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Animation in Australia

George Miller at the Happy Feet 2 premier in Sydney, November 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Animated films allow audiences to go beyond the realistic world to an out-of-world experience based on sound and visual art forms. Animation has unique strengths in exploring metaphors and creating larger than life characters. In Australia, this has led to animation being popular with political cartoonists and comedy writers, as well as animators musing on personal relationships, the environment and the place of the individual in a world of thought and dreams. For nearly one hundred years, Australian animators have contributed to the world of animated film.

Australian animation is internationally recognised across both short and also feature length animation films: Leisure (1976), Harvie Krumpet (2003) and The Lost Thing (2010) have all won Oscars for Best Animated Short Film. Happy Feet won the Best Animated Feature in 2006. The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005), was the winner of the Grand Prix at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

Animation is a broad category that includes works made in a variety of methods and styles. Originally animation relied upon character design as well as drawing each movement frame by frame (needing 24 hand-drawn frames with incremental changes for a one second motion). Today there are still character designers but animators generally employ digital processes that allows traditional techniques such as watercolour and oils to be applied using digital tools, texture mapping or a computer-generated graphic or 3D models, lighting effects, camera movements and other special effects and animation methods.

The Australian film Leisure (1976) employs cell style animation whilst the first Australian animation to compete at Cannes Film Festival; Pleasure Domes (1987) reflects the strengths of animating from watercolours and pencil images on paper. Happy Feet features computer generated 3D animation. Adam Elliott’s Harvie Krumpet is made using the method of stop-motion claymation, as did his feature film, Mary and Max (2009), utilising custom software and digital technologies in combination with the world’s oldest film form.

Animation in the Silent Era 1910s–1920s

Pat Sullivan, Felix the Cat Cartoon Strips. Courtesy of the State Library of NSW: pxd946.

Predecessors of animation have been popular since the 1800s. However it was during the silent era of cinema that animation truly captured the attention of audiences.

Newspaper cartoonist Harry Julius is recognised as Australia's first animator. He produced the Cartoons of the Moment series which commented on topical events and newsreels of the time (watch a clip from Cartoons of the Moment – The War Zoo, 1915).

One of the most popular animated characters from the silent era was Felix the Cat. Felix cartoons were made in the United States, but were produced by the Australian Pat Sullivan. Felix and his surreal antics were wildly popular during the 1920s (watch the Felix cartoon All Balled Up). However with the introduction of sound to the cinema, the silent Felix's popularity fell and was overtaken by more vocal characters such as Disney's Mickey Mouse (follow the links to watch Mickey Mouse's first sound cartoon Steamboat Willie).

Animation in the Sound Era 1940s–1950s

Eric Porter Productions, Aeroplane Fruit Jellies Advertisement Bertie the Aeroplane, 1942. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

In the sound era, animation production was dominated by Warner Bros and Disney studios. The expense and labour intensiveness of making animation meant that many more animations were imported into Australia than produced locally. However there were some notable animators that persevered despite the difficulty.

Eric Porter, an AFI award winner (PDF 30KB), produced many animated works during this period. His production company made a number of animated shorts not - unlike those of Warner Bros such as the theatrical cartoon Bimbo's Auto in 1954. He is also responsible for iconic Aeroplane Jelly Advertisements, including the 1942 Bertie the Aeroplane.

Television animation 1950s–1970s

Air Programs International, King Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table, 1972. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

In the late 1950's television was introduced in Australia. It wasn't long before TV became the principal medium of animation. The new genre of 'Saturday Morning Cartoons' was dominated by the US production company Hanna Barbera. Australian animators contributed to various Hanna Barbera cartoons as the company had a production company in Sydney.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has long been a supporter of children's programming. This has included broadcasting and assisting to produce various animated programs. ABC's Kindergarten Playtime (1959) was Australia's first children's education program and one of the first programs to feature animation. Continuing their pioneering role, the ABC screened the Australian stop motion animation, Wambidgee, in 1962. The black and white series followed the adventures of an Aboriginal boy and his tribe.

Air Programs International was an Australian animation studio that had world-wide success with their animated series King Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table (1972). It was syndicated in the U.S. by Twentieth Century Fox and sold to 14 countries.

