Australian animator Adam Elliot is patient. Since 1996, he’s only made one feature and five stop-motion shorts (not including a 1996 hand-drawn animation, Human Behavioral Case Studies). His films—done in a style called “clayography,” a term he coined—can take up to five years to make due to the complicated process of claymation and the creation of miniature objects, cities and characters. He’s not a fan of tricks either, leaning into traditional in-camera techniques. He thrives on diligence and measured resolve. This patience over the last quarter century, painstaking in nature, has led to a brilliance in an oft-overlooked medium, where directors’ names rarely exist outside the characters they create.
Few animation filmmakers achieve a level of notoriety, Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki being chief among them. The majority of moviegoers instead associate animated films with their studios, massive efforts by big teams from Pixar and Disney to Cartoon Saloon and Laika, rather than more singular efforts done by the likes of Elliot. Directors like Brad Bird, Tomm Moore or Satoshi Kon achieve success sans fame, a void that doesn’t equate Oscars with name recognition, box office numbers or the “bankable director” label.
Elliot gives of himself and his life story, personalizing his films by depicting versions of his family, friends and himself. He has never achieved an astounding amount of commercial success, instead living on the film festival circuit, winning consistent honors. He’s become a niche sensation, a paradox befitting a filmmaker blending family trauma with dark comedy—like putting together an eight-year-old Australian girl with a 44-year-old New Yorker for the warmest of friendships in 2009’s Mary and Max.
Elliot began with a triptych, three shorts about specific family members: Uncle (1996), Cousin (1998) and Brother (1999). But these stories contain more than morsels of truth and highly specific details, like someone smelling of a specific brand of licorice, childhood and adult obsessions with cigarette butts, a book of facts instead of proper schooling, Morse code leading to love, and characters that always end up on the front page of the local paper after being struck by lightning or winning the lottery.
A melancholic optimism, hope that comes from the cyclical nature of life, runs like a current throughout these films. Black-and-white and with minimal clay movement besides eyes blinking, Elliot’s first three clayographies balance the pangs and comedy that naturally pop up for all of us. He doesn’t shy away from illness or death, almost welcoming it, as they never come as shocks but as matter-of-fact events. Elliot embraces discord and depression, difficult subjects that he explains in simple terms, unwilling to stigmatize or trivialize that which affects his characters. In Mary and Max, Max lists the traits of someone with Asperger syndrome: “Number one, I find the world very confusing and chaotic, because my mind is very literal and logical. Two, I have trouble understanding the expressions on people’s faces…” He does not feel disabled, defective or that he needs to be cured. He likes how he is. The frequent result is unmediated, medical-grade warmth, comfort and understanding, wrapping you in a blanket reminiscent of family reunions and first loves and that person you’ve always called your best friend. He captures those feelings without force or exertion, but with patience and honesty.
And all of his figures remain unchanged in style and substance, from 1996 through his most recent film, 2015’s Ernie Biscuit, his most joyous and romance-filled adventure. Though he doesn’t reuse figurines, these characters all look similar: Big eyes behind bigger glasses; round, frumpled faces; and, most often, only three strands of hair. Elliot has an ambition to help these clay people, seen in Ernie Biscuit and 2003’s Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet. The former follows a deaf taxidermist who lost his hearing at summer camp and, later in life, hops on the wrong plane only to end up homeless in Australia. But, even after all of his troubles, he falls in love with a deaf woman by bonding with her in Morse code. Par for the course for an Elliot protagonist.
Harvie Krumpet, an irregular choice from the Academy which chose Pixar and Sony shorts as winners in the two previous years, is a 22-minute short that follows an often-nude Polish man living an unextraordinary life, except for the fact that he can’t catch a break. He’s an archetype for many of Elliot’s characters: Prone to bad luck, eccentric, branded as mentally ill by society and often alone in his pursuits. Harvie has one testicle, Tourette Syndrome and Alzheimer’s, landing by strokes of fate in the hospital, at a nudist colony and in a retirement home, having a wife and a daughter and an unbreakable will to live. Harvie Krumpet is a film about someone who wasn’t born to be great; as is said in the opening credits, it’s about those that were born just to live and survive and keep on finding the little joys in living. This works as a central, welcoming thesis of Elliot’s films.
That displays the universality of his clayographies, a collection of stories about unremarkable people who deserve to be happy. Born with a hereditary physiological tremor, he chose to incorporate this unevenness into his work, championing the “bad” parts of us that actually make us whole. Consider Elliot’s only feature: The impenetrable friendship tale Mary and Max, a black-and-white and sepia-toned dramedy that opened Sundance in 2009. With characters voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette, narrated by the great Barry Humphries—as Elliot always employs narration from known entities—Mary and Max can be viewed as his magnum opus, based on Elliot’s pen pal and their friendship of more than two decades.
A simple story told in pointed detail—exploring themes of loneliness, neglect, depression, anxiety, suicide and, paramount, friendship—it embodies its minutiae from the opening frame. From the miniature model of New York City to Mary’s red mailbox outside her suburban home, it’s detailed to the tiniest point. Elliot incorporates rare moments of color in these worlds, often in a certain shade of red: The pom-pom Max wears (gifted by Mary), Mary’s mailbox, crimson lipstick. Only once does Elliot almost zoom out of this world. In the middle of the film, when Max wins the lottery, time stops for a moment as he stands on a wooden platform shrouded in darkness.
Elliot creates magic between two people that shouldn’t necessarily get along, singular in their natures, down to their routines, their unknowing views of love, the way they sit on a bench and the effect that chocolate has on their diets. It’s one of the kindest, most affectionate films about friendship of the 21st century due to the pain and isolation connecting these two people, neither of whom have ever had a true friend. Few films can produce tears while plastering a shatterproof smile onto your face; for me, Mary and Max fits the bill.
“We don’t get to choose our warts,” Max writes in one of his later letters in the film. “They are a part of us. We have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends.” There’s a relatability and honesty in his dialogue, written in this manner throughout Elliot’s filmography. Despite his overwhelming patience when crafting these projects, the films themselves intend to portray imperfections, cracks on the sidewalk littered with cigarette butts. His focus on inclusion rarely wanes, and the loneliness he depicts is repeatedly overpowered by a sense of connection. Watching Mary and Max compelled me to call a friend and tell them I love them, not in spite of their warts, but because of them; most likely it will cause you to do the same.
Big budget superhero movies dominate the box office and govern the news cycles, while independent cinema trudges behind, its directors encouraged to show they can be financed for larger future projects. Similar is Disney/Pixar’s hold on the animation landscape, with others left picking up the scraps. Singular filmmakers uninterested in moving up to the mainstream, filmmakers like Elliot, get lost in this ecosystem. He relies on government resources and stable partners, those that count on him because of his artistic track record and insistence on creating unique feats of animation. Elliot continues to push forward, working with the Australian Film Commission and Screen Australia to create works composed of clay figures brimming with human empathy, diligent and careful as ever. Memoir of a Snail, Elliot’s current project, will likely be no different, focused on a lonely hoarder who finds friendship in an unlikely place. It likely won’t find the largest of audiences, but if Elliot’s films have taught us anything, it’ll be a masterwork with a beating, tender heart that’s more than deserving of our time, attention and recognition.
Brooklyn-based film and TV journalist Michael Frank contributes to several outlets including The Film Stage, RogerEbert, AwardsWatch, and now Paste. He believes Juliette Binoche deserved an Oscar for Dan in Real Life. You can find him on Twitter.