To call the upcoming computer-animated family film Mosley a labour of love does a disservice to both labour and love. For Kirby Atkins, creator, writer, director and voice actor, Mosley's much more than that. It's been his life.
Atkins has obsessively been working on making Mosley a reality for more than two decades. Next Thursday, Mosley finally moseys on to cinema screens, making local cinematic history as New Zealand's first fully 3D animated movie.
Throughout the movie's long journey there was only one thing Atkins worried about.
"My biggest fear wasn't that it wouldn't get made, that it would get screwed up."
The veteran American animator and writer, who's worked for Weta Digital, Nickelodeon and Sony Animation among others, says he has first-hand experience of the "too many cooks" phenomenon.
"I've written a lot of scripts and worked on a lot of movies that get turned into hamburgers through production and development," he says. "So I'm delighted to say this film is what I always wanted it to be."
He pauses and says, "I'm a little stunned."
Work single-handedly began right after the birth of his daughter, Leah, in 1997. The more he wrote, the more he found himself sucked into his creative world.
"Any time I had a spare moment I would work on it. I was aware that you're never supposed to put that much of yourself into one single project, yet I couldn't help it. I loved the world and the characters and the idea of it so much I couldn't quit playing with it."
By the time Leah turned 7 he was ready to begin pre-production. He'd illustrated a full storyboard treatment of his script and had dialogue all written. He was also not the only person invested in the story.
"Leah had seen me writing and drawing these characters and been playing the story out on the floor for years," he smiles. "I recorded [us] playing and you actually hear that performance in the movie. Child actors tend to overdo it, you can tell they're acting, but Leah was just playing. She's 21 now, in university studying history."
Then he laughs and says, "So that's how long it's taken to get this thing off the ground."
The titular character is a fantastical creature called a thoriphant, living a life of back-breaking farm work for his cruel master. His child uncovers a hidden cave deep in the woods that's covered in crude paintings showing thoriphants walking upright, dressed in finery and using tools. This discovery sets off a chain of events that sees Mosley embark on an epic, dangerous quest to uncover the truth about his species, elude the dangerous, unstoppable hunter, Warfield and save his family and the future of his fellow thoriphants.
"This film is not a park-your-kids-in-front-of-the-screen-and-go-do-something-else type of movie," Atkins says. "It's a family film to watch together. It's got drama and teeth to it. And that's unusual now in an animated film."
He's not wrong. With its themes of family, fighting for what's right, breaking oppression, taking risks and facing danger, the movie offers real substance and is far removed from a lot of the frivolous, forgettable, product-shifting animated films regularly pumped out in time for the holidays.
"There are films we see when we're growing up and they mark us," Atkins says. "For me it was The Neverending Story, back in the 80s. It hasn't aged well, the effects are pretty bad now but there's a moment when this horse dies ... As a kid I loved that film but that really moved me.
"What I worry about is so many of these films that are made for families don't have any weight to them, they don't want to address big themes like life and death and risk or the fact that there's evil in the world that needs to be overcome or any of that stuff.
"But those are the films that stick to your ribs, especially when you're young. So I wanted to make one of those films that would be seared into a kid's memory as a pivotal moment for them and they'd love the film and keep revisiting it. Those are the films that change you and make you think differently than you did when you first came in."
As Atkins explains, this conceit matched with his desire to do something unique was a hard sell to possible backers, necessitating many assurances that the movie's darker moments wouldn't get too scary.
"But in order for the highs to be high, the lows need to be low," he explains. "So the highs are really victorious.
"There's a lot of pressure among producers and executives to eliminate risk out of film-making. They want to imitate the last thing that was successful instead of doing something different. One of the struggles was convincing executives and financiers and everybody else that I knew this was not what they'd seen everywhere else but, 'instead of doing what everybody else is doing, let's do something different from what everybody else is doing'."
As someone who has lived this thing for 20 years it's no surprise to learn that Atkins speaks with real passion about the project. But money men care not for passion, only the bottom line. And Mosley's bottom line was about as close to the bottom as you can get for an animated movie.
"To be honest, it was a business opportunity looking for a movie," he says when I ask how he got Mosley made, before revealing how his decades of hard graft paid off.
"The producers were looking to do a co-production with the New Zealand Film Commission and China Film Group. Rather than just turning over a script, I came with an entire movie's pre-production already done. I'd actually cut the movie together with my storyboards and recorded dialogue. So even though we had a small budget, it's about a US$20million movie, pretty much every dime of that went into production. In that regard it doesn't look like a US$20million movie."
That sounds like a lot, so for contrast I ask for a ballpark figure on what other animated movies might cost to produce.
"At the high end of Disney and Frozen, that's US$150 million. For the next tier down, the sort of films like Despicable Me or the Minions films, they run about US$75million. So US$20million is nothing."
But even with all the pre-production heavy lifting - and cost - taken care of, Atkins still had to stretch Mosley's meagre budget.
"One of the practical reasons why I play Mosley in the film is because we had unlimited access to me and nobody had to pay me," he laughs.
"But the secret is we had a very small group wanting to do the best work of their lives and that's what really made the difference," he says. "I'd rather have a small group of people who really want to do great work than a big warehouse full of people with a factory mentality. This was a bunch of friends getting together and trying to make something that felt amazing."
Production took place at Huhu Studios in the tranquil surrounds of Snells Beach, an hour from central Auckland. Atkins imported a couple of ringers he knew from Pixar and Disney, but overwhelmingly all of his main animation talent were Snells locals.
"They'd worked on a lot of TV and direct-to-video stuff and were looking for an opportunity to prove they had the chops to make a feature film," he says. "I lived there for almost three years. It was great. At lunch I would go across the street to the national park and walk around with the sheep and stuff. I literally had sheep and cows outside the office. It's a fantastic way to work. To have all that big beautiful New Zealand just outside, where you can hang out and have lunch with the people you're making the movie with, it was such a great way to be creative."
Now, with Mosley finally all set for release I ask if there might be more on the way, or if this is it for the adventurous thoriphant.
"I'm open to both at this point," he laughs. "In 1977 I was 10 years old and saw Star Wars. The first thing I remember is when the Death Star exploded, people stood up and cheered. I was like, 'What the hell is this?' I didn't know movies could do that. The other thing I remember is that the film was its own thing. If they never made another Star Wars it held together beautifully. Yet we all felt like there was more story that could be told. Now we're in a culture where we expect sequels and franchises and you know the film is just a set up for a whole bunch of other films. I didn't want Mosley to feel like that. I wanted it to feel like if this is all there is, it completely stands on its own. Yet there's lots of other stuff that could be told."
He smiles and says, "if the audience says, 'We'd like to see more,' there's more."
Who: Kirby Atkins; writer, director and voice artist.
What: NZ's first computer-animated film, Mosley
When: In cinemas next Thursday