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Hero image for The Making of Footrot Flats

The Making of Footrot Flats

Television (Full Length) – 1986

Footrot Flats

Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale, made in 1986, was New Zealand's first animated feature film, developed from Murray Ball's widely syndicated newspaper cartoon Footrot Flats.

The strip is told from the wry perspective of ‘Dog', a nameless border collie adopted by a farmer, Wal. It follows Wal's bumbling rural adventures running a farm on Footrot Flats: lusting after the bulging hairdresser Cheeky Hobson, whitebaiting with his greenie neighbour, Cooch, being terrorised by the Murphy Brothers and daydreaming of becoming an All Black.

In 1981 Murray Ball was approached by producer Pat Cox, who had the idea of making a movie from the strip. Ball was eventually won over, and over the ensuing years writer Tom Scott came on board to work with Ball on the script, while Cox joined forces with John Barnett to get the project financed and off the ground.

Through his work making commercials, Cox knew Sydney animator Robbert Smit, who, as animation director, would be crucial in getting the look and animation right. As a faithful (if leisurely) record of the inhabitants of Footrot Flats, it is undeniably accurate.

Wal (John Clarke) shows Dog (Peter Rowley) his new home.

It's great to see the world of Footrot Flats given such affectionate attention. Like John Clarke's Fred Dagg (Clarke provides the voice for Wal), the world of the comic strip played off nostalgic stereotypes that, even at the time of screening, were more fond myth than the reality of an urbanised, multicultural New Zealand. Here are the cabbage trees and paddocks of the flats, rusting corrugated iron etc. To see these familiar landscapes animated rather than photographed postcard-style was something new for audiences.

There was an inherent challenge with converting a mute, black and white strip from the newspaper into a talking feature. Readers of Footrot Flats had formed their own ‘voices' for the characters. So the task of adapting the characters to the screen and remaining true to how readers imagined them, was a tough one. Perhaps toughest of all was finding the voice for Dog, who in the comic strips expressed himself in thought-bubbles. Murray Ball admits in the making of documentary that the character was the closest one to him. Peter Rowley finally got the job, just in the nick of time.

Six years in development, 15 months in the making, Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale brought Murray Ball's world to a new audience; its popular success was just reward for Cox's tenacity.

The voices for the characters were a starting line-up of New Zealand comedy and acting talent of the time, and audiences suspended disbelief and enjoyed the recognisable repartee. Aside from Clarke and Rowley, the cast includes Rawiri ParateneFiona SamuelPeter HaydenDorothy McKeggBilly T James, and Brian Sergent

 

There are some shortcomings: the film's soundscape, despite some classic original songs from Dave Dobbyn, feels sparse; and the script's narrative reflects input from energetic individuals coming at the project from differing experiences. But the laconic, finding-humour-in-adversity spirit of the comic strip remains; the film leveraged the large comic strip readership to attract big audiences on both sides of the ditch.

Footrot took $2.5 million at the New Zealand box office, making it the most successful local feature of the 1980s. It was also a rare Kiwi feature to win wide release in Australia (wih 60 prints). Dobbyn created two huge hits for the soundtrack: 'You Oughta Be in Love' and 'Slice of Heaven', the latter alongside band Herbs. 'Slice of Heaven' spent four weeks atop the Australian singles chart in 1987, and became known as the unofficial New Zealand national anthem.

Successful commercials producer Pat Cox would go on to make the iconic Speights "onya mate" and Mainland Cheese ads. In Footrot Flats he was mining the same golden weather territory. Six years in development, 15 months in the making, Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale brought Murray Ball's world to a new audience; its popular success was just reward for Cox's tenacity.

- Tony Hiles spent a decade working in state television, before setting up company City Associates with partner Judith Fyfe. He went on to direct documentaries on everything from architects to flying, plus a series of films on artist Michael Smither.