Michael Cusack: Sleight of Hand
[Wed 12/09/2012 09:35:51]
By Yuan Liu
When the young Michael Cusack stared at the big screen at the Broadway cinema in Manchester, watching Jason and two other Argonauts fighting a group of skeletons that are brought back to life, he never thought that one day he would meet their creator, Ray Harryhausen, the legendary stop-motion animator. Nor did he imagine he would end up doing the same thing.
Now, Michael Cusack and his creative collaborator Richard Chataway have developed their production house Anifex into one of Australia’s leading animation companies. Well-known for its commercial animations for Home Hardware and Schmackos, Anifex has also produced a variety of award-winning short animations like (R)evolution, Gargoyle and The Book Keeper.
Anifex's most recent stop-motion animation Sleight of Hand has been nominated in the Best Short Animation category by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) awards.
Directed by Cusack and produced by Richard Chataway, the film tells the story of a puppet’s awakening of the creation of his life. In the process of making stop-motion photography with a manipulated model, the protagonist accidently realises that he is created by a more powerful creature.
For Cusack, the idea of creating a story about stop-motion came from his career as an animator. “I have been animating for over 30 years,” Cusack says. “I’ve done lots of manipulations of various characters over these years. In the middle of my process, I just started thinking: I wonder if these characters are moving around, thinking they have a life of their own? We move at a different time frame to them. Do they actually think that theirs is the real life? And do they realise that they’ve been manipulated by somebody else?”
Sleight of Hand is aimed at a mature audience: the film proposes questions and ideas concerning human fate, perception and other philosophical problems.
“On a very basic level, I want it to be a love poem to an art form that I think is overrun by computer graphics,” Cusack explains. “And on the other hand I want to talk about the concept of ‘free will’: whether or not we actually have free will, and whether or not things are free to choose. I want to make that sort of comment. I also didn’t want to necessarily give people an answer because the film is so full of questions. I hope after people have watched this, they walk away and think about it more. There are lots of things in there, which are deliberately placed to make people think.”
For Cusack, the film is also intended for other filmmakers. “I wanted the other film makers to share, to some extent, my experience,” he says. “Particularly at the end, when the puppet is looking down, realising the person is taking frames that make up his life. Somebody off the street who wasn't a filmmaker might not get that. While a filmmaker may look at it and go, ‘I know what’s happening there. That’s his life. He is looking at his life from that little readout when the frames are counted up!’ But I have shown the film to many who are not filmmakers. They love it too.”
Being an animator was not the original plan for Cusack. He started out wanting to be a teacher. While at the teacher’s college, he took a film course out of interest and soon realised that he loved films "more than teaching”. At the same time, Cusack has always been a sculptor. “I got the basics for filmmaking,” Cusack says. “And making my sculptures move was an interesting way to bring together both of the art forms that I’m interested in.”
But most importantly, while at college he met his business partner Richard Chataway, with whom he developed a life-long partnership.
“We’ve been a team since then,” Cusack recalls. “We actually started animating in 1977. During our degree, we made a short stop-motion film The Disc of Magala. It was a fantasy with dragons and knights and things like that. We took the film to the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) to get the sound mixed. When we got there, the head mixer there, James Currie, was so impressed by it that he invited the members of the Film Corporation board to come down and look at it. We didn’t know he’d done that. Then a couple of days later we got a phone call from the Corporation offering us both jobs.”
In 1985, their film Waltzing Matilda took the Australian Film Institute Award (AFI) Best Short Animation, which was their first major award. It was during this period working at the SAFC that Cusack and Chataway began thinking about forming their own production house: Anifex.
With the development of CGI techniques, stop-motion animators are faced with great challenges.
“One of the main challenges is always time.” Cusack says. “They take quite a bit of time to make. One of the issues is that because when you start the shot and take the first frame, then you take second frame and third, you are continuously building on the performance. And if something goes wrong, say you’ve animated for 760 frames, you may have to start again. With computer graphics, you just adjust those frames. We can’t do that. We have to start all over again.”
Despite the difficulties, for Cusack, the stop-motion technique has a particular charm that new technology could not replace. “Probably because it is very organic. It is really hands-on. And it is obvious that a human being is manipulating the model. I find that very attractive because it is a little bit like magic.”
Making a film about making a stop-motion film is thus something personal to Cusack.
“I’ve been animating for 30 years. I love it as an art form. I can see so many parallels between what the protagonist is doing and what I’ve been doing for 30 years.
“I grew up as a sculptor. So actually sculpting something and having it real and in front of my eyes is more appealing to me. You can hold it, touch it and become part of it. When you create a stop-motion film, there’s a real sense of yourself and the puppet making the film. I like computer graphics, don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe there’s something quite magical about the process of stop-motion where you can make inanimate objects come to life! I think that’s quite a beautiful thing and something that computer graphics doesn’t do.”
In 2000, Cusack finally met the man he admired since childhood, Ray Harryhausen, when the latter toured to Australia as part of the Brisbane International Animation Festival. Cusack ended up having dinner with him.
“He’s such a lovely man,” Cusack recalls. “We had a very nice meal and a long chat. If you meet one of your heroes, it is nicer than you thought it was gonna be.”
[Wed 12/09/2012 09:35:51]