Trevor Hogg chats with creator-director Luke Jurevicius, art director Deane Taylor and co-producer / animation director David Webster about their work on The Adventures of Figaro Pho....
The Adventures of Figaro Pho won Best Direction, Best Animation and Best Animated Series at the 2009 Kidscreen Awards. “My own quirky idiosyncrasies and fears formed the initial spark,” states Luke Jurevicius whose production company Vishus Productions has partnered with Ambience Entertainment and the Chocolate Liberation Front to expand the concept beyond the one minute episodes. “The Adventures of Figaro Pho picks right up in some ways from the original series of shorts. Our new series is a longer form series [39 X 7mins] so we are able to really flesh out his fears and phobias in a way that we could never have done in the original series. We have also included a pet mechanical dog called Rivet, who serves as the Swiss army knife of mechanical dogs and is Figaro’s best friend. Rivet has become a prominent character in the series, and compliments Figaro exceptionally well. Figaro himself has also evolved, for he now has ears and nostrils. We also see a number of re-occurring characters such as Cornelius the mail man who finds himself in a situation of demise caused unwittingly by Figaro in each episode; he’s the fall guy.” The extended running time did not result in a major overhaul. “There were not many changes to the format at all. Each episode continues to focus on a single phobia. Without a doubt, we needed to expand Figaro’s world to accommodate the longer format. The introduction of new and old characters was vital. One thing that I was particularly passionate about retaining was the non-dialogue driven nature of the show. I wanted to create a performance driven show where acting, music and sound were the driving forces. This harps back to the origins of filmmaking where silent picture relied on its musical score and acting to tell the story. We actually pay homage to Vaudevillian/concert saloon style theatrics in one of our episodes The Fear of Growing Old.”
“One may assume that non-dialogue equals no vocalization,” remarks Luke Jurevicius. “This assumption would be a mistake, because all the characters are extremely vocal. When I voiced Figaro, it was important for me to lay down a scratch vocal track for the animators to work with. This helped me direct the performances in a way that I was not able in the first series. One of the mistakes I made in the first series was to leave vocals till the end. This meant that I had to rely on what the animators had given me as far as Figaro’s vocalization is concerned. I remember a specific episode in the original series where the animator forgot to animate Figaro’s mouth. It’s an amusing watch. However, with a scratch vocal, mistakes like this never occur. Plus the vocal scratch offers the animator great ideas on Figaro’s performance.” Jurevicius reveals, “My biggest challenge was time management. I tackle a lot of roles above and beyond directing these series. Possibly foolishly, however, one must go through the fire to find that balance. I voiced the majority of the characters, and also shared the music composing for the series with three other musicians. This certainly wore me out. The solution was to delegate, and trust others with your baby. This makes for a much more balanced and savory individual. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed the process, and the team who helped manage my time ought to be applauded.” Articulating concepts to crew members was not always easy. “This can be a challenge. As a Director you need to have utmost confidence in your gut feelings. Communication to crew members ought to be passionate, yet brief. A good director will be able to explain what he or she wants succinctly. I often like to sketch out my thoughts rather than always rely on words. You also need to hop in and get your hands dirty; this is the best way to get your message across to your crew. Sometimes I film myself acting out a certain animated sequence. I have a lot of incriminating and embarrassing footage.”
“We had a tight group of creatives involved in the story process,” states Luke Jurevicius. “Finding story ideas for Figaro Pho was relatively painless, because there are so many weird and wonderful fears and phobias that people have! Anything could be fearful for certain people. I came across the fear of being stared at by a duck, and simply had to make up an episode about it. Some research was made into the phobias. There is a fantastic online dictionary of phobias, so there are plenty of resources to tap into for story ideas. In addition, there are our own personal fears that we tapped into and turned into episodes as well such as the fear of public toilets, disease, and dancing rabbits. Ultimately we picked the best 39 episodes to represent the series.” A key element is needed to help children handle their fears. “I certainly don’t profess to be a guru on child psychology; however, I find that laughing at your fears even amidst your fears is a remedy of sorts. I have an aversion to flying, and I often try to giggle at sudden turbulence; it works sometimes although surrounding passengers tend to think I am odd.” Deane Taylor agrees. “It’s important to introduce fear as a legitimate emotion. It's important to push the boundaries but have a back door easily accessible. In many cases, using humour as a weapon is enough.” The Adventures of Figaro Pho purposely makes use of comedic moments. “It becomes evident where the dead patches or lulls appear in your show,” says Jurevicius. “Humour is always a good injection to make your show lively. Finding the right balance of humour can be tricky; however, the show is primarily meant to entertain so laughter is an important ingredient to include as often as possible.”
