Alec Green and Finbar Watson’s Oscar-qualified 2D short poignantly captures the true story of Don Ritchie, who over the course of almost 50 years approached hundreds of people contemplating suicide on a cliff just 50 feet from his Sydney home.
Teacups, voiced by screen legend Hugo Weaving, tells the true story of Don Ritchie, who for almost half a century would approach people contemplating suicide at the edge of a cliff just 50 feet from his home in Sydney, Australia. The poignant film deftly captures his surreal interactions with hundreds of suicidal individuals and his journey to reconcile the suicide of his best friend. It begs the question, “Can a simple act of kindness save a life?”
Directed by Alec Green and Finbar Watson, Teacups, has screened at Zagreb, FICG, received special mentions at Palm Springs and Aspen Shortsfest, and has qualified for Oscar consideration after winning Best Animation at the Sydney Film Festival and Best in Show at Spark Animation. The film was animated at Irish studio and maps and plans, with Alan Holly serving as animation and art director.
“We both grew up near where Don lived, yet neither of us heard of his life until we were in our 20s,” Green and Watson share. “Having just finished a documentary for The Guardian, we were anxious to get onto our next project, and when our good friend Jonas told us of Don's life, we immediately knew we had something to work on.”
After some preliminary research, both filmmakers realized they needed a much better understanding of mental health, as well as Don’s life, to consider taking this project on. “Before putting pen to paper, we took to interviewing Don's family and taking part in mental health and suicide prevention courses,” the filmmakers say. “Too often, suicide is used in film as a narrative crutch or to shock the audience for dramatic purposes. We wanted to avoid that by dealing with the subject matter with the sensitivity and honesty required. The more we learned about mental health and Don's life, the more important telling his story became to us. For instance, nearly 50,000 people die by suicide every year in America. When we pair that statistic with the thought of how many people are thinking about it in my city or on my street, it becomes clear why Don's simple gestures of kindness need to be remembered.”
Enjoy the film, then learn more about its production:
From script to screen, the film took two years to produce; pre-production lasted roughly seven months, with production and post-production taking well over a year. Animation alone took around nine months. “We had a little over 20 people involved in making the film, all of whom were excellent collaborators,” Green and Watson note. “Regarding animation, we worked with and maps and plans, a renowned Irish animation company headed by Alan Holly with six excellent animators.”
“With the subject matter and factual nature of the story, it was really important to get the tone right,” Holly says. “For this, the approach was to keep things simple and uncluttered, with minimal and hopefully appealing designs for the characters and big, broad use of color with a tactile quality through the use of paint to tell the emotional story as atmospherically and directly as possible.” He also notes that the work shows a natural progression from his team’s previous projects by the inclusion of more paint and pencil alongside the digital elements, with all the backgrounds painted in gouache by Muireann Mills and effects animation drawn in pencil by Deither Kirby Jay. “Alec and Finbar had a very clear vision for the mood of the film, and this came through well in the script and references they had, so we were on the same page from early on, and everything flowed pretty naturally from there.”
The production, Holly continues, “used a mix of digital and real media. TVPaint was used for storyboarding and character animation, as well as the planning of certain effects animations, which were then finalized on paper. Similarly, the backgrounds were planned using a mixture of Photoshop, drawing, and painting, with the final backgrounds painted in gouache and the final touches made in Photoshop. The few shots where the sea is animated were also painted in gouache, as were the boils in the sky and sea in the flashback sequence.”
“Because we had interviewed the family and Don had spent nearly half a century stopping people from ending their lives, we had so much material to work with,” Green and Watson share. “It took months to distill that material into a short script that properly set the film’s tone, pacing, and mood. We wanted to create a sense of introspection, remorse, hope, and focus on the idea that a simple act of kindness can save a life. What ended up in the film was filtered through that focus.”
When asked how they arrived at the inspired choice to enlist Hugo Weaving on the project, the filmmakers explain, “Hugo is an incredible actor to collaborate with. He brilliantly captured Don's character and brought a sense of reflection to the role. At multiple points during our recording session, he added meaning to a line we hadn't seen. As to why he joined the team, I can't speak for him, but Don's story is an Australian one that we believe is important. I think he shared that belief and wanted it to be told. We're indebted to him for coming on board. Without him, the film would have been a lesser version.”
With the animation team in Ireland, composers in America, and directors in Australia, there were endless late nights and early mornings spent on calls. “We were constantly trying to communicate via Zoom to figure out how to best work through a scene or fix an issue that needed solving within the day,” Green and Watson reveal. “At one point early in production, we realized that the film's ending wasn't working. So, whilst we animated the film's beginning, we spent days with our producers finding an alternative. Luckily, every team member was incredible. Not only were they always willing to go the extra mile to make sure that the story was told at its best, but they are all just great people.”
Noting the animation community’s endless struggle to fund projects, the filmmakers conclude, “On a more dull note, financing was difficult. We juggled day jobs during production to pay for the production. But it was worth it, if not just for the collaborative process of solving the other challenges of the film.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.