In any animated film, the characters' performances belong as much--or more--to the animators as to the actors providing the voices. That is especially true in the world of stop-motion animation, where the animators spend countless hours bringing inanimate puppets to life, bit by infinitesimal bit.
The process begins with the design of the puppets themselves. In their short films, Wallace & Gromit rarely encountered other human characters, but that was not to be the case in their first feature film. Model production designer Jan Sanger and her team were charged with the design and creation of an entire neighbourhood of both people and animals of assorted ages, shapes and sizes. In addition, because the characters' hair and clothing are molded and hand painted on each individual puppet, the modelmakers also had to serve as a de facto costume designers and hairstylists--albeit for clients with decidedly eccentric tastes.
Park offers, "The central characters of Wallace & Gromit were already established, but there were many more townspeople involved in the story. We had a great team building the models for about 40 additional characters in the film, including Victor and Lady Tottington. It was a lot of work designing those two characters, especially Lady Tottington, who needed an entire wardrobe of dresses. There were some pretty heated debates about which dress she would wear in what scene," he admits laughing.
Sanger says, "It was very interesting having Lady Tottington and Victor come on the scene, because they are flamboyant and it allowed us to introduce another dimension to Wallace & Gromit's world. They were fantastic characters to work with. Victor is quite pompous and has his own agenda for what to do with the rabbits. We generally had him in his safari hunting outfit, which leaves no doubts about his intentions. And Lady Tottington: with her grace and elegance, we spent a lot of time looking through fashion magazines to create a wonderful costume range for her."
Sanger reveals that Wallace's flirtation with the posh Lady Tottington even had an influence on his all-too-familiar wardrobe. "Wallace sets out to charm Lady Tottington, so we managed to get him out of his green vest and into a new zigzag patterned vest. Obviously, we had to work closely with the directors to get just the right zigzag vest, so we went through several stages of designs on that one."
Each of the puppets has essentially the same construction, beginning with a metal armature, which acts as the character's skeleton. Obviously, there are variables based on size and whether the character stands on two legs or four legs or, as in the case of Gromit, whichever suits him in the moment.
The model department then molds each puppet using a special blend of Plasticine, nicknamed "Aard-mix," which is slightly more durable than ordinary Plasticine. Audiences who remember Aardman's first feature film, "Chicken Run," will notice a distinct difference in the puppets used in "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." Where the chickens had a smooth exterior, the models in this film were intentionally designed to retain the irregular appearance of clay, in keeping with the tradition of the Wallace & Gromit shorts--to "see the thumbprints," as Nick Park was often heard to say.
Peter Lord expounds, "You can see the fingerprints. It tells you that they are real; they are tangible. Luckily for us, our audience has always appreciated that personal touch."
"It's that slight imperfection that gives it that handcrafted look," David Sproxton adds. "I think when something is handcrafted, you register that it was made by somebody with love and care."
Every character had to be duplicated in different poses and in various costumes--some more than others, depending on how many scenes he or she was in. For example, there were 35 versions of Wallace, and well over a dozen versions of Lady Tottington and Victor. In addition, there had to be an assortment of interchangeable and replaceable parts for each puppet, ranging from eyes and ears to heads and hands. Dozens of mouth shapes were also molded for each character so the animators could synch the characters' mouths to the words coming out of them.
Once all the models were completed, they were turned over to the animators who would spend the next couple of years making the puppets "perform." Guided by the vision of the two directors, supervising animator Loyd Price led a team of 30 key and assistant animators on "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit."
It is almost impossible to fathom the countless hours of meticulous work and the level of concentration required to make a film in the Aardman style of animation. If you think of it in numeric terms alone: there are 24 frames per second of film time, so depending on the action in a sequence, it is possible to have 24 separate poses to shoot per character for every second in a scene, each pose involving the tiniest increment of movement for body, head, arms, legs, hands, fingers, eyes, ears, mouth, and so on. In addition, the Plasticine used is malleable, so there is constant resculpting involved.
Multiply all of that by every character in every scene, factoring in the movements of any props that are on camera, and you begin to understand the task that is literally "at hand." Perhaps the greatest testament to the patience and tenacity of the animation team is that on days when as many as 30 sets were in simultaneous operation, the optimum goal was to accomplish a mere 10 seconds of completed film.
