Billy T: Te Movie
Film, 2011 (Comedy, Documentary)

Animated sequences in the movie were created from my cartoons and old engravings.
These were used to mark chapters in the biography.

billytjames cartoon
The 'Bob New-heart' sequence where Billy bounds about with the spring lambs, after the entertainer's successful heart operation.

billytjames cartoon
Te Great Migration: Billy moves to Auckland.

billytjames cartoon

Te Tree: Billy's complicated family.

billytjames cartoon

These cartoons were developed in collaboration with director, Ian Mune.

By Chris Slane, political cartoonist for the NZListener, chief sculptor
and puppeteer for TV series, Space Knights.

VIDEO -Inside a gloomy cavern legions of ragged hobbits labour feverishly at ink-splattered drawing boards, computer screens and scamper along worn paths to cast plastic cells on to towering piles. A huge pendulum ticks rapidly backwards and forwards.

AUDIO – Voice over- “These wretched overworked creatures are New Zealand animators. “

The animation industry in New Zealand is doing quite well at present. Ranging from from adult satire to chidren’s education, homegrown ethnic-based humour to made-for-export, never before has so much animation been produced by so few kiwis.

The Maori Simpsons?

The prime-time TV ratings surprise of the year was New Zealand’s first animated show bro'Town. Based on the politically-incorrect ethnic comedy theatre of Naked Samoans Talk About Their Knives, it chronicles the lives five flatulent Polynesian teenagers growing up in multicultural, suburban Auckland.

The characters producer Elizabeth Mitchell fell in love with were 14 year olds, but “knowing you wouldn't get away with the Nakeds playing 14 year olds as live action, nor just any 14 year old boys, so animation seemed an obvious answer.” That decision has paid off, becoming TV3’s highest–rating show for most of its six episode run.

The writers were able escape censure for satire of other racial groups by being equal-opportunity insulters. “The good thing about bro'Town is that the joke isn’t just on the Maori and Pacific Island people, but on everybody else as well – the Asians, Indians, but also the Pakeha or Europeans,” one fan told the Sunday Star-Times. The show is seen by viewers as reflecting the truth about NZ cultural relations.

“I know overseas people find the fact that we use God ( resplendent in a lava-lava ) and Jesus very boundary-pushing. Dad, as a character is probably pretty daring in much of the stuff he does. I remember being really excited when we got the word that we could use "wuck you!" in The Wong One episode.” Like The Simpsons, bro'Town features celebs such as Lucy Lawless, who conducts a lesson on safe sex for the gang.

Each half-hour episode consists of 16,000 drawings and took nearly six months to make. This all took a frustrating three years. “During the time we took to raise the money, we also found out lots more about how animation actually worked,” says Mitchell, “and were therefore able to set up our own studio, rather than farming the work out, which is what we would have done if we had received the funding earlier.”

Mitchell had the problem of finding enough animators in NZ . She started an in-house training course, via WINZ, and looked overseas for more. Work, shared between Firehorse Films, Anim8 in Auckland, and DQ Studios in Hyderabad, India, involved more than 100 staff.

bro’Town’s first two series received $3,331,340 from NZ On Air, but it was no easy matter to arrange an animated series. ”We kind of had everything stacked against us”, admits Mitchell. “ NZ On Air had been burned in the past by non-delivery of animation projects, so they needed a lot of convincing.  Also, they didn't know me or Firehorse Films from a bar of soap”. NZ On Air did not have a specific allocation in the comedy budget for traditional 2D animation, so money was also sought from TV3, private investment and product placement. 

Mitchell agrees animation seems to be popular at present. “Yep, I reckon we could say there's a modest boom. As part of the WINZ course that we ran, WINZ commissioned us to do some research into the 2D future of NZ ... so we've been asking people lots of questions about this, and it does seem as though everyone is very busy at the moment, and lots of them seem to credit bro'Town as being some kind of catalyst to this "boom".

bro’Town is playing in Fiji and just about to sign with an Australian broadcaster, and all indications are that there will be some sales to the rest of the world when 13 episodes of the new series is finished.  DVDs of series one have been one of the best selling this and last year. A bro'Town annual 2005 will be published by Random House later this year. T-shirts and other merchandise are also planned.

Dogging The Media

Even more satirical are the two-minute animations of Media Dog, part of the current affairs show Eating Media Lunch. Apart from voices, it is the sole effort of cartoonist Anthony Ellison - a man casting a jaundiced eye over pop and celebrity culture. It is an animation style stripped to its basics - think a cynical Clutch Cargo or Roger Ramjet. Ellison doesn’t use story boards, just writes a script, takes it into the recording studio and sees what happens.

