Cracking! An Interview With the Creator of 'Wallace and Gromit'

Artvoice | October 7, 2005
As a duo, their popularity has steadily risen since the public discovered their ingenious antics in the 1980s. The big one talks a good deal, at least partly because he enjoys the sound of his own voice. He’s clever, if not quite as smart as he thinks he is. His shorter sidekick doesn’t talk at all, and may in fact be the smarter of the two, though it’s hard to imagine either one without the other.

No, I’m not talking about Penn and Teller, but another duo whose adventures delight millions around the world. They’re Wallace and Gromit, the plasticine pair whose three short films have brought creator Nick Park a pair of Oscars. (The only reason he didn’t get one for the first, “A Grand Day Out,” was because he was in competition with himself: the award for Best Animated Short that year went to Park’s “Creature Comforts.”)

For the benefit of those of you unfamiliar (the rest of you can skip along), Park’s films represent the precise opposite of the computer animation that dominates the industry these days. His characters are molded from plasticine (a mixture of clay, oil and pigment). To produce the illusion of movement, they are placed in position, photographed, moved a millimeter or so, photographed, ad infinitum.

Park first concocted Wallace, the tweedy, cheese-addicted inventor of ridiculously elaborate labor-saving devices, and his silent canine companion Gromit in a student film. Upon graduation he found a job with England’s Aardman, an animation studio specializing in stop-motion production. They proved the perfect match, giving Park the resources to finish the first W&G short while employing him on projects like the Peter Gabriel video “Sledgehammer” (for which Park animated the dancing chickens).

Key to the popularity of the W&G films, which include “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave,” is Park’s loving recreation of middle-class British life, all sweater vests and afternoon tea and vegetable gardens. (In a world where time and money were no object, Ray Davies might collaborate with Park on a film of the classic Kinks album “The Village Green Preservation Society.”)

Vegetable gardens, in fact, are key to The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the first feature length Wallace and Gromit tale, which takes in more of the village where our heroes reside. Their new service “Anti-Pesto” is doing a booming business capturing rabbits that have been raiding local gardens, just as the annual Giant Vegetable Competition is approaching. Because Anti-Pesto is a humane service, Wallace’s basement is filled with captive rabbits. Of course, he comes up with a novel solution to the problem; of course (cue a shake of the head and rise of the eyebrow from Gromit) his solution causes even more problem than it solves, in this case a giant were-rabbit that strikes terror into every artichoke heart in the region.

Delightfully detailed and lovingly crafted, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit represents five years of work by Park and the Aardman animators. In a Toronto hotel room, speaking in a soft voice that suits the pale countenance of someone who loves a job that keeps him indoors just about all of the time, Park talks about why he made the feature Chicken Run before bringing his best-known characters to movie theaters.

“There had never been a Claymation feature for the big screen,” he explains. “We didn’t know how one would look, how it would work. Many things don’t translate to the big screen that have been successful as shorts. But I’d been wanting to do a feature from the beginning—I tend to think of the short films as frustrated feature films in a way.”

Which is not to say that Park rushed right into a W&G feature after the success of Chicken Run. “I find that ideas have to grab me, demand to be made, because it’s got to be such an inspiring idea to me that it will sustain me for the whole five years,” he says.

“I was in a pub in Bristol with one of the original writers, Bob Baker, and we were thinking we needed a new genre of film to plunder. We thought of the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s, Frankenstein and Dracula and the Wolfman and all that, and we thought, ‘How can we do a horror picture with Wallace and Gromit? It’s got to be sort of quirky,’ and suddenly the rabbit idea came up—instead of a monster eating people, it’s eating their vegetables!”

While the advantage of computer animation over the traditional hand-drawn styles is the illusion it can give of three-dimensionality, there’s no question that model animation has a distinctive look that CG can’t duplicate. Park comes to the interview with a pair of Wallace and Gromit dolls that he unconsciously handles while talking about his working process, as if molding and shaping the characters were second nature to him.

“I don’t feel like I’ve ever had to make the choice between computers,” he reflects. “They’re born out of clay, these characters. You have your hands on them every frame of the way, tweaking them. There’s a directness about it. It’s not just moving them, you’re resculpting them, teasing the character out of the clay, and that direct contact gives the characters extra humanity, I think.

“I originally planned for Gromit to be an extrovert character, with a mouth and a growly kind of Scooby-Doo voice. When it came time to do the first shot of ‘A Grand Day Out,’ which was a college project, I found that [as the shot was set up] I couldn’t even reach [the model’s] limbs or mouth. All I could reach really was his eyebrows. But I found that I could do so much with so little. It came out of laziness in a way.

“I’m not at all against CG, I really admire many films that are made today. We use it in some scenes in the movie, for things like the fog effects, flames, steam. But for me there’s a certain charm, and a connection people make because it’s handmade, because everybody’s played with clay.”

Of course, Park is no longer the sole person working on moving his clay creations across the screen. Curse of the Were-Rabbit employed scores of animators and other film technicians, with, by Park’s estimates, 30 35mm cameras shooting on a daily basis. (Referring to Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, another non-computer generated film, he notes “It’s funny, CGI is so big now, and yet there’s never been more people employed in stop-frame animation in fifty years.”)

The sheer size of a Wallace and Gromit feature led Park to work with a co-director, Steve Box, who animated the evil penguin in “The Wrong Trousers” and who shares Park’s sense of humor—“We tend to laugh at the same things,” as he puts it.

Despite the expanded size of the W&G team, though, Park is adamant about holding the characters to his original vision. “Me and Steve designed all the characters, which is why it takes so long, I suppose people could get on with it if we weren’t such megalomaniacs! Trying to industrialize what’s been a cottage industry so far has been difficult. We want to keep an individual look to the whole thing, as if it’s all been done by one person. So [all of the animators have to] practice on Gromit a long time to get it right, and on Wallace, too. And now a lot of them really know it with their eyes shut.”

Because Wallace in particular carries so much of his creator’s personality and body language, Park recognizes physical expressiveness as being key to an animator’s talents. “I do think it makes a better animator, someone who likes performing. And I am a frustrated actor in a way, I guess—I’m not very good at going up on stage, but I get my way of expressing myself with these.

“For every single scene, we’re directing 30 animators every day. We have a video booth where we act out a scene to try and convey it to the animator. Not so that they can copy it, but to get across the important points. The animators that are good at the acting, that are the most uninhibited, are the best, putting themselves into the character. And even though they go through pretty vigorous Wallace and Gromit classes in how to move them, what they do and don’t do, you can tell [looking at a day’s work] who’s animated the characters that day by the style.”

Compared to the days of Ray Harryhausen, whose effects in films like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans inspired pretty much everyone who now works in the field, modern stop-motion animation has technological advantages to assist what is a basically primitive process. “Now we have video monitors so we can watch how a current piece of movement is going. And we have motion control cameras, all computer operated, which let us do very complex moves. But, funnily enough, it’s the technology that slows us down—a complex move takes a few days to get it right, with rehearsals.”

Many feel that the cross-over success of Chicken Run in particular was what led the Motion Picture Academy to institute an Oscar category for Best Animated Feature, though it didn’t get around to doing so until the year after Park’s first feature was eligible. Odds are good that he’ll be able to add a fourth golden statuette to the collection that, he says, now resides in a glass case at the Aardman studio, though it’s not in his nature to make such a prediction. “I dunno,” he laughs, “it’s dangerous to even talk about [awards]. Certainly I don’t make films with that kind of thing in mind. But I quite like shiny metal objects!”


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