That painting was, in turn, inspired by Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1963 song Puff, the Magic Dragon, about the friendship between a little boy and a dragon and the dragon’s retreat into isolation when the boy stops believing in him.
But the “hybrid” film, featuring stop-animation, live action and visual effects, is far from a kids’ picture, despite having a yet-to-be-cast 12-year-old as its lead. It is, rather, “a fairytale for adults,” Barton said.
According to Screen Australia, Puff “centres on a young girl who, after witnessing a violent sexual assault, is left catatonic with shock and struggles to make sense of what she saw. She retreats into her imagination where Puff, the shimmering magic dragon who has been her childhood companion, allows her to express her rage and ultimately find renewal.”
Barton said the film draws on the “warning” contained in the song, that “as we transition from childhood to adulthood we have to be careful that our own dragons don’t crawl into their caves and lose their fearless roars. I fear that does happen if we lose connection with our child selves – it comes at great cost to ourselves, and to society.”
If Barton does meet her self-imposed year-end deadline, that may count as a fairytale result itself. Right now, there’s very little film or TV being made locally, with Screen Producers Australia last week reporting that 119 productions, with a combined value of almost half a billion dollars, had been delayed or suspended indefinitely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
That figure did not include Marvel’s big-budget film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis Presley project.
The state and federal government-funded screen agencies have attempted to keep at least some wheels turning by focusing on aspects of the industry that can operate without the need for vast numbers of cast and crew to come together. That mostly means visual effects work for projects that had completed filming before the shutdown, and script development for those yet to begin production.
Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason last week committed his organisation to continuing “to provide production funding, with the knowledge some shoots will be delayed”.
To that end the agency on Monday allocated $8.5 million of production investment to 10 projects – three features, four TV series, a children’s series, and two online projects – even though there is no timeline for the resumption of production activity yet.
Mr Mason said last week the agency’s “intervention is unashamedly about making sure people have jobs to come back to”.
Privately, some industry figures concede there’s a chance that a greater, if enforced, focus on development may result in better quality Australian film and television. But for Barton, the distinction between pre-production and production is blurry anyway.
“It’s a living, breathing process, and given this is a new experience for me I don’t have a lot of clarity around that myself,” she said. “It’s just an endless juicy list at this stage – storyboarding, which I’ve never done before, attaching talent, talking to musicians, working with my puppet maker and sound design and my production designer.
“I’m not hot-desking, I’m furnace desking,” she added. “It’s incredibly detailed and thorough and endless – and I love it.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.