Hiding in plain sight

Everyone knows about Adam Elliot’s Harvie Krumpet (2003). In 2004, Harvie won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, an achievement that seemed to galvanise the rest of the country’s animators. In truth, though, there was always great work being produced – it was revealed hiding in plain sight in the wake of Elliot’s success. Take Peter Cornwell’s stop-motion masterpiece Ward 13, also from 2003, an incredibly accomplished tale of a road-accident victim who wakes up in a creepy hospital, where he fights monstrous patients, mutant dogs, orderlies with bone saws and nurses dressed like serial killers. There is no dialogue, just a series of kinetic set pieces, culminating in an amazing scene in which beds, trolleys and wheelchairs are fashioned as escape vehicles and walking sticks are wielded as weapons. Ward 13 could easily have won the Oscar, for it is every bit Harvie’s equal, perhaps even better.

While technical proficiency has remained consistent within the scene, storytelling has improved markedly. Though you can still find an emphasis on dunny humour (which, to be fair, saturates all of Australian society, not just animation), Australian animation has grown up. Gone are the too-cutesy anthropomorphised objects, animated to voyage on a discovery of self-awareness. Gone is the Anglocentric focus on the US and the UK as sources of ideas, thereby sidestepping influences and partnerships with animation hotbeds of Asia.

Instead, we now have storytelling that doesn’t fall victim to the worst excesses of Australiana and/or patronise or pander to the lowest common denominator or simply ape international trends. The progress can be measured by the annual Melbourne International Animation Festival (www.miaf.net), which does a terrific job of contextualising Australian animation within the international scene. Each year, it presents an ‘Australian Panorama’ featuring the year’s best local output, and each year the gap between the quality of local product and its international competitors narrows dramatically.

Making animation in this country is still, nonetheless, a hard, often thankless task. As Cornwell said, when asked why local work is now receiving overseas acclaim: ‘There’s a different Australian sensibility, but it is really difficult to say what that is. We don’t really have an animation industry. There are so many obstacles that you really have to be passionate about finishing it, you’re not just cynically making it for the market.’

It is difficult to discern overarching themes in Australian animation, except for quality and exacting standards: invariably, filmmakers know that if you’re going to spend so long on something that’s so underfunded and undervalued, you better make it good.

Allow me, then, to present a personal (and far from exhaustive) guide to the best Australian independent animated short films I’ve seen in the past few years.

Dust Echoes (various, 2007)

Dust Echoes is a series of twelve animated Dreamtime stories collected from Arnhem Land and produced by the ABC, the Djilpin Arts Aboriginal Corporation and Deakin University. The stories were told by members of the Wugularr (Beswick) Community, recorded on audio and then left to the interpretative powers of the filmmakers. The result is a stunning achievement, a rich sensory experience. The animators must be given special praise, visualising the Dreamtime by melding cutting-edge techniques with frameworks from the past. Among my favourites is Mermaid Story (James Calvert, 5 mins), an emotional tale of a man who leaves his family to live with mermaids. The film abandons narration and dialogue to communicate through music and sound; the animation is a mix of cut-outs, silhouettes and traditional methods that echo the simple story. The Bat and the Butterfly (Dave Jones, 5 mins) is also outstanding, a powerful parable of choice and care. The characters variously recall gingerbread men, stone carvings and claymation, but the sound design also carries the narrative weight, generating meaning and understanding through snatched whisperings and ambient desert sounds.

Watch Dust Echoes on the ABC website.

Bronze Mirror (Susan Danta, 2008)

This beguiling production is based on a Korean folktale in which old-time villagers find a mirror. They’ve never encountered such a device before, and the shock at seeing their own faces injects all kinds of fear, superstition and wonder into village life. A man hides the mirror in a chest, only for his wife to find it. Seeing herself reflected, she naturally concludes that he is keeping a pint-sized mistress in his top drawer. Others see themselves and fear that ghosts and demons are out to get them. There are morals encoded within the simple story, to which Danta does justice with her never intrusive or overwhelming surreal CGI, which is always at the service of the narrative.

Preview Bronze Mirror on Susan Danta’s website.

Carnivore Reflux (Eddie White and James Calvert, 2006)

This outstanding animation is centred on an acerbic poem that chronicles overeating, indulgence and flatulence throughout the ages. The savage, ultra-vivid animation style is like a cross between Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations and Marco Ferreri’s film La Grande Bouffe. It’s a whirlwind of corpulence, neon colours, heads opening at hinge-like mouths, paper cutouts and cutaways of meats, all set to a clanging, discordant soundtrack and gluttonous sound design: belches, reflux actions, growling tummies and all manner of bodily sounds from the disgusting end of the spectrum. There is a disturbing, inspired, unhinged, anarchic genius at work here.

Watch Carnivore Reflux on YouTube:

Dog with Electric Collar (Steve Baker, 2008)

Like a nightmarish Ren and Stimpy cartoon, this whip-sharp film pulses with energy, humour and vicious caricatures. Ever been bothered by a neighbourhood dog that just won’t shut up? You’ll wish it wore the collar this dog sports, which burns it to ashes at the slightest hint of a bark.

The animation style is clean, sharp and pastel-queasy, and Baker populates his bizarre little slab of urban life with a medley of wretched creatures: the bark-frenzied dog, annoying flies, a fat cat and the miserable humans who prey on the entire ecosystem. Baker even manages to sneak in some political comment about race relations, an end-of-the-world fantasy, and a glimpse into the afterlife, all in just under five minutes.

Watch Dog with Electric Collar on Slamdance TV.