Feature length animation 1970s–1980s

Yoram Gross, Dot and the Kangaroo, 1977. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Walt Disney produced the first feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. In 1972 Eric Porter produced and directed Australia's first feature-length animated film, Marco Polo Junior Versus the Red Dragon. However, it wasn't until forty years after the release of Snow White that an Australian feature-length animated film was recognised on the world stage.

Yoram Gross produced the iconic Dot and the Kangaroo in 1977. The film used live action backgrounds of the Australian bush, with cell-style characters animated over the top. The film was hugely successful internationally and spawned a number of follow-up films such as Dot and the Koala (1985) and Dot and the Whale (1986).

A vehicle for big picture thoughts – theatrical releases – 1970s–2001

Political cartoonists were early innovators in animation. exploring both political life and also social issues in short animated films, based initially on their cartoons as works on paper. Animating from drawings and paper to build metaphors that could explore music, romance, personal relationships and a sense of self in the landscape was a strength of animation captured by some award-winning women animators.

Michael Leunig, How Democracy Actually Works, 2001.

Peter Nicholson, a cartoonist, produced a regular series for the ABC and News Centre Nine during the 1970s using a 16mm Bolex camera and homemade animation stand. His 1974 productions Fraser’s Leadership Challenge and Gough’s World Tour satirises Billy Snedden’s leadership claims on the assumption of Malcolm Fraser’s challenge and other political leaders: Gough Whitlam, Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Bob Hawke.  Nicholson went on to produce the popular animation Rubbery Figures (1987–88) series in the late 1980s.

Leisure, produced in 1976 by Suzanne Baker using cartoons by Australian newspaper cartoonist Bruce Petty is a fast-paced, humorous and thought-provoking film. The film emphasises the use of leisure time as an important aspect of life in our society today. After its success at the Oscars as Best Animated Short Film , it went on to theatrical release with screenings at the Paramount Theatre in New York and  many international Film Festivals

A popular success at the box office, Pianoforte (1984) was described by its creator Antoinette Starkiewicz as ‘a fairytale about love’. A lighthearted film utilising music and dance, the film tells the story of a young woman who is rescued from a sleazy cabaret by a mysterious cat burglar with whom she falls in love. Pianoforte, a 2D hand-drawn cel animation, also featured in Perspecta ’85 at the Art Gallery of NSW.

In the first Australian animation to compete at Cannes Film Festival – Pleasure Domes (1987) – director Maggie Fooke utilises the strength of animation in abstraction and metaphor to look at the perception of landscape. Fookes’ water colour and pencil images cross-fade and blend with hand-coloured historical photographs creating ‘a fluid, shifting evocation of a St Kilda infused with thoughts of other times and places’.

Tiga, 1987, animation directed by Lucinda Clutterbuck.

Based on documentary footage shot in Hobart, Tasmania in the 1930s, Lucinda Clutterbuck’s film Tiga relies upon 2D animation using mixed media on cel and paper, utilising paint markers, a reprographic camera and rotoscoping (where photographs are traced by the animator and hand coloured). An animated eulogy to the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger, Tiga won the Asia Pacific Award for Best Animation had a cinema release at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Some whimsical but thought provoking animations in the 1980s included The Maitland and Morpeth String Quartet (1989) a tale of music and romance, narrated by Ruth Cracknell and set amidst the Great Maitland Flood of 1955.  

Ada (2001) illustrates Lee Whitmore’s preference for making autobiographical films focusing on her childhood and family, using the traditional technique of drawing or painting on paper. Set in a domestic dining room in Sydney over a number of years in the mid-1950s, Ada portrays a young girl’s observation of her elderly grandmother’s nightly ritual of shelling peas.

In the same year, Kathy Smith’s animated short film Indefinable Moods is a journey through a vividly coloured Australian landscape. A series of images – both abstract shapes and representational objects – appear and metamorphose. Sarah Watt’s animation, Living with Happiness handles imagined and real disasters with a light touch – the mother (voiced by Sigrid Thornton) ridicules her own fears that happiness and life itself may be snatched away at any moment.

Television animation 1980s–1990s

Anthony Lawrence, Plasmo, 1997. Courtesy of December Media.

Locally produced television animation was rare in Australia in the 1980s; production was dominated by the U.S. company Hanna Barbera. A notable exception to this is Kaboodle (1988–1989) a children's series that featured clips of both live action and animation and was screened by the ABC.

