Most of us grew up watching cartoons. Disney aside, most of what I receive as funny came from Chuck Jones and his Looney Toons crew, Fractured Fairy Tales and, much later, The Tick. Production values were never high on my list, just the quality of the humor. Anyway, a few years back, I had rare access to cable TV while I was doing a reading in Upstate New York. I got to stay up late watching IFC, the Independent Film Channel, saw the overrated ‘Driver’ with Ryan Gosling, and then it happened. I got my socks totally knocked off by Elliot Cowan’s The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead, the short ‘Crumb Factory’ featuring the music of They Might Be Giants.
Turns out ‘Crumb Factory’ was a gateway drug for me. Cowan has made scores of B & R shorts and his first feature is doing the rounds at film festivals. Defining what he does and why it’s funny is almost impossible. Buried in his eclectic box of tricks are the influences of Gerald Scarfe, Terry Gilliam, R. Crumb, Fritz Lang, Chuck Jones, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Edward Gorey. What also becomes apparent when you see his work is that the production vales are fantastic. It’s not enough to be able to draw and use a rotoscope these days. CGI rules and Cowan seems to be a master of every aspect of computer generated technology.
A native of Melbourne, Australia, he has followed his star from Oz to London to New York City, choosing to remain independent while working as a visiting lecturer at The New School, the Pratt Institute, Mercy College and the University of the Arts.
Elliot Cowan: Q & A
Q – I’ve been looking at your resumé while, at the same time, watching your stuff again. And it seems like, beyond all the film festivals you enter your work in, you are teaching or working at four different colleges and universities and married with a kid. How’s your relationship with sleep and sleepwalking these days? Do you thrive on that?
A – I don’t thrive on it but I don’t have much of a choice. I’ve always been a bit of an insomniac so it’s really just more of the same. I was listening to ‘Sleep Week’ on NPR and some guy was listing the sinister side effects of lack of sleep (stroke, heart attack, etc.). This was followed up with a guy saying that the recommended amount of sleep was based on an average and that many of the world’s brilliant minds only get four or five hours a night. So it’s all good…
Parents. Your stuff makes me think of Australians and parents. Is anyone else of an artistic bent in your immediate family? Are they funny? Was your dinner table as a kid a gaggle of giggles? Most funny people I know come from dinner tables where it’s like combat. Did you get in trouble for like what I used to do, which was by drawing pictures of certain teachers having sex?
My family is amusing, I guess. They’re not unfunny. It’s not like I lived in a house full of Billy Connolly’s but nobody is especially dour (except me sometimes). And we didn’t really sit together at the dinner table except for certain occasions but maybe I’m remembering it wrong. It all seems like a million years ago… I didn’t draw my teachers having sex but I did draw lots of naked girls to impress my friends, that’s for sure.
I write for a Men’s mag, as you know. We’re all smut-minded and needy. So can you tell me what sort of girls you drew. Are Australians as breast mad as the English? Was this drawing gift seen in a positive way by the young ladies in school? Any thoughts on the way the female form seems to be more distorted by American cartoonists. One anthropological colleague of mine believed that Americans have rendered expectations of the female form into wish fulfillment via cartoonists to plastic surgeons. Gravity seems to never bother American cartoon girls.
Let me work my way through this… In high school I drew mostly weird porn-y girls to impress my friends. Terrible drawings. None of them exist anymore (at least I don’t have any). I think that most men who like naked women appreciate breasts regardless of their nationality, race or religion. High school girls have NO interest, positive or negative, in the cartoon guy unless he’s an attractive fellow in the first place. I don’t think any of them gave a solitary shit about anything I was drawing (nor should they have!). I’m not sure women’s bodies are drawn in a more exaggerated way by American cartoonists than any others. Go check out Instagram or the Google and you’ll see.
