Dave Carter and Nikos Andronicos’ recently released animated series, Bin Chickens, follows the comic adventures of three ibises trying to ‘live life to the max’ in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
“Along the way, they come up against all the obstacles that Sydney can throw at them – bad government, bad taste and just… bad, bad architecture,” said series co-creator, Nikos Andronicos, “And for once, in our show, the ibises are the heroes. Because in Sydney, ibises are never the hero.”
Bin Chickens, a part of the recently released ABC Fresh Blood anthology, is the result of a new collaboration between comedy creators Dave Carter and Nikos Andronicos (of Backseat Rebel). In Bin Chickens, three ibises – the innocent yet naive Derek, the kind and wry Janice, and their streetwise leader Clive – try to go about their daily lives on the streets of Sydney. Despite their best efforts to stay on the down low, chaos usually ensues – often ending in the wanton destruction of some part of downtown Sydney (and the rise of yet more city apartments).
Bin Chickens is far from the teams’ first animated venture.
Andronicos and Carter have always been close-knit collaborators.
“Our stuff started out as sketches that I had written, thinking I was going to perform them live. And some of those sketches… Dave picked them out and said, ‘these would actually be great to animate’,” said Andronicos, “So that’s how we first started doing scripted animated collabs.”
“But we’ve been collaborating since we were in high school,” said Carter. In their first years of university, the two collaborated on a short, low-fi animated series called Doctor Horse (“complete with some tinny microphone and casio drum beats!”), itself influenced by a cartoon strip they had made together for their high school newspaper called ‘Ask Doctor Horse’.
“Yeah, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff together since before that,” said Andronicos, “We’ve actually known each other since we were babies!”
The tone of their newest collaboration, Bin Chickens, is unabashedly Australian.
“I’m tired of not being able to see Australia represented in Australian animation,” said Carter, “And if it is, it’s usually for a kids show. It can come off as sickly, like it’s made by a committee. But I think for us, it just feels good to have represented Sydney. We’d been wanting to for ages, to do a Sydney-based show… and this was just the perfect one to do it. And it was very cathartic to make.”
“Very,” Andronicos agrees, “The thing is, Australia makes almost no adult animation. There’s not enough money for anyone to justify making it. Because they think, ‘Oh, it won’t travel, we won’t be able to sell it to America or Europe’ or whatever. So Australia basically makes a lot of kids stuff, but very little adult stuff. So, we finally get the opportunity to make something with a little bit of ABC money… let’s make something unashamedly Australian!”
“There should be much more of it. And it’s popular. People enjoy seeing their own backyard – and taking the piss out of it!”
Which is a very Australian thing to do, in itself.
BEHIND THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT
Carter and Andronicos describe Bin Chickens as a ‘direct satire about struggling to have a nice human existence in a city like Sydney’. Andronicos, in particular, recalls his own experiences as a teenager bumming around Bondi Junction with mates one arvo (“There was nothing to do there! We went to Pizza Hut and just spent the whole time trying to get beers”) and wandering aimlessly through Sydney city.
“The original concept… we were kind of interested in the idea of poor old bored teenagers sitting around doing nothing,” said Andronicos, “And at some point, we realised, ‘actually, that vibe is kind of like an ibis, because –”
“They’re scruffy, they’re dirty,” nods Carter.
“They’re powerless,” Andronicos agrees, “and they spend a lot of time just hanging around on the footpath, not sure what to do next… but they’re up for an adventure! I think ibises became our heroes because… you know, it wasn’t their choice to be here. They’ve turned up in Sydney because their actual habitat is gone. And they’re just having a go, they’re just trying to get by… and it’s hard, y’know?!”
“And we find ourselves in the same position where, again, we’re here, we’re trying to get by, despite all these ridiculous laws and government interference,” Carter adds, “Sometimes, people are completely powerless, just like those ibises.”
Conversation turns to Sydney city and it’s constant re-developments.
‘There are a lot of things about Sydney that… you know, it’s almost as if the ‘powers-that-be’ are conspiring against your ability to enjoy yourself,” said Andronicos, “The government and bureaucracy and rules and all the corruption just getting in the way of us being able to ‘really live life to the max’.”
“So, that’s kind of the heart of the show.”
“AWWW – NOT THE IMAX!“
DESIGNING A SYDNEY-CENTRIC SHOW
Famous Sydney landmarks – such as the IMAX, Star Casino and Darling Harbour’s beloved spiral fountain – feature prominently in the series. When designing backgrounds, the team referenced photographs and took direct inspiration from real, well-known Sydney locations.
“Through the animatic lens, it’s like holding up a magnifying glass, through which people can see things a little more vividly,” said Carter, “But we don’t even have to exaggerate things to show how hideous and ridiculous things really are. I feel like, through the animation, people realise like, ‘Oh my god, Darling Harbour is an absolute garbage dump!‘. I haven’t cheated in any way!”
In the show, many Sydney locations are shown completely destroyed – to heart-wrenching effect.
“It’s obviously a bit funny to be sad about the IMAX being knocked down. It was an ugly-arse building. A pimple on the butt of an already ugly place,” says Andronicos, “But it was there for long enough that you slowly get attached to it. Like, despite yourself, you develop a historical relationship with a place that hits you right in the heart, you know? It’s a nice feeling… and then they knock that down. You show up there one day and some bastard has ruined it! That’s Sydney for me in so many ways!”
“So basically, Sydney’s solution to all things is, ‘put some apartments there‘. Every now and then there’s like, a temporary victory, but in the end, all of Sydney will just be apartments. There’ll be nothing to do, but there will be lots of places to live… or to rent, at exorbitant prices,” he laughs, “So, I’m a bit angry! I mean, it’s brutal! Brutal.”
Carter, in reply, gives a solemn nod.
