Footrot Flats: The Dog’s (Tail) Tale (1987) is regarded as a New Zealand animated feature film but it was entirely animated in Sydney, Australia by an Australian director, Robbert Smit.
Smit’s career began as a comic book artist but he moved into animation as a storyboard artist for Rocket Robin Hood. He later found a full time home at Hanna-Barbera’s Australian animation studio.
Creator Murray Ball co-directed and oversaw the entire production from New Zealand thanks to phones, faxes and frequent visits from Smit. For marketing purposes, Ball is listed as the sole director with Smit sometimes being listed as “animation director”.
Ball was intent on making the film one hundred percent Kiwi (New Zealand) even to having Australian background artist Richard Zaloudek brought to New Zealand to study rural settings, building styles and colors.
It was one of the most successful animated features in history in terms of reviews and earnings, except in the United States where it couldn’t find a distribution deal because the newspaper strip characters were totally unfamiliar to American audiences.Ball and cartoonist Charles Schulz each admired the other’s work. One Footrot Flats strip shows Dog laughing at a Snoopy cartoon and Schulz wrote the introduction to the only Footrot Flats book collection published in the United States at the time.
Based on Ball’s very popular Australian comic strip, the film recounted the adventures of Wal Footrot, a well-intentioned slob of a New Zealand sheep rancher, and his border collie sheepdog just called “Dog” who narrates the film.
The humor in the film has often been described as very earthy and raunchy and that was also part of the appeal of the original newspaper strip that featured such graphic rural elements as birthing lambs, slaughtering livestock, studding animals and more.
While Dog’s main responsibilites were to keep things in order on the ranch, he often found time for other activities including his love affair with Jess. Wal enjoys “manly” activities like sports and his love for a local woman, Cheeky Hobson.
Ball insisted that Dog behave as a real animal and not a Disney imitation including the fact that Dog’s lips never move even when talking. In the strip, Dog’s thoughts are in thought balloons. Local star Peter Rowley was chosen for the voice of Dog and the rest of the voice cast was filled out by other well-known New Zealand comedy stars.
The strip inspired not only the animated feature but merchandise, book collections, a stage musical and a theme-park known as Footrot Flats Leisure Park and also Footrot Flats Fun Park in Te Atatu Peninsula, West Auckland.
Music for the film was composed by Dave Dobbyn. He wrote the songs to the videotaped storyboards rather than being distracted by the final animation. Two of the songs (Slice of Heaven and Wouldn’t You Rather Be in Love) became number one singles with Slice going gold in less than five weeks and became known as the unofficial New Zealand national anthem.
A company, Magpie Productions, was set up and a temporary animation studio created expressly for the purpose of making this one film. Most of the over 150 member staff were poached from Hanna-Barbera’s Australian studio (that operated from 1972 to 1988) just as Walt Disney Animation Australia would later do in 1989.
It was six months in development and fifteen months in the making with a budget of five million dollars raised in ten days from 600 investors. Ball and his cartoonist friend Tom Scott wrote the script that before editing logged in at over 100 minutes. Final running time was closer to seventy-five minutes. Scott suggested using some jokes from published strips, but Ball was adamant the film should be all-new material.
“We knew nothing about film animation,” Scott said in 1987. “I think that has really helped in achieving our unique animation style. We didn’t set out at all to be like Disney. We wanted it to be just like opening up the comic strip — then someone taps a magic wand and the scene floods with colour and the characters start to walk and talk.”
As authors Dan and Lienors Torre of Australian Animation: An International History revealed, “Although there was a healthy pool of talented animators, a number of less experienced people were also given opportunities.
“One animator, given a substantial amount of scenes to take home, was never heard from again; no matter how they tried, they could not find him and finally resorted to hiring a private investigator to track him down and to collect the mostly unfinished work.
“Another freelancer was employed to ‘clean’ a large quantity of painted cels – to carefully remove any fingerprints, grime or dust with alcohol so that they would be ready for the camera. A few days later, the freelancer brought back the parcel of cels, was paid his fee and departed. Later, when the package was opened, it was found that the cels had indeed been cleaned; the painted drawings had been scrubbed off, leaving a stack of sparkling clean, but entirely blank cels.”
The film opened in New Zealand November 1986 to enthusiastic reviews and record box-office dollars. In its first twelve days, it earned over a million dollars at only 28 theaters. During its initial run, it earned over two and a half million dollars in that country alone.
At the time, it was the highest grossing film in New Zealand beating out films like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.
However some local reviewers felt that while Ball had all the ingredients from the strip in the film, it lacked the same flavor of the strip and was too cute.
It later opened in the Spring of 1987 in Australia and once again received rave reviews and box office success eventually grossing over four million dollars making it the most successful animated film in Australia until Disney’s The Lion King (1994) many years later.
In the United States, there was little interest in the film with distributors feeling it was too “down under” in tone and subject matter for American audiences. In addition, the characters were unfamiliar to American audiences since the strip did not appear in the States nor was it a film geared to children like most animated features but yet it was not an “adult” animated feature like Fritz the Cat or Heavy Metal.
The film was released on VHS and later DVD/BluRay. A book featuring animation stills retelling the story of the movie Magpie Productions Presents Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale was released as was Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale, The Making of the Movie by Lesley Stevens.
Ball stopped drawing Footrot Flats in 1995. He noted that Dog would, by then, be old and his muzzle streaked with grey … and he “couldn’t let that happen to his old mate”. So, he retired the strip, reflecting that, in Footrot Flats, he was “Just happy to have struck something people like”.
My thanks to my good friend and former writing partner John Cawley who introduced me to Footrot Flats and gifted me with several copies of the Australian strip reprint books that are still in my personal library.