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An Interview with Elliot Cowan, director of ‘The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead’

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews


Today on Skwigly we meet New York-based Australian director/animator/illustrator Elliot Cowan, whose first dabblings in the animation world came about during his studies at Victoria College of the Arts, after which he moved to Tasmania for the subsequent decade working on local television commercials. Following an eighteen-month stint working for Uli Meyer in London, Elliot relocated to New York where he has kept himself busy through teaching, freelance animation and independent directing.
His most ambitious indie project is the feature film The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead, developed from an earlier book pitch that later took shape as an online webseries, shorts from which would make the official selections of festivals worldwide including Annecy, Melbourne International Animation Festival, ITFS Stuttgart, Ottawa International Animation Festival, Pictoplasma, Edinburgh International Film Festival and KLIK! amongst many others. The unusual world of the feature film sees its two leads jettisoned from their demolished country home and into the big city. Since its completion in 2014 the film has screened internationally at festivals such as Fantoche, Holland Animation Film Festival and Golden Kukor, winning Best Feature Film at Expotoons International Film Festival.
Playing this week at ASIFA East with an upcoming UK screening in February, we spoke with Elliot Cowan to learn more about the film’s unique style, aftermath and the atypical funding circumstances that helped get it off the ground.

How have you found your freelance career since moving to New York?

I’ve done lots of really good stuff since I’ve been in the US. I just turned 41 and I must admit that there’s less work for anyone who’s been through the traps and knows all the routine and is slightly less green and pliable (laughs) so I mostly I teach these days, but there are a couple of studios I still do a lot of work with.

At what point did that itch to do your own films/shorts rear its head?

I took advantage of my downtime in London – because I wasn’t working full-time – and just started making shorts out of these Boxhead and Roundhead cartoons that I had designed originally as a book package that no-one wanted to publish. I wasn’t finished with them so I persisted with them and I started making shorts that got some festival love. Then the opportunity came to make the feature and I took it and I made it!

How did that opportunity present itself?

It’s a monumentally uninteresting story, but I’ll tell you. I had put my shorts online and a chap in LA, a producer, called me and said “What are you doing with these Boxhead and Roundhead characters?” And I said “I dunno, why?” – because I’ve spent a long time working in TV, so I’m very leery of anyone who calls themselves a producer, or anyone corporate in any way. He said “Well I think there’s potential for them, what would you like to do?”, “I dunno, maybe a feature one day?” So I went away and wrote a couple of drafts of a script, then a year later I went back to him and said “Well here’s a script that I wrote, but no one in America is gonna give me money to make this film”. He said “No, no, we’ll find someone!” Then about a year later he came back to me and said “No one in America is gonna give you money for this. But I have some Romanians who will”! So basically the feature was funded by the Romanian government’s office of film and television.

bandrWere there any other streams of funding?

The whole production was five years but animation production itself was two, so I took a wage for about a year and a bit, maybe a little less. We paid two other animators, I got some favours from some friends who stepped in to help and at the university where I teach, my students got a free credit if they interned over the summer, so I had a bunch of them helping me out with stuff there. Basically whoever wanted to help me helped me.

Did the budgetary concessions play any part in determining the visual style of the film?

To some extent, yes. The Romanian deadline was November 2014, so after I gave it to them I actually revisited it quite a bit. I re-animated certain scenes, but when you’re trying to teach and you’re trying to freelance and you’re trying to get a film done at the same time, at some point you have to say “The film ends now, this is where it’s finished and I have to start putting it out there”. So what mainly would have been different if I’d had more money was that I wouldn’t have been the one trying to do everything, trying to get it into festivals and make packages and posters for festivals. All this stuff that ends up being quite important but goes by the wayside when you have no money. The fact that you are the one doing everything is the hardest part, and eventually you get sick of doing it – it doesn’t help the film that you can’t be bothered filling out more paperwork for more festivals, for example!

From your experience, what sense of distribution options are available for indie feature animators?

This is the sense that I got – I have made a very small film, a little rough around the edges, so not necessarily a film that is immediately going to scream “Put me in cinemas right now and everyone will flock to see it”, which I completely recognise. So what we were being offered were kind of broad strokes – iTunes, Amazon, that kind of stuff. I think what happens is people see it’s an animated film, so they think there’s a built-in market for young people, it’s a product that they can use to make money for themselves, so I don’t think they really are interested in your film, they’re just interested in what they can make out of it – which is fine, it’s their job.
When it comes to options, it’s very hard to say. With my pal Tomm Moore, for example, I think if you’re a ‘name’, a person who people know has had a couple of Oscar nominations and you know how to make a reasonably small budget look sexy as hell, that’s a little different, but when you’re just the guy who needed to make a film, who does not necessarily have a real fanbase, I think it’s different.

