Harvie Krumpet, Adam Elliot's fourth animated short film, has been garnering audience affection, critical praise and major awards all over the world. Harvie Krumpet just won the biggest award of them all, an Oscar, as the first Australian animated short film nominated for an Academy Award since 1977 (note: this interview was done before the Oscar win).
Adam, through his signature mix of comedy and pathos, carries us through the upside-down and back-to-front turns of Harvie's unusual, imaginative and imaginary life. Continuing the themes of the intriguing outsider that Adam explored in his previous trilogy of short films - Uncle, Cousin, Brother - Harvie Krumpet is his most endearing character to date.
Adam speaks to Sarah Runcie, AFC Film Development Administration Officer, about the process of creating the world of Harvie Krumpet. Susan Danta, Information Officer - Marketing Unit, speaks to Adam about Harvie's incredible success in the festival circuit.
SR: What attracts you to telling stories using the technique of animation? What has been your training as an animator?
AE: I have drawn, as far back as I can remember, and fall into some sort of satisfying meditative bliss when I doodle and scribble my wobbly pictures onto a page. My little plasticine blobby characters are an extension of this and it is a thrill to watch them 'come alive' through the magic of cinema. Storytelling using animation, I think, also has an edge over storytelling using live action, because the audience automatically suspend their disbelief. They know straight away that what they are seeing is not real and need less convincing to participate with the story they are about to be told.
I studied animation at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1996 and completed the one-year postgraduate diploma. A lot of my model-making skills have been self-taught however I owe a great deal to the guidance and advice of Robert Stephenson and Darren Burgess. Sarah Watt was also a fantastic influence at the VCA, helping me understand the importance of a good script.
SR: What is your process as a writer/animation director? What part does the medium of claymation play in the development of your script? Do you think of characters first and then develop incident and then story or do you work from specific imagery?
AE: I suppose I have an unconventional way of creating my films, but then I suppose all animators create their works differently. Of course I start with a very polished and detailed script way before I sketch or mould any figures. With Harvie I spent three months full-time writing almost 14 drafts of the script. I deliberate and ponder every word till the point of obsession. A finely tuned script is paramount and I am constantly amazed at how many animators forget this. I think, write and even dream in plasticine. I memorise the narration so I can recall the script at any place and any time; playing with timing and rhythm until my instincts tell me a sequence is working. When I begin with a script I plough through my detailed notebooks, which contain my observations of human behaviour. I never stare at a blank screen and if I feel writer's block approaching, I jump on a tram and study the people and places around me. I have developed so many ideas sitting on the number 96 from St Kilda! I never obsess with plot and start with the detail and work backwards. I know what ingredients I want in my films and then find a way to string them all together into potent and vivid vignettes.
SR: What inspired Harvie Krumpet?
AE: Harvie has been in my head for over 10 years and I am so glad he is out. All my films deal with difference; people who are afflicted or marginalised. I am interested in people who don't seem to fit in; the underdogs and the forgotten. I am far more interested in the little old man gluing up a billboard of Tom Cruise's new film than the image of Tom Cruise. Harvie is an amalgamation of many people I know. My cub scout leader had a steel plate in his head which fascinated me endlessly. I just had to make that a component of Harvie. Ultimately I wanted to make Harvie universal and an archetype - somebody who everyone can identify and empathise with. There is a lot of myself in Harvie and I'm sure everyone can see a bit of themselves in him too.
SR: Your particular style of storytelling involves a great deal of omniscient narrator voiceover. What appeals to you as a writer in using so much narration? What relationship does it set-up between characters and audience?
AE: I love using a narrator to tell a person's biography on film. It's the invisible person sitting behind you in the cinema, whispering to you over your shoulder. I try and make my films seem as if you are flicking through a photo album. The difference is that the photos move slightly. I try and make my characters as mute as possible and let them engage with the audience in silence. I make them stare directly at you as much as possible. I try and make my films as 'cosy' as possible; as if we are all sitting around a campfire together listening to a story we may have heard a thousand times. I always try and remember when I am directing my narrators, that a whisper can gather more attention than a scream.
