In the moving and utterly charming short film, Living With Autism: Ky’s Story, veteran Australian actor, Hugo Weaving, appears with his nephew, Ky Greenwood, who is autistic. Through beautifully rendered animation and Weaving’s calming, dulcet-toned narration, the audience is told about the often horribly misunderstood condition of autism, and how it affects not only people on the autism spectrum, but also their family and friends. In four sensitive, simple, and highly assured minutes, we learn more about autism than we could through any number of lectures or academic medical literature.
Living With Autism: Ky’s Story is the work of LiveLab, the commercial production arm of Griffith Film School in South Brisbane. LiveLab was set up in 2010 by Head Of Griffith Film School, Professor Herman Van Eyken, and is based on a model from a school in Brussels. The project’s whole raison d’etre is connecting students with the industry, and LiveLab is creating content all the time, with over 25 productions completed this year alone. Griffith Film School is the largest film school of its kind in Australia, housing a permanent in-house commercial studio. Their aim is to get students working on external projects, and to gain industry experience. Richard Fabb (who has worked on TV’s Hungry Beast, Legally Brown, and Can Of Worms) is LiveLab’s creative director (and is also a senior lecturer at Griffith), and he chatted with FilmInk about the creation of Living With Autism: Ky’s Story, which has been getting lots of media attention, and bundles of praise for the manner in which it makes the occasionally thorny subject of autism relatable and understandable.
What was the genesis of the project? How did it all start? “We were approached by Gold Coast Health – who we’d worked with before – in May last year to work on an animated film about ‘living with autism.’ The other partner in the project, and where the idea came from, was the company, Sentis [who partner with clients to drive significant and sustainable improvements in organisational performance]. One of their staff, William Greenwood, has a son, Ky, with autism. The pitch was to make a film that explains autism to a wide audience, promoting better understanding and awareness. Hugo was attached to do the voiceover; he is William’s brother-in-law and Ky’s uncle. One of our Honours animation students, Ashley Spiteri, took the project on, with screenwriting student, Ruth Griffin, coming on to work on the script. They took on the development of the project, with Ashley’s work supervised by local animator and motion graphics designer, Luke Harris, who I had worked with on the TV series, Hungry Beast; the LiveLab model is to place students with professional mentors to supervise work. We realised that the best way to make the film was to put the uncle-nephew relationship – the reason that Hugo was attached – at the centre. That meant getting Hugo in front of the camera, and fortunately, he said yes. He came to Griffith Film School, where a large team of students led by one of our best directors, Cameron March, shot the film’s live action top and tail in our sound stage. At this point, we knew that we had something special, and it was always a lot to expect one student to pull off this animation. So Luke and his company, Hotel Lima, took on completion of the project, drafting in Griffith Film School alumna, Alexis Dean-Jones, to do animation, with Ack Kinmonth to compose the score and David Williams to do sound design.”
We’ve interviewed Hugo Weaving a few times for various projects, and have always found him to be a lovely, lovely man. How did you and your students enjoy working with him on this project? “The students were incredibly excited at the prospect of working with Hugo, and on the day, there were certainly some nerves. But they all showed great professionalism; our students get a very thorough grounding in all skills and set etiquette, and it was impressive to see them at work. Cameron did a superb job as director, showing no signs of being intimidated by the situation. And Hugo was incredibly down to earth and put everyone at ease. He was kind enough to give more of his time, and our directing students got to attend an exclusive Q&A with him, talking about his experience with directors and his advice to emerging filmmakers.”
Did you work closely with Hugo Weaving on the script and topics covered? “Hugo had sight of the script, but we developed it closely with William, his wife Nicole, and Ky himself. It really is Ky’s story, based on his experiences. We also had input from Autism Queensland to make sure that it was accurate and authentic.”
The animation is a real highlight. Can you talk us through the creation of that? “Ashley did a lot of early development on character and tone. Alexis then took it on and finalised characterisation and overall style. Luke and Alexis carried through Ashley’s focus on the emotional connection between Hugo and Ky. A lot of work was put in to perfecting Hugo’s likeness – once his bearded features were shrunk down into a more simplified animated form, it didn’t always look like him, but we were happy in the end that it was Hugo. We also think that this is the first animated version of Hugo! Luke and Ashely also had to balance getting a degree of polish with the fact that this was still a very small team, with not a lot of time, and working on an incredibly small budget. The film was likely to find an audience young and old, so the style needed to appeal to both. There is great warmth in the animation, and something of Herge’s Tintin in the characters.”
Were there any tricky/unexpected moments during the shoot? “There were no real dramas. Hugo was up for the day, but with the Q&A factored in, we only had a limited time to complete. We were nervous that his plane might be cancelled or delayed. As it was, he was bang on time, and we finished filming early. The handshake ending was improvised on the day; we knew that we needed something to punctuate the ending, but we had to see how Ky would be. We were conscious that the setting – with lights and a lot of people – might be difficult for him. But he thrived, and he was helped a lot by Hugo’s presence and Cameron’s calm directing style. That handshake was just a beautiful moment that came about between Hugo and Ky under Cameron’s direction.”
Autism is such an inexplicably perplexing subject for many people. You’ve put it in such wonderfully simple and straightforward terms. Was it difficult to hit that balance? “It was at first. Information films can be a bit dry. At its heart, this was a personal story, and we needed a script to match. A lot of the refining of the script was about finding that emotional punch. It’s really Ky’s story, and we worked to tell that in a way that would connect, so we kept the language everyday, and avoided jargon, acronyms, and medical terminology.”
You’ve been getting a great response to the film. That must be affirming. Any plans on where you’ll be taking it next? “We always hoped that the film would find a wide audience. As someone with a broadcast background, I always tell the students how rewarding it can be to know that your work finds an audience…most student work just doesn’t. And this was an important message that needed to get out there. Hugo’s involvement was always going to help, and once we had him on camera, we knew that the potential was there. But the film had to be good too. There was a short animated film put out last year that had Kate Winslet narrating, called Daisy Chain, which gained a lot of exposure, and we took inspiration from that. When you read some of the responses to the film, it’s incredibly moving. It’s a reminder of just how many people autism does affect. We have talked about doing more, and Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick has indicated that there could be help with funding. Work like this can play a big part in changing public perceptions and improving health outcomes.”
And what projects do you have coming up at LiveLab? “We are part of a unique project with YouTube, called Create Queensland. We currently also have nineteen productions underway, making content for charities and not-for-profits. We’re also working with The State Library Of Queensland on a long form interview series for The James C. Sourris Collection Artist Interviews. We have also been closely involved with Griffith Film School’s work on the feature film, Bullets For The Dead. We’ve worked with Halfbrick Studios on content for their Fruit Ninja YouTube Channel. We’re underway on our first VR/360 degree project, making an interactive series of dramas about teens and alcohol, to roll out in schools. And we’re making a promo for Griffith’s own First People’s employment team, working with indigenous filmmaker, Douglas Watkin, whose film, Ella, just premiered at The Melbourne International Film Festival.”