Which brings me to something a bit complicated, before asking more specifically about your work. You’ve lived in the Oz, England and the States and I assume you send your son to what they call Public School in the States. I’m assuming you had access to the arts from when you were little, as did I, although I have no idea what it’s like now. Where my kid goes to school, although it’s a magnet academy with more than a few strong departments, there is no art department. Simply none! Had you grown up here, it’s possible that no one would have known about or recognized your talent. As a parent, a teacher and an artist, I wondered what you thought about that?
My kid is only just 4 years old and at the moment only has (for better or worse) a minor interest in drawing and painting. Obviously as an artist I think that all children should have access to some means of expression, but I’m not certain they should HAVE to do it. I had to do Phys Ed/Gym in school and hated every damned second of it. But I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. Now I get why they want children to do some physical activity, but not all kids are geared towards team sports (which is what my PE classes consisted of) in exactly the same way that not all kids are interested or capable of expressing themselves via painting or drawing or singing or whatever.
Maybe it depends on the teacher. A good art teacher should be able to find some hook to get their kids doing some interesting stuff, and in that case I think it’s great that they all have to do it. My boy is in Pre K and he seems to not mind drawing in school but maybe if his teachers find an angle for him when he’s older he’ll slip back into it.
Did you have a particular teacher or mentor back in Melbourne? How old were you when you knew what you wanted to be?
I did not especially excel in high school but had very, very good art school experiences. This was mostly due to my teachers, Steve Pascoe, Christine Georgiou, Helene Almidis and Terry Matasoni. I had always drawn and been interested in animation and art but really had no one to give me real direction beyond the stuff I could find on my own. These guys pretty much said to us “Forget all this crap that’s in your head and let’s find some new and exciting things to do with your talents.” They really did introduce me to the idea of thinking and living like an artist. Challenging what’s expected of you and to question as much as possible.
I try to adopt the same methods with my own students but it’s hard. I wonder if I was so resistant.
Also—I had a friend introduce me to They Might Be Giants and Tom Waits. When I look back on that (which coincided with my art school experience) I can see what an enormous effect it has had on myself and my work to this day.
How does one ‘live like an artist?’ Why is it hard with students?
Well, living like an artist is going to mean something different to anyone you’re going to ask, but for me it means two specific things. I am driven to take an idea and express it in a visual way. I think it’s important to question the kinds of things that are societal norms. It’s about not just accepting what the world delivers to you, but challenging it constantly.
It’s hard with students here in the US because they have so many other things to consider, mostly the colossal debt they’ll sink into shortly after they graduate. You have to have the right circumstances to get them to let go and grab art by the horns and kick it in the nuts. I do my best. I play the Wayne White documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing to all my new classes. It’s one of the most inspirational things I’ve seen in years and I hope some of the infectious nature of that feller rubs off on them a bit. Even if it’s only a tiny nugget maybe it’ll germinate after they graduate and can clear their heads a bit. He’s also an animation-y, cartoony, puppet-y guy, so he’s someone that many of them relate to.
How come Tom Waits and TMBG were so profound for you?
Both TMBG and Tom Waits were two musicians whose work I had not heard before. Tom Waits I knew of — he’d infamously appeared very drunk on the late night The Don Lane Show during the early 80s. They Might Be Giants I understood immediately. I ‘got’ them. Like the Muppets they are a group who say, “Here is all our stuff and if you like if you can be a part of it.” There’s not a lot I ever feel a part of (like the Muppets), so I was happy to join in. Waits’ work I didn’t immediately love. It took some effort. Bone Machine was the first album of his I’d heard and it took some study to find the music in what appeared to be noise at first. The more effort I put in the more rewarding I was finding the music. Kind of like learning a new language.
It was something I’d never heard before but it was intriguing and fascinating and I wanted to find out if it was something I wanted to know more about. And of course I like the storytelling from both musical groups.
As I grew up the thing I really responded to was, even though the Giants and Tom did not have a lot of musical similarities, they did have a commonality – they have spent their careers doing their own thing. Without being tied down or pigeon holed. And for better or worse they walk their path and whoever wants to follow them down it is invited to do so.