“I try to keep it as topical as possible, as the lead-in time before an episode goes to air is only a couple of weeks. It takes approximately seven days to produce an episode from start to finish. I average about twenty seconds a day, which sounds quite impressive until you realise that Media Dog is based primarily around talking heads. Because the process of animation can be quite boring, if it's all mapped in advance then I'm more than likely to retire early for the evening. Working this way seems to keep the current project alive and interesting. Later, I'll mix and edit the sound myself - giving me the freedom to make changes.”

“I produce Media Dog and all my animation on a beat-up old iMac which crashes approximately fifty times a week.” Ellison uses full animation when time allows but it's often not the case. “Any additional animation is an added bonus. I try and place an emphasis on production design and a constantly moving camera in order to alleviate the potential boredom factor of limited animation upon the viewer. Also, "lavish" design provides a nice counterpoint to the low-browedness of some of the humour.

“I've always been interested in film. My first films were stop-motion puppet animations, very arty and East European. A real barrel of laughs... It's hard work in the sense that you're pouring so much energy into so little time onscreen. In the last two years the sum output of my work runs for less than thirty minutes. It must be even worse for a photographer… if you’re reviewing a creative life in published frames per second.”

Ellison contrasts a background in print journalism with animation for television. “Writing for animation is different from strip cartoons in that the reader can absorb more in a non-linear fashion whereas an animated cartoon travels in a straight line from start to finish.”


Experience in advertising and late-night comedy performance gave Luke Nola, creator/director at RepublicTV a head start when it came to creating and directing his own animated concepts. He specialises in mildly educational animation for children. “Did you know that 90% of the bacteria on your skin is not your own?”

This is the concept behind the weird animated series Life On Ben Here the expression “TV Host” takes on a whole new meaning as we meet microbial inhabitants of his body; germs, pus, snot and ringworm characters who ooze, spit, and fart as they educate.

“For this series I wanted the look to be lush and organic. Plasticine suits the story and subject matter - makes it tangible. Kids pick up on the handmade, number 8 wire look, feel they can reach out and scrunch it.” For Nola CGI was out of the question. “To reproduce reality of a 3D world digitally is really expensive. Those guys working the lighting effects in Shrek and Robots took years to get those effects. You can’t just dial that up.”

Fellow writers Glenn Wood and Paul Yates were careful to ensure scripts were scientifically accurate. The Department of Microbiology at Auckland University was consulted to ensure each episode contains a new factual lesson.

It is the sad song of the animator that short timeframes and limited budgets make for excruciating pains for animators as they attempt to meet unrealistic deadlines. Luckily TVNZ and NZ On Air have been very understanding of the process and have been generous with completion dates. From approval of the pilot show to completion of the series, 18 months have elapsed. It took Nola and animator Anthony Ellworthy ( Fireman Sam and Tim Burton’s next feature The Corpse Bride) eight months to complete 10 two-minute episodes, achieving a rate of eight seconds of footage per day.

It must be a labour of love for Nola. How else to explain the unhealthy interest in greeblies? Apparently, it all comes from Nola’s childhood and his mother’s obsession with washing him. “There’ll be germs on you”, she used to say,” You can’t see them because they are tiny, but they’re still there”. Now everyone will be able to see them, crawling across in their TV screens on TV2 in July.

Jane And The Weta

Jane and the Dragon is a 26-episode, 3D animated series being developed by Weta Workshop in partnership with New Zealand author/illustrator Martin Baynton. It is a co-production with Canadian children's' television producers Nelvana. Weta Workshop uses digital effects technology to retain the new hand-drawn feel, based on the style of Baynton’s best selling books. Weta Workshop also had to import animators from overseas to work on the new television series. It screens in Australasia, North America and Europe early next year.

From Bad Taste To Bottletop

Cameron Chittock is another animator who writes, directs, and produces his own series for television. In 1998 Chittock created his own series, Oscar And Friends, with funding of $1.32 million from NZ on Air and Southern Star Entertainment in Australia. The 26 x 5 min claymation series was rated number 10 for children on ITV in the UK and successfully syndicated to the US - a rarity for any NZ children’s show. Overseas contacts paid off when Aardman Productions sent a number of animators, like Richard Goleszoski, out to NZ - bringing helpful ideas on how to approach a low-budget TV series. “They set a high-benchmark for us locals to work to and made sure it was made to a high international standard.”