"It is very, very slow motion," Sproxton attests. "The animators have to know every step of the action before they start. They may even act it out themselves first…whatever it takes to get it into their brains."
Lord adds, "It may be slow motion, but in a bizarre way, it is a live performance. An animator may have all day to do a single line that may be only three seconds long, but he only gets one go at it. With a long shot, it might take a week, and by the end of that week, you are desperate not to mess it up because you will lose a week's work. So it may be slow, but there's real adrenaline churning around in their bodies. There is some real fear attached to this kind of work," he laughs.
Consistency was another element that added to the pressure for the animators. Being the title characters, Wallace and/or Gromit are in virtually every scene, so it was impossible for one animator to generate all of their actions. Nevertheless, anyone who lent a hand to either of them had to follow in the same style. Key animator and second unit director Merlin Crossingham, who was the lead animator on both Wallace and Gromit, acknowledges, "Pretty much everyone had a go at animating Wallace and Gromit at some point during the filming, purely because they are the heroes of the story and are in almost every sequence. From that point of view, I couldn't possibly animate them all the way through alone, so we had to make sure that everybody was on the same page in terms of the movements and expressions."
Animating Gromit posed some of the greatest challenges for the animation team, as everything he is thinking and feeling has to be expressed without a single word. Having no mouth, he can't even smile or frown; it's all in his brow, eyes and body language. His performance is entirely--and literally--in the hands of the animators, and the results even impressed Gromit's award-winning co-star Helena Bonham Carter. "Gromit is a bit like a silent movie actor. He doesn't need to speak; you know exactly what he's thinking. In a way, he's the best screen actor ever," she smiles.
Although seen comparatively briefly, the Were-Rabbit presented key animator Ian Whitlock with a different set of challenges, beginning with the fact that he is covered in fur instead of Plasticine. If Whitlock had used his fingers to move the Were-Rabbit, he would have left impressions in the fur in various places, which, in stop-motion animation, could have looked like something was, in his words, "creeping around in there. We had to find way of handling it without actually touching it, which was very tricky."
To solve the problem, the modelmakers fixed small levers into the back of the Were-Rabbit puppets, which gave Whitlock access points from which to manipulate them, using small tools instead of his hands. The puppets were also much larger than those of the other characters, so the inner frameworks were much heavier and more intricate. The increased weight was another obstacle to overcome. Whitlock explains, "The thing with a bigger puppet is that it's a constant fight with the armature, because you have to keep it under heavy tension just to lift its leg or keep the arm where it is. There's also a lot of stress on it with the stretch of the outer fabric pulling on it, so you can't have the armature as light as you would have liked it. You have to put quite a lot of force onto it, which is awkward when you're trying to do something quite refined."
DESIGNING THE SETS
Despite the influence of computer animation, "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit" does not compromise on the classic, old-world style for which Aardman's most famous duo is known. In fact, while technology has revolutionized much of the animation industry, the painstaking techniques of stop-motion animation--though refined over the years--have remained virtually unchanged since the genre's inception.
In some ways, clay animation actually has more in common with live-action filmmaking than other forms of animation, because the characters and sets are all physical, not drawn or computer-generated. Aardman has often referred to their particular style of filmmaking as "live action in miniature," miniature being the operative word.
There are no location shots in clay animation because, short of traveling to Lilliput, it would be impossible to find locations to fit characters who range from 10- to 12-inches tall. Production designer Phil Lewis was charged with designing 30 individual sets down to the very smallest detail. Having served as the art director on the Wallace & Gromit shorts, Lewis was all-too-familiar with the design of the pair's home at 62 West Wallaby Street. One major change to the décor was the wall of portraits of Anti-Pesto's clients, fitted with flashing eyes that sound the alarm if rabbits are on the prowl for vegetables.
In contrast to Wallace & Gromit's modest residence, the Tottington Hall sets were designed to be elegant and imposing. The stately home of Lady Tottington--complete with its breathtaking rooftop conservatory and lavish gardens--was mainly inspired by the National Trust's landmark Montacute House and took eight weeks to build.
Over 100 varieties of foliage were researched and recreated to add an authentic look to the countryside gardens, woodlands and greenhouses. The greenhouses themselves feature tiny panes of real glass. Filling the gardens, more than 700 little plaster vegetables--mostly melons, pumpkins and carrots--were molded, painted and planted in the ground in anticipation of the "giant" vegetable competition.
