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Drawing power

Animated reality TV promises to be a lucrative concept for two Raumati brothers.

Love them or hate them, reality television and animation are two of the highest-rating genres on local TV. So it was just a matter of time before someone combined the two.

Animated reality television promises to be a lucrative concept, and the two brothers behind the idea are surprised that it hasn't been done here.

"It's so damn simple, why isn't everybody doing it?" says Phill Simmonds, one half of the Simmonds Brothers team.

It may be the first that most people have heard of the brothers, who are based in Raumati on the Kapiti Coast, but it probably isn't the last. They were named New Film-maker(s) of the Year at the Screen Production and Development Association (SPADA) conference in November. There they also won the South Pacific Pictures' Pitching Competition.

A kind of Dragons' Den, the competition required the brothers to present an idea for a film or television project to a panel of industry judges. The TV show they suggested follows a group of six young people who form a band. A mix of live action and animation, the show uses the stars' voices, with events re-created in two-dimensional drawings.

In fact, the brothers have been pioneering this idea for the past 10 years in various ways. Animated reality TV is an extension of "documation" - a term that Phill and Jeff Simmonds use to describe their short films. A fusion of documentary and animation, documation uses unscripted audio from real people, which is then imposed over animated drawings of characters and events. "It's not us coming up with a story and writing it," explains Jeff. "It's a strange combination of documentary and fantasy."

One of the best examples is their 10-minute film Pearl, Florrie and the Bull, which tells the true story of 80-year-old twins from Paekakariki who were attacked by a bull. The story is told by the sisters in their own words. Some of the animation is faithful to the events - other parts, such as elderly Pearl disappearing off the doorstep of a house in a cloud of smoke, are more fanciful.

The film was selected to screen at the New Zealand Film Festival in 2004, and two further documations, The Paselode Story and A Very Nice Honeymoon, showed last year. All of them are fast-paced, warm and entertaining. "New Zealanders are funniest when they're not trying to be funny," says Phill. "The funniest stuff happens when people get together and just tell their stories."

Telling simple stories with simple pictures is what the Simmonds brothers do. "Low tech is the new high tech," Phill quips. "Say you go to a puppet show. You get a bunch of kids and adults watching. It puts them into a trance. They suspend disbelief, their mouths hang open, their pupils are dilated - they are in a different world. And it has nothing to do with sophistication and movement. It's story, it's timing, it's pictures and it's sound."

Accordingly, the brothers' team of artists is small and the techniques are basic. Everything is hand-drawn; and larger animation studios have been known to laugh openly at the computer software that the brothers use.

"What we're doing probably wouldn't be acceptable even in a first-year portfolio [at animation school]," says Jeff.

Now the brothers must decide which international film festival to attend for their prize. Both in their mid-forties, neither has ever left New Zealand. They attribute that to their passion for telling our stories. As Phill says, they "are seriously interested in what's happening under our own noses. You know amazing things aren't just happening somewhere else on the planet, they're happening here."