SR: Harvie seems to have a lot that happens to him rather than action that is from his own volition. What were the risks involved in developing a story arc in the case of a central character who is for the first half of the film seemingly passive?
AE: Harvie definitely seems to have a lot done to him: in a way he is 'done over'. I think this part of his psyche directly relates to myself. I have felt that I have been somewhat of a passive observer my whole life. I tend to stand back and not get involved. Ultimately what I am trying to say through Harvie's journey is that life is partly about fate and partly about what you make it: 'Carpe diem'. Some days we feel like we are in control and steering the ship, other days we are on a train heading God knows where! I never worry about plot, structure, arcs or other 'filmy' principles. A good story, well told, will always keep an audience engaged, whether a film goes for one minute or four hours.
SR: The story seems to subvert audience expectations so consistently. What comment is this on the notion of fate that you refer to in that important turning point in the story when Harvie is contemplating ending it all?
AE: Harvie struggles constantly with what it is to be human. He is always looking for answers and, like us all, has moments when everything seems so clear and the secret of life seems obvious. I wanted to suppress immediately his enlightened notion that life is completely what you make it, by striking him down with testicular cancer. No matter how earnest we may be with shaping our lives, none of us can avoid totally the unfairness of life's horrible dealings. Endless amounts of positive thinking and wheatgrass shots can never fully protect you from such things as cancer or being struck by lightning.
SR: There is an interesting, and perhaps one could term a 'very Adam Elliot', balance of light and dark elements in Harvie Krumpet that is also apparent in your earlier work. It is a very funny film and yet there are Nazi invasions, death, suicide and lightning strikes. How would you describe your own sensibility - ironic, absurdist - and how does this relate to the positioning of your omniscient narrator?
AE: No-one's life is completely fabulous, full of laughs and good fortune. Nor is even the most tragic life void of even the tiniest moment of humour. Life is, of course, a mix of highs and lows, some get more, others get less. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what quantities of each we get. We can only hope for the best and struggle on. I try and make my characters as real as possible and so naturally I present their journeys as a mix of comedy and tragedy; humour and pathos. All our lives are full of contradictions and absurdity from one time or another. Why should my little blobs of plasticine be any different? Why can't I create a plasticine character that is thalidomide? So many animated characters lack depth and emotional dimension.
SR: All your films are like single character portraits. What interests you in concentrating on one character so intensely and yet counterbalancing with a narrator?
AE: I am a practicing minimalist and my favourite word is simplicity. It is my mantra and I had it written on a mirror in my studio when we shot Harvie. So much animation is cluttered with colour and movement. I think many animators are showing off their skills and in a way we have to experience their visual masturbations. The problem with short films is that they are so short! You don't have much time to develop a multitude of characters and so I think it is much more sensible to concentrate on just one and cram as much information about their psyche as you can. You have to hook your audience in as quickly as possible and get them to know your character so they can empathise. A narrator is also a great aid and device to help detail your character as quickly and as eloquently as possible. Keep it simple and keep it focused.
SR: What is the function of 'fakts' in Harvie Krumpet? They have a structural function as a kind of repeated punctuation. They are not direct comment necessarily on action. Often they are like funny asides. In another way, they are like the random circumstances that the world deals out to Harvie. Is there an irony implied that Harvie is himself so outside any category of conventional experience and yet seeks to define his own experience with a term like 'fact' which is so much a part of the canon of conventional education? Is this why they are 'fakts' rather than 'facts'?
AE: Wow what a question! Firstly, Harvie can't spell and that's why 'fakts' is spelt that way. I have deliberately made spelling mistakes on the fact cards that appear throughout the film, to highlight Harvie's difficulties with coming to another country, learning a new language and trying to assimilate. This, I think, makes him more endearing. I have written them in his handwriting as they would appear in his book. 'Facts' to Harvie are a way for him to somehow comprehend the oddness of the world around him. I am obsessed with facts myself and have a record of all my favourites. Harvie's facts come directly from my own fact book. I also enjoyed making up some new ones, particularly the final one in the film; 'Life is like a cigarette, smoke it to the Butt'. I would love to be remembered for this one when I die!
