When anyone asks Queens, New York-based animator Elliot Cowan what the hardest thing about making a feature film mostly on his own was, his answer tends to be: “Everything.”
“Imagine putting your head in a vise and then every day for two years you turn the handle once,” Cowan says. “That’s what making this film was like.”
Cowan’s feature debut, The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead, is seemingly infused with the vise-like anxieties he felt over the course of creating it: the stress and misery of uprooting from scenic wilderness to filthy city (Cowan lived in Tasmania, off the Australian mainland, for nearly a decade before uprooting to London and finally moving to New York) and the agony of working every day in a loathed job.
But the world that Boxhead and Roundhead inhabit has never been exactly cheery. The characters were born as part of a children’s picture book project that Cowan deliberately conceived as the antithesis of the cutesy, colorful, trite nonsense that is the traditional stuff of picture books for young readers. He envisioned Boxhead and Roundhead—who have the charmingly crude appearance of basic geometric shapes stitched together—as stoic companions who endure all manner of dreadfulness, continuing to love each other in a world that hates them.
When the book wasn’t picked up, Cowan developed the duo’s adventures into a series of nine short films, and—along with their dynamic, floppy-limbed movements—the personalities of the characters continued to evolve.
Cowan sought to capture something subtler than their early Laurel and Hardy/Ren and Stimpy/bully and simpleton dynamic: “Initially the characters were simply two scared innocents who inhabit a world in which everything wishes them harm,” Cowan says.
“Then Boxhead became the stronger personality with an interest in machinery and Roundhead became the softer character with an interest in photography. I wanted them to be guys who have lived with each other for a very long time and know each other very well, so that even though they may have arguments and fallings out they still love and trust each other very much.”
After the Boxhead and Roundhead shorts screened at festivals around the world, including Annecy in 2007, a feature film was the next obvious stage of evolution. When nothing came of initially promising conversations with potential Australian partners, Cowan finally received a small amount of money from the Romanian Centre of Cinema and Romanian National Television, with whom one of his contacts had connections. “Not a lot of money,” says Cowan, “but enough to jump in and do it.”
Cowan carved time out to work on the film in New York, while teaching part-time at the Pratt Institute, Mercy College, the University of the Arts, and Queens College, and freelancing on the side. The bulk of the work was done during two grueling summer breaks.
The film, animated in After Effects and Flash, sees Boxhead and Roundhead with no option but to venture into the big city for the first time. With production design by Neil Campbell Ross (The Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the characters come face to face with a multitude of urban horrors, in scenes infested with rats, garbage, grime, and shit.
Cowan says that these scenes mirror his experiences first arriving in New York, with Cowan struggling to find work and his wife forced to pick up the financial slack.
But, for all the despair drenching the film, Cowan insists that the real anxiety emerged after the film was completed, in trying to actually get it seen.
“My film was never going to be captain of the football team or head cheerleader. It’s too rough around the edges for that, so it becomes about, ‘Who is going to love my ugly baby? Won’t someone love my ugly baby as I love it?’”
After the film’s premiere in Cowan’s hometown Melbourne, at the Melbourne International Animation Festival, Cowan endured several months of rejections that made him, in his words, “hate the fucking thing”.
Lately, though, Cowan’s ugly baby has been showered with the love and attention it deserves. In April, the film screened at the Montreal International Animation Festival and Germany’s Independent Days Filmfest. This week, the film screens in Bulgaria’s Golden Kuker International Animation Film Festival.
“I like to think it’s wholly embraced and loved by all who see it,” says Cowan. “So now everything’s good and I feel all clever and talented.”
Cowan is currently in discussions with “people more sensible than me” about making the film available online. He is noticeably nonchalant about the prospect of actually making money from it. “I’ve gotten to the point where I just want to get it online and in front of faces for people to see.”