‘Fire in Cardboard City’ – The Kiwi Mini-Blockbuster 6 Years in the Making

Playing as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Animation for Kids 8+ section, Fire in Cardboard City is a New Zealand-made family-friendly action film following the Cardboard City Fire Department fighting their first real fire.

How exactly does a filmmaker make an animated action film in New Zealand? We talked to the short’s director, Phil Brough, about the six-year process.

FLICKS: So how do you describe your film to people?

PHIL BROUGH: It’s a mini-blockbuster. I tried to put as much action-packed action into seven minutes and just keep it entertaining. I often find you go to short film screenings and they’re really depressing.

Did you aim to make a film specifically for children or specifically to make an animated film?

Kind of an animated film. It’s easy to add gore and swearing but, a lot of the time, there’s no point really. I guess easy laughs can come from that but it’s just nicer to go clean. Then my kids can watch it and their friends all dig it.

It’s still a little bit violent, but just in a stupid way so it doesn’t really seem violent.

How long did it take?

Over a period of six years. I guess it was about eight or nine months of actually working on it, just because building all the stuff took freaking ages and every shot would screw up and you’d have to re-render it. Then there’d be problems, you’d approach something new, and it just wouldn’t be working.

So you go and get drunk and you miss a day working on that. Then you miss the next day being hungover [laughter].

The thing is we got $10,000 from the film commission. Then we spent that quite quickly. It was mostly done after we blew the money just trying to fit it in between any free time.

Then I got some awesome interns to help me and I felt terrible because we could hardly pay them anything but I could get them other paid work which would cover it.

It sounds like a huge challenge, but was there anything that ended up being easier than you were expecting?

Well, I was finishing and animating all the characters, and then my mate showed me this thing called iPi Soft, which is motion capture using Kinect cameras, and that was awesome. That cut heaps of time out.

Did you do a lot of mock designs with actual cardboard?

Nah. I did a bit of drawing and scanning, but then I just made these crayon brushes in Photoshop, got scans of cardboard and drew them in Photoshop. It kind of looks like actual crayon.

It would have been horrible to actually do that [laughter].

It seems like you guys have gone 1:1 rebuilding Auckland City out of cardboard. Is it actually 1:1?

Parts of it is an old New York model, and then I’ve just slapped a whole bunch of stuff in there like the Beehive, the Sky Tower and the Civic Theatre. I also built the Wreck-It Ralph building.

Actually, there’s a bit from K Road – Ironbank’s in there.

Was there any cool, ambitious thing you had planned that you just had to scrap?

Not really. Actually, I started adding stuff as I went on. It was good because I learned stuff and, because it took so long, the software got better. So there were better ways to simulate water and render times sped up heaps – initially, it would take ages to render a shot.

Due to being so slow, technological advancements made it a hell of a lot easier. Some of that stuff wouldn’t have worked six years ago.

It also helps that you have an art direction that doesn’t require super complex things like, say, moving hair particles.

Yeah, totally. I was going to simulate fire but it just looked shit. So I got real fire and just put it in planes.

Actually, someone said, “It’s got a terrible name – Fire in Cardboard City – I know immediately what was going to happen.” F-cking idiot.

I like the name. It’s both a title and a plot synopsis.

Yeah. It totally is. I was just going to put a giant robot in there and then Matt [Heath, co-writer] was like, “Why don’t you just make it on fire?”

Matt’s a big fan of a title being a description, telling you what something is.

And Giant Robot in Cardboard City doesn’t sound as punchy.

Robots are easy to rig, as well. Generally, organic characters are horrible to rig, but cardboard characters are kind of like robots.

Is there one key piece of advice you can give to any young New Zealander trying to make an animated film?

Just plan it out a bit more. Once I planned it out and did an animatic, it didn’t change from there. And that was six years ago.

You can check out Fire in Cardboard City at NZIFF in the Animation for Kids 8+ section.