Ricard Cussó was always certain he wanted to create stories. “I always wanted to do something to do with film, tv and cinema. When I moved from Spain to Australia, I pursued acting but then I realised, what I really loved was having the ability to create.” Now, with his first feature film A Wishmas Tree in the can and released nationally around Australia, Ricard looks forward to the new opportunities and projects to create, along with the rest of the team at Like A Photon Creative (LAPC), who produced the film.
The Brisbane-based LAPC became the first company in Australian history to score a three-movie deal with Universal Content Group, with all three financed at once: The Wishmas Tree, Combat Wombat and Daisy Quokka, World’s Scariest Animal, all a part of ‘The Tales of Sanctuary City’ franchise; and all to be filmed in their newly built Queensland studio.
Although the impressive partnership allowed for new opportunities, it also presented new challenges for the LAPC staff who were intent on keeping the creation of the film in Brisbane. “We had to create a new studio, just to be able to make these films; we knew we wanted Queensland crew because there’s just so much talent here that isn’t being exploited, so we found a little space in Rocklea, just south of Brisbane’s CBD.”
With a relatively small budget and a strict deadline, Cussó and the team at LAPC had to think quickly about how to best present a quality cinematic feature film. “We wanted to exceed expectations. The team has done an incredible job to achieve that, and I think that the animation and the quality of the rendering and the characters, the lighting and the design, everything was designed around the limitations but these limitations have helped us and taken this film to what it is now.”
The Wishmas Tree follows ringtail possum Kerry (Miranda Tapsell) on a daring adventure with Yarra, the Frilled-neck Lizard (Ross Noble) to save her hometown Sanctuary City and all who live there.
With support from Screen Queensland and Screen Australia, A Wishmas Tree is represented by Odin’s Eye Entertainment internationally, and has already been released in Australia, New Zealand and the Ukraine.
Once I watched this film, I couldn’t help but think about the Australian wildlife in the Australian bushfires; it’s quite timely that this film has been released and is able to educate young children about looking after our wildlife.
Yeah, I think that when Universal approached us and said, ‘okay, let’s build this cinematic universe for children’, we knew from the get-go what we wanted to approach was showing kids how the world could be and what could be different from what it is now. The idea was to always build stories coming from one central point, which ended up being Sanctuary City. The concept was creating a city that children could look upto and get inspired by and hopefully when they grow up they want to try and live and build a world like that. I think we try to embody all the messages about environment and taking care of one another and community. At the end of the day we just wanted to celebrate Australian wildlife because you rarely see it on screen, and having lead characters being wombats and possums as opposed to the typical kangaroo or koala, is something that we wanted to show the world.
Why animation? What is it about animation that attracts you?
I just fell into it really. The two owners of LAPC – Kristen Souvlis comes from a producing background and she’s done a bunch of live-action content, and Nadine Bates was a writer who created a show back in the day called Balloon Barnyard, which was for Disney Junior and ended up being an animation tv show with animated animals. That’s the reason they built LAPC, to create Balloon Barnyard. We had all these live action projects in development but for some reason animation was the one that kept getting picked up, so I’m guessing there was a hunger for it in Australia or in general in the industry. There was nothing that said, ‘Hey, I decided to do animation’, the project came up with Universal and we decided we’d do the 3 films with Sanctuary City, and that’s how it happened. We aren’t closing ourselves to live action, it’s just luck of the draw.
There is such a creative process to animation, how do you deal with a creative block or a barrier to your inspiration?
We didn’t really have time to deal with creative blocks. We were working with such a tight budget which meant tight schedules. Universal said to us that they wanted us to pitch 10 different movies, so we had our writers’ rooms for a week and got Australian writers, myself, the producers all in one room and we developed these 10 stories and we pitched them to Universal and they picked the 3 that they liked most. From there, out of those 3, for example, with A Wishmas Tree, Peter Ivan then went away, and he wrote the script and then that came back to us. Once we went into pre-production, knowing the budget – we didn’t want to put any barriers in terms of creativity for Peter or any of our writers, so we said just go write the film – and then when it came back, that’s when we started. We would say ‘We have to reuse sets’ or ‘reuse characters’ or ‘Maybe there’s too much action that we won’t be able to achieve, how about we change it to more comedy” and things like that, so we were doing many storyboard passes and revisions. The turnaround is just so quick, we didn’t really feel stuck and we had to keep moving.
Where does a director start in animation?
I started right at the beginning, developing content. I remember during the first couple of days of the writers’ room, we were still coming up with all the ideas and we had this board in the room and we were discussing how this city looked. I made this crude drawing – we’ve got the center which is like the Sanctuary peak and inside we’ve got this Wishmas tree and all the world around it and the suburbs and we’ve got the wildlife. We had this image and that’s probably how the first concept art – in a very rough, crude way – existed. And until today, that image is still pretty close to what we have. So, the image of Sanctuary City, the idea of this crater that struck and this civilisation came from it, stayed true from the moment of conception right up until now.