I went to film school as an undergraduate and have lots of toon-artist friends. Did you do very traditional old-school cell drawing and work with rotoscopes, etc., or are you a guy who went to computers even early on? The reason I ask is because just as with claymation, animation is slow, painstaking work. I don’t know if you’re a fast worker or what?
The last time I worked on cells was 1996 and the last time I worked on paper was maybe 1998.
I do not miss either in either the tiniest way. I draw on paper every day but working on paper when you are animating, especially if you’re working commercially, is something I wouldn’t even contemplate.
The amount of work is actually about the same, but the workflow is very different. Working on paper requires lots and lots of testing, which makes the production top heavy and then filters down to busy-work as you progress. Working digitally lets you test as you go which means that clients are seeing results sooner and that suits them rather more. There are pros and cons to both of course but I’m happy working digitally.
Forgive me for being a layman, but have Painter 11, Adobe CS6, and Photoshop changed your world? A lot of artists of all kinds I know are pretty encumbered and intimidated by technology in general. I was wondering if sometimes you get young talent who may be great at art, per sé, but find tech and machines a bitch.
If you want to work as a commercial animator then you have to know how to use the basic software packages or you simply will not work. By “commercial work” I mean work you are paid to do for commercial interests, not just television commercials. If you want to make your own films and have no interest in commercial work then work in whatever medium suits you best. Most students arrive these days with some understanding of the software necessary and I wonder if in the future it’ll be mandatory for admission.
I do get some students who are terribly leery of working digitally. They are not required to do so for their projects but I encourage them to learn the appropriate software. As long as they don’t expect to work for Pixar, then I don’t care if they’re working on paper.
On your resumé you say, “I have a distinct personal style and point of view.” So, I could say a thousand things about your work, most of them complimentary, and probably make some hackneyed, trite comparatives to other artists. There’s definitely no one else out there who does what you do. So would you talk about you and your work, please?
There are LOTS of artists doing what I’m doing and some of them are doing it a lot better than myself! I’m happy to talk about my work but you’re going to have to be more specific!
I was wondering if you saw the Tim Burton show at the MCA?
Nope. Not really interested. I’d have been goofy for it in my early 20s but not so much now. Tim Burton is a fine art director but has not made many films that I really love. His Ed Wood is the best thing he’s done, I think, and that’s the film with least Burton trappings.
I look at your work and I think maybe you were the only one who may have not been influenced at all by the triumvirate, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Maybe everybody in the whole wide world was. When they were all really old they accused each other of plagiarism, it kind of cracks me up. Were you watching something else? Or maybe its good to work alone?
There’s actually quite a bit of Chuck Jones in my work if you know what to look for. In Australia during the 60-70s there was a massive flood of international migrants into the country. To accompany these new people there was a television channel set up to serve their needs. The news from Greece, Chinese soap operas. Later on the Iranian version of The Nanny, I think. International movies, documentaries and a dedication to a global news service. When I was about 7 years old… maybe I was 10… the channel (SBS) would run a 3 or 4 hour block of international animation that had a very big impact on me. I knew at the time that none of my friends were watching it and I enjoyed the feeling of being the only person who was seeing it.
I’m a bit of an isolationist, really. Most of my career I’ve been paid to come onto a job for me and the things I do. This works very well for me but it’s also excluded me from bigger projects that I’d have once liked to have been a part of. Most young animators dream of a stint at Disney or wherever and it’s hard to shake that longing even though I think most of the films are unremarkable. I’m actually more influenced by writers and illustrators than other animators.
I see them in your work, Burton, Gilliam, Scarfe, definitely Ralph Steadman. I would love to put you two in a room together.
Burton and Steadman not a lot. I discovered Gerald Scarfe when I was about 7 years old and was obsessed for years. Gilliam is my favorite filmmaker so I’d be all up for that. See if you can arrange that for me.
I have no idea where it comes from, but in a kind of German Expressionist way B and R are kind of like Dr. Caligari’s Somnambulist Servant. Fucking awesome!
