced in the last twenty years, Blinky Bill (1992), The Magic Pudding (2000), and Happy Feet (2006), probably our most noted convoy of the art-form to date with the coveted Oscar (2006) for best animated feature going to director George Miller. Two further features are scheduled to be released at the end of this year, both of which just happen to be stop motion films, probably the most time consuming of all the animated styles, the co-production, $9.99 (d: Tatia Rosenthal), and Mary & Max (d: Adam Elliott). But it is in the short film category that Australia really reaches out and makes its mark. Australian animated shorts can be found in almost every international film festival and our own fests are never lost for a program or two of original and enterprising exploits.

The Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF), now in its 8th year, screens over 400 films selected from the best short animations in the world. The festival director, Malcolm Turner, travels extensively year round in his personal search for the year’s collection as well as being one of the jurors on the festival selection panel, which receives over 2000 films each year. The Melbourne festival is now one of the largest festivals of its type in the world, rivalling the screening numbers of similar festivals in Ottawa, Holland, Brussels and Seoul.

Of the relative numbers of shorts screening this year in competition at MIAF the Australian compilation makes up about 4%. Turner says, “it fluctuates year on year but when you put levels of Australian funding up against European models, when you put it up against the distribution clout of the US or especially Canada, then Australian animation is an achiever.”

MIAF also selects an Australian Panorama, which showcases some of the best independent and studio based Australian shorts of the year. Of the 15 films that make up this year’s screening, 6 of those are also in competition. The other films are selected to provide as wide a range of Australian films as possible. Turner explains “of course we must believe that every film we select for the program is good enough to be included but I am also a very firm believer that the Australian Panorama must achieve other goals as well. For example it must include some films from filmmakers who we believe are going to become future stars of the animation scene in Australia, and should help local audiences “keep track” of animators that were given attention in the festival in earlier years. And of course we believe that films that tell Australian stories, use Australian images – films that sound and look distinctively Australian – should be seen by Australian audiences who don’t get enough chances to see their own culture on the movie screen.”

Turner says “speaking VERY generally I would say that Australian animators have difficulty tapping into an overall production environment that's as rich as the Europeans, Canadians or Americans have. That tends to make Australian films a more 'individual' effort and that comes through quite often in the finished product - and when it's good, it's a very charming element of the film and gives it a great deal of soul.”

One of the stars of this year’s Panorama is Professor Pebbles (2007), a comedic look at life in hell for a lecturer trying to teach evil to a bunch of bored school kids. Director, Pierce Davison, has scripted and animated over a dozen short films in his seven year career, including several that have screened on SBS and the ABC. Davison says of his films “[he] likes to explore roles and preconceived notions of how we label people and how they actually move out of their label and do something very different to what we think they are”. His films use strong recognisable icons like devils and greek gods (Medusa is one of Davison’s well explored characters), as he explains “the audience already knows the back story of the character and what their purpose is in the film, so you can use this cliché and move on”. This use of iconic character allows an exploration of the underlying story in more depth in the limited confines of a short film. Davison’s works are also well known for his use of heavy dialogue and cameo voice talent, with Professor Pebbles boasting celebrity appearances by Shaun Micallef and John Saffran. Davison tells a long story of hunting down Saffran for example by tracking his Executive Producer and then following up on the trail for nearly 3 years before the final deal could be struck. It took patience, timing and a good deal of luck, but as he says “wrangling, directing and capturing just the right voices in just the right ways can be a make or break for the final result”.

Some of the other gems this year include an urban update on the Alice in Wonderland daily grind through the Sydney subway in Underground (2007) by Audrey Lam; a relook at the old tale of creation in a baroque styled theatre piece in L’Animateur (2006) by Nick Hilligoss; a couple of comedic ditties who’s titles say it all in Global Warming (2007) by Sheldon Lieberman & Igor Coric, and Fish Getting Pissed on a Semi (2007) by Jeremy Austin; and what would be my favourite of the year The Passenger (2007) by Chris Jones, a political jibe at our public transport system.

These wonderful films, and the host of submissions received this year as in most years that make up the Australian body of creative animated films tend to be made either as student films, labours of love, as fully funded projects or by small companies who do commercial work to help pay for making more creative films. Funding does exist to make these sorts of films and it is as generous as it can probably be in a country with the population that Australia has, but one film in this year’s panorama has shaken up the model a little bit.

The small Melbourne based collective D.I.Y Art Films are made up of Stephanie Brotchie, Chris Pahlow, and Maia Tarrell. Last year, at MIAF 2007, this same trio took home the eminent trophy for Best Australian Film with their exceptionally witty, comedic piece, Fraught (2006). This year, in a desperate attempt to ensure they came into the festival with a follow up film, they went out to their friends, family and colleagues with a well structured sponsorship package offer that essentially put their creative licence up for rent.