In 1991, Australian company Roo films produced The Dinky Di's, a children's animated action series. The Dinky Di's rescued rare and endangered animals and birds from 'the planet's number one eco-enemy – Mephisto'. This was a prelude to the Blinky Bill productions.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Yoram Gross Film Studios (see above) continued to release animated feature films culminating with the film Blinky Bill in 1992. The studio based its first animated television series on the Blinky Bill film. The series was successful both in Australia and internationally. More than 50 half hour episodes were produced. (Watch clips from a Blinky Bill episode).

Yoram Gross Film Studios has maintained its production of television series, which include titles such as Tabaluga (1997, 2001) and Flipper & Lopaka (1999, 2001). Many of the studio's animations share the environmental themes of Dot and the Kangaroo and maintain a cell style (rather than computer generated) appearance. (Watch clips from Tabaluga and Flipper & Lopaka).

The ABC screened a number of Yoram Gross animations as well as other animated series including The Dreaming (1995) a series of 78 short animations of Aboriginal dreamtime stories, the stop motion animation Plasmo (1997) about a shape shifting alien, and Li'l Elvis and the Truckstoppers (1997) about a young reincarnation of Elvis in the outback.

Animation in the Digital Era 2000–

Digital technology has had a huge influence on how animation is produced and how it looks. The technology has made animation production less labour and resource intensive. It's unsurprising then, that many Australian animators have adopted the method. It has also added a wow factor to other feature films contributing to their box-office success.  The Australian film Babe, for example, is a combination of live and computer animated effects, and it became a huge hit worldwide as a film about survival – of a talking pig in a live action film.

Television

Blue Rocket Productions, Hoota and Snoz, 2000. Courtesy of ABC Kids.

Hoota and Snoz (2000) is arguably Australia's first totally computer generated animated series. The episodes are shorts (rather than half hour episodes) and feature two characters that constantly compete, with the yellow character, Snoz, coming out best.

The Tasmanian based company, Blue Rocket, produced Hoota and Snoz and in partnership with the ABC their series Dog and Cat News (2002) was broadcast on television and is available online. In 2006 Rocket Productions developed a 26-part animated series based on the character Pixel Pinkie about a digital being named Pixel Pinkie who lives inside Nina’s new mobile phone.  Series One (2007) and Series Two (2009) were produced in conjunction with Channel Nine, Film Tasmania, Film Finance Corporation and Daro Film Corporation.

The first half hour length computer generated series produced in Australia was The Shapies in 2003. The series follows the adventures of The Shapies, a rock band whose members each resemble a different geometric shape. The episodes feature musical numbers performed by the fictional band.

Flying Bark Productions, Enyo. Image courtesy of Flying Bark Productions.

A number of Australian series combine live action and digital animation including Crash Zone (1998) and Noah and Saskia (2004).

In 2006, Flying Bark Productions Pty Ltd was established as a joint venture with EM Entertainment, then with Belgian company Studio 100 in 2008, after being established by Yoram and Sandra Gross in 1968. Since their 1977 feature film, Dot and the Kangaroo they produced another 14 feature films before diversifying into making animated television shows. Zeke's Pad was the winner of the 2009 Alana award for Best Animation in a TV series, shown on Channel Seven.  Zeke is a creative and talented artist who has an electronic drawing pad that is ‘totally – mysteriously – WIRED,,,,whatever Zeke draws comes to life.  Flying Bark have also produced The Woodlies, Dive Olly Dive and the Legend of Enyo.

Short film animation

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (2005, 26 minutes), an Oscar nominee and winner of the Grand Prix at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival,  uses a unique style of silhouette animation developed by Anthony Lucas, the film's director.

Skilfully combining 2D and 3D animation techniques, the film conveys an imaginary world containing both Victorian and futuristic elements whilst its compelling story recalls the nineteenth century adventure tales of Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe.
Marian Quigley, Curator's notes, Screen Australia

Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing.

In 2009-10, Australian Shaun Tan created The Lost Thing, a 15-minute computer generated and hand painted short movie which began as a picture book. The story is set in Melbourne and is about a boy who, while collecting bottle caps near a beach, discovers a strange creature that seems to be a combination of an industrial boiler, a crab and an octopus. It won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2010. Tan was involved in the project as a director, writer, designer and artist, working with a core team of four other creators in a Melbourne-based studio to develop the layers of images and sound required for animation.

