Shaun Tan

Short film director is the newest feather in Shaun Tan’s already crowded cap. The beloved author/illustrator of such contemporary classics as Tales from Outer Suburbia and The Arrival has plundered his own back catalogue for his first foray into animated filmmaking.

Based on Tan’s 32-page storybook from 1999, the animated The Lost Thing is a fifteen-minute project eight years in the making. It’s slow going by anyone’s standards, but the effort paid off when the film claimed the Gran Prix for Best Short Film at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival.

It’s out now on DVD through Madman and I spoke to Tan about the DVD’s release for Readings.

What was it about

It involves a very contained universe. And in spite of its complexity, is founded on fairly simple characters, concepts and aesthetic components – certain kinds of buildings, clouds, tentacles and so on. Each ‘scene’ in the original book was very much conceived as just that, a shot or still, as if taken from an imaginary home movie about something that happened over a summer holiday, the adventures of this boy and his bizarre companion. You can see the way holes in the page seem to have been cut out so that we are looking upon something like small dioramas. So it does translate fairly logically into the medium of theatre or film, but especially animation.

How did the collaboration with your co-director Andrew Ruhemann work?

It began with an intensive period of collaborative storyboarding in 2001 / 2002 – yep, that long ago! - when Andrew visited Melbourne from the UK, and I came across from Perth: Melbourne being hub of the project as this was where our producer Sophie Byrne was located. She is in fact the third creative director of the film, being present at every stage of the project. After this initial pre-production work, the project was fallow for a little while, but regained momentum when a small studio was established in Parkville, and I relocated to Melbourne in 2006. Creative work was then a collaborative production with a core group of four: Sophie, Leo Baker (a Melbourne animator) and Tom Bryant (a Scottish digital artist) and myself. Andrew’s role continued to be creative in providing feedback in an editorial fashion, identifying problems and assisting with their solution; he also had a special interest in directing music and voice-over for the film, and returned to Melbourne for the final mix.

You’ve cited filmmakers such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam as influences on your illustration work. Has it been a long-term objective of yours to transition into film and animation, or did

More the latter actually – a pleasant surprise. I’ve always been a great fan of film, and am one of those viewers who will study all the special features on a DVD with both casual and professional interest. However, my thoughts remain deeply rooted in the world of painting and illustration, of silent, static images reward slow and wandering examination. Film sometimes seems a bit fast to me, it’s a different language entirely, much more linear. This of course makes it an excellent medium for telling some kinds of story. But I don’t see myself ‘graduating’ into film, because I don’t think it’s a superior medium to painting or illustration, it’s rather an interesting parallel. I’d certainly like to continue working in this area if the right projects come along, and there are good people behind it, as was the case with The Lost Thing.

What’s it like revisiting a story of your own ten years after it was originally published?

Actually really great. I don’t often read my books after they have been published, partly because I’ve ‘resigned’ from that universe, like quitting a job, and also am quite distracted by its small mistakes and so have trouble enjoying it! However, years later I can come to it with a new appreciation, with a little more objectivity and distance. In the case of Lost Thing, I realised how personal the story is, how strange and affecting it is – something you can forget when you are so busy engineering it. There were also conceptual details of its universe that were not possible to include in the original book, being only 32 pages long, so the film presented an opportunity to elaborate upon these a little.

Do you expect you’ll ever develop a new story exclusively for animation, or are books where your heart remains?

That’s a good question, I don’t really know the answer. As mentioned, my heart is in books (and even before books it’s in landscape painting and drawing). But I can certainly imagine that the experience of working on a film project might affect the conceptualization of future work, recognizing that a certain idea can suit a certain medium. After all, I came to picture books originally without a prior interest in them, and now find myself thinking of picture book concepts all the time, so it’s possible I might start thinking of animated film concepts.

Film and animation studios must express a lot of interest in your work. Are plans afoot to adapt any of your other books for the screen – either with your immediate involvement, as with

There’s been some discussions relating to The Arrival, which is the most obvious work of mine to adapt as a feature-length film, because it’s really my only extended narrative: the others tend to be short and fable-like. But at this stage, it’s only discussion, which is quite some distance from actual production as anyone in that industry can attest. I’m quite happy to entrust an adaptation to someone else if I feel they are adequately sympathetic to the work, and willing to take creative risks. The biggest risk is with an adaptation is that it takes no risk.

Let’s get hypothetical. Animal Logic – the Sydney-based animation studio behind

Well, for a start there is no such thing as full creative control! (And that may not always be such a good thing!) So the first thing to find out is where that really starts and stops, and who the collaborators are, and how useful I actually might be in the scheme of things. With a three-year commitment, I’d be in two minds about this actually, having already spent five years on the book, and have more or less said as much as I have to say within its pages. There’s a question of continuing to develop that existing work in a new direction, or using those valuable three years to create new work. It’s a tricky question, of course, because any opportunity to work with such an excellent company is an enormous privilege.

Finally, what’s the best thing to have come from working on the animated

Really the experience of working with our small team, and learning about animation and film-making along the way – it really is a fascinating world behind the surface of the screen. Getting to know Sophie in particular, who has been immensely helpful on both this and other projects, as well as being a supportive friend. The other thing to mention is how interesting it has been for me to see audiences react to my work ‘live’, because as an author and illustrator, I’m almost never present when a reader receives it. So it’s always nice to hear a small crowd laughing at the bits that were meant to be funny… especially when you sometimes forget they are funny after so many years of revision and tinkering.

Gerard Elson is DVD Specialist at Readings St Kilda and blogs at

Cover image for Lost Thing Dvd

Lost Thing Dvd

Ruhemann Andrew and Tan Shaun

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