SR: What direction are you going with your work?
AE: I truly enjoy writing, directing and animating claymated biographies, so naturally the projects we have in the pipeline are of a similar flavour to the trilogy and Harvie. We are waiting to see how we will go at the Oscars and will be heading over there with an open mind and see what offers come our way if any! I also have a kid's book I have been writing for almost eight years, which I hope to illustrate with plasticine figures sometime soon.
SD: You have had an incredible rate of success at local and international festivals. How far ahead do you plan the marketing strategy for your films?
AE: We do not do too much forward planning. You really have to test the waters for about six months to see what countries and festivals like the film. You soon get a good idea and then throw all your resources into distribution. My first film Uncle, made in 1996, is still doing the festival circuit, which surprises me! I think animation has a much greater shelf life than live-action films. Universal appeal and a sense of timelessness to your film will definitely give it longevity. I have to admit I am a festival junkie and have entered over 600 festivals.
SD: Congratulations on being nominated for an Oscar! Did you plan your festival strategy with this as your aim? How did you structure the marketing plan for Harvie Krumpet?
AE: I never make my films specifically for any festival or any specific market. This may sound a bit pretentious, but I make my films for everybody, everywhere. In a way we have just been lucky with the Oscar. Harvie just happens to fulfil all the criteria that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members like. The film is not too obscure, risqué, long or difficult to consume. Harvie is Jewish, an immigrant and overcomes his struggles to a degree; all factors Americans seem to relish! My producer, Melanie Coombs, organised the marketing plan for Harvie. This is the first time I have worked with a producer so I don't know as much of the plan as I do with the trilogy which I self-produced.
SD: What has been your experience at local and international festivals, particularly as a director of animated films?
AE: Festivals are tremendous fun, hard work and make your liver work overtime. They are very varied but always incredibly intense. For about a week you are thrown together with filmmakers from all around the world. You make very good friends very quickly and talk shop nearly every waking moment. They can be incredibly inspiring, nourishing and, at times, life changing. I have not had a proper holiday since 1996, but have been to dozens of festivals around the world, which I consider far more hedonistic than lying on any beach! From Estonia to LA, I have met some of my heroes and favourite filmmakers, some of which have become very good friends. I often say that going to animation festivals in particular is like being an albino. You feel very alone and isolated as a claymator here in Australia, but at a festival such as Annecy, you may be in a room with dozens of other claymators, or 'albinos'!
SD: In your experience, what have been the distribution options for your short animated films?
AE: Fully financed short films, unfortunately, very rarely break even or make a profit. Even if we win an Oscar, it will still be a long time before sales of Harvie accrue to the cost of making it. Harvie cost almost $400,000, which is still a minimal amount. We have two international distributors - Monster distributes in Ireland and AtomFilms in the US. They each have the rights to sell the film in specific territories. They manage theatrical, broadcast and online distribution. We also have a DVD distribution deal with Madman entertainment here in Australia. People often say it is a shame that short films do not get seen but, the reality is, there have never been more avenues to sell short films. I have estimated that my trilogy has been seen by over 20 million people. If only each of them had sent us a dollar for the privilege!
Harvie Krumpet will next be seen on Australian screens in a special double season with the AFC-funded short feature Roy Höllsdotter Live at Cinema Nova (Melbourne) and Dendy Newtown (Sydney) from 19 February. SBS Television will screen Harvie Krumpet in March.
Harvie Krumpet was produced by Melanie Coombs of Melodrama Pictures in association with the Australian Film Commission, SBS and Film Victoria. It is narrated by Geoffrey Rush, and features a voice cameo from Kamahl.