All of the wallpaper seen in Tottington Hall and other sets was entirely hand painted. The gardening tools, as well as those seen in Wallace's workshop are working tools, crafted in miniature.
Tremendous attention to detail was paid in the creation of Wallace & Gromit's Anti-Pesto-mobile, which is a miniaturized Austin 35. Various scale models of the van were created, each probably costing more than the original Austin. Virtually everything about the car worked, from the headlights, to the turn signals, to the windshield wipers. The windows, doors, hood and trunk all opened and closed and the doors could even lock. The car builders even made sure that when the tires drove over the ground, they would have the proper compression.
Given the meticulously slow pace of the production, filming was always happening on multiple sets simultaneously. Directors Nick Park and Steve Box split the scenes each would cover, often walking five miles over the course of the day to check on the various sets in operation.
There were also two directors of photography, Dave Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver, who were responsible for controlling camera movements and maintaining correct light and shadows throughout the filming of a scene, which could take days, weeks or even months. Taking a little of the pressure off of the cinematographers, camera moves are now controlled by computer, so the animators could block for the camera and know exactly where it was going to be at any given point. Nevertheless, if a mistake was made, it was virtually impossible to go back and fix it. Oliver explains, "In live action, you have the luxury of another take. With this kind of animation, you can't do that. If you make a mistake and have to retake, you'll have an animator cursing you because something you've done has cost him six days of work."
In lighting the scenes, Riddett and Oliver were able to apply a lower level of light because stop-motion camera shutter speeds are slower than those in live action. Rather than film lights, they used theatrical lighting, which is smaller and more controllable. Carefully positioned mirrors were also used to angle light down into the small sets, and colored gels helped to create the proper tone.
For longtime fans of the Wallace & Gromit shorts, there is nothing that sets the tone better than the strains of a Yorkshire brass band playing the instantly recognizable themes composed by Julian Nott. Hans Zimmer, who collaborated with Nott as a music producer, notes, "It was easy to find the tone, because Julian had done all the groundwork with the shorts. One of the things I thought we should try to do was to amplify the feeling of the shorts through the music. We may have a bigger band than Julian used before, but it's still the familiar sound of a Yorkshire brass band."
Julian Nott acknowledges, "It was a very different process for me dealing with a 90-piece orchestra. It's also almost wall-to-wall music for about 85 minutes, and if you don't do it right, I know it can get on your nerves. But I learned certain techniques from Hans, and Hans is obviously an expert on getting it right."
Park offers, "Julian and I met at college and he has always been the Wallace & Gromit composer. He wrote fantastic music for all the shorts, so he was an absolute must to compose the score for our first Wallace & Gromit feature. Hans Zimmer came over as a consultant and it was great to have someone of his caliber here, but the score very much reflects Julian's take on everything."
"The most important thing to capture was the charm of Wallace & Gromit," Nott says. "They are very optimistic and there is not a drop of cynicism in them, which is pretty rare for a British product. But mostly it's the charm; you can't help loving them."
Park agrees. "We didn't want the music to be too big; it still had to be the Northern brass band. We didn't want to get away from what is Wallace & Gromit. We had the production values of a feature film, and yet we maintained the handmade quality, which I think is quite important. We had a giant production behind us, but it was our duty to keep it looking as if we're still just a couple of blokes working out of a shed in Bristol. There is a feeling of 'smallness' that was important to keep. That," he concludes, "is where the charm is."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
NICK PARK (Director/Screenwriter/Producer) is a three-time Academy Award® winner in the category of Best Animated Short for the films "Creature Comforts," "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave." All three films were created at Aardman, where Park is a Co-Director, together with founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton. "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" starred Park's most famous creations, the cheese-loving Wallace and his faithful canine companion, Gromit.
In 2000, Park directed and produced DreamWorks Animation's "Chicken Run," the first feature-length film from Aardman, starring the voice of Mel Gibson. The film went on to be an international box office hit and was named the best-reviewed movie of that year.
Park became interested in animation as a child and started making films in his parents' attic at the age of 13. One of his earliest works, "Archie's Concrete Nightmare," shot on standard 8mm film, was shown on BBC Television in 1975.