Children illustrations from Arthur Rackham, Ronald Searle and Dr. Seuss served as creative inspiration for Deane Taylor who observes, “While it’s fair to say Figaro is stand-alone to other projects we have in development, there are common threads in the strength and clarity of the storytelling, and the focus on personality driven lead characters.” Taylor believes, “Art direction is a powerful storytelling device. Great art direction happens when this is effectively done. Delicatessen , Amélie , The City of Lost Children  and Pan’s Labyrinth  are amongst the stand outs for me.” He adds, “All elements of art direction are best created with a back story and clear logic. In the case of Figaro, I chose to explore the idea of hand tinted black and white photos, very minimal colour that kicks brighter on significant props and story devices under focused, stylised lighting.” A lot of artistic license was allowed in developing the characters and settings. “The design process in the broad sense was all about going with what fell off the pen. The best way to achieve true caricature is to draw from the impression you have of a given subject. This applies to architecture, prop and character design all the way through to the micro detail. In Figaro, there was some attention to a realistic element in some of the props, which called in some research; but these elements generally sat in the lower levels of the visuals.” Depicting surreal environments is not necessary easier than ones situated in an everyday setting. “I wouldn't say they were in any way easier. You do need to think differently. I would struggle with designs based in man-made reality.”
“I've found if you create a familiar silhouette and put in the three key things that are equally familiar you are well on the way to a stylised reality,” remarks Deane Taylor. “Accuracy to detail is important. Beyond that, it’s important to bend the rules as far as is believable. The need does dictate the process and as such will force the rules to bend often.” Every creative choice serves a purpose. “Set design, staging and lighting are all completely built around telling the story. These devices dictate path of action, architecture that frames action, lighting that reveals, or conceals. There is a thought process that allows each of these to be dialled up and down to control their impact on the visual.” The human factor has to be taken into account. “The bigger challenge on any project is to have your crew affect the subtleties of everything we've mentioned above. Strong creatives often have a wrist and opinions which is precisely what you would hope for; but when you are all trying to paint the same picture it can be challenging. Overload visual communication gets around a lot of problems and having people feel good about their input is equally important.” The show has evolved from the one minute short. “There is a lot more production value and focused detail in the later series; this is primarily an artifact of having more stories, screen time and way more resources.” As for any favourite scenes in the animated series, Luke Jurevicius says, “There are many sequences that I am proud of, so it is difficult to isolate anything specifically. Yet if I was forced into a corner, I would have to say Figaro confronting a spike-throwing cactus in the style of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  tops the list.” David Webster agrees with his colleague. “I love the action sequence in Fear of Cactus where Figaro has to muster all of his courage in a showdown with a scary walking cactus plant. The scene draws on inspiration from gunfights in western movies and is extremely funny and dramatic at the same time.” A different moment stands out to Taylor. “My favourite shot is when we have a direct down shot to the main living room floor which reveals a detailed mosaic of two fighting chickens. Other than that, I would say I'm most proud of the crew’s efforts in realising this amazing, committed level of professionalism.”
