Adam Elliot looks like he’s dressed to go out. Smart black shirt, shiny polished shoes and a distinctly clean-cut, fresh-faced look. He’s in Canberra as part of a promotional tour for something a little different – a book rather a film. But he’s not dressed up for this interview – the makeover is for a speaking engagement that follows – something he’s been doing since he won an Academy Award for his short animation Harvie Krumpet. Our photographer arrives and Elliot pulls faces for the camera. “I’m trying to look unfortunate,” he explains. The book is – after all – about 26 unfortunate dogs.
Once the photo session is over we settle down for a chat about dogs and movies and the inevitable exchange of views on the Australian film industry. A hot-off-the-press copy of The A-Z of Unfortunate Dogs lies on the table between us. Elliot picks it up “It’s a weird thing for me this book,” he says, “because as a kid all I wanted to do was make a picture book. When I was about eight, I was rummaging through my Dad’s bedside drawers. I found some Playboy magazines, then came across The Penguin Leunig and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat. That’s where it all started. And I made a little book called Adam’s Guide to Fishing – I found it in my glory box the other day, all brown and dried up. So I’ve always wanted to do a book.” With that cheeky gaptoothed grin of his, Elliot adds: “the films obviously got in the way.”
Clearly targeting the Christmas gift market, The A-Z of Unfortunate Dogs contains 26 gorgeous pen and ink illustrations of classic Elliot dogs – mostly mutts of dubious parentage, all with a tragic flaw of some kind (A is for Audrey whose tongue is too long; G is for George missing legs and an eye). Yet despite the missing parts, injuries and shortcomings they are – as you’d expect from the man who created Mary & Max – all loveable, warm canine characters. Accompanying the illustrations is Elliot’s playful rhyming verse, and each dog is “framed” antiquarian portrait style. I ask about the kinds of dogs Elliot has depicted, and he picks up the book and starts flicking through the pages. “That’s a Basset hound I suppose. I don’t know what that is. That’s a poodle. A lot of them are strange cross breeds. Ah a sausage dog. There’s a chiuaua.” He suddenly holds a page out, grinning. “Someone said this one looks like a frog!” He flicks a few more pages. “As you can see I gravitate towards little dogs. But they’ve got to be cute, they got to be endearing. I didn’t want the book to be too disturbing.” Then he comes across M for Mary. “ Although she’s a bit of a worry. Overall I want them to be saying ‘look at me – even if I’ve got one leg, I don’t mind, I’m happy.’ The whole effect is like you’re at the pound, walking along death row and you just want to adopt them all.”
It’s a quick and quirky read, and an artistic endeavour that Elliot found much more enjoyable than filmmaking. “It’s a thousand times more satisfying,” he explains. “The films are slow, expensive (Mary and Max cost $8 million), and incredibly challenging. Of course I love making animation but it’s a very different beast.”
The starting point for both art forms, however, is the same. Elliot is a highly talented illustrator and creates all his film characters as drawings before they are modelled in clay. He explains the process for creating the dogs: “Each one takes about a day and ends up on thick water colour paper. But I start off with a plain piece of A4 paper, and I doodle. When something starts to form, I stick it on the window, put some water colour paper on top of it, and trace it through.” Elliot pauses. It’s never long before a joke emerges. “So I have to finish drawing before the sun sets. Then I create a black outline in Indian ink and put the paper on the stove and dry it over a naked flame. Then I rub out the pencil, apply an ink wash and fill in all the detail with pencil. That’s the bit I like the best.”
The finished art-works are currently hanging in a pub (appropriately called the Dog Bar) in Melbourne, Elliot’s home-town where he lives with his partner and two pugs named Barry and Kevin – both who make it into the book. (Kevin’s misfortune are his short legs, whilst Barry’s has strange eyes). The book is dedicated to the pugs, along with Edward Gorey, a macabre American illustrator who has inspired Elliot for years. “He was wonderful,” explains Elliot, “and he did this series about little kids who all died horrendously. His stuff is very dark.”
We talk about Elliot’s own storytelling – which often involves people dying – and his uncompromising approach to character development. “Everything I do is based on biography, so I read a lot of biographies”, he explains. “I call my films “clayographies” – a word I invented. Everything in a story, whether it’s about a dog or a person, comes back to being someone’s biography. Once I have created a character, I treat them with respect, like real people, and would never do anything to them they wouldn’t approve of. I am obsessed with character and my theory is that if you’re laughing and enjoying a character just baking a cake then who cares about a plot.”
It’s an artistic ideal that has made Elliot a household name across the globe (he admits to getting emails about his films from places as far away as France and China). Yet, with the way the film industry is in Australia, his success has never made him any money. “I keep wondering if I will ever get paid properly,” he laments.” Then he looks at his watch. It’s time for him to get to that speaking engagement. He shrugs. “I earn more money talking about what I do than doing it.” He picks up the book one last time. “And it may be ironic that this little book will make more money than my films ever do.”