The vast majority of time has been invested in the careful building, texturing and lighting of digital elements to create a unique aesthetic that avoids the artificiality of CG objects; almost every surface is essentially hand-painted using non-digital materials: acrylic paint, pencil, oils and collage.
Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing

Feature film animation

Live action films have long used computer generated animation for special effects. However, Pixar's Toy Story, released in 1995, was the first fully computer generated feature length film. Another later Pixar film, Finding Nemo (2003), featured Australian voices and locations such as Sydney Harbour and the Great Barrier Reef. However it was not until Happy Feet (2006) that an Australian (co)produced feature-length digital animation attracted international acclaim.

Happy Feet is a technical achievement. It is highly detailed visually, some shots contain thousands of independently animated penguins. The film used motion capture technology to record the movements of dancers and directly translated them into the movements of the animated penguins.

Adam Elliot, Mary and Max, 2009.

$9.99 (2008) is a feature length stop motion animation 'which offers slightly less than $10 worth about the meaning of life'.

Harvie Krumpet director Adam Elliot has a feature length claymation entitled Mary & Max (2009), black comedy-drama film about a lonely eight year old girl Mary, living in the suburbs of Melbourne who corresponds  at random with Max, an overweight depressive in his 40's living in New York, suffering from Aspergers Syndrome. A friendship is born as the pair exchange letters over the next 20 years, offering each other support, advice and the chance to see life through another set of eyes.

While the world is painted in gloomy hues of brown and grey and the characters lead bleak lives, the genius of the script is that the characters never wallow or feel sorry for themselves. The tone is kept humorous and balanced allowing us to be moved by the characters as they stumble through life but also laugh at their foibles and observations of the world they struggle to fit into.
IMDb, Mary and Max, review

Do-it-yourself digital animation

The Zimmer Twins

The Zimmer Twins, 2007. Courtesy of Lost the Plot and ABC Kids.

The advance of digital technology has led to an explosion of animation production. There many easily accessible programs available and the internet provides an ideal means of sharing the animation works. Flash is a popular and easily accessible program that can be used to create animation. (Watch flash Australian animations by Peter Nicholson of The Australian newspaper and flash animations by the Australia/New Zealand web production company Nectarine.

There are even easier ways to create your own animations. For example Lost the Plot in association with ABC's Rollercoaster encourages children to make their own animation online at the Zimmer Twins website.

Future of animation in Australia

Australia can expect many new locally developed animated works on television, computer and cinema screens. There are also countless new animated works available to watch online.

Animation industry representation

Since 2004, the Screen Producers Association of Australia has promoted its Animation & New Media Division. In 2008 a group under the banner of the Australian Directors' Guild called for formal representation of animators within Screen Australia. One of the primary aims of the group is to see an animation project officer appointed by Screen Australia. Other aims include redefining the role of the producer in animation, increasing the number of screens and other viewing platforms for Australian animation and increasing recognition of the role of animation in all film genres.

Today Screen Australia supports the production of short animation as a means of career progression for leading emerging animation talent, with particular emphasis on the director with short animation production funding available for production teams, as part of its talent escalator program.

The international animation festival (MIAF) at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, was the centre of the international animation universe in June 2012. Australian entries ranged over recent graduate showcases to artist Lee Whitmore’s animation – drawing on her body of short personal works based on original works in pastel –  and script writer Tristian Taylor’s work, who wrote the script (and contributed one of the voices) for Flamingo Pride, a German film in competition at MIAF

Useful links

Happy Feet

George Miller, Happy Feet, 2006. Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.

Listen, look and play

Watch clips from:

Watch animations with political commentary:

Animation films sites

Television animation websites

Demonstration of animation making

Explore the creative and technical processes behind ShaunTan’s The Lost Thing:

Explore the creative and technical processes behind Mary and Max:

Make your own animation with the Zimmer Twins

Archives and Collections

History of animation

Learning resources

Kids' resources

Industry information and associations

Select Australian animators and production companies

Events

Education / courses in animation

Last updated: 15 June 2012
Creators: Shevaun O'Neill, Kathryn Wells

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