Growing up in the Hawkes Bay, Jeff Simmonds became a film fan early on, thanks partly to Walt Disney animated movies. After he was given an 8mm camera as a teenager, Jeff and his brother Phill began experimenting in the same techniques that underlie animation, by creating stop frame scenes of bottles moving around the backyard.
Jeff went on to study religion at university, while Phill moved into graphic design and cartoons. In the late 90s the pair began experimenting in simple 2D animation. “I am interested in film and writing stories,” Jeff told Onfilm in 2007, “and Phill was also drawing, so it seemed an obvious thing to do to make Phill’s cartoon characters move.”
After buying an early version of Flash the duo began incorporating sound effects for their work, and screening it over the net. All their work is hand drawn, though Jeff’s computer programming knowledge is used to help speed up the final stages of the process.
Inspired by legendary British stop-motion animators Aardman Studios, in 2002 Phill realised the potential of marrying animated characters with unscripted interviews of people telling their own real-life stories. Documation, as they called it, offered the chance to capture the naturalism and humour of everyday characters, many of them drawn from their local Kapiti Coast community. Working off their own bat, the Simmonds got together a small team to interview locals. The result was animated shorts Paekakariki - Centre of the Universe and Pearl, Florrie and the Bull, which retells a close encounter with a bull by two young-at-heart twins. In this period the Simmonds Brothers also applied documation to their first commercial project, for the NZ Immigration Service.
For their next project, music tale The Paselode Story, the duo combined documation with some live action material.
By 2006 the films — and accolades — were flowing. The brothers netted $28,000 worth of film stock and supplies after winning the award for 2006 SPADA New Filmmaker of the Year. They also took away a local short film award (Best Short Film at Show Me Shorts) for A Very Nice Honeymoon, which condensed five generations of family history (including a tragic 1894 shipwreck) into a 10 minute short; and the duo produced 50 one-minute episodes of Rasta Rangi, which played on Māori Television in te reo.
Further short films have followed, plus campaigns for the Ministry of Health and what they claim is a world first, a (part) animated reality series, which debuted on the Stuff.co.nz website. The series followed Kapiti musicians The Volunteers.
Phill Simmonds is developing a feature-length animated project based on the resistance at Parihaka. Jeff balances varied interests, including film, making music and designing computer programmes. On the film front, he co-directed (with Lindsay Rabbitt) experimental short Rabbitt...... on Sex and Religion, and is working with Second-Hand Wedding writer Linda Niccol on varied film and web projects, including AddVideo, in which video clips can be embedded on websites.