Chittock gained his first experience with Peter Jackson on Bad Taste as a member of the special effects team, part of which involved turning up at a butcher each morning to collect intestines, brains and sundry stringy bits for that day’s shoot. He went on to be head of puppet-making on Meet The Feebles, for which he won a Film Design Award.

Bottletop Bill, his next series will soon air on the ABC. Novel use of computers produces a hand-built, 2-D collage-style animation. Characters construct themselves onscreen and interact with an evolving world. These wonderful textures were achieved using photographs of everyday objects found around the home- a deliberate part of the look, designed to encourage 3-6 year olds to build things themselves.

What started as a New Zealand idea was fleshed out by Australian writers, voiced by Australian actors, financed by Southern Star Entertainment, Channel 5 in the UK and the Singapore Economic Development Board. The series is showing now in Ontario, the UK’s C5 in August, the ABC in Australia in August and TVNZ at some stage.

Chittock believes the backyard spirit of kiwis is what feeds innovation and a hands-on, do-it-yourself attitude. That background enabled him to create an animation workshop from scratch in Singapore, even training the locals in basic art department skills. In two years a crew of 50 produced 26 x 12 min episodes at the 1000 m2 factory.

In contrast to some overseas shows created purely as a form of marketing for their merchandising, Chittock prefers director–driven shows, but believes animators need to create a fan base, “When you have a million fans all over the world who have watched your film, then you can go to a producer and say ‘based on this fan-base we can justify making the feature.’ That’s when they take you seriously.”

NZ On Air has had an important role in supporting local animation, especially programming targeted to children. They see a trade off for the high cost of animation compared to other genres as opportunities for multiple transmission and international sales. A series of animations of Hairy McLary stories has had a long and successful life, in NZ and Australia in particular. An animated series of Margaret Mahy stories has also been successful. NZ On Air also funds short animations called ‘intersticials’, which must be under two minutes long.

They believe the timeframe required for completion of animation projects is a barrier to marketing. Broadcasters need at least six months of good ratings, to determine if a series has long-term public appeal, but a shortage of animation at time of commission can turn into glut by completion. New technology can offer attractive efficiencies but runs the risk of unexpectedly increased production costs.

Hands Across The Drain

Ambitious animation created in a small market requires some form of international backing. Staines Down Drains is being co-produced with Australian animation studio Yoram Gross-EM and New Zealand’s Flux Animation. In the original concept by kiwi Jim Mora, two kids are suddenly sucked down the pipes and into Drain Land. With $500,000 of help from NZOnAir, the 26x24 2-D animation series for 8-10 year -olds will be finished in winter 2006/2007.

Back To The Drawing Board

“Private investors in New Zealand are not used to looking at entertainment ventures, says Chittock. “It is high–risk and returns are slow to come in. Not like investing in real-estate where you might buy a building, renovate, then sell it and get your money back immediately. It takes a similar investment up front and a wait of some years in production. Only then, if your animated series has good TV sales and ratings, do you make your money back. The real profits come from merchandising. “

So what makes good animation? Chittock believes it is delivering in the shot what you are required to do, while expressing character. Not under-doing it, not overdoing it, but understanding where the scene fits into the scheme of things and keeping a larger vision of what you are doing. “What works for animation doesn’t necessarily work with drama and what works for drama doesn’t necessarily work with animation.”

“With the advent of great programs like Flash and Stop Motion Pro, cheaper high-res stills cameras, increased knowledge of them and what they can do, “it's a great time to be an animator,“ Luke Nola reckons. “Set up price for your own back shed is less, heaps of competition, though - so all the more reason to do good stuff.” Animation has wide opportunities; for merchandising, the ability to go anywhere, do anything, and be able to create a unique visual style.

The Unmentioned.

Then there is Karl Wills - ETHEL MANIA: BIG MOUTH ETHEL and tv commercial animation director, Buzz and Poppy, Hairy MacLary, The Margaret Mahy Series, Fish Bay, The Adventures of Massey Ferguson, Underwater Melon Man, Artoonz, to name a few. We also lay claim to Shrek director, NZ-born Andrew Adamson.


View caricature work on the puppet series 'Space Knights'

The Germinator : “Come with me, if you want to live!”
Snot Cocktails At Fingernail Restaurant
Jane dragon
Cameron Chittock
Cameron Chittock
Shakey-Isle Slaves
An article on the state of the animation indusrty for Australian cartonist magazine Inkspot.

Cameron Chittock
Karl Wills
Media Dog
Life On Ben

Fish Bay
The Adventures of Massey Ferguson

Underwater Melon Man
Jane & the Dragon