Pick of the Flicks

February 20th, 2003 Film, Personalities, Xpress

Flickerfest — the 12th annual Short Film Festival that gave short films their name in Australia — is in full swing again.

Films from as far afield as France, Spain, Romania, Germany, the UK, US, the Netherlands, Norway, Iran and Russia are coming together to show the cream of international short film making talent, and Xpress talks exclusively to one of the entrants, Adelaide-based filmmaker Michael Cusack.

Cusack’s film, [R]evolution, displays Cusack’s mastery of his chosen field of interest — clay animation — and has already more than proven itself on the award and festival circuit.

It’s taken out the IF (Inside Film) award for best animation, won Gold at the Australian Cinematographers Society awards, was selected for competition at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival (where it had the chance to be nominated for an Academy Award), and has been screened at festivals across Europe.

And — together with the wares of some of the best short filmmakers in the world — you can catch it when Flickerfest lands at the Camelot outdoor cinemas this month.

[R]evolution is an intriguing idea — both to students of film technique and audiences. A scientist in a dark underground laboratory is trying to create life. Leaving the mixture in disgust with no result, life spontaneously emerges in the form of two creatures that seemingly play out all of human evolutionary history on the laboratory table before the scientists return.

It combines stark, stylised colour with a very cool effect — stop motion animation in the foreground while long, slow tracking shots show the backing environment in its entirety.

Asked about the technique he employed to get the effect, Cusack talks about highly technical animation terms like pixelation, frame rates and getting the actor to perform in slow motion.

But the result, he hopes, is to tell a great story. "It’s a hoary old chestnut but it’s true — if the script is good, it doesn’t matter about the medium," Cusack thinks. "Provided you tell a good story well, the medium is just there to hook people in at the start.

"Gollum (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) was a fantastic creation and you just marveled at the animation that bought him to life. But after awhile you accept him as just another character."

And it’s the story that drives [R]evolution, which was written as well as directed by Cusack. Despite appearing a pretty straightforward comedy about two fighting creatures (reminiscent of the short ABC serial The Red and the Blue from years ago), it says more.

"Because it’s so up front in its depictions of them fighting each other, the message is pretty much hammered home," Cusack reckons. "I’d be very surprised if people come out thinking ‘this is just about two creatures that fight’. Short films generally have a reputation for having some sort of message, and you try to get that message across as quick as you can.

"But I think people see [R]evolution as a treatise on the human condition. How seriously they take it is another thing, but it’s obviously dealing with issues of tolerance and war and all those sorts of things that are actually relevant just at the moment."

At the thought of clay and stop motion animation — only two names really come to mind. Nick Park (Wallace & Grommit, Chicken Run) and Ray Harryhausen (Jason & the Argonauts). Doesn’t Cusack feel limited?

"It’s never bothered me," he insists. "I make films I want to make. I’ve never started a film without it being the sort of film I’d like to see. If you try to second-guess what people want to see you’re probably going to fail because people will see through it."

So while there’s little chance of Cusack being a household name because of work in clay animation, he enjoys his short film work (which he calls his ‘soul food’, that which expresses himself creatively while TV commercials put food on the table) and the special notoriety festivals like Flickerfest bring.

"I’m just happy making the films and if they connect with people it’s a wonderful thing," he says. "I’ve been very fortunate that the films I’ve made have travelled all over the world and it’s sensational to be talking to Xpress thinking that people in Perth as well as all over the world are going to see it."