Q&A with Julian Frost

Julian Frost, the director behind the hugely successful Dumb Ways To Die animation for Metro Trains in Melbourne, has just signed to Passion for commercial representation. CR talks to him about his plans, and how it feels to be responsible for a viral hit…

Julian Frost, the director behind the hugely successful Dumb Ways To Die animation for Metro Trains in Melbourne, has just signed to Passion for commercial representation. CR talks to him about his plans, and how it feels to be responsible for a viral hit…

Frost was born in 1979 in Christchurch, New Zealand and has lived in Melbourne since 2003 (bar a stint in London from mid-2010 to mid-2012). He has worked as an illustrator, claymation set maker, web and games designer and digital advertising creative. The Dumb Ways To Die animation is a witty and irreverent take on public safety, which has racked up over 58 million views on YouTube since its release in November last year. It swept the board at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, picking up a record five Grand Prix awards, plus numerous other gongs.

CR: Can you tell me more about your background – how did you first get into the industry?

JF: As a kid I liked drawing silly characters. I got older and realised two things: 1) when grown-ups draw things it’s called Illustration, so I studied Illustration. 2) Then I graduated and found out ‘Illustrator’ is usually a synonym for ‘unemployed person’. It is in a smallish place like Christchurch, New Zealand anyway, which is where I grew up. So I put the illustration on hold and tried design. Icons for my friend’s dad’s software, hairdresser’s logos, claymation sets, Christmas cards, games, websites, engine control interfaces – whatever came along really. There weren’t any silly characters involved but it turned out I really liked visual problem-solving. So I moved to Australia and ended up at an ad agency for a few years. First as a designer then an art director in the digital department. The whole job was problem-solving. I was given a heap of projects that I was sure I couldn’t do, but other people made me and it turned out they were right. That was good for a not-so-confident person like me. Eventually after a few years I quit because I liked making stuff better than I liked telling other people to make stuff, and I’ve freelanced since. There’s been no career plan I’m afraid. But after years of making silly characters as a kid, and years of problem-solving, I finally get given problems where the solution is “make silly characters”.

Dumb Ways To Die film

CR: You’ve worked in quite a lot of areas of design and advertising – how would you describe the work you do now?

JF: In practical terms it seems to be a mix of animation, illustration and game design projects. Making fun things to communicate an idea, preferably with characters and absurd humour. I try to spend a chunk of time making things for fun too. It’s a nice contrast to briefed work, drawing and allowing it to turn into whatever it wants to be.

CR: Do you think it’s important for directors now to have a range of skills?

In commercial work I’ve found it helpful to understand the strengths and limitations of where an animation will end up. If it’s full-screen video, great. But maybe it’s web video, or a mobile game character, or a YouTube pre-roll ad, or a gif, or an online ad, or app UI, or an emoticon – or could be turned into one. Those spaces aren’t necessarily grand canvases, but they are part of people’s lives and you have a chance to provide something unexpectedly cool if you can get the best out of the format. So, making cool stuff that moves is the basic skill. If I keep up with the different ways people watch and play with cool stuff then hopefully the internet won’t eat my job for a while.

CR: It’s been a big year for you with the success of Dumb Ways To Die – did you expect it to be so successful?

JF: Nope! When it took off on YouTube my brain overloaded and I promptly got a cold.

From Frost’s storyboard for Dumb Ways To Die

CR: How did the project come about?

JF: John Mescall from McCann Melbourne had the job of talking rail safety. Dumb Ways To Die was him trusting kids enough to tell it to them straight, and funny. Then trusting Ollie McGill, the songwriter, and me to make something that people would want to watch, since there was no media budget. Finally the client trusting all of us that it wasn’t a terrible idea to remind customers that their product sometimes chops people into bits.

CR: At what stage did you become involved?

JF: I got an early draft of John’s lyrics from a friend who worked at the agency and thought my sense of humour might match the project. The lines are so deliciously violent that it was like seeing an old tyre balanced at the top of a hill – it was obvious what had to be done for the mischief to ensue.

CR: Was the film based on a personal project of yours or was it created entirely new for this?

JF: Well I’ve been nurturing a morbid sense of humour for some years now…. But the artwork was original to the campaign.

CR: How has the experience of its success been? Has it opened lots of doors for you?

JF: I’m very thankful to have contributed to a project that so many people enjoyed. I’ll look back proudly for the rest of my life. (Unless I get hit by a train myself, in which case my dying second will be spent realising I’m about to join the Segway guy as an internet laughing stock.) Since DWTD it’s true I have had more opportunities in work than I used to. I’m still getting used to it. Life decisions aren’t my forte. I highly recommend making a viral video if you’re a person who enjoys replying to emails though!

CR: Do you feel pressure now to create a follow up of some kind…?

JF: Not until you said that. Thanks a lot, now I’m all nervous.

Trailer for Frost’s iPhone game, Toybox

CR: Why did you choose Passion?

JF: The worlds they create are full of the kind of imagination and polish I aspire to. They have so many amazingly talented people so it’s truly humbling to join them. I’m very excited to see what we’ll make together. Also Angry Kid. I loved that show when I was a teenager, and Darren Walsh who directed it works for Passion. I met him once but I was too shy to say much. Hi Darren!

CR: What people or projects have been particularly inspiring for you in your work?

JF: Miyazaki, Moebius, Calvin and Hobbes, Zappa, Chris Ware, David Shrigley, ALILBTDII, Gary Larson, Japanese prints, Flemish paintings, Vectorpark. I’m a dabbler compared to those people but they mapped out the territory for me.

CR: What are you working on at the moment?

JF: I’m part way through drawing a giant robot for my ex-girlfriend. It’s long overdue and I feel really bad.

More on Julian Frost can be found on his personal website, or on the Passion website.

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