The resulting film, Supermarket Musical Massacre: The Feel Good Homicide of the Century! (2008), was completed only weeks before the festival, and Turner was excited to include it in the lineup. Apart from having the longest title for a film in the festival, this little piece also boasts a collaboratively scripted musical number, a supermarket full of unsavoury characters, a twisted tale of the weekly shopping gone wrong, and a good splattering of gruesome effects. Pahlow says “the composers didn’t take us seriously at first. We wrote the lyrics for the animation not for their musical qualities, and they kept asking us, are you sure you really want it to go like that. They understand now that they can see it is a pig singing or a pork chop jumping around”

Although the group admit that Tarrell had the original idea for the script, essentially “on a train when she had this epiphany”, they all fell in love with it on the spot and collectively worked out how to bring the idea literally to life. Having already been put on hold for government film funding because the members of the group were still engaged in formal study, they knew that if they wanted to bring a musical number to the screen they were going to need external money of some sort and not just the typical scrapings of the weekly kitty.

The funding package they conceived was based on an event sponsorship model with a slight twist for the type of film they wanted to create. For a small donation a sponsor could be assured of becoming a character in the film. Slightly more of an investment would purchase for the sponsor the right to have the sponsor’s logo or name listed prominently in the credits, and for a higher donation again the team would create a product to feature in the film with the sponsor’s company logo. The team suggest they raised “enough funds to cover their basic costs”. Rather than nominating an amount Pahlow says, “we are not sitting back at home swimming in a pool of money or anything”, to which Brotchie adds “well maybe, but it’s a baby pool and its full of 50 cent coins.”

Tarrell admits “we didn’t get a lot of strangers applying, mostly friends and family, and the majority wanted the option of their face appearing in the film. Some people wanted a particular type of character, someone actually wanted a reference to star wars in his model or his dress, and a couple of people asked us to put their kids in it, but we had to say no”, adds Pahlow “it’s a massacre people, what do you think’s going to happen”. “So there were a couple of things we needed to say no to, but most people just left it up to us and are now sitting back waiting to see what we did with it.”

Pahlow says, “the best part about it was testing out the model. We didn’t raise a lot of money but we did work out a lot of the details on how to approach the funding, and a lot of experience on how we can approach it next time.” Brotchie adds, “it is a liberating option. If you cant get funding or don’t want to apply for formal funding it is an option that is definitely workable. It worked for us and I’m sure that if we spent more time on it we could make it work even better”

Of course different funding models work in different ways, and Australia being such a diverse country sometimes where you are based can make a tremendous difference to even the funding experience. Davison, a Perth based animator, says he couldn’t speak more highly of Screen West, the WA based government funding body. Davison, together with his Producer, has been awarded a number of development funds for film, as well as travel aid and ancillary support for commercial work.

When asking Turner what he saw as being some of the big changes in animation over the last 10 years he felt, oddly, that the style and standard of Australian animation had not changed enormously over that period – with the obvious exception of CG animation which has tracked along with improvements in the software and hardware the animators have access to. It is an easy outsiders mistake to assume that 2D and 3D digital animation has taken over the short animation scene, but especially in Australia we are still keen producers of hand made animation art forms which include puppet, 2D and claymation formats. These may be assisted by computers now, such as digitally removing support wires from a puppet film, but they are a long way from being digitally created and the Australian creative animating film body seem firmly planted in that resolve.

Turner says “It would be great if a few people saw the arrival and growth of MIAF as a bit of a help too but, for me, if I had to nominate a single thing that has stood out in the last 10 years, I would say it would be the incredible "Home Movies" series that SBS put together in 2001. The films in that series showed just what could be done when the filmmakers were given the resources and the incentive of guaranteed screenings. It mirrored the really successful programs that the Brits have been doing for years (such as Animate, A.I.R. and MESH) and we've just never really quite seen such a large group of films all hit those sorts of heights since.”

The filmmakers of MIAF of course get the last word, Brotchie says “I honestly really would like to thank the festival, because it is an incredible experience. It really is so important and such a great way to meet people who are useful to us, who are interesting people, who are interested in the same kind of art-form that we are interested in, and you get a whole range of audience members from those who don’t think animation extends beyond Happy Feet to those absolute pro’s at the top of their field who come in here. It’s an amazing learning experience – we really really look forward to it.”

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

HGK Lucerne (Switzerland): Playing with “truth” in the image
Australian Animation: From Devils who turn good, and supermarket musical massacres
Phil Mulloy (UK): The Dilemma of Humanity
Marie Josee Saint Pierre (Canada): Norman McLaren here ...
Ben Tiefholz (Australia): Stories in the Stars
Peter Chung (USA): Aeon Flux and the psychology of desire
Rosto (Netherlands): A Graphic Novel that asks you to “Just open up and don’t be scared”
Regina Pessoa (Portugal): Tragic Story with a Happy Ending
"Burley" Directors: Dave Edwardz, Gareth Cowen 2007
"L'Animateur" Director: Nick Hilligoss 2007
"Monkeynaut" Director:Snooze Animations 2007
"Professor Pebbles" Director: Pierce Davison 2006
"Supermarket Musical Masscare: The Feel Good Homicide Of The Century!" Directors: D.I.Y. Art: Stephanie Brotchie, Chris Pahlow, Maia Tarrell 2007
"Tar Boy" Director: James Lee 2007