Recently, I found a small cardboard box that contains all the artwork, and the super-8 film spool of a movie I made when I was 15-17, for my final high school HSC art exam. This celluloid masterpiece was called SPACE FLiK, and was a parody of Star Wars in the style of Mad magazine (two things I was obsessed with at that age). The same box even contained a journal of my process making this opus, that I submitted to examiners along with the film. It took well over a year of spare-time drawing and very fiddly filming to complete this 7 minute silent epic, and was definitely a case where the end result does not show the amount of time and effort that went into making it.
As a small child, I’d often dreamed of doing animation for a living, but didn’t think it was even an option. The cartoons on television all had American accents, so I assumed that animation wasn’t produced in Australia. In 1979, I had the choice of leaving high school at the end of that year, as I’d completed the compulsory education requirement, but my parents were both firm believers in the power of education, having been shaped strongly by it themselves, and were insistent on my continuing the final 2 years of high school to keep my options open for further study. I briefly considered studying at film school, but the Australian Film and Television School prospectus convinced me that I was not worthy. The pamphlet I recieved in the mail contained the bios of the previous year’s enrolment of 20 students, the cream of 2,000 applicants, each one of them a prodigy; making award winning super-8 movies at the age of 9, that sort of thing. I needed a new plan.
These days you can easily search for specific things on the internet, and even if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for you can make headway by tinkering with a search-engine for a few hours. As a teen, I only had the local library and the phone book, which were only useful if I knew exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t. Then, during school holidays between 1979 and 1980, Dad read out a newspaper advertisement; “Sydney animator will hold an animation workshop over the summer break.” Wha!? I enrolled and met a future co-worker. While we farted around with pencils and paper, he explained that although the voices on TV cartoons were American, many episodes were actually animated in Sydney, at the Hanna-Barbera studio. Better yet, I didn’t have to attend a special school to work there, and could be trained on the job. My jaw hit the floor. Suddenly, a dream job now seemed a possibility, and I had a mission: find out more about this studio and get a job there. I wrote a letter to Hanna-Barbera including my drawing samples, and put it in the mailbox. Even after a few repeat queries, I didn’t get a response, so I got on with life.
In 1980, the year I turned 16, I begun planning the practical art requirement for my final year high school art exam, which was to be at the end of 1981. Because I’d taken 2-unit Art (a ‘double major’ in American terms) I had to do two of these art pieces, and decided to make a short animated film and a series of book illustrations. The illustrations were for the RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that we studied in English class, and I did 7 moody pencil illustrations on pastel paper. Thus feeling that I had the highbrow art angle sufficiently staked out, I went lowbrow for my next effort; SPACE FLiK, a super-8 animated movie that used a combo-technique of animation on cells, animation on punched paper and cutout animation, that took NAFF to a whole new level..
Although I’d often animated flip books, I’d never even attempted to animate on film before. I loved animation, but actually doing some myself seemed about as likely as a ride in a Lamborghini. 1980 was a different time. These days we all carry a tiny movie camera in our pockets, but back then I didn’t know anybody who had a proper movie camera, and even still cameras were relatively uncommon. Our school did own a massive 1970s video camera, and a few of us students tried to do some stop-motion, but the clunky thing had no single-frame shooting capability. If you could squeeze the trigger gently enough, you’d shoot half-second bursts, and make a silly video of your mates seeming to fly around the running track in jerky pixelation, but nothing with finesse. This changed when a good mate of my Dad’s who taught at the nearby Teacher’s College, John Harris, finagled me the extended loan of a proper film camera via his department. Meaning that frame-by-frame animation was something I could finally try.
My spare time in 1980 was spent planning storyboarding and animating, drawing on bond paper scrounged from school or Dad’s work, and punched with a standard two-hole punch. By the end of that year, I was ready to start filming, and for a boost of inspiration, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came to my hometown cinema at around the same time. I knew that ‘proper’ animation was done on clear plastic cels, but had a hard time finding raw material to make cels with, and used whatever was available. I butchered several shirt boxes for their clear plastic but never had many, and didn’t have the means to xerox my drawings onto the cels anyway, so the animation done on paper was then cut out with scissors, and painstakingly glued onto these naff cels.
