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An animated career: from Queanbeyan to Cannes

by Nichole Smith

She may stand at only 30cm tall, but Tegan the vegan has generated widespread appreciation for the talents of her creator, local film-maker Marisa Martin.

Tegan is a polymer clay puppet and the star of Tegan the Vegan, a 13-minute film in the style of the clay animation antics of Wallace and Gromit and Australian Oscar-winner Adam Elliott’s Harvie Krumpet, and who won hearts everywhere with her partly autobiographical story of making the difficult choice to live a life without meat while still a teenager. Released in 2011, so popular did the film prove, it was officially selected for festivals from Flickerfest, ‘the crème de la crème of local and global short film-making’, to the New York City International Film Festival, winning a swag of awards along the way.

Martin, the woman who spent two and a half years of her life bringing Tegan to the big screen, is delighted at the way in which her work continues to be embraced.

“I’m thrilled with how popular she has been,” she says of the success of her creation. “My goals were to make Flickerfest and the St Kilda Film Festival and we did both. To make it to New York as well – I’m really happy and it was a great reception there.”

A family affair

Crafted and produced in her Queanbeyan home studio with the help of family and friends, it could take a week to produce just 10 seconds of footage, with the stop-motion format requiring every movement to be staged, shot and then re-staged. At one-fifth scale, every set, prop, character and costume also had to be hand-made.

“The process is physically demanding and there were frustrating moments – I’m sure I cried more than once – but it was all worth it in the end,” Martin says with a warm laugh.

“It was absolutely a family affair. For me it was directing and the creation of the puppets. My dad is an architect and designed and built the sets with my brother, who is an electrician. Mum did everything from writing the script to making the costumes – she’s a great sewer.”

Director Marisa Martin with her script-writer mum Geraldine, with one of the creations from their animated children’s TV series The Della Morte Sisters.
Director Marisa Martin with her script-writer mum Geraldine, with one of the creations from their animated children’s TV series The Della Morte Sisters.

Big names, little budget

There were big names involved as well, with character voices provided by Noni Hazelhurst and comedian Paul McDermott as well as Charli Delaney of Hi5 fame and Pippa Black from Neighbours. And while Adam Elliott’s efforts were considered frugal to produce Harvie Krumpet for just under $400,000, for Martin and her production team constraints were considerably tighter.

“It was beyond a shoestring. We had a $20,000 grant to pay for all the stuff you need to do this kind of thing but people were very generous, whether it was sound or cinematography or the actors who provided their voice talents,” the young director acknowledges.

Much like the painstaking process to create this specialised form of entertainment, Martin’s success has also been building gradually. After completing a degree at the University of Canberra, she started her own independent film company, EoR Media, producing commercials, award-winning music videos and other short films as well as being involved in festivals such as Lights! Canberra! Action! before Tegan burst forth from her imagination.

“I’d made a lot of films with moderate success but I wanted to make a film that was important without being preachy. The more I wrote it, the more I knew it had to be animated so that the audience would warm to her, fall in love with her and be more likely to listen.”

Moulding Martin’s future

Following in Tegan’s footsteps, next for Martin is a highly creative TV series, The Della Morte Sisters, which brings to mind Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and Martin Scorcese’s most recent triumph Hugo for its unique and stylish combination of art and effects.

Set in 1888 in a Melbourne not as we know it, one where the industrial revolution occurred 150 years earlier and machines are powered by steam, this thoroughly imaginative alternative universe is the setting for three supposedly orphaned and highly resourceful sisters who are deter-mined to uncover what really happened to their missing parents.

“It’s been in development for a while,” Martin says. “It took about six to 12 months to develop the script and this time the puppets are hand-made from paper, so that’s time consuming in a different way.”

Asked about the transition from clay to paper, Martin says she was keen to challenge herself, “I wanted to try something different again and because these characters live in a pop-up book, it was logical they were made of paper.”

Destination: Cannes

Again working in conjunction with her script-writer mother Geraldine, Martin won the 2011 Holding Redich Pitching Competition which gives up-and-coming film-makers the chance to present their ideas to industry executives and professionals, and will travel to the Cannes Film Festival this month where she hopes to secure interest to produce the series.

“We got an Arts Grant for this project and we will be producing a short film, The Carousel of Shame. Geraldine has also created detailed outlines for a 13-episode TV series, so our current focus is pitching that and hopefully getting some interest.”

And what comes next in the somewhat surreal world of animation?

“I love live action but I must say I find animating far more rewarding. In animation I’m getting exactly what’s in my head and that’s very satisfying – and the actors don’t talk back!” she finishes laughingly.

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