I’ll take that, sure. It’s not on purpose but I went to art school and I love films so it’s got to be lurking around in my brain somewhere.
So, having dosed myself on your work for a couple of weeks. I’ve been having all these Jungian-type flag/symbolism dreams in B&W. A close friend of mine who’s a ridiculously overpaid big shot at (advertising house) Leo Burnett gave me this long read on your work as post-modernist adventures of two dicks, Jew and gentile, against the cruel world, working their way through a fantasy of willful innocence and bliss while it turns out that actually they are the psychopaths.
Not sure what the question is here. Do I agree? It’s most accurate except for the Jew/Gentile stuff. They’re not psychopaths though. They’re very loving. Be sure to send the Burnett big shot my reel…
I’m not sure what the question was, either. Something to with being ‘cut’ and uncut’ and mushroom heads… Never mind! B & R definitely seem to have periods of ‘loving’ but then ‘boom!’ No happy endings, for sure. Having done that kind of thing years ago at Foote, Cone & Belding (another advertising house), I wonder if you’d fit in that kind of creation-by-committee mode, although I guess that’s sort of what Pixar and Disney are like, too?
I’d be very happy to be involved with and be paid by any big studio who might think I could bring something useful to their films but I’m not sure my way of doing things would be entirely welcome. So the answer is, “I’ll do anything for money and contribute all I’ve got to give but it’s hard to imagine being invited to play.”
Do you have any thoughts on what’s funny? The lines of good taste and taboo? Got any favorite comedians? Everybody seems to have a hard-on for Louis CK. Any thoughts?
Holy shit, that’s a broad one. Louis CK is a funny guy, sure. I don’t like his surreal stuff so much but I do appreciate it. The other Louis, Lewis Black, is someone I like a lot. I’ve been a devotee of Billy Connolly most of my life. I like Colbert and Jon Stewart. I’ll happily watch Funniest Home Videos for hours at a time. I love that shit. I grew up with the usual British collection of Python and Fawlty Towers and The Goodies. Since moving to the US I’ve finally learned to love Curb Your Enthusiasm. I could keep going but it’ll get boring.
Your work keeps winning accolades and prizes. So I was wondering if you had goals to make a 90-minute picture, like ‘The Triplets of Belleville?’ That’s pretty intense subject matter, too. Something longer along the road, or are you content sort of ‘as is?’
I’ve not won a prize in a while. I finished a Boxhead and Roundhead feature earlier in the year.
Let me know if you want to watch it because you may have some more questions…
Have you ever received any reaction from They Might Be Giants about the awesome crumb song?
Enthusiasm mostly. I got to spend an hour talking to John Flansburg from the band, which was a real treat. As I mentioned earlier they were very influential so it was exciting to chat. I was sitting on the crapper at the time.
You’ve got this ability—which means extreme good taste in my book—of never overdoing the music, or the background noise. Do you haves a philosophy about that? So much of movies, and I don’t just mean the Hollywood kind, but independents and art house movies from abroad show a need to fill out space. No dialog can stop or not be interrupted by relentless music… Yet you are a past master of silences and pregnant pauses. What is it you know?
It’s pretty simple. I steal a lot from The Coen Brothers.
As you have a little boy and so many children these days are raised in front of the TV up until the age of four or five because mom and dad are working, do have any thoughts on all that ‘Arthur’-type toon stuff being fed to kids?
Most animation made for kids is terrible shit but if he wants to watch it then I don’t mind so much.
He’s also keen on Pacific Rim and Star Wars so I think I’m showing him some good stuff. If it’s turning kids onto animation (and they learn to set it aside when they get to art school) there’s nothing really wrong with it.
Kids who want more than what’s put in front of them will seek it out or have some other clever person show it to them.
Well, there’s no doubt about it, the guy certainly knows how to paint a picture. If you’re interested in the new Boxhead &Roundhead full-length feature, here’s the trailer: