High speed crashes, calamitous wildfire, colossal robot attacks, flash flooding, wayward missiles and cats stuck up trees. Welcome, then, to Cardboard City, a place where disaster stalks the streets and total destruction is all but assured.

"Cardboard City is every city in New Zealand in one," says Matt Heath of the burgeoning animated franchise he has co-created with longtime creative partner Phil Brough and that they both take great delight in unleashing almighty havoc on.

We've met to talk about Welcome to Cardboard City, their new show which launches today on TVNZ's kid-friendly, digital channel HeiHei. The series, which consists of eight 4-minute episodes, is a spin-off from their award-winning short film Fire in Cardboard City and the precursor to a full-fat, as yet untitled, half hour TV series for Australia's Channel 7.

There's a lot to talk about - but first, coffee. Brough arrives to our mid-morning chat bleary-eyed and yawning. The night before he'd stayed up until 2am working on the HeiHei show and instead of going home had simply crashed on a bean bag at their office. Whereas Heath, who also co-hosts Hauraki Breakfast with Jeremy Wells, has to drag himself out of bed each morning at 5am.


Once we're seated and appropriately caffeinated I ask the pair to unroll the history of Cardboard City.

Scene from new animated series Welcome to Cardboard City
Scene from new animated series Welcome to Cardboard City

"What it came out of was Phil being a massive Star Wars fan and wanting to contribute to one of those fan movies where you make 15 seconds of it," Heath begins.

"It was a film called Star Wars: Uncut. Everyone got 15 seconds. You'd apply for and get allocated a shot," Brough explains.

"Then the whole movie is put together," Heath says before Brough admits that the finished fan product was, "almost unwatchable".

Brough's concept for his 15-second shot was simple. Using cardboard he would replicate the movie's iconic opening shot of a bulky Imperial Destroyer spaceship flying in and filling the screen. Despite appearances, the cardboard spaceship was computer-animated but the fire that blasts out of its engines as it gives chase to a nimble escaping Rebel ship was real flames that Brough dropped in over the top. The shot turned out great, with the cardboard looking incredibly real and suitably homemade.

A celebratory drink led to an idea...

"We were just having a chat and someone said, 'you know what would be really bad? If you had an all cardboard city and a fire broke out," Brough recalls. "We were having some beers and just laughing. Then we wrote a script."

Scene from new animated series Welcome to Cardboard City
Scene from new animated series Welcome to Cardboard City

That script was for the short film, Fire in Cardboard City which does exactly what it says on the tin, by showing a fire breaking out in an all-cardboard city.


"At one point there was going to be a robot attacking the city but it was simplified down," Brough says. "Fire is a far bigger risk to cardboard than a giant robot."

Heath nods in agreement: "If you're a fire department in an all-cardboard city, and everyone's cardboard, a fire would be a really bad thing to happen..."

After writing the pair applied for funding to turn their script into a movie through the New Zealand Film Commission's Fresh Shorts programme.

"They came back with 10 grand," Heath grins, "and then Phil animated it for five years."

"The 10 grand disappeared really quickly," Brough says.

"I think the 10 grand went to…" Heath begins before pausing and asking, "What did the 10 grand go to?"

"To wages for other things," Brough replies. "Suddenly it was gone."

"It hung over our heads for a while. We were getting so much hassle from the Film Commission to finish it," Heath says. "But ya know... ya gotta do it in your spare time."

Little did they - or the commission for that matter - know that the short film would take such a long time to produce. But there were two very simple reasons.

The first, Brough explains almost pained by the memory, was that their "cardboard city" concept was deceptively ambitious, and secondly Brough was conceptualising, designing, directing and animating the entire thing himself.

"It was also a matter of fitting it in between actual work and life," he says.

Heath succinctly sums up the short's prolonged creative birth, saying, "a lot of it was done very late at night. By Phil."

Self-portrait of Phil Brough, co-creator of Welcome to Cardboard City
Self-portrait of Phil Brough, co-creator of Welcome to Cardboard City

So how did they keep their creative motivation up for five long years?

"Partly guilt," Brough answers, thinking about the $10,000 they'd burnt through, "But as it went on I was like, 'I think this is alright'. Pieces would come together and it was fun so I thought it would be good. In a weird way it always felt like it was gonna be finished."

Asked how he felt when he finally finished after toiling away on the project for so many years Brough answers quickly.


Heath, on the other hand, was more jazzed.

"I was in Wellington when Phil sent me the final one. I was like, 'holy f**k, it's finished! And it's f***ing great!'," he says. "Because I was just happy with finished. But it was not only finished but it had the bonus of also being good."

"Good" can be considered something of an understatement. The short was accepted into high profile film fests like Tribeca, Berlinale and Fantasia among others, and won multiple awards including Best Comedy at LA Shorts, Best Film at Show Me Shorts and a Special Jury Mention in Animation at Tribeca.

There's have been celebrity endorsements. Whoopi Goldberg declared,"I love this movie," the New York Times described it as a "clever, freewheeling joyride," while South Park co-creator Matt Stone gushed, "We loved it!".

In fact Stone and his partner in crime Trey Parker dug it so much they invited Brough to South Park Studios to hang out with them for the day.

"They were really cool. really mellow dudes," Brough says. "They said they liked it because it reminded them of where they'd started. It had a feeling that really resonated with them and reminded them of their stuff."

Portrait of Matt Heath, co-creator of Welcome to Cardboard City
Portrait of Matt Heath, co-creator of Welcome to Cardboard City

Brough and Heath are excited that Welcome to Cardboard City is screening on HeiHei. With all the success of the short it's surprising to hear that they landed the series the same way they landed the short, with Brough sending in an application that was accepted.

"It's still incredibly low-budget," Heath says. "Per minute, it's no more than the movie. So it's been quite punishing as well."

The series, which finally realises their giant robot attack idea, required around 50 minutes of animation, which led to their studio expanding from Brough working solo to a team of three. When work begins on the Channel 7 show they will need to expand again.

Like the creators of the shows they took inspiration from, The Simpsons and South Park, they voice a couple of characters themselves, Heath voicing Firechief Murphy McCard and Brough, fighter pilot Captain Noel Coolington. They've also enlistied plenty of celebrity cameos for the HeiHei series.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is possibly typecast as Cardboard City's mayor, The Hits Toni Street voices a cat, and Ian Brown, frontman of legendary UK band The Stone Roses, voices a helicopter pilot. Wait, what?

"This guy's the biggest Stone Roses fan," Heath says pointing at Brough. "I feel like Phil is more stoked about Ian Brown than anything else that's happpened."

While Heath is talking Brough picks up his phone, taps the screen a few times and pulls up an MP3 of Brown reciting his lines. He hits play and Brown's heavily accented, flat Mancunian vowels repeat variations of the same two lines over and over, "I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry. Sorry. Nice one, man. Nice one," as the pair both crack up.

Beaming, Brough says, "This is probably the best thing that happened from the film. "

This is what made all those late night 2am finishes worthwhile?

"Yeah," Brough nods, as the voice of his hero rattles out of his phone.

"Nice one, man," Brown says. "Nice one."

Who: Phil Brough and Matt Heath
What: Co-creators of new animated show Welcome to Cardboard City
When: Streaming on TVNZ's digital channel HeiHei from today