MIAF Exclusive Interview: Elliot Cowan (USA) on his new animated feature The Stressful Adventures Of Boxhead And Roundhead.


From June 19th until the 29th, Melbourne will enjoy the Melbourne International Animation Festival at ACMI, featuring over 450 films from 35 countries over 11 days. Needless to say, fans of animation will have more than their fair share of excellent films to sink their teeth into. One of these screenings will see the world premiere of The Stressful Adventures Of Boxhead And Roundhead, directed by Elliot Cowan. Tegan Jones spoke to the New York based animator about the film, his career and more…

What was the initial inspiration for the Boxhead and Roundhead shorts?

Boxhead and Roundhead were originally a reaction to hideous children’s books like Guess How Much I Love you. You know that book? It’s a book for parents to teach their children to say “I love you” instead of letting them say it when they mean it.

I wanted to create a world that had danger, that was a little scary, that didn’t have any moral. So they started out as books and every single publisher said “Gosh, they’re a little dangerous and a little scary and there isn’t a moral”.

Finnish artist and author Tove Jansson was a big influence on the project, particularly her later Moomin novels.

Have you always wanted to give these characters a full featured adventure?

Well, I think most animators dream of directing something long form one day.

I didn’t have anything specific in mind when my LA producer asked me if I wanted to move ahead with a feature, but I had kicked it around in my brain for a while. I always wanted to do a short where they went to the big city and had plotted out the next film.

The feature is a reworking of that idea.

Can you divulge any details about the plot or the exploits that we’ll see the characters get up to?

As I’ve already mentioned the story is about Boxhead and Roundhead heading to the city. Their house is destroyed and they have to head to the big smoke to get it back. There’s a mystery and a surprise and lots of B&R being tortured by life.

What have been the challenges and rewards of almost entirely autonomously (I know that some of your students and Lyla Ribot have also helped) creating an animated feature on a shoestring budget?

Rewards? I’m not sure yet, other than the opportunity to do things my way.

Neil Ross had told me to do it for as little money as possible because the less money they give you the less they bother you. I always feel that I can bother myself enough without the help of other people driving me nuts about my own project. If aggravation, insomnia, stress, headache and self doubt are rewarding in any way then I was rewarded in spades.

The challenges are EVERYTHING. Every single thing.

Because of our minimal budget I had several particular issues:

1)   I had to do almost everything. Everything. EVERYTHING. All the boring horrible things that can normally be passed onto the intern or some other assistant were all in my hands. Subtitles, paperwork, Blu-Ray copies, all that boring garbage.

2)   I wasn’t able to work on the film full time. Not even slightly. For the majority of the production I was teaching at three or four art schools in two states. Often I only had a few hours late in the evening to do anything.

3)   Because there was no budget to run a studio, all my contributors were spread around the planet. If I had the opportunity to work on the thing full time that wouldn’t have been a problem, but it was problematic keeping communications open and clear.

How did Neil Ross become involved in the project?

I worked with Neil when we were both at Uli Meyer Animation in London. I asked him and he said “Yes”.

Mick Moriarty of The Gadflys was similar. I got in contact with him and asked and we met (he happened to be on his way New York). We had a few beers and he said “Yes” too.

It’s both fascinating and seemingly strange that the Romanian Film Office offered funding for the film. Was there any particular reason for that?

After the first draft of the script I sent it to my LA producer and said “Here you go, but nobody in the US is going to give you money for this” and about a year later he conceded that was the truth but told me that the Romanians might have money. And they did.

I haven’t a clue why they ponied up the piddling amount of cash that they did but I’m pleased it was enough to make the project nearly worthwhile.

What are you anticipating or hoping the audience reactions will be like at the MIA Festival?

Well. It’s a small film. Tiny. We barely spent 55 thousand dollars on the thing. But the reactions I’ve been getting are very positive. So I’m hoping the crowd at MIAF praises it as a work of unique brilliance.


I’ve read that there seems to be a critique of urbanism and consumer culture throughout the film. Was this an intentional aim?

Not entirely and if you see the film it’s not a big part of the thing. The story serves the characters and these issues grew up around them.

Your artistic and animation styles are beautifully unique. Have they stemmed from a desire to be distinct, or have budget and man-power restrictions also played a part and resulted in an almost Oulipo quality to your work?

Well thanks, that means a lot. I think anyone who makes things desires to be distinct, right? The answer is kind of both.

When you’re dealing with a limited budget you have to come to terms very quickly with the fact that you’re not making a Pixar film. There’s no way you can aim for that and there’s no way you can achieve that kind of thing.

The film looks and feels a certain way because it’s coming out of my brain but I’ll admit that it would look and feel a slightly different way if I had more money and time. Different isn’t the right word, actually. It would look the same, only moreso.

Do you have any further plans for the animated duo in the future?

Right now we’ve just started the feature rolling on the festival circuit so my brain is full of that kind of stuff for me to think about much else. My LA producer is keen to get a television series up and running.

I’ve been in the industry long enough that I’ll believe it when I see it happen.


The Melbourne International Animation Festival kicks off on June 19th. The Stressful Adventures Of Boxhead And Roundhead will screen at 6pm on Friday, June 20th. Elliot Cowan will feature in a Q&A after the film. For more details head to http://www.miaf.net/


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