Factoids and Slapstick (Doug Bayne, 2008)

Bayne’s hugely enjoyable romp is part of the Great Moments in History series, sponsored by BigPond and Screen Australia, which asks animators to consider ‘funny stuff that happened between the Big Bang and the end of time’. It supposedly tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, but Bayne breaks the fourth wall, jumping into the frame to express doubts about the whole thing. In the credits, his references for Vlad’s story include: ‘Wikipedia; I dreamed this; Fangoria’. It’s a sly satire on the need of some animators to pack ‘meaning’ into three minutes of animation. Bayne is just being honest – how meaningful can you really be amid such constraints? The animation is textured, detailed and vivid, covering several styles with aplomb.

Watch Factoids and Slapstick at the Portable Film Festival.

The Goat That Ate Time (Lucinda Schreiber, 2007)

I’m a sucker for stories of temporal displacement, and Schreiber’s lovely film delivers the goods. It’s about a voracious goat, Henry, who eats everything under the sun, including clocks and watches. He discovers that the timepieces and their chronological ‘nutrition’ slipstreams him into an eternal present – the more time he eats, the more time he gains. Schreiber’s delicate, textured technique recalls wallpaper coming to life and its sentiment is cute. The script is witty, as Henry begins to eat anything chronological, including biological clocks, ‘borrowed time’ and ‘prime time’. He even moves to New York to eat Times Square, savouring the fabled ‘New York minute’. There’s a fun moment when Henry goes to a book signing by Stephen Hawking, eats A Brief History of Time and then, because the history of time is so brief, eats Mr Hawking himself.

Watch The Goat That Ate Time on GKIDS.tv.


Mutt (Glen Hunwick, 2007)

Mutt is an inventive and playful stop-motion film about an obsessed dog in the outback desperate for someone to throw his ball. Unfortunately, he is in the service of a grizzled master who is similarly obsessed – albeit with milking the cow and getting money from the milk truck. Much of this comic effect comes from the rendering of the grossly caricatured characters, all warped and bloated with rounded edges and stumpy legs. The dynamic colour scheme is a kinky, vivid attack on the retina; the set design superbly captures the grit and detail of Australian Gothic. Stop motion is extremely labour intensive, and Mutt was no exception. Hunwick filmed it over a period of eighteen months, with some scenes taking two days to complete (remember, the entire film is just seven minutes long).

Preview Mutt on AWNtv.com .

L’Animateur (Nick Hilligoss, 2006)

Hilligoss takes a corny premise, the Garden of Eden, and turns it into a fun-filled metanarrative on the joy of making animation. A stop-motion alien that looks like a medieval jester lands on a weird planet, devoid of life save for a few frogs. He unpacks a portable stage set and places two wooden puppets on it. They are attached to strings until he zaps them and they move about of their own accord. They see a tree with apples and can’t resist eating them (you know what’s coming, right?). Flesh grows on their bodies, and the audience of frogs watches with glee. Then the alien jester pulls the floor out from under the puppet people and they fall to the ground. He packs up and flies to another planet, leaving behind the first human life on Earth. Hilligoss’ wooden puppets, rendered in high quality stop motion, deliver a melancholy that matches the story.

Watch L’Animateur on YouTube.

Monkeynaut (Susie Jones, 2007)

Ah, space and monkeys: two great tastes that taste great together! The affecting Monkeynaut was inspired by the fate of the first monkey launched into sub-orbital space in 1958 – Gordo, who died on re-entry when his parachute failed to open. With that in mind, Jones has produced a claymation delight that gives us the straight dope on what really went on in those early chimp-only space missions (think yellow fruit and the eating thereof). The film evinces a love both for monkeys and the mythology of the early rugged NASA missions, and Jones’ sense of atmosphere and dynamics is super sharp. For a short film, the script is spot on, supplying both drama and laughs (it’s hilarious hearing astronauts speaking with Aussie accents, and there’s also much Dark Star-style buffoonery), and a measure of scientific accuracy. Plus there’s a cheesy, booming soundtrack worthy of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.

Watch Monkeynaut at the Portable Film Festival.

Professor Pebbles (Pierce Davison, 2006)

This entertaining stop-motion tale focuses on one of Satan’s minions, who teaches evil to schoolchildren and suffers a mid-life crisis on his five hundredth birthday (boom, boom). He wants to ‘see the sights’ and travels to our world, where he tries to do good but finds that his evil side is just too strong. Lots of japes and practical jokes at the expense of humans ensue. You can tell the filmmakers are aiming big with this one, perhaps hoping for another bit of Krumpet success, and accordingly the cast of voice actors is, for animation at least, ‘all star’, including Shaun Micallef, John Safran and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell.

View stills from Professor Pebbles at the Davison Bros website.

The Roaring Tide (Laura Stitzel, 2008)

Stitzel is a promising new talent who uses bold colours and silhouettes in a contrasting, blocky animation style. There’s something surreal about the abstract outlines of zoot suits and flapper dresses, and Stitzel makes the most of this in The Roaring Tide, which is animated in a twenties deco style (blocky shapes, angular shadows). It’s about a group of shipwrecked passengers on an island who can’t be bothered addressing the danger they find themselves in. Instead, they break into the ship’s stores to continue their hedonistic partying, even strapping collars and leads to seals and taking the poor creatures for a walk, like fashion-accessorised poodles.

Watch Laura Stitzel’s show reel (which includes clips from The Roaring Tide) on YouTube.

Simon Sellars

Simon Sellars is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne. He is also a research fellow at RMIT University’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory, where he is working on a study of urban environments in speculative fiction and film.

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