In terms of the overall charater dynamic, did Boxhead and Roundhead significantly develop/differ from their picture book origins by the time the film came around?

They’re not exactly the same, but they’re similar. They don’t speak in the shorts, they actually spoke to each other in the books that I’d written but at the time I had no facility to record dialogue so I abandoned it. They were influenced by Winnie the Pooh and A.A. Milne; if you pay attention you’ll probably hear a little of that in the dialogue there, those conversations that Pooh and Piglet have – I don’t want to say I’ve borrowed from them but I’ve definitely been influenced by those. Originally they were two very frightened characters that lived in this world where everybody hates them, but they did develop over time. One thing I was always trying very hard to avoid is, when you have the bossy character and the simple character, everything falls to being Ren and Stimpy. I tried very hard to make sure it was not that relationship, that instead they were very close, they needed each other and that it was a genuine friendship, not this crazy-angry/dum-dum situation

The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead (Dir. Elliot Cowan)

The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead (Dir. Elliot Cowan)

The feature boasts an interesting mix of styles, especially when it comes to the character animation. Was this always part of the Boxhead and Roundhead universe?

No, although I figured it was gonna happen because, for example, I knew Amanda Bautista – who animated the boss character Lars, has this very fluid, slippy style I knew she’d put on to that, and Lyla (Ribot) I had a feeling would go with pretty straightforward Flash-based which gave her character a little more of a UPA feel. It wasn’t on purpose but if you’ve only got $80,000 you have to come to terms with the fact you’re not gonna make Toy Story 3, it’s gonna be this other thing. Ultimately it’s the film that matters, how it all comes together. I don’t think anyone, except animation people, particularly care if one character’s designed differently than another.
(Production designer) Neil Ross did a lot of my backgrounds and I think that they really do make the rest of it look rather sexier than I had intended, so that was a help too! He did the backgrounds for the jungle and the city and that kind of wrapped up the majority of the film.

What is your own process for the character animation of the main characters?

Boxhead and Roundhead themselves are animated in After Effects, using an extremely time-consuming method of animating masks, basically. All the other characters were done in Toon Boom and Flash. Lots of Photoshop and lots of After Effects compositing.

What would you say were the major differences to your production process and that of a traditional production pipeline?

I don’t think it deviated a lot at all, other than I think that, in animation, there is an awful lot to be said for having all of the people who are working on the film in the same space. Something is lost when you don’t have that, and that is the only difference, that it was done in Queens and in Philadelphia and New Jersey and Camden and wherever else we could find people to work on it. I’ve directed lots of commercials and, generally speaking, I treated Boxhead and Roundhead very similarly: “We’ve got a small amount of time and money, what is the cleanest route from A to Z?”

It’s interesting to note that a lot of directors who have taken on the daunting task of an independent animated feature – Bill Plympton, Nina Paley, Don Hertzfeldt, Signe Baumane – have, like yourself, done so whilst based in New York. Is there something in the water there?

I don’t know exactly what it is, but I will say with New York there is often a built-in audience for a lot of what you’re doing, and a built-in enthusiasm for what you’re doing, because Americans are generally more of an enthusiastic people! Bill Plympton, for example, is a character who’s known in New York so if he’s making something in New York then he’s got a built-in audience, to some extent. Signe (Baumane) is kind of in a similar position, plus as far as the animation community in New York goes, a lot of us tend to move in the same circles, where even though you might be an independent you still do some commercial work, and if you’re working in a commercial studio you spend a lot of time going to see independent animation. I have a feeling that may have something to do with it. It’s possibly also a little competitive – it’s a feather in your cap, to have made a feature, and New Yorkers are a competitive bunch, so that may have something to do with it as well.

So overall would you say that making the feature was a positive experience?

It depends on what time of the day you catch me! Sometimes I hate it so much and I wonder why I spent all this time on it, then I get like another five festival rejections and I’m like Oh God kill me, this is unbearable -and then it’ll get into a festival and I’ll get a bunch of emails saying “We love this film, it’s great!” and then I’m like “YAY! I’m so talented and clever, I feel great about myself now!” Then I try and get some enthusiasm for it from folks, and if I don’t get a lot I’m back to killing myself.

The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead will screen 7pm today at ASIFA East, New York’s School of Visual Arts (USA), on Saturday 13th February 3pm at the Animex International Festival of Animation and Computer Games in Teeside (UK), in March at Queens World Film Festival (USA) and in April at Drawtastic in Seattle (USA).
For more on the work of Elliot Cowan visit his website at elliotelliotelliot.com

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