Adam Elliot, filmmaker – Alumni Stories at the VCA, University of Melbourne

Adam Elliot, filmmaker
Adam Elliot, filmmaker

Adam Elliot completed his Post-Graduate Diploma in Animation at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1996. He went on to win the 2004 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, for the claymation film Harvie Krumpet. 

By Stephanie Juleff

Hi Adam. How did winning an Academy Award in 2003 for your short film Harvie Krumpet affect how you approach your work?

It didn’t really alter the way I approached my writing. I start every script with fear, fear and anger, because for me to write something I have to be angry about something to begin with.

When I say anger, it’s usually in the form of injustice, because all my films are based on real people. I’m usually wanting to tell the story of someone I know who is misunderstood, a marginalised type of underdog.

Particularly with, say, Mary and Max (2009), which is about my pen friend in New York who has Asperger’s, his whole life he’d been misunderstood and treated badly by all sorts of people, and I was angry about that and wanted to tell his story.

I suppose every script starts with anger but also fear because I never know where the story’s going to lead me or whether it’s even going to be an interesting story to people. The two objectives I have with every script is: make people laugh; make people cry. It sounds a bit simplistic, but that’s how I approach things.

After the Oscar, I suddenly had all these people who believed in me and thought that whatever I would touch would turn to gold, which is not true. I mean, every film’s as hard as the one before, and in many cases each film has got harder to make because the expectations are higher, the pressure’s higher.

But before Harvie Krumpet I had no real pressure. Pressure was the big thing that changed after Harvie Krumpet.

Adam Elliot holding his Oscar statue. Image copyright Adam Elliot Clayographies Pty Ltd.

Can you tell us what you’re currently working on and what you’re most excited about?

I’m one of the very few lucky filmmakers in Australia in that every script I’ve written I’ve managed to turn into a film with the support of the Australia taxpayer through Screen Australia, Film Victoria or SBS. Each script I’ve written, there’s always a bit of a waiting period where you’re trying to finance it and put everything together.

At this stage, I’m at the end of the scriptwriting process for a new feature film which has taken three and a half years to write. Now the script’s finished, we’re financing the film, getting actors on board, starting to plan how long it’s going to take and how many people we need to help make the film. Each film is averaging about three to five years. I’ve done six – I want to make nine before I die. That’s my goal!

When I left the VCA back in 1996, I had this bizarre plan for the rest of my life that I’d make a trilogy of trilogies, which is three short films, three long short films and three feature films. I’ve done the three shorts, I’ve done two of the long shorts – Harvie Krumpet and Ernie Biscuit (2015) – and I’ve done one of the three features. I’ve got a couple left and then I can die.

All I’ve really done since leaving the VCA is make my little clay films. I’ve never made an ad or a series or had any other jobs other than just make these little films back-to-back, one at a time. There have always been little gaps between each project, but I’m lucky in that I’ve just been able to keep going … until I make a flop and then it’ll all be over.

Why did you choose to study at the VCA?

I did my Victorian Certificate of Education, or High School Certificate back then, in 1989. I’d always been drawing. I’ve always been creative in some way, although back then we never used the word “creative”, which is interesting, I was just “arty”.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went through all sorts of phases. I thought I wanted to be a portrait painter at one stage. I sold T-shirts down at the St Kilda Esplanade Craft Market for five years, I tried all sorts of things. Filmmaking was not really on my radar and I sort of stumbled into the VCA.

I enrolled in a picture frame making course at the Council for Adult Education down in Flinders Street. I love photography and I thought maybe I could frame my own photos and sell those down at the Craft Market instead of T-shirts because I was getting sick of T-shirts!

My brother had studied acting at the VCA and someone had told me about this animation course, so I sort of applied on a whim but I didn’t get in. I had no evidence that I had a passion for animation. I got rejected, but I got onto the shortlist.

One of the successful animation students dropped out and I got a call from the VCA to ask if I wanted to fill that spot. Even though my folio and my interview wasn’t really up to scratch, they thought my little cartooney T-shirts maybe would lead to something good in animation. So I got in!

I cancelled the picture frame making course pretty quickly, but I hadn’t touched plasticine since I was a kid and I always thought I’d do 2D animation. I thought I’d end up in a studio doing someone else’s films, and I really had no plans.

At the end of that one year of the post-graduate diploma in animation I finished up with this little film in 1996 called Uncle, and it started to do well at film festivals and then won an ACTAA award, and next minute I was defined “the autuer”.

I knew I was independent and I was probably going to have to support myself for a long time. And it’s been tough. Between each film there are periods where you’re broke. I’ve had to go on the dole four times – I was actually on the dole when Harvie Krumpet won the Oscar. But Oscar didn’t come with a cheque or any piles of money.

That’s not why I make films. I really like making people laugh, making people cry, and I’ve been able to travel the world with my films and all sorts of film festivals and all sorts of nice prizes and trips and things. I love it. Job security’s pretty low on my list of things to strive for, but I’ve never starved. I’ve managed to keep going.

Did studying at the VCA differ from your expectations?

It was such an intense year. There were only eight students and I think all of us just wanted a job. Back then the animation industry in Australia was almost non-existent. There were a few studios doing mostly kids’ TV series. There were really no opportunities for stop motion animation. And there still aren’t, really.

There are a couple of small studios around Australia, but there’s no Aardman or any of those big mega-companies here in Australia, so I pretty much knew if I was going to pursue clay animation, I was going to have to set up my own company and create my own employment. Luckily, we had the Australian Film Commission, Australia Film Victoria, who’ve pretty much kept me alive all these years. I had low expectations.

The VCA kick-started my career and it was the VCA that had confidence in me. I didn’t have confidence in myself at all, really. So I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like had I not gone to the VCA. I’d probably still be selling T-shirts down at the St Kilda Craft Market. Or I’d have a successful chain of picture frames all around the world. I’d probably be at lot wealthier, but would I be happy? No, I doubt it.

What advice would you give to students just starting their journey at the VCA?

There are no real rules or secrets. I lived in South Melbourne at the time and my whole life that year was at the VCA working really, really hard, particularly because back then we were shooting on film, so it was all so expensive. It was an expensive year so we didn’t want to waste a second.

While you’re at university, you should work your guts out, particularly if you’re making a short film because that is your calling card. It’s not like other academic pursuits – your folio is far more important than what marks you get, particularly in filmmaking.

The marks I got at VCA have never helped me get a job. Well, I’ve never had a job! But, what gets me funding are my scripts.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Well, of course the obvious answer would be winning an Oscar! But actually, as a child I was terrible at sport. I’d never one anything really, and my greatest achievement probably is still my … You remember Little Athletics? I did Little Athletics in Mount Waverley. I was always having asthma attacks and I had this dodgy knee, so running, I was terrible at running.

But at the end of the season of Little Athletics, I won a little medal, which I’ve still got, and it was “Most Improved – Adam Elliot”. I’ve got a  big trophy cabinet full of hundreds of trophies and film awards, none for sport, but the only one in there that’s non-film is my “Most Improved, Little Athletics, Mount Waverley”.

Adam Elliot’s Little Athletics improvement award, which usually sits next to his Oscar statue. Image copyright Adam Elliot Clayographies Pty Ltd.

Strangely, I’m more fond of that than any of the others. I don’t know why. But that’s true.