Feature: The Gradual Demise of Phillipa Finch

10 February, 2011 by Amanda Diaz

Phillipa Finch was born in a Sydney bookstore ten years ago.

"I was working for Berkelouw Books in Paddington," recalls creator Emma Magenta. "I started developing this character that was in denial of her emotional life, so I started of doing a lot drawings and writing about her. Sometimes I'd even call myself Phillipa Finch."


Now in 2011, The Gradual Demise of Phillipa Finch is a cross-platform story featuring an iphone app, a book, an interactive website and an animated series.

An author and illustrator, Magenta had never considered animation until she was approached by Hopscotch executive Rachel Okine at a book launch.

"I didn't want to do an animation of something I'd already done," she says. "So I thought this would be a good opportunity to do Phillipa.

"It was a short film idea at first. And then we realized it was going to work better as a series, that's when ABC picked it up."

As the show's writer and director, Magenta didn't want the animation to be too detailed or overdeveloped. She compares the style of Phillipa Finch to that of the children's series Miffy.

"I like nuances," she says. "I like mistakes; I like simplicity- that real sort of child like quality."

Scene from The Gradual Demise of Phillipa Finch

In the series prologue, Phillipa is 'dead' after a series of failed relationships. Jaded and bruised, she is the pin-up girl for the emotionally thwarted. After seeking solace in a range of hobbies and obsessive compulsive tendencies, it takes a reminder from her long forgotten true self to remind her how to love properly.

Magenta says that Phillipa's journey through her botched romances with characters like Piano Man, Skater Boy and Mr Lonely Planet is autobiographical.

"All the characters that I create are like little sub-personalities that I experience within my own day to day movements through the world," she says. "Putting this personal project in the hands of other people freaked me out."

While Magenta wrote and illustrated the book (out in April),  an art installation and an interactive website were designed by digital workshop Based on Birds.

Known as The Waking Heart, the installation will run for the duration of the television series in the front window of Berkelouw Books (Phillipa's birthplace).

The project is directly related to one of the main features of the Phillipa Finch website: the Heartwork creator, a program which encourages users to put together abstract art works influenced by their emotional state. 

(Heartwork creators gauge their outlook by answering a number of questions. One particular section involves deciding which mythical creatures you most identify with –  a crazy wolf person, an unrelenting zombie, a cranky abominable snowman or a resentful owl.)

A live feed in the shop window will capture the heartworks being drawn, with an automated drawing machine used to form a large collective artwork

"I'm addicted to them," admits Magenta. "Looks like I'm not over the hard yards yet, emotionally."

Phillipa and Journey Man, Mr Lonely Planet, The Dark Lord, Piano Man and Skater Boy

Where the heartworks are user generated, the iphone app functions a metaphor for Phillipa's ideals of love. It is a tactical game in which the boyfriends are the obstacles the player must overcome.

The game can be played without prior knowledge of the series.

"Each component of this project can exist in itself," says Magenta. "Each person has created something quite beautiful with what I've given them."

The series is narrated by award-winning actor Toni Collette.

"I didn't even think to ask Toni," says Magenta, who illustrated Collette's children's book Planet Yawn. "But she offered to do it, and she's done an amazing job."

Though Phillipa Finch is such a personal story, her alter ego and creator believes that the subject matter is universal.

"Everyone's had a broken heart," she says. "Unless you've been really lucky."

The first episode of The Gradual Demise of Phillipa Finch airs on Tuesday, Feb 15 at 10pm on ABC1 and on ABC2 at 9:55pm on Sunday Feb 20. Visit the website here and check out the iphone app here