After each shot was in the can, the drawings were peeled off the cels and I’d do another scene. Sometimes, I’d just eyeball it and move the sequential cut outs under camera, using one cel with positioning guides drawn on it. I was utterly clueless about photography at this stage in my life, but thankfully David Rose, a photographer from the Teacher’s College, impressed upon me the need to take great care with the technical aspects. He painted a vivid mental picture of me filming for months, only to develop the roll of film and discover that I’d either under or over exposed it. Needless to say that scenario was my nightmare, and was only averted by David showing me tricks to ensure that the exposure in the camera was set correctly (involving holding a grey neutral card under the camera when taking a light reading).
SPACE FLiK was shot in a study room at school where I could leave the camera setup undisturbed. Because this was the only camera that I had access to, and was in use by others during term times, I did most of the shooting during weekends and holidays. While my family went on holiday that summer, the end of 1980 into early 1981, I stayed home to shoot my movie, and ‘shooting’ was the theme of the shoot; the radio played the news of John Lennon’s killing while I was filming, then the Pope was shot a few months later and Ronald Reagan a few months after that, around the time I started editing (it was a brutal shoot in more ways than one). Although I’d worked on the film for ever so long, it took so much time to simply animate, shoot, and edit it that there wasn’t time for many reshoots, and the final film is pretty much my first pass.
In that same box of recently-found SPACE FLiK materials, was an invitation I drew for the FILM PREMIERE party, where family, friends, various supporters, and Ross Cochrane, my art teacher, all assembled in August 1981 to finally watch SPACE FLiK. It debuted at a screening in the poshest room of our house, where I’d set up a movie projector and screen (likewise provided by John Harris and David Rose). As we nibbled Mum’s snacks and watched my movie, my supporters were a very appreciative and encouraging audience, but I could see all my mistakes; the timing was off, sometimes too rushed and sometimes too slow. Nearly 2 years after I’d cooked up the idea, it seemed perhaps a little too silly, even to me; I was 15 in early 1980 when I hatched the plan, and 17 when it was finally done in late 1981. The ratio of work done to screen-time was heartbreaking, but it was great to have it finally done at last. Not long after, it was sent off to be judged by the HSC examiners, along with my artsy book illustrations. In the end, I made quite a cock-up of the written part of the HSC art exam (answering BOTH questions in an either/or essay option and neglecting to answer another compulsory question completely) and my final art mark was a disappointment to everyone, not the least being me.
After submitting it to my high school art exam, I entered SPACE FLiK in a young filmmaker’s contest, perhaps with visions of being thought of in the same glowing terms as the filmmakers in the Australian Film and Television School prospectus that I’d read earlier. The gala screening was a fancy shindig at the Sydney Opera House, and though I knew in advance I’d not won any prizes, it was a thrill to attend and hear the keynote speaker Peter Weir, who addressed we young hopefuls. I eagerly looked forward to reading the judges’ thoughts about my film, which all contest applicants received. The thrill diminished substantially upon reading the multi-page assessment of SPACE FLiK, where each of the judges utterly savaged it in one withering page after another. Though it gutted me to read this tome of scorn at age 17, I’d gleefully share some quotes with you now if I could, but I must have tossed the document away in a fit of teen peevishness. But the judges were right; as a personal film, SPACE FLiK was derivative and hopelessly crudely made.
This project from my long-ago adolescence is my closest equivalent to the films my colleagues all made at CalArts or Sheridan, and the only personal animation project I’ve ever done. Finding these mementos of my NAFFimation™ has brought back a flood of memories and quite a few chuckles, and I’m now looking into a way of transferring it from super-8 to digital media so I can watch it again. Perhaps due to its critical savaging, and my own growing awareness of its limitations, I never showed it to anyone to get a job in animation, although that had been on my mind when I made it. I eventually got my first job at Hanna-Barbera on the strength of my drawn portfolio alone. But making this silly little high school film was invaluable experience nonetheless.
Learning the punishing ratio between workload and screen-time in a cartoon was a useful early lesson for someone who’d soon go on to work in professional animation, because the same principal exists there too. Over the next 30 years in the industry, I’d learn another startling truth; crews work every bit as hard on the films that you hate as they do on those films you love. Family and friends will always be impressed by the filmmakers’ efforts, but everyone else only cares about what’s on screen. It’s a heartbreaking fact that sometimes the hard work simply isn’t captured in the film, for utterly mysterious reasons, unrelated to the talent, brains, passion and work ethic of the filmmakers.
UPDATE: I’ve finally finished the SPACE FLiK restoration. The “Corrector’s Cut” can be seen HERE.