What’s harder, getting started or to keep going?
That’s a tricky one. In context, getting started was difficult because we were setting up the visual style, visual language and the animated style not only for the first movie but the movies to come. It took a lot of time to find the right look and what was achievable with our production and with our budget, and the first one is always the toughest because you’re just finding your feet. It was my first feature film and we were just opening the studio and building the studio so there were a lot of unknowns at that point. Once A Wishmas Tree was completed and Combat Wombat continued, I think that to keep going is easier just because you find your feet and definitely for your animaters, they get the style of the first one and they just keep moving on and the same with the art department and our art director, you kind of get the flow. Setting all these films in the same world kind of makes it easier in the long run, so getting started was definitely more difficult.
What was the most challenging part about making this film and how did you overcome it?
Definitely having such a small budget. It was a hundredth of what a big Pixar film would have, so with a tight budget comes a very tight schedule. Creating a feature film quality with that amount of resources, it’s tough. As a team, we knew we had to make sacrifices and we knew we were limited but we still really pushed and we still wanted to exceed expectations. The easy example is that we knew we had this budget and we could never do fur, and it’s something that you always looked at on the Hollywood animated movies, everything has fur and incredible surfaces and materials. We knew we couldn’t have any of that so we thought we’ve got to show these striking characters in a very stylistic way because we can’t do fur – so how do we show it?
It was all about working within your limitations so there was only a certain amount of characters we could make and a certain amount of environments we could create and finding clever ways in the script to re-utilise locations and re-utilise characters and finding smart ways to show scenes where we have hundreds of characters like the Wishmas ceremony that involves every citizen, so we had to go back to basics and cheating the eye of the audience in focusing on one thing and then using sound design and music and colour to give the illusion that the place is crowded.
Those sorts of challenges are what made it the movie that it is now. There’s also less time for revisions so everyone just has to be on top of their game. We didn’t expect the love and devotion that every single one of our crew put in, because even the team is so much smaller compared to what you would have on big picture films, so everyone put in 200%.
What was it like working with Miranda Tapsell and Ross Noble?
Miranda was such a perfect match for the character Kerry because she is bubbly and has all this explosive personality and she brought it into the studio. We had a lot of fun there and I think that she really liked the film and liked Kerry and was up for it. She had done animation before too so it was easy. And Ross, I don’t think he had done animation before but he was a natural, we didn’t want to use his Ross Noble voice because we didn’t want to take the audience away, so he did a great job coming up with this quirky voice for this frilled-neck lizard and our co-producer built him a stick, the actual prop, so he had that with him in the room and we used his improvisational skills and a lot of that came into the film so we had a lot of fun.
This film brought back some memories for me, back when I was watching Blinky Bill on the tele. In those days, that was the only platform available. Today, kids have access to various online platforms such as Netflix and youtube that they primarily watch American series on. How do you hope children will respond to this film?
I’m hoping it’s refreshing. What we are trying to do is sell Australian movies with Australian voices, and I think today kids are used to watching films and everything is in an American accent. Something comes along like A Wishmas Tree, and there’s a possum and I’d hope they get some ownership of it because we want this movie to be for all Australians and all children and I hope there is a hunger for more Australian content that represents Australian culture and community.
What sorts of projects are LAPC looking to make?
LAPC is really growing really quickly now and I think our amazing work speaks for itself. We are looking at expanding and taking advantage of creating multiverses. We have a digital branch in our company, and for example, there’s a video game that is related to the film so we are trying build different worlds and different scenarios.
What makes LAPC?
We have always pushed for amazing quality and to tell amazing stories. We really want to show and push female-led films, shows and stories because there isn’t enough of it. We have 3 feature films and all of them are led by amazing strong, powerful female characters. I think that is really important for us. We are not just looking at animation, we definitely have the skills and capabilities of live-action. We’re also not centred on animals, we do love doing children’s content and have a lot of stuff in development from teenagers, to adult to older age so we are just trying to tell as many stories as we can and hope they come from an Australian origin. We are always keen to work with anyone who has great ideas and is eager to collaborate and find new ways to tell stories.
What advice would you give to first-time film makers who are chasing funding and wanting to create their own film whether its animation or live action?
Surround yourself with the most creative people that you can find and not only creative but also good-hearted people. There are so many people eager to do great things and the amount of people that is here in Queensland, there is so much talent, so you just need to surround yourself with those people who are eager and have a great idea. From a funding point of view, find producers that know about government funding agencies and look for support from Screen Queensland, because those bodies are there to help you and promote what we have here. Find those writers, find those producers, find other directors who have the same spirit as you do because they definitely exist and just create and never give up.
The Wishmas Tree is in cinemas now. Combat Wombat and Daisy Quokka, World’s Scariest Animal will be released in 2020/21.