He went on to earn a BA in Communication Arts at Sheffield Art School in 1980, before moving on to the National Film & Television School in Beaconsfield, England. While there, he began working on "A Grand Day Out," which marked the introduction of Wallace & Gromit. In February 1985, Park joined Aardman where he completed the film. He then directed "Creature Comforts" for Aardman's "Lip Synch" series for Channel 4 Television.
In 1990, "Creature Comforts" won the Academy Award® for Best Animated Short and "A Grand Day Out" received a nomination, giving Park the rare distinction of having two films Oscar®-nominated in the same category in the same year. He also garnered BAFTA Award nominations for both films, this time winning for "A Grand Day Out."
Park won his second Academy Award® and another BAFTA Award for the Wallace & Gromit film "The Wrong Trousers," and his third Oscar® and BAFTA Award for "A Close Shave," also starring the beloved duo. Two of the most successful animated shorts ever made, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave" have won over 80 additional awards between them. Collectively, Park and Aardman were also honored with a BAFTA Special Award for Original Contribution to Television. In 1997, Park was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).
During his tenure at Aardman, Park has also served as a director and animator on numerous projects, including pop promos, title sequences and inserts for children's television.
STEVE BOX (Director/Screenwriter) started his career with a small studio in Bristol called CMTB Animation. Thrown in at the deep end, he quickly mastered the skills of all aspects of animated film production. During Box's tenure, CMTB produced over 60 short films, mainly for children's television. One of these, "Trap Door," is still recognized as a very influential piece of work and is regarded as a cult classic.
After six years with CMTB, Steve joined the Aardman studios. Quickly making his mark as a talented and valued animator, he was asked by Nick Park to join the team filming what became the Academy Award®-winning short "The Wrong Trousers," starring Wallace & Gromit. It was Box who animated the dastardly Penguin, Feather McGraw. In 1995, he again collaborated with Nick Park on another Wallace & Gromit Academy Award®-winning short, "A Close Shave," on which Box animated that beauty of the silver screen, Wendolene Ramsbottom.
In 1997, Box directed his first short film for Aardman, "Stage Fright," which premiered at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Box's tale of Victorian ambition and deceit went on to win a BAFTA Award for the Best Animated Short Film of 1997, in addition to many other prestigious awards. In 1999, Nick Park and Peter Lord invited Box to be an animator on Aardman's first feature film, "Chicken Run." "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" marks Box's feature film directorial debut.
MARK BURTON (Screenwriter) is a UK-based comedy writer with a widely varied career in film and television on both sides of the Atlantic. He has won several awards for his writing, including the British Comedy Award and the Premier Ondas Award. He most recently co-wrote DreamWorks' computer-animated hit "Madagascar." He had earlier collaborated with the Aardman team when he provided additional dialogue for the clay-animated smash "Chicken Run."
Burton has written extensively for many leading British comedy shows, including "Clive Anderson Talks Back," "Jack Dee's Happy Hour," "Never Mind the Buzzcocks," "2DTV," "Have I Got News For You" and "Spitting Image." He was also the co-creator and co-writer of the BBC sitcom "The Peter Principle," which starred Jim Broadbent.
BOB BAKER (Screenwriter) first collaborated with Nick Park to write the Wallace & Gromit short "The Wrong Trousers," which won numerous awards, including an Oscar®. Three years later, he and Park teamed again to write the third Wallace & Gromit short, "A Close Shave," which won an Oscar® in 1996 and an Emmy in 1997.
Educated in Bristol at Air Balloon Hill School, Baker attended the West of England College of Art. After leaving college, he began making animated films in a home built studio, including a series of short cartoons for the BBC.
Together with his then-writing partner, Baker started his writing career scripting nine episodes of the popular series "Dr. Who," which retains a cult following to this day. Baker went on to write ten series over nine years. He also wrote many television plays, including "Thick as Thieves," which won the British Television Society Award for Best Drama. In addition, he wrote a number of popular children's series, including "King of the Castle," which was nominated for a BAFTA Award.
Baker has also written for a number of primetime police series in the UK, including "Z Cars," "Shoestring" and "Bergerac." He also spent several years at HTV, where he oversaw all script matters for numerous international co-productions.