ABC3 was the logical choice for airing the program. “They’re the lead broadcaster and have always been behind the development of Figaro Pho, right from the shorts through to the execution of the current series.” states David Webster. "They were intrinsically involved in the entire production and that’s a credit to Tim Brooke-Hunt, Controller of Childrens' TV at the ABC and his amazing team." Working with the Australian public broadcaster was a liberating experience. “To be able to experiment with concepts in short form to see if they work with an audience is such an important initiative and the ABC is to be congratulated for the vision in this area. Other broadcasters should consider adopting this kind of approach to brand building as well.” The animation industry in Australia is constantly in flux. “The ‘industry’ is a very fragile one. We are certainly an expensive country in which to produce animation and therefore a lot of the processes are often being sent offshore, at least for television. There has been some quality feature film work in recent years which has been good to keep people here in Australia but it has been sporadic as well. I would like to think that in the future we can maintain a consistent level of work across the entire industry and become even better producers of content. The international marketplace looks to Australia for our creative contribution. There are certainly loads of creative people here and we need to make sure that the world realises that and we give them good reason to stick around.” Seeking funding from foreign investors has led to a more universal approach to the storytelling. “In order for these large and costly productions to work internationally we certainly have to consider a worldwide audience when we are writing the stories; however, the Figaro Pho take on the world and the sense of humour inherent in the show comes from an Australian place.”
“The market is enormous and tends to be broken down into smaller components than one mass of 6-14,” explains David Webster. “Generally broadcasters are looking for shows that are either 6-9 or 8-12. After the age of 12 kids have pretty much move onto adult programming. Figaro’s brand of comedy will tickle audiences across both of these age groups and we’re developing a number of new shows aimed at either one or the other. Regardless of the target market, the key is making sure that while your characters are as funny as all get out, they are also ones that your audience care about and will be willing to invest in.” The marketing campaign encompasses a variety of media platforms. “CLF are extremely experienced multi- media producers so it’s fantastic to be partners with them on this show. They’re currently working on three Figaro Pho games that draw on characters and situations from the series and will be available on mobile devices, tablets and the Figaro Pho website. The universe of human fears is such rich subject matter we think there is limitless potential for the second screen experiences that we can continue to roll out for this brand.” Webster states, “The biggest challenge was matching the very high creative benchmark set for us through the Figaro Pho shorts that Luke created. As producers we all had to agree that we could recreate the world of Figaro Pho as a longer format series on a strict television budget. We did it by building a very talented team who were incredibly dedicated to the task of providing creative solutions in all areas of the production. There was a real opportunity to create something visually spectacular with Figaro, and the end result is thanks to the extraordinary talent available here in Australia, and the hard work of every member of the team.”
“I’d like to think that Figaro Pho builds a really strong following and we get to go on and make a subsequent television series, games and even a feature film,” replies David Webster after the contemplating how he sees The Adventures of Figaro Pho evolving. “If we can do all of these things from Australia it would be even more satisfying.” Luke Jurevicius remarks, “I feel privileged to have an incredible support mechanism in place from my producers Dan Fill and Frank Verheggen, and also from the wonderful relationships I have developed with the various animation studios that exist across each state. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the incredible support from the ABC, specifically Tim Brooke Hunt and there is no doubt that the introduction of Chris Rose to the team is another great step in the right direction for Australian animation. With such support, I naturally feel like the animation industry is flourishing in my own universe. From my observations, I see great projects and exciting things coming out of Ambience Entertainment and Flying Bark. They are certainly companies to keep your eye on. But this aside, I am only interested in creating beautiful things, and I truly believe that other Australian animation companies are also adopting that same mantra. I believe that this is one of the great ways of being noticed globally. For these reasons I believe the animation industry in Australia is about to experience resurgence.” Reflecting upon his latest creative endeavour, Jurevicius says, “I would simply like to add that I hope people can see for themselves that the Adventures of Figaro Pho is a unique, fully Australian property that is causing heads to turn all around the world. It’s something that we as a community can embrace as truly ours, and I hope that the show has the longevity it deserves. Finally, it has been a privilege to work with such an amazing band of talented artists who from its earliest incarnation have made Figaro the beautiful property that it is.”
Concept art provided by Vishus Productions.
Many thanks to Luke Jurevicius, Deane Taylor and David Webster to taking the time to be interviewed.
Make sure to visit the offical websites for The Adventures of Figaro Pho, Vishus Productions, Ambience Entertainment and Chocolate Liberation Front.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.