When you’re going to make an animated feature almost singlehandedly, you better believe in what you’re doing.
Elliot Cowan certainly does. The veteran animator/animation director is in the home stretch of creating a feature-length version of The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead, an expansion of the shorts Cowan’s been creating since 2006 starring the hapless pair of featureless (save their scribbly faces and titular headshaped) characters.
“Boxhead and Roundhead live in chaos in the wilderness where they’re threatened by monsters, angry natives and bad weather. I’ve always wanted to send them to the city, but I needed a reason,” Cowan said at a recent screening of his work in progress. He went to work on a script (the catalyst for their journey became a mysterious projectile shot from a far-off metropolis that destroys their tiny hilltop shack). Companies in Australia (Cowan’s native land) and Canada expressed some interest in the project, but nothing came of it. A small amount of funding (“a ridiculously low amount of funding”) materialized from an unlikely source – The Romanian Film Office. “I’ve worked on enough commercials to know how to create something on a very small budget; it’s not so much cutting corners as it is making smart decisions.”
Cowan isn’t making the film entirely on his own, merely almost entirely. He’s produced some 56 minutes of the film to date towards a 70-minute goal, a task that consumed many late nights after a full day’s work. (“This has been my entire life for a year and a half,” he sighs. “I lay awake nights thinking ‘I’ll never get this done,’ and wake up in the morning thinking ‘oh, it’s easy.’”) The character animation (Boxhead and Roundhead are created via AfterEffects with the rest done in Flash) are Cowan’s work; other characters were animated by Lyla Ribot with several of his best animation students completing other animation and production work. Cowan was also lucky to get assistance from Neil Ross, a concept artist whose credits include work on Braveheart and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Willy Wonka remake.
Cowan is unrestrained in his praise of Ross’ work. “His city backgrounds are amazing and designed so I could use them several times. Neil was very supportive of our little film. He’d worked on so many big-budget films and really wanted to help make my movie happen.”
Cowan recently invited a handful of visitors to Richard O’Connor’s Ace & Sons Moving Picture Company studio to view a handful of completed segments of the film. (O’Connor’s company is producing the feature in association with L.A. producer David Ginsburg.) The first segment begins with an automated assembly line (an image that reappears time after time in Cowan’s work) pouring garbage into jugs labeled “Property of Tipp City” that are then shot into the sky. Narrowly avoiding ginormous predators on a run to a nearby well, the ‘heads make it back to their shack just in time for it to be destroyed by one of the jugs. Now homeless, the pair begin a trek to the city in search of revenge.
The second segment has Boxhead and Roundhead’s jeep struggling up a steep mountain incline. It’s an image reminiscent of Cowan’s earlier observation citing Terry Gilliam’s description of directing a feature: “like pushing a piano across a beach.” (“Terry has more help than me,” Cowan added.) The pair survives a calamitous avalanche only to be tossed into an ocean, apparently to drown, by a vengeful vine-filled forest in the final segment.
Cowan assures us Boxhead and Roundhead survive and make it to the city, where one is swallowed up by the avant-garde art world while the other joins the work force. He’s aiming for a November release… exactly where?
It’s a question that doesn’t really concern Cowan: “If you want to make things and an opportunity to make something different appears, something you really want to make – you take it.”