The Adventures of Figaro Pho: phobia-filled director banks on trust
This article first appeared in IF magazine issue #149
Creator Luke Jurevicius says "trust" was the key to handing over his CGI-animated goth child Figaro to an all-Australian team for a $6 million TV series.
"I had to learn that you couldn't do it all yourself,” he says. “If you were super controlling and untrusting, production would grind to a halt. Once you've boarded the train, there ain't no hopping off so you've got to have trust and faith. That faith is built on evidence. I saw animation director David [Webster]'s TV series Erky Perky and thought 'wow, this is high end'. I also thought we could do better."
The Adventures of Figaro Pho, which screens on ABC3 in October, was based on Jurevicius' one-minute shorts in 2008 which won two AFI awards and was voted best animation series in the world at the 2009 Kidscreen awards.
The extended seven-minute episodes (39 in total), produced by Chocolate Liberation Front (CLF) and Omnilab Media's Ambience Entertainment, track the A-Z of phobias of the obsessive Figaro, an idea born out of the children book illustrator's aversion to artificial mint.
"I really tapped into my own insecurities. I looked within and out came fear. I was sitting at the family table and someone passed around a chocolate mint and I recoiled like a vampire would to a clove of garlic.
"It took me back to when I was a kid and we were forced to clean our teeth at school over pig troughs. The smell of triple stripe mint sent me into conniptions. I thought 'wouldn't it be good to have a character who was completely consumed by fears'."
Jurevicius says the character of Figaro has come a long way from the original sketches where he had no hands, wore a skirt and "looked like a sperm". He has also been given a mechanical dog Rivet in the latest series.
"I like characters where their flaws aren't a disadvantage… they are used as an advantage," Jurevicius says. "Figaro's fearful of everything but he does learn a little in the end. If he didn't grow in some way, it would be a dead-end plot."
Adelaide-based Jurevicius, who moved to Sydney for part of the 18-month production, directed the series with producer David Webster from Ambience Entertainment. Webster took on the animation director role as the bridge between Jurevicius and the animation team.
"Luke is concerned with story, music, animatics, and I handled the team. You can't do it all on your own," Webster says.
"We had 22 creative, post and storyboard artists in Adelaide; 10 writers, story editors and production staff in Melbourne; and 47 in Sydney who operated out of Studio Engine's Alexandria facility where all the equipment was also rented."
Webster says that while the software (Maya) and compositing tools (Nuke) were industry standard, Figaro broke ground in terms of production. The team produced an average of 28 seconds of animation a week which compares to about five seconds a week on a feature film.
He says Figaro followed the traditional animation process starting with a script which is put into a detailed storyboard showing all camera angles, paced out and voiceovers added.
"The better the storyboard, the better the guide, the better chance we get great animation," according to Webster.
Jurevicius, who has ambitions for a feature film around the $20 million mark, says story was key.
"We've seen that creatives aren't spending enough time on the story process. People are spending time on what looks good and forgetting about story. Audiences just want to connect and relate to the character. We want to create those beautiful moments in a film when you empathise with a lead."
Jurevicius also had the services of mentor and renowned art director Deane Taylor to build Figaro's world which he described as "putting the tower of Gaudi on top of the Rock of Gibraltar and filling it with cacti". Fellow Adelaidean Taylor's love of Gothic exaggeration, which was showcased in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, is evident in the series. (See break-out box.)
The director says that while Taylor brought him around to the Burton aesthetic, his main inspiration was Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), a darkly humorous illustrated book cataloguing an A-Z of increasingly gruesome deaths. His love of the Dr Seuss series and the "squash and stretch" approach of Chuck (Bugs Bunny) Jones' cartoons is also on show.
Figaro also follows a long line of silent comedians to which Jurevicius owes to the shortness of the original series. He says the scriptwriters "breathed a sigh of relief" when they were told there would be no dialogue and that story and performance would be the focus.
"I look at Mr Bean, which is performance based and hugely compelling, and had the belief we had good animators and good structure. All the classic cartoons such as The Road Runner have no dialogue. The hardest thing about the original series was keeping them to one minute. It was more ‘blink and you'll miss it’. We had a lot of story to tell but didn't have the time to tell it."
The issue of not having dialogue was something that didn't sway the ABC, which nurtured the project from the start. ABC Children's TV controller Tim Brooke-Hunt says "a lot of networks wouldn't take on a project without dialogue".
"Many prefer to have a script-based show, which they can sign off on rather than a storyboard-driven one." It's acknowledged that having no dialogue on the show, which is aimed at six-to14-year-olds, could also assist overseas sales as there's no need for translation.
ABC Commercial holds distribution rights for the US, Australia, Asia and South America. ZDF Enterprises has rights for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, while Distribution 360 has rights for Canada.
CLF producer Dan Fill says that while the 'made in Australia' component added considerably to the budget, compared to working in Asia or India, it was a conscious effort to maintain the quality of the original.
CLF are currently working on a Figaro game for touch screen devices, and in development with Jurevicius on a TV series titled Fantastic Forest aimed at pre-schoolers. Jurevicius is also working with brother Nathan for the ABC on cross-platform project Peleda, which is an online game interwoven with short animated films.
Since this article orginally went to print, The Adventures of Figaro Pho has won the 2013 AACTA award for best children's television series.