While everyone knows Aardman's super-stars like Nick Park and Peter Lord...what about Steve Box? The maker of Stage Fright, discusses his first jobs, his work ethic and growing role at the successful studio.
When Nick Park made his Oscar winning film The Wrong Trousers, he used only one other animator. The animator's name was Steve Box, and he brought to life Feathers McGraw, the jewel-thief penguin who silently usurps Gromit's place beside Wallace. Steve also animated on A Close Shave and Chicken Run and will co-direct the forthcoming Wallace and Gromit feature film. He's made his own film, Stage Fright, also at Aardman Animations. I've seen very little written about Steve Box at all, and I thought it might be interesting to interview him at this stage in his career.
He was more than happy to fill me in. We met for lunch at the Clifton Wine Bar in Bristol, just around the corner from Aardman Animations' original studio building, where he is currently working on the feature film's story with Nick Park. Steve said he wasn't hungry, ordered half a pint of Guinness, and then talked more or less non-stop for the next hour and a half. What follows is a condensation of our conversation.
Steve was born and bred in Bristol, where Peter Lord and David Sproxton started Aardman Animations in the 1970s, with their little brown plasticine character 'Morph.' But Steve points out that he is actually from Kingswood, which to a local lad is quite a different place. "I mean," he explains, "you're talking about five miles away, but for some reason, because I lived up that side of town, and worked there, I didn't find that I was venturing into town much." It would be a long time before Steve ventured into the Aardman studio, but he does remember seeing Sproxton and Lord on TV: "They were on an English kids TV programme called Blue Peter, talking about it, and they had a Morph puppet there, just made of brown plasticine, and they must have talked about the animation process."
Morph used to appear on a children's art programme, popping out of a little wooden box on the presenter's desk and turning himself into any shape he found useful. "I remember loving it, being fascinated by it," says Steve, "and getting all my coloured strips of plasticine and just mashing them together until they went brown, and making my own Morph. I even had my own little box to keep mine in. But it was never satisfying because it didn't move. I think that was why I started to get interested in it."
Falling Into A Trapdoor
Steve reckons that he got his first job in animation "by pure fluke." When he was still at school, and drawing all the time, his dad saw an incongruous ad in the local paper saying 'Cartoonists Wanted.'
"I phoned it up," says Steve, "and it just happened to be two roads away from where I lived." This was CMTB Animation, a two man company, who at the time were making low budget cut-out films illustrating ways to start a business. Steve met one of them, Terry Brain, and although he didn't get the drawing job, he noticed that they had a plasticine model sitting in the studio. He found out that they were hoping to make a stop-motion kids' series, and began to pester them. When they finally started work on a pilot episode, they were keen to let him be involved, but had no money for an extra animator. Steve managed to create a Government Youth Training Scheme placement for himself, which paid him £20 (about US$30) per week. He began animating on the first of what would be forty-five episodes of Trapdoor, a roughly made but original series remembered fondly by many British animators, which involved various plasticine monsters that escaped from a trap door each week.
"I was thrown in at the deep end, totally. They'd done animation at home as kids, and I'd never had that benefit because I'd never had a camera. So I learned by doing it, really. And that was blind animation, you know, not like what happens now."
I asked Steve whether he thinks it's better to learn to animate blind, before working with a video picture that one can see:
"Yes, without a doubt I do. I know it isn't easy now, because people tend to get jobs as animators on higher profile projects, and they have to use video assist, and they learn that way now. But I think the emphasis, even though you want it to be on performance, it's turned into a job of technical slickness. OK, [blind animation] is more ropey, it jumps about, if you kick the camera or knock the model over, you've got to start again or put up with it. Trapdoor is full of lumps and bumps, but what got better and better as we did it was the performance. And even though it's dead simple, characters started to come to life. Because the only way you can animate blind is by acting it in your head. Then I began to realise that just where you put that model, how many frames you hold something, how long he looks in a certain direction, how quickly he turns his head, gives him a unique character. There were three main characters -- they had different ways of behaving -- it wasn't analysed, it was just, they performed it, and we acted it. That's how I learned and that's what I value. I think animators should be made to learn that way, then they will understand the value of what they are doing. It's nothing to do with slickness. Slickness isn't important.
Along Came Aardman
"When Aardman started to develop, which for me was really when Nick came along, when Creature Comforts popped up -- they were slicker, funnier, the stories were better -- they were a kind of black hole for work. We made a couple of commercials at CMTB, but after that, if anyone wanted a commercial, they went to Aardman, and our work just dried up. It wasn't anybody's fault, but I was kind of laid off."
Steve still didn't go straight to Aardman, but spent six or seven months doing 2D animation. Then, he thinks it was in 1990, he had a call from Aardman director Richard Goleszowski, offering him a job as assistant animator on a Kellogg's commercial.
"I was quite petrified, really. It was a big company -- I mean, not big in scale -- there were about ten people there, and five of them were director-animators. You see, half the staff actually made films then, wrote, directed and animated them."
Steve worked on a couple of commercials -- the second was "a film for the Red Cross, which was to educate seamen about AIDS." He has also directed a pop video at Aardman, for the Spice Girls' "Viva Forever," a number one hit in the U.K. The film, which he describes as surreal, and involves tin-toy Spice Girls popping out of strange eggs found by two boys in a field, was entirely his idea. "I listened to the song, and it was obviously a holiday romance, which I thought was a dead boring topic. Then I started to think of it not as a loss of romance, but as a loss of childhood, and it fits perfectly."
Working With Nick
By that time, however, he had already collaborated with Nick Park on The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. His first encounter with Wallace and Gromit came much earlier though. "When I was working at CMTB, the guy who was editing The Trapdoor for us, Rob Copeland, was also editing A Grand Day Out, and he would sometimes use our Steenbeck. I remember Terry and I having a sneaky look, and not thinking much of it at all! We thought, 'That's never going to be very successful, just a man and his dog!' It actually seemed so old fashioned, in the rough cut, with no sound and bits missing. Somehow, when it was finished, the humour and style came out."
Steve got to know Nick Park when he was working on an Aardman commercial, and Nick was animating Morph on the next set. When Nick, who had animated A Grand Day Out single-handedly, began work on The Wrong Trousers, his producer Chris Moll suggested that he would need a second unit this time.
I pointed out to Steve that when Nick Park shows The Wrong Trousers to an audience, he likes to draw attention to scenes that Steve animated. I asked him what he thinks differentiates his style from Nick's: "That's easy, actually. Yes, I'm in the shadow of Nick, everyone at Aardman is. That doesn't bother me, he's a genius. I had comments made about Stage Fright, that it looks like Nick's work, and yes, it's got a bit of