Adam Elliot Goes Big

Adam Elliot has a physical condition that should stop him from being an animator. Just before he picked up his Oscar, his local dole office laughed at the fact he was even nominated. Like his characters though, this talented filmmaker smiles at the odds.

See if you can spot the pattern here. Despite the sweet, life-affirming flourishes of Adam Elliot’s Oscar-winning animated short
Harvie Krumpet, its protagonist is nonetheless struck by Tourette’s syndrome, testicular cancer, and Alzheimer’s Disease. His daughter, Ruby, is left limbless due to thalidomide poisoning. A “fatal goiter” and some very scary nose hair also cameo in the film. To suggest that Elliot’s films are dour, gloom-filled shopping lists of affliction is misleading, and ignores their endearing, humane and often funny qualities. However, it’s hard to overlook that, yes, on top of the physical hard knocks in Harvie Krumpet, the filmmaker’s previous animated shorts include Cousin, where the protagonist suffers from cerebral palsy; Brother, where the main character has a weak eye and asthma; and Uncle, where the wife commits suicide. So is this just all an accident?

Elliot laughs, and says, no. “To me, these are just everyday people. I don’t see them as a subgroup or marginalised. I suppose they’re underdogs, they’re all struggling. But I think we all are.”

“I am drawn to characters. My next film is about a character who is autistic, but they’re all based on real people. My penfriend is autistic and my cousin does have cerebral palsy. I knew someone who had a steel plate in their head, but it wasn’t magnetised [like Harvie Krumpet’s]. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story!”

The 33-year-old filmmaker points out that he doesn’t put in characters simply because they, say, suffer from the effects of thalidomide. For instance, Harvie and his wife Val adopt the limbless Ruby because “they can relate to her” – her identity is about more than her disablement. And, remarks Elliot, Tourette’s Syndrome is really not the major hurdle for Harvie, the former Polish immigrant. “For him, assimilation into Australian society is one of his biggest problems.”

Elliot admits there are shades of himself in the luckless Krumpet. “As a child, nothing terrible ever happened to me, but odd things would happen to me, and my friends would say … ‘If someone’s going to step into dog’s poo, it’s going to be Adam.’”

Which (sort of) brings us to one of the motifs of Elliot’s films – that life is an unpredictable mix of fashioning your own destiny, with fate intervening whenever it feels like. “I have this expression: ‘you can steer your own ship but you can’t avoid the storms’. And I think, it’s great to be passionate and have goals but sometimes things just happen by accident. And Harvie’s life is very similar. Just when he thought he discovered the meaning of life, with carpe diem, in the next shot, he develops testicular cancer.”

There’s also a personal reason for the recurring themes in his films – Elliot has a physiological tremor affecting his nervous system. “I never talked about that for a long time because I never really thought it was important, but then I realised that all my characters have these disorders, and I do too. I inherited it off my mum, and she inherited it off her father. None of my siblings have this problem, but I shake. I can’t carry a drink in my left hand – it shakes so much, it’ll spill. I technically shouldn’t be an animator, you know [laughs]. It’s like being a watch repairer or something. I’ve really chosen a field that’s not suitable for my disorder but it’s something I’ve learned to cope with and I’ve actually incorporated it into my style. That’s why the characters aren’t perfect-looking. I never really thought about it much, I just dealt with it.”

On a practical level, it means the filmmaker keeps his characters big – “Harvie’s almost 30cm high, a lot of other animators work on a much smaller scale” – and his sets minimal. He points that you adjust, even subconsciously. “When I draw, I always have my wrist pressed to the paper. And I never realised I did that, until someone pointed it out. So that was a way for me to cope with the shaking.”

Elliot was born on a horse farm in Berwick, Victoria, and despite early, unrealised aspirations to be a vet, it seemed inevitable he would follow an artistic path. “My grandfather ran a tombstone business for many years and he was a great calligrapher. My father was an acrobatic clown and my brother’s an actor. So it’s in the blood definitely,” he says. “I come from a family of storytellers and our family would always sit around the dining table and tell stories.”

After finishing high school, he deferred from a graphic design course, and ended up successfully running a handpainted T-shirt stall at the St Kilda Esplanade Arts & Crafts Market. “My biggest selling design was a T-shirt called Murray The Tapdancing Dim Sim. I handpainted every single one. I sold 5000 over five years. It was a great lifestyle and I only had to work three or four days a week,” he declares. “But then one Sunday morning, I looked at Neville, who was next to me. Neville sold coffee tables and he’d been there 35 years. And I started to think, ‘is this it? Is this as good as it gets?’”

So Elliot went to the Open Day for the Victorian College of the Arts, and luckily managed to get into a postgraduate animation course there - quite a feat, considering he’d never completed an undergraduate degree. It was during this course that he discovered, by accident, his penchant for claymation. He cemented his moving, tragicomic style with the award-winning shorts Cousin, Brother and Uncle, but it was the Oscar-winning Harvie Krumpet that made him a national name.

Despite the glamour attached to the prestigious career-breaking event, when Elliot and his producer, Melanie Coombs, boarded a plane to go to the Oscars ceremony, he had “about $80 in the bank and I was meant to put in my dole form that day - but I never got around to doing it.”

“I had been to the dole office a couple of weeks prior and mentioned that I’d been nominated and they laughed,” he adds. “I was still quite embarrassed to be honest, to be on the dole. It’s only now that I tell people about it, especially filmmakers just because that’s the reality.”

“I’ve always been broke after each one of my films. It’s nothing new,” he observes. “Luckily, Film Victoria, one of our investors, came to our aid, paid for our flights and paid for some per diems [daily allowances].”

“In a way, Melanie and I both feel like frauds, that we have somehow hoodwinked everyone into giving this honour, but now all these months later, it’s starting to sink in. For me, the best thing about the Oscar is I can make another film,” he says. “For the first time in my life, I have at least six months of job security … The next step will be to raise the finance to make the film.”

This new project will be Elliot’s first foray into making a feature-length claymation work. Given that the 23-minute
Harvie Krumpet took four years to make, cost $400,000, with a whole day’s work often totalling in three seconds of film, does the filmmaker find the process exhausting?

“I find what I do theurapeutic. People think what I do is tedious. My accountant lent across the desk a few months ago and he said, what you do is tedious. And I said, ‘you’re an accountant! You work with nine digits in a different order every day.’ Every day’s different for me. I always say that going into the animation studio – it solves a lot of my day to day problems. It’s very meditative, very soothing and very fulfilling.”

“I feel very lucky to even be paid to do this. As long as my shaking doesn’t get any worse, which my neurologist says it won’t – he says it’s manageable – I’ll keep doing it. Unfortunately we have this horrible saying in this industry that you’re only as good as your last film, and if you make a flop, you go to what is called Director’s Jail.”

One suspects though, that this talented filmmaker is unlikely to be carted off for crimes against cinema anytime soon.

Lee Tran Lam