Pathos in Plasticine

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For miranda dear, sbs independent's commissioning editor for drama, he landed on her desk accompanied by a handwritten note. It was March 2003, and it had taken Melbourne animator Adam Elliot three years to get the right ingredients and balance of flavors for his 22-min. short film Harvie Krumpet. "Well, here he is," the note declared, "almost fully baked!!!"

He's now cooking with gas. Forget Cate, Nicole or any of the other expected hopefuls - Harvek Milos Krumpetzki, an eccentric Polish migrant with pallid skin and ears protruding like Duchamp urinals, is Australia's unlikeliest Oscar contender. Last month the fictional Krumpet's life epic, from his Polish pine-forest birth before World War II to his Alzheimer's fug in a Melbourne retirement village, garnered his Claymation creator a nod for Best Short Film (Animated) at next week's Academy Awards ceremony. Up against toon titans Pixar, Disney and Blue Sky, Elliot and his tragicomic creation, who endures Tourette's syndrome and testicular cancer before seizing the day as an avid animal liberationist and nudist, is perhaps the ultimate underdog. (Seven years ago, an Oscar went to a similarly off-kilter outsider - Shine's Geoffrey Rush, whose presence as Harvie Krumpet's narrator lends the film an added poignancy.) "I deal with characters who are different," says Elliot, 32. "I'm more interested in anti-heroes - characters with afflictions."

His own, he says, are limited to a hereditary hand tremor, which gives his drawing style its distinctive wobble. His characters also endure adversity - from the grumbling colostomy bag of Uncle (1996), the first in a trilogy of shorts acquired by broadcaster sbs, to the cerebral palsy of Cousin (1998) and asthmatic fits of Brother (1999). But more often than not, they don't. "When I was older, my auntie drank rat poison and died," says the narrator of Uncle, which sets the tone in the Elliot oeuvre for outlandish deaths. As for the carnage in Krumpet, Harvie's parents are found frozen naked on their bike, Dr. Angela Greystane dies horribly from emphysema, the cancer-ward nurse Harvie marries collapses from a brain clot, fellow retiree Wilma overdoses on morphine - and that's not counting the animals. "Yeah, I've got a high body count," the filmmaker says. Which makes Harvie's survival all the more remarkable - and affecting.

Death, Elliot says, defines us. And it's just one of a handful of tricks this dark prince of plasticine uses "to make these little blobs as human as possible." His seemingly simple aesthetic is in fact amazingly detailed - every miniature prop, from the curtains on Harvie's TV set to the wallpaper, is handmade - and filmed in a painstaking stop-motion process that took 14 months. "It's very meditative," Elliot says. "You can't rush it." It's also mesmerizing. The film's showstopper is a Busby Berkeley-inspired dream sequence involving Alzheimer's patients in wheelchairs, but for much of the film, all that seems to move is Harvie's blinking eyes. Elliot is an animator of the emotions. "His films are full of really wonderfully funny moments," says SBSi's Dear, "but then he has an extraordinary ability to pull on the heartstrings."

This potency is partly drawn from life. Elliot's handyman father, like the title character of Uncle, ran a series of hardware stores around Melbourne; his mother bears an uncanny resemblance to Harvie's wife - also a knitter - called Val. (For the record, brother Luke didn't succumb to asthma like his screen counterpart in Brother; he acts in the prize-winning short Roy Hollsdotter Live, which is released with Harvie Krumpet in Australian theaters this week; the latter screens on sbs-tv March 8.) And as for Harvie's existential angst, it's all about Adam. "I've struggled with the meaning of life over the years," admits Elliot, who dropped out of graphic-design school to sell T shirts for five years at the St. Kilda markets. Then, like Harvie, he had a carpe diem call - and seized the day by enrolling in film at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1996. (Elliott's friend and former classmate Glendyn Ivin took out the Palme d'Or for short film at Cannes last year with another deadpan tale about a suburban misfit, Cracker Bag.)

Unlike Harvie, Elliot is both resourceful and entrepreneurial. For the Krumpet shoot, he used an empty container from his dad's storage business, and employed the considerable knitting skills of his mother. Already he's launched Harvie the brand, with his own DVD and website. It's "a great step to whatever the next thing is," says Miranda Dear, "which, of course, we all hope is a feature film." On this subject, Elliot grows as quiet as one of his Claymation creatures, before pointing out that it was 20 years before Aardman Studios (of Wallace and Gromit fame) embarked on Chicken Run. Oscar or not, one suspects Harvie the movie will be quicker to see the light of day.n