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James Cunningham: Accidents, Blunders and Calamities

The short film “Accidents, Blunders and Calamities”, created by Media Design School’s third year Bachelor of Art & Design: 3D Animation and VFX students in 2015, has taken out the prize for Best Animated Film at the 2016 Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival (CCI-IFF).

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities by James Cunningham

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities – Media Design School’s Bachelor of Art & Design: 3D Animation and VFX student project.

James Cunningham – talented New Zealand film director and animator. He is a senior lecturer at Media Design School and the director, producer and writer of the film.

James Cunningham - New Zealand Director

James agreed to give the interview about winning the Comic-Con award and creating the film to Russian student of Media Design School Mila Krasnova for KIWIZONE.

M: – James, can you tell me a couple of words about your previous experience and how you started working here, at Media Design School?

J: – I went to art school, after that I was doing photography and computer animation. That got me my first job doing commercials. Then I got funding from the government to make a short film. That film set up my career as a filmmaker and as a professional.

Me and my colleagues knew Peter Jackson was making something; no one knew what it was yet, so I went to meet with the producer, and he slipped this book across the table to me and it was the ‘Lord of the Rings’ – “oh thanks, that’s what’s going on”. I was selected by Peter Jackson’s film crew to become a technical director. I worked for “Weta” for a little while – enough to learn.

The biggest lesson that I learnt was how much time they were willing to spend on one shot, what it meant to produce quality. And because we have people from the professional industry that are the teachers in Media Design School we bring that level of “this is the amount of work that is required to do a quality work”.

I work in Media Design School since 2010. When I worked for commercial TV, all the people who I hired came from MDS and that’s how I first heard about the school. The students there came out of the school which is way better than any other schools in New Zealand. I would go to industry nights, where professionals from the industry were invited, would go into the schools and moderate student work. They would ‘cherry-pick’ the best students.

Media Design School suggested me to work with them as a senior lecturer.

The school is about training industry-ready graduates. It is not a traditional film school. So the students were not being told how to write and direct and shoot. So I decided to teach it to them. Because of my experience in commercials and the local industry I knew how sound people, composers and actors work. I knew how to get the process going. So I was like, “well why don’t I go in there and show them”?

MDS now support creating films with a budget and that grows our potential of what we can do with these projects. Build a real brand and an identity around the school.

Types of the films we are making in MDS are very live action and visual effects orientated. So we don’t tend to make fully CGI. This means that the students that we produce are well tailored to places such as Weta Digital.

The difference between other animation schools and MDS is that we focus more towards live action as opposed to Pixar or Dreamworks which is what most other animation schools aim towards.

M: – You were the director of the final work of 2015 Bachelor of Art & Design third year students called “Accidents, Blunders and Calamities”.

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities - Media Design School

I was so impressed when I first saw that I watched it like 5 more times and I still can’t believe it was made by a group of students! Does Media Design School actually graduate students of such a high level or teachers help them and control the process of creating their final work to reach such a good result?

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities - FIlming

J: – We usually help them with a couple problems but in most situations we are too busy. So the students are the ones doing all the work. It’s more a case of making sure that they have enough time and assigning the right people to the right shots.

The thing I was very happy about in this film was that it had so much variety that it feels that students were very strong; they could take on a really difficult challenge or even two. If the student was not as strong, then they could work on a simpler asset that they could be able to have the time to learn at their pace. There was always an expected high level of work and time, just like in a professional environment.

M: – All animals except possums in the film look very realistic and the lyrics and name of the film are in the alphabetical order. Why?

J: – Yes, we definitely stylized the possums. One of the students had made a caricature drawing of Liam Neeson for the father possum. And they attempt to recreate Liam’s voice for the father possum creating a menacing quality to his voice.

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities - Concept Art

The details of the film resulting in the names, animal species and the method of death was all in alphabetical order and with language technique – alliteration. The Rhythm matches, which also makes it poetic. That was a pretty hard challenge! I spent about 2 months writing the script.

M: – This is a kid’s story, but why is it so cruel? Were you trying to shock people? And there is no happy ending!

J: – It is cruel but it is also a realistic ending. In terms of, no matter what the father does, no matter how much he can teach them to be careful, something can get them anyway, look out for humans as their nature may get you as well. It is a slightly pragmatic ending.

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities - Concept Art

One of the big decisions I made was to put kids’ voices laughing and enjoying the story which helps set the tone, helps the audience go “oh, kids like it, its fine”. It helps the film go easier.

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities - Filming

M: – Can you tell me more about the process of creating the film? How much time did it take? How many people were involved and were they in little teams with their own leaders?

J: – With that film because of different animals it was quite dispersed. People weren’t in little teams. We don’t tend to work in little teams that much so it was one big team of 44 people. At least 3 students were working on one shot. It took them 3 months to create the film.

Accidents, Blunders and Calamities - Filming

M: – When the film won Comic-Con award, how did you feel? Did you expect it to be that big?

J: – I was optimistic that we might get something. Of course I was very happy and surprised when we did! When you see all these amazing works that won it in the past and then your work becomes an equivalent to them you feel incredible. And adding this award to the CV also helps students with their future work a lot. (After graduating these students started their careers at such famous companies as Weta Digital and Flux Animation Studio Ltd).

M: – Thank you so much, James! Can’t wait to learn from you in my final year!