Fantastic machines, elegant cinemas, clanking trams - conjured up with just cardboard and a little glue. These are the creations of Melbourne-based animator and artist Daniel Agdag: meticulous and mechanical structures that blend art, film, architecture and design into a recognizable but fantastical world.

His latest exhibition, Sets From A Film I'll Never Make, is now on at Off The Kerb, and he took the time to answer a few of our questions from Melbourne.

How did you get started making these kinds of sculptures? What was the first one you made? 

It started with the necessity of wanting to realise my ideas in a three dimensional form. I had notebooks full of two dimensional line drawings of contraptions and various structures I had doodled over the years. In my head they had a far more impressive reality, but on paper they seemed quite lifeless.

The first thing I ever made was a traffic light. It was overflowing with cables, junction boxes and all manner of electrical sundry.

With this first piece began my process of cutting and forming the structure without plans or drawings.

You’re known for writing and directing a short film, Paper City Architects. Tell us a bit about this film and the making of it.

In 2005, I had taken a job for six months in the United Kingdom as a videographer for the comedian Ross Noble. It was a great experience both professionally and personally, although I did miss toiling away in my little apartment with the cardboard!

Ross tours pretty intensively and extensively and I got to see a great deal of the U.K. I found an immense inspiration in both the cities and countryside. I had dabbled in experimental stop motion animation previously and felt this cardboard, this medium I had been working in, was very suitable to stop motion animation.

I applied, and was accepted into, the post-graduate program in Animation at the Victorian College of the Arts. This is where I made Paper City Architects, a story I had brewing in one of my many notebooks for many years. I completed my master's there in 2007.

I remember when I was building the sets for Paper City Architects a lot of students and faculty staff would say, ‘you’re going to paint that, right?’ and I had to vigorously defend the raw cardboard aesthetic. I don’t think it fit in with a lot of people’s ideal of what a stop-motion film should look like. But it was well received and enjoyed a pretty good run through local and international Film Festivals. I still have that defense mechanism as people still ask the same question.

Oddly enough the story is about a character that fights a bureaucratic system, but in his world he isn’t successful in reaching his goal, where as I was.

You’ve said you use simple materials and tools – boxboard, exacto knife, glue. What attracted you to these materials?

Primarily, it began because the materials were easily accessible and didn’t require a workshop or any large space, or complicated equipment. I had a tool kit that consisted of a surgical scalpel with Nº11 blades, a metal ruler and PVA glue. I could work away in a small room, hand crafting anything with only the limits of my imagination. This is where I realized that I was indeed ‘sketching with cardboard.’ I became adept at manipulating the material and over time I developed a deep connection with it – I felt the texture, colour and tactility complimented my themes.

It’s because of this process I try not to deviate from my limited material choice, I find the limitation allows for a more unlimited stream of ideas to be formed.

I also like the vulnerability that the medium presents to the audience. Most people think it is extremely fragile and gasp when I rough-handle some of the works in progress.

Do you ever base your designs off of real buildings or vehicles? If so, are there buildings or neighbourhoods in Melbourne that inspire you?

Yes, everything I make is in one way or another representative of my surroundings. There are definitely parts of Melbourne that inspire me, in particular Guildford Laneway in central Melbourne that is a little undeveloped pocket, filled with old warehouses. The developers are circling though, so it won’t be there for much longer. I still wander through there at any time I can. I love to walk, I can walk around the city all day, stopping at my leisure and observing any detail that might catch my eye. These could be architectural, electrical, plumbing – I’ve been known to stare for an inordinate amount of time at signage or shop fittings as well.  

Obviously trams are a big part of the Melbourne landscape, and one of my major pieces is a tram, but I feel I draw more influence from the art deco era of the US and turn of the century Europe. Thematically, I draw a lot of inspiration from the great paradox of the industrial revolution and the promises of progress that it gave.

It’s easy to describe the models as meticulous, intricate, startlingly life-like. But there’s also something other wordly about them, like a Victorian-era adventure novel. How would you describe the world your sculptures exist in?

I agree they do have a presence of being other worldly. And in many ways they are. They belong to the present and the past. But ultimately, they exist in a world of my own imagination and are examples of how I see the world.

What are you going to do next?

I hope I have the opportunity to explore my next idea to it’s full potential as it is rather ambitious in scale and detail and I am rather excited to get going on it. Broadly, I will say it is aviation-themed, but at the moment that is it’s starting point. It will be a series of sculptures, and I will be continuing in the cardboard medium.
Sets From A Film I'll Never Make is showing at Off The Kerb until 9 November 2012.

Off The Kerb
66 Johnston Street
Collingwood VIC 3066

Photos courtesy Daniel Agdag and Melanie Etchell.