Creating screen action

Stop-motion: Animator Antony Elworthy with a mouse from Coraline.
Stop-motion: Animator Antony Elworthy with a mouse from Coraline.

When he's not working on major international films as a stop-motion animator, Antony Elworthy can be found working away in his Redcliffs home studio.

What started as a hobby when he was an illustration student in Wellington, now sees him working on the on-screen embodiments of Johnny Depp, Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher.

"I was just making a little animated film, just for fun really, with some of the polytech's equipment, and somebody saw it and offered me a job on a film they were making. At that point I didn't even realise people did it for a living so I was quite surprised and thought it was Christmas to go away and play with plasticine and actually get paid for it," Elworthy says.

Stop-motion is an animation technique where inanimate objects appear to come alive through small movements of individually photographed frames. Clay, plasticine or puppets are used in this film style which is also known as stop-action or frame-by-frame.

Elworthy's film credits include Coraline and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride. Being selected to work on such films often involves a complicated audition process. "They had an audition for animators for Corpse Bride, so I went along for three days and they gave me a puppet and some lines of dialogue to see what I could do, and I passed that test and they gave me the job."

Corpse Bride, loosely based on a 19th-century Russian-Jewish folktale, was directed by Mike Johnson and Burton in 2005. Depp was the voice of Victor and Helena Bonham-Carter voiced Emily, the title character.

"In that film's audition they gave me the puppet Victor, so they gave me a Johnny Depp lookie-likie puppet and put him on a set."

Elworthy says after working for a few years in this line of work, he now knows about 90 per cent of the animators around the world.

"After I'd worked with Corpse Bride I'd met a lot of people that were then setting up for the production in the States for Coraline and they just rang me up asking if I was available."

The award-winning Coraline, released last year (now out on DVD) and nominated for an Oscar, is a story about an adventurous girl who, with her parents, moves into a huge old house and she discovers other people living in it too, behind a secret door.

But it hasn't always been big- budget movies and well-known film stars. Elworthy has certainly worked from the ground up. After his initial apprenticeship stint, he arrived in London with the notion, as many Kiwis do, that he could do anything, only to find himself door-knocking for a few months before he eventually found work. Through his persistence, he found himself working on commercials and children's television shows, where he worked on-and-off for four years.

Animation work has also seen him living in Manchester, Cardiff, Madrid and Copenhagen. In Copenhagen, he worked on a straight-to- video production called Little People. "It wasn't a very exciting project but it was a great place to live," he says. Elworthy's time in Madrid was spent working on commercials, commissioned by the European Union, when they were introducing the Euro currency. "That was a bit of a junket. It was great living in Madrid. They had far too much money. Very inefficient but good fun."

The common theme with Elworthy is that he likes to have a good time while he's working, with good company. It becomes apparent when asked what his ultimate animation job would be.

"It would be one that I could do in my own backyard, but that involves other people as well. Normally it's one thing or the other. I'm normally working overseas somewhere with a whole bunch of interesting people or I'm at home, where I'd like to be, working on my own.

"So, it'd be nice to have a project that was my own creation and I could involve a lot of other people in and be based in Christchurch, which is where we want to be."

Through his work, he and his family (wife, Jane, and three boys - the youngest of whom was born on New Year's Eve) have had to live overseas for up to two years at a time with each major film.

"Our kids are getting older and they'll be in school soon and it won't be quite so easy to skip off and do these sorts of things."

One project he has produced locally is about to be launched internationally. Animal Love, an entertaining mock dating-video for animals, is a stop-motion clip he made for the Save the Children fund's Christmas campaign, and it made such an impression with the team in Italy that they want an Italian version made especially for Valentines Day.

"Animal Love was a good project for me, as it was such a contrast after Coraline where I was one of a team of 300 people [20 of whom were animators]. And in a job like that, my job is quite specialised. I just do the animation and that's it. But with something like Animal Love, it was my concept, I wrote the treatment and I wrote the script and did everything apart from the voicework. And you get more of control over the bigger picture."

It's a must-see video on YouTube, as is his latest project with Guy Capper and Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, The Pen.

"It's basically about two sheep in a bar at the end of a day's work, pontificating about various facets of life. They've got a few more episodes of that they need to try to get done in the next couple of months, and I think I'll help them out with that."

Between films and animation projects, Elworthy plans and creates his next ventures in the studio in his backyard. At the moment it's being used for the planning stages of some music videos and illustration work for educational children's books.

"I count my lucky stars that I get to do this stuff for a living, but then there are obviously lean times quite often when the projects aren't on the horizon and you're just kind of hoping that another one will come up before not too long."

But he might not have to wait too much longer for his next pay cheque, as the team that made Coraline are crewing up for a new film in the United States, which starts in August, and Elworthy and his wife are considering whether they're going back to the US to work on that. This, of course, would mean another two years away from his backyard studio in the sunny climes of Redcliffs.

* On the net:

Animal Love - watch?v=eNh–JGIOzaE

The Pen - watch?v=GeJuUZGI3Zw

The Press