“These, these are the passions that now I find are embodied in our ibises,” says Andronicos.
“I’d see an ibis, I’d see myself.”
CONCEPTS & DEVELOPMENT
Andronicos cites much of his writing style as being heavily influenced by 90s sketch comedy shows such as the BBC’s The League of Gentleman (1999).
“That show was just so brave,” said Andronicos, “It’s got amazing characters – they go to the realm of the grotesque, but at the same time there’s these beautiful naturalistic moments. That’s what really pumped me up in early uni when I was writing. That spirit probably goes through everything still.”
So, what goes through Andronicos’ mind when he’s nutting out characters, settings, plot?
“When writing, I want to watch to see if that character’s optimism can survive, or whether it gets beaten out of them. I want it to survive,” he said, “I think all of the other characters grow off that main innocent character. You need a few antagonists, you need a few people to challenge that optimism.”
“Sometimes the only way to find out what the hell you’re making is: you work out some basics. You sit down, write a script to see what happens, just see what comes out. See how it all balloons. Asking yourself, ‘now what?’. Taking yourself out on an adventure And then you go, ah-ha! Now, look what happened!” he pauses for a moment thoughtfully, before adding enthusiastically, “It’s like doing a science experiment.”
The team strove to cast voice actors who really inhabited their roles.
“Sam Campbell is like a little boy in real life and when he does stand-up, that’s his schtick, almost. He’s like this funny, frail little boy, so he was perfect for our little innocent Derek.”
“We were trying to work out who to play Clive, and suddenly, like… BANG! Dave Eastgate’s this big, tattooed gravelly voiced rock and roller comedian who was almost the same character, y’know? He’s done everything, he’s been there, he can tell you what it was like, and he’d probably encourage you to have a go too!”
“And then Janice is quite a wry, sort of cynical, sarcastic kind of character, but very sweet inside. And not to say that Veronica [Milsom] is like, really really cynical – she’s not – but she’s got this wicked sense of humour, very biting when she wants to be! And they all kind of vaguely knew each other, I think?”
“Through the comedy scene,” says Carter.
“It was really great in the [recording] booth,” Andronicos smiles, “So that tells you a lot about the characters. It’s great, I love that.”
In the first episode, characters Janice and Derek briefly debate collective nouns.
“We’re powerless ibis,” Janice says, taking a moment to think, “Or is it ibises? What’s the plural?!”
If there’s anyone who’d know that answer, it would be Dave Carter, who drew pages and pages of ibides (or is it ‘ibes’?), exploring multiple ibis variations before nailing down his final designs. During the design stages, Carter draws much of his inspiration from Andronicos’ scripts and the actor’s voice work, incorporating physical attributes of the voice actors into his final designs.
“I do multiple takes of the same designs,” said Carter, “Thousands, just thousands! I like the drawing to be quite simple, but little details like the positioning of the pupil in the eyeball, the nostril, the lips, the shape of the mouth… I’m very pedantic about those choices.”
According to Carter, simplicity is key.
“It’s like, when you look at Don Hertzfeld‘s work, right? It’s so simple. There’s so little information there. But he knows that if the dot of the eye is slightly too much to the left, it creates a whole different expression. I come from that same school of thought.”
Growing up, Carter found himself inspired by Mad Magazine, Monty Python and, perhaps his biggest influence, the ‘strong and powerful’ spirit of MTV’s Liquid television, an anthology-style show which dropped in and out of many different styles. Stylistically, Carter aims to make the work he wants to see.
“I don’t see myself as rooted to any specific style visually, because I do stop-motion, I do claymation, cut-outs… and in this case, it was Aftereffects, just purely because story comes first. I design the show according to the story. If the story dictates, ‘it should be Aftereffects‘, then so be it!”
“I love being a Steven Soderbergh of animation in that sense. Just keep mixing up your techniques. For me, that’s so exciting. There are completely new challenges, every time,” Carter said.
“Art should be an exploration, not redoing what you’ve already done.”
ADVICE TO EMERGING STORYTELLERS
Carter and Andronicos are optimistic about the state of Australian animation and the quality of emerging storytellers, but express a few reservations.
“I see a lot of people graduating from their degree in animation, and jumping in straight to a production house,” said Carter, “and I worry that they’re not following through with the personality they’ve established themselves, in their films that they’ve graduated with. I fear that a lot of them are going to be leaving that behind so soon.”
“I worry that this will have a long-term effect on the Australian animation scene. Because then they are animators who haven’t worked out what they want to say.”
“Telling stories in any format, whatever the medium, is a muscle,” Andronicos agrees, “You’ve got to keep working on that muscle, or it just turns to flab. Dave’s knocked back a lot of commercial work back over the years to concentrate on storytelling, narrative-driven animation, and that’s how you build up a muscle. You can’t suddenly just do it. If you’re a technically brilliant animator, but have no storytelling experience, you end up as a ‘session animator’ rather than a storyteller.”
“So it’s important that, if you’re going to take a job straight out of uni, on weekends keep developing your personal voice,” said Carter, “Otherwise, take the year off and just soak up as much as you can, and put it out there.”
“Jeremy, our main animator for Bin Chickens, took my designs and my beats, then brought them to life,” said Carter, “And Ryley, who assisted with backgrounds -”
“Both of them had amazing work ethic, just great workers -”
“Completely committed. And they got it, and they were able to fit in with my sensibility and my style.”
So, will we be seeing more Bin Chickens in the future?
“Yeah! We want to! We’re working on a long-form for it,” said Andronicos, “Obviously, once you’ve done three episodes, you want to do three hundred episodes! But yeah, we will keep it going, for sure.”
Until then, we’ll be ibide-ing our time until Bin Chicken’s next release.
Catch the first three episodes of Bin Chickens – now screening on ABC IView (until May 2020).