British animators have consistently won awards and international esteem. In 1991, the Oscar for Best Animated Short went to Nick Park of the Bristol- based firm Aardman Animation. Creature Comforts, commissioned by C4, featured Plasticine models of zoo animals, with the 'coat-hanger' mouths that are one of the director's trademarks, holding real human conversations, which had been pre-recorded. The idea inspired Park's continuing series of 'Heat Electric' commercials, which are among the best loved in advertising history. Park was filming the latest of them when I talked to him at Aardman's studios.
Park's original plan for Creature Comforts was to go round a zoo with a hidden microphone, recording visitors' remarks about the animals; the tapes would then be edited and dubbed over animated models. The intention was a reversal of roles: to have the animals talking about the people. But the technical quality of the recordings made at the zoo wasn't good enough, so Park decided instead to record the interviews with the interviewees' knowledge. The effect is of a gentle parody of television documentary.
The jaguar, one of the most touching of the creatures in the film, was a Brazilian acquaintance of Park's. 'I knew he had a lot of
complaints to make about living in Britain; so, because a lot of the animals come from other countries, I thought: 'Brilliant]' '
The series has made Aardman one of the most successful firms in the business. The company was founded by David Sproxton and Peter Lord in 1972. Two years ago they moved into a converted banana warehouse close to the SS Great Britain and the Bristol Industrial Museum. Despite the theme-park setting, Aardman is not part of the heritage industry. The atmosphere in the front office is that of a successful advertising agency, informal but purposeful, and the joking stops with the sign on the stairs reading 'Aardministration' in primary-school blackboard lettering. Behind are the studios, linked by a warren of passages and protected by more earnest signs warning off casual callers while filming is in progress. Inside, black spaces, like the wings of a theatre, are divided with screens or the backdrops of sets; everything concentrates around a pool of light at one end where the work is going on.
This is a lonely, labour-intensive, agonisingly slow craft. Aardman's first big success was Morph, the lump of Plasticine that starred in Tony Hart's television show, and it has continued to specialise in this form of animation. The workforce depends on the workload, varying from a permanent staff of 14 to several times that number. Nick Park joined in 1985, after studying at Sheffield Art School and the National Film and Television School. His contract allowed him to continue work on the film he had started making as a student. A Grand Day Out is the story of a man and his dog who go on a day-trip to the Moon. Nave and inventive, this 22-minute joke took six years to make.
The two central characters, Wallace and Gromit, feature in Park's latest half-hour film, The Wrong Trousers, a tale of skulduggery involving a pair of mechanical trousers and a villainous penguin who tries to oust Gromit from his master's affections. Working with co- animator Steve Box, Park completed shooting in 13 months, at a rate of six seconds a day. The elaborate and finely-drawn storyboard for The Wrong Trousers - itself representing two months' work - was detailed enough to serve as a reference for both the animators and the set designers. It still hangs on the studio wall, with a picture of a Champagne bottle pasted over each frame to show that shooting of the scene had been completed.
The animator's art consists of giving life to characters like Gromit, a mouthless dog whose emotions are entirely conveyed by the raising of an eyebrow or the angle of an ear. In non- commercial work, there is usually some room for inspiration, but the higher degree of perfection required for commercials slows progress to two seconds, or 48 frames of film, a day. The Aardman studios are occupied well into the night. A van comes from the film laboratories at 9pm, but filming often continues beyond then. 'For some reason, you keep up your enthusiasm, I think because it's ever-changing. You're always looking forward to the next scene,' Park says.
What interests him is not animation for its own sake, but telling stories. This is why he prefers puppet animation to other forms, such as cel animation: puppets and models bring you closer to live action, allowing you to use 'filmic things' like camera movements, effects of lighting and complex sets that exist in real space. The sets for The Wrong Trousers are finely detailed, as intricate as models for any live-action film.
Park discovered the pleasure of being able to film the spaceship cabin from opposite angles, like 'a proper film set', when making A Grand Day Out. But this was far from a proper spaceship: it had wallpaper and a sideboard with a bowl of fruit. Oscar or no Oscar, there is something emphatically English about Park's sense of humour: these are cartoons for children and grown-up children who retain an affection for the Beano, an influence later supplemented in Park's case by the animations of Terry Gilliam. Slightly built and softly spoken, Park exhibits English diffidence and lack of pretension at its most charming. When he describes The Wrong Trousers as 'the most complex story I've ever done', he quickly adds: 'Of course, it wasn't that complex,' to let you know he's not making any excessive claims for his work; and he is faintly apologetic about the standing ovation the film got at the Venice Film Festival.
He thinks for a while when I ask if he minds doing commercials, eventually deciding that it is often beneficial to work within such constraints. But he adds: 'There is something unfulfilling about them. You're having to do the work so efficiently for something you may not care very much about.
'It's funny, because I find that all the way through my career, the world's come down a peg in my experience. It was like that when I first went to film school: I thought everybody would be so professional . . . As for the Oscar, you can't really get any higher, then suddenly you're that high. I know it's only for a short film but, suddenly, the world's come down. The Oscar ceremony was an extraordinary experience. Every familiar face you've ever seen is there. You sit, sort of daydreaming slightly, and Dustin Hoffman or Gregory Peck goes by. You think you must have just seen somebody who looks like them.
'Awards are not something to work for - they're all pieces of metal. But you can put them on the table to impress producers, the people who may put up money. It changes people's view of you, as well. It's interesting to sort of watch all that happen. I used to go to festivals and nobody really wanted to know you, except your friends; now everybody wants to meet you. You hope it's because of what you've done, not just because of the Oscar.'
'The Wrong Trousers' will be shown on BBC TV over Christmas. 'A Grand Day Out' is currently available on BBC Video ( pounds 8.99).
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