Jessica ‘Coco Solid’ Hansell reflects on the state of adult animation and representation in New Zealand, and reveals the inspirations and motivations behind her own animated web series Aroha Bridge.
Friends hate picking movies with me because they know my preferences. I’m one of those ageless hams who love cartoons, generally any type. I watch them all the time and I probably always will. I remember smoking as a teenager while trying to get home in time for Animaniacs. On one hand trying to look steely and aloof, on the other cackling with my younger siblings, catching all the jokes they dropped. One year, instead of going to an actual therapist, I just decided to watch Dr Katz and Aeon Flux every night. And look at me now, completely fixed!
Thankfully, in recent years I found a portal of adults who were of the same breed, and we all create various projects together. One of them is the cartoon web series Aroha Bridge that was released on Monday. It’s about a brother and sister, who are also a band, who are also biracial Māori and Pākehā. They live in a town that underwhelms them, while existing in an eclectic family that overwhelms them.
There are autobiographical shards in it, but generally this is a Frankenstein of world-views and archetypes from all over the local spectrum. Things I’ve seen, lived and noted when me and my mixed bag community get together.
With animation there is no roof. Everything is caricature and depiction rendering nothing real. By that rationale, anything you can conceptualise has an almost casual ability to exist. I think this is why I’m so engrossed in the medium, the level playing field of anything that crosses our minds. It’s seen as some knock-off to live-action, but cartoons when I was young were my channel to the psychedelic, they provide more gratuitous displays of imagination for a child-mind (like mine).
I was very much a kid who was allowed to watch TV, so inevitably I became obsessed with everything animated. I loved seeing the matte paints, the brightness and the bulbous likeness of things. I knew more about Transformers than the boys in my class so they stopped talking to me (which continues to be a theme lol). Real faces reminded me too much of the real world, where I could usually be found kicking rocks. As an aesthetic, cartoons are the ultimate escape.
New Zealand has Footrot Flats, Bro’ Town, Terry Tio, Supercity, Funny Girls, Brown Eye, all crucial pop cultural nerd moments with brown people in them. But frequency, visibility or long-term productiveness in this genre are too rare here. I want to add to that canon obviously, but I also want to fast-track and intensify things for other lit storytellers in my communities to come through.
We need to provide deeper archetypes for women, Māori/Pacific/all nationalities, our queer family, artists of all ages and physical abilities. Comedy, screenwriting and animation all need these voices and we should be making way for them. We need to provide characters and challenges that aren’t corny fantasies, toxic projections or earnest distortions of us. Even if questionable white male comics tell us relentlessly to lighten up and that being their punchline is the comedic point, I find fire coming from our own mouths tends not to scorch as much.
When we started Aroha Bridge it was about making a work specific to the Aotearoa that we actually knew. Smart but suffering, broke but ever-optimistic, multicultural and tense. Someone asked who the typical viewer was yesterday and I realised: it was for people who didn’t win a KFC giveaway beanie but will never give up the dream.
I’m not asking for Pixar down-under or for the Hooks to painfully copy The Simpsons, I’m realistic about where I am and disinterested in thrashing templates that are not as assured here. I just want to see the counter-cultural freedom that adult animation overseas has. We need to recognise its industrial potential here too.
Making a cartoon is awesome when everyone is motivated and gifted within their role, of which there are many roles available. Luckily we were able to fill this funny machine with cyborg friends and scary talents for Aroha Bridge. While I don’t want to take anything away from how hard I’ve worked – and I LOVE this ‘anomaly alone in a desert carving cartoons into a limestone tablet’ image of me that’s been popping up recently (I’m an educated brown woman not a token unicorn, believe it or not) it’s just not possible.
The fact is if you want to make an animation of a similar ilk to Aroha Bridge, even a short robust web series, you kinda have to roll 20 people deep (minimum) and everyone has to go 100 for months on end and love cartoons as hard as you do. Thankfully, this is what happened to me and I’ll always be grateful.
So here is a timeline of gratitude (a grizzly reality) which often gets compressed when I talk about this project:
I’ll be grateful to Sam Wicks for twisting my arm to do a comic-strip called Hook Ups when he was the editor of Volume magazine in 2011. This turned into Aroha Bridge.
I’ll be grateful to all of the incredible voice actors, Rizvan Tu’itahi, Scotty Cotter, Frankie Stevens, my creative sis Madeleine Sami, Matai Smith and even my little nephew Filisi. My dream Māori and Polynesian ensemble who morphed this mini-world in my mind into a lovable comical nightmare. I am grateful to Sam Moore who had the task of putting us all in one booth and recording us, you are the real MVP.
I’ll be grateful to Brenda Leeuwenberg for her support at NZ On Air and greenlighting something that we openly and brattily planned not to play safe. I’ll be grateful to Morgan Waru and Claire Hansell for being production brainiacs. I’ll be grateful for Carthew Neal and Taika Waititi at Piki Films for always backing my writing and actively helping me get my work out.
I’m grateful to all the beautiful places, friends and whānau I based things on and named people after. I won’t out you, but you know who you are (well… most of you do!)
I’ll be grateful to the comic bro Jamaine Ross for helping me edit and screenwrite this series. I’m so happy to have my friend Rachael Phyllis Gabor Duval help us design everyone’s costumes and I owe Cory Mathis, Corey Fuimaono and Richard Pilkington for all their animation assistance and brains. Shout out to Tim ‘Jizmatron’ Checkley for his music mahi when me and Disasteradio were multitasking squished.
Most of all I am very grateful to the core animation team aka the skeleton crew aka my own private lol kings. To Kenny Smith, Luke Rowell, illustrating genius Don Brooker, thank you. And down to the wire, I am grateful for my co-director/partner in cartoon slime Simon Ward – because he is too modest to ever big-up his bloody self despite low-key carrying the whole thing lol.
Basically I am grateful for everything about this project. On a lot of levels I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Click here to watch Season 2 of Aroha Bridge
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