Interview: Adam Elliot On Being An Animator, Winning An Oscar And Feeling Like An Outsider

Contributing Writer; Sydney, Australia (@HugoOzman)
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Interview: Adam Elliot On Being An Animator, Winning An Oscar And Feeling Like An Outsider
Adam Elliot, Oscar winner for the short film Harvie Krumpet and director of the beloved feature Mary And Max, has recently released his latest film Ernie Biscuit. I got the chance to chat with Adam about his films, his characters and his life.

Hugo Ozman: Ernie Biscuit is the first film that you have made since Mary And Max came out in 2009. What took you so long to give audiences another film?

Adam Elliot:There are quite a few reasons why it has taken me so long to make another film. The main reason is after Mary and Max, I was mentally and physically spent and despite the wonderful successes of the film, I lost my sense of self and became quite depressed. Having to live up to the very high expectations of the public and myself took a toll and I lost my fervor and zeal for the art form. After quite a bit of wallowing and bouts of self-loathing, I decided to go back to basics and rediscover what and why I became a filmmaker. It's a long and boring story, but after much navel gazing I slowly regained my zest for writing and fondness for clay.

Adam Elliot and Ernie Biscuit.jpg

So how does it feel to release another film after such a long hiatus?

It's always bittersweet releasing another film into the world. Often I feel like I don't want anyone to see it but then realize that's an absurd notion. Like giving birth, the pain of making the film is still fresh and palpable. There's this 'new thing' right in front of you and you wonder if it's an ugly baby or a pretty baby. Will people be kind to this baby or want to burn it at the stake!

Just like many of your previous films, Ernie Biscuit is about someone who struggles in life. What makes you so interested in telling stories about underdogs?

It has taken me two decades to realize this, but my films and characters are manifestations and extensions of myself. Without sounding pitiful, I have always felt like an outsider and there aren't many bald, gay, asthmatic clay animators out there I've come across. Everyone at some point in their lives feels like an outsider, marginalized or misunderstood. I think this is why my characters resonate with people. Essentially they are archetypal losers that people can empathize with. I think we have all felt like Harvie Krumpet at some point.

Ernie Edith and Rubbish.jpg

There is a part in Ernie Biscuit that says that taxidermy is out of fashion in these modern times and the taxidermist needs to be resourceful. Is that a reflection of how you feel about stop motion animation?

No, not really. Ever since I left film school twenty years ago, I was told I was pursuing a dying art form. This has not happened at all and stop-motion is very alive and well. Just a few years ago, three out of the five Oscar nominated feature animated films were stopmo (Frankenweenie, Paranorman, Pirates). For me, it doesn't really matter what medium or technique you use to animate with; what counts is the story. Whether you animate with clay, a pencil, or a computer, what audiences crave is an original and engaging story.

Adam Elliot and Taxidermy Store.jpg

The interesting characters you create certainly make your stories engaging. Do you base your characters on people you know, or do they come from your imagination?

All my characters are based on real people - some more so than others. As mentioned, there is also a healthy dose of my own psyche intertwined into all the protagonists. It is very hard to make a blob of clay believable and authentic for an audience and so the more dimension and layering you can give a character, the more he / she will become vivid, engaging and 'real'. Having said all this, my films are works of fiction and as the adage goes; I 'never let the truth get in the way of a good story'.

Can you tell us a little about the actual process of making your films?

These days I keep my workflow and processes quite discreet. This is not because I don't like sharing, but rather making my films is a very personal experience and often 'meditative'. Playing with clay and using your hands is a primeval experience and without sounding too spiritual, the 'making' of a film is a form of therapy for me and quite cathartic. I use very simple materials these days and limit the use of technology. I only use Apple software and hardware, a few lights, a Laika camera, one type of clay, cardboard, wire and paint. I try to animate with a traditionalist approach but of course enjoy some of the benefits that digital technology brings. Every prop, set and character in all my films has been hand made. There are no digital effects, but we certainly use software to clean up some shots and to make them look as organic and 'real' as possible. I learnt long ago that audiences love seeing the fingerprints on the clay - it reminds them that what they are seeing is tangible and tactile. 

Adam Elliot Tiny and Edith.jpg

You once said to me that stop motion animation is a "horribly expensive art form due to the long production timelines". Why are you so interested in this form of animation if it costs so much and takes so long to make?

When you think hard about it, animating blobs of clay in the dark is a ridiculous way to spend your life. I often envy painters and sculptors who can whip something up in a few weeks. I can empathize with people who make tapestries. Often they only weave a centimeter or two a day. We usually animate just a few seconds. When I depress myself with these realities, I always remind myself of the adages; that 'good things take time', and 'it's quality not quantity' that counts. I'm very aware that as an artist it is important I don't fill the world with crappy art. I want to leave behind a legacy and body of work that I am proud of and that will hopefully stand the test of time. I'd rather die poor and credible, than rich with a pile of crappy commercial films to my name.

If you are given the opportunity, would you be interested in producing other forms of animation, such as hand drawn or computer generated animation?

Sadly, I am a self-obsessed and selfish artist who only wants to make films I write and direct myself. Perhaps I'm an egomaniac, even a megalomaniac! I can't stand sitting in front of a computer for long periods and feel a constant need to use my hands. It is a primeval urge I have to 'make' things. Sculpting blobs of clay is very cathartic and meditative. I'm a very tactile and tangible person. I think if I lived a hundred years ago I'd be a cobbler or blacksmith. Maybe a whittler perhaps?

Ernie Drinks Beer.jpg

What advice do you have for aspiring animators who want to make stop motion animation?

Be prepared for a very long and often thankless journey. As my mother says .... 'Good things take time, it's quality not quality and it's hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys'! Stopmo studios are extremely rare, especially in Australia and so consider creating your own company and becoming self-employed. There is nothing more satisfying as an artist to have total creative freedom and creative control. I think all animators are control freaks to some degree and love to play God.  Above all, remember short filmmaking is not necessarily a stepping stone to making a feature - it is an art form in its own right. 

Ernie and Koala.jpg

Let's talk a little about your earlier films. What impact did winning the Oscar for Harvie Krumpet have on your career?

It was a bit of a shock; I certainly had no plans or aspirations for winning an Oscar. I just make one film at a time and hope the world enjoys my stories when they are finally all baked. I believe in doing just one thing at a time and doing it well. I'm not much good at anything else. My father was an acrobatic clown and so I think my job in life is to entertain my fellow man like he did. The world is a pretty horrible place and so we need entertainers and storytellers to make our shorts lives on this crazy planet more bearable. Awards are like nice bottles of wine; they make you feel good for a few hours, but the 'glow' eventually wears off.

A lot of people love Mary And Max, your only feature film to date. When can audiences expect to see another feature from you?

I have just started writing my next feature. When I was at film school twenty years ago, I set myself the task of making a trilogy of trilogies before I die. Uncle, Cousin and Brother were the first trilogy. Harvie Krumpet and Ernie Biscuit are forming the next trilogy and Mary And Max is the first of my feature trilogy. If my maths is correct, I still have two features and a short to go. Once I have made my nine films, I might consider a new career. I've always wanted to be a vet. Let's see what unfolds!

What can you tell our readers about your new feature at this stage?

Sadly, my new feature is still just random thoughts and ideas bobbing around and bumping into each other in my head. I will slowly start to squeeze them out onto paper. I never know where my characters and stories are going to take me. It's always terrifying beginning a new screenplay, but once I've started, I love the process despite the loneliness, frustration and blocks that come to visit.

Flower in Window.jpg

You can find out more about Adam Elliot and his work on his official website
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