Adam Elliot has toured Ernie Biscuit, his latest stop-motion short, to over 70 festivals, and he's exhausted.
The story of a deaf Parisian taxidermist who accidentally gets on the wrong plane and winds up in the outback, Ernie Biscuit was originally meant to be a feature.
"Everyone really liked the feature script", said Elliot, "but we had a budget of 40 million at one stage (laughs). It's not family friendly enough at that budget."
Development funding from screen bodies ended when Ernie morphed from feature to short, so Elliot financed it himself.
He describes the result as "a bit of an experiment".
"Things have changed. Film's now gone and I've had to learn a lot of new skills. After Mary and Max [Elliot's acclaimed 2009 feature] we knew we had to get our budget down because things were changing dramatically."
The finished film is a crowd-pleasing charmer. The Melbourne director describes it as a "a nice little accompaniment to Harvey Krumpet [Elliot's Oscar-winning 2003 short]. They're both underdogs. Ernie's certainly lighter".
It's also a film made to demonstrate a certain thrift.
"I set myself very strict rules", Elliot said, "I ended up using a Leica M9 camera, with just one lens. Five or six lights. I used clay, cardboard and wire. I didn't use any complex armatures. There was no mould-making, no airbrushing, everything was done in camera. I only had three jars of paint: black, white and gray. I really wanted to focus on how low I could get my budget".
Harvey Krumpet cost $300,000, while Ernie Biscuit ended up costing $100,000.
"That means I can now confidently pitch a feature and say I can make it for between 1-3 million."
Elliot describes his work as distinct from the likes of Aardman in the UK because his characters "are pretty much blobs of clay, with very few camera moves – camera moves are very expensive".
Now presenting Ernie at Flickerfest at the tail-end of a festival run that began at SFF in June, the animator sees a landscape where there are "more opportunities to make money out of shorts now than were was twelve years ago. There are plenty of sales agents around the world who are distributing shorts. Having said that, very few short filmmakers make their money back let alone a profit. I always approach filmmaking as a hobby."
With the film finished, "I've been having lots of retrospectives", said Elliot, "which I find a bit depressing" (laughs).
He just returned from Paris, where his films screened at the Forum des images. He describes the experience of watching Charlie Kaufman's stop-motion Anomalisa in France as "inspiring" – particularly one scene.
"I always wondered why nobody had ever done a sex scene in stop motion, and finally – a full-on cunnilingus extravaganza! I saw it with four hundred French people in Paris, and they thought it was fantastic. That gives me confidence to keep doing what I'm doing. Stop motion doesn't have to be slick, formulaic and for kids".
Now he's back in Melbourne and in feature mode.
"I've written a treatment. This one's about a friendship between two siblings. How dull does that sound?" (laughs).
"My films get described as bleak and about disability but I don't really see them as about disability at all. It's about getting a balance between the humour and the pathos. You never really know on which side the film will fall."
If things pan out, he plans on getting the team from Mary and Max back together. "All the people who worked on it have been waiting for me to get another feature financed, and they were all a bit annoyed at me when I did Ernie Biscuit because there was no work for them".
After toiling away by himself for two years, won't he have trouble delegating?
"Over one hundred people worked on Mary and Max. I didn't animate anything. I wanted to do everything myself, but my producer worked out that it would take over 300 years."