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Making the feature length claymation drama, Mary and Max, was, to writer/director Adam Elliot, “like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time,” he explains to Andrew L. Urban. Producer Melanie Coombs likens it more to “running a marathon with two screaming, vomiting children ...” which doesn’t sound as quick. HEAR Andrew's interview (14 mins).

Mary and Max was the first Australian feature to be screened as the Opening Night film at Sundance (2009); it was also the first animation to open the festival (and only the second animated stop motion feature film made in Australia). That’s a reasonably high profile world premiere for a film about two pen friends across the world, but Adam Elliot had already had his credentials shined by an Academy Award for his claymation short, Harvie Krumpet. Encouraged by the popularity and success of Harvie, Adam set about making a more ambitious film.

"an unlikely pen-friendship"

It’s the story of an unlikely pen-friendship that develops between Mary Dinkle (voices of Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette), a chubby, lonely, eight year old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44 year old, severely obese, Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome, living in the chaos of New York. Their correspondence reveals their fears, foibles and obsessions, including chocolate and a TV show. When Mary uses her newfound knowledge about Aspies for a book on the subject, Max feels used and abandons the friendship, leaving Mary despondent. She goes on with her life, sadly, with obstacles that include her parents and the young man next door, Damien (Eric Bana) who seems an ideal Mr Right ….

Mary represents Adam, who has had a New York pen friend very much like Max, for 20 years. That is perhaps why the film is darker than you might expect from an animated film: it’s about real life and real people and real pain.

“Mary and Max is my fourth animated film,” says Adam, “and up until now each of my films has explored the life of a singular person. With Mary and Max I explore two simultaneous biographies. I see this film as the third major artistic leap in the creation of my films over the last ten years.”

But, say both producer Melanie Coombs and Adam, had they known the level of difficulty they set themselves, had they REALLY known, Mary and Max may never have been made. How difficult and complicated? Here are just some of the logistics, which doesn’t count the co-ordination and communication issues or touch on things going wrong:

"almost five years from script to screen"

It has taken almost five years from script to screen. The shoot ran for 57 weeks with a production crew of 50 people working together to produce an average of two and half minutes of animation a week. Each of the six animators on average created 4 seconds a day. There are approximately 132,480 individual frames in the film, which was shot on six high-resolution Canon digital stills cameras. There were ten animation stages overseen by a camera department of seven.

Adam was also the production designer and designed all the characters. Adam is inspired by the New York photographer Diane Arbus’ black and white portraits, which explore difference. There is a character modelled on Diane Arbus who appears briefly, looking out a window, in the opening New York montage.

Adam also hand drew any lettering needed for such things as miniature beer bottle labels, street signs and a lot of the actual letters between Mary and Max. The sets and props concept designs, were created by a company called Square I, who spent hundreds of hours drawing every asset first, before it was handmade by the art department.

The 212 puppets made for the film from a variety of polymers, clays, plastics and metals. The complex puppets had fully articulated ball and socket armatures. There were up to a dozen multiples of the lead characters.

133 separate sets were constructed for the film. The film is set in the suburbs of Australia and the metropolis of New York, with two very different colour palettes, (brown for Australia, grey for America). The diversity and complexity of the sets was extreme; everything from a desert island to a chocolate heaven. The New York skyline set was the biggest and most time consuming and took the entire art department crew of twenty people, two months to complete.

For detail, 475 miniature props were made, everything from a miniature hand blown wine glass to a fully functioning Underwood typewriter, (which took one prop maker 9 weeks to design and build).

"Over 1026 mouths were cast"

To enable the characters to speak and have expression they needed plasticine replacement mouths that were removed and replaced every frame. Over 1026 mouths were cast by pouring melted plasticine into rubber moulds. Max had over 30 mouths so he could express his emotions and speak.

Plus: 886 plasticine hands with wire skeletons (armatures) were cast and prepared;
394 individual pupils, the average size of a ladybird, were hand punched and then had a white sparkly dot painted on them; 147 tailor made costumes were designed and created by two costume designers. Mary’s wedding dress was based on Lady Diana’s and Ivy’s jumpsuit was modelled on photographer Annie Liebowitz’s mother’s jumpsuit; 38 miniature light globes were needed to be designed, built, wired and lit for everything from a miniature lampshade, to the headlights on an ice cream van;
808 miniature Earl Grey tea bag boxes were hand cut, folded, glued, wrapped and airbrushed. At one point everyone from the producer to the runner helped create these teabag boxes; 632 rubber moulds were needed to create the massive number of characters, sets and props. Everything from eyeballs to floorboards was moulded at some point; 120 Noblets were made and their creators were given a great deal of freedom with their designs, some of which are quite risqué; 73 kilos of plasticine were used to make the mouths, hands and original sculpts of the puppets. Each batch of plasticine had to be perfectly colour matched and mixed for exact texture, consistency and melting point.

Now you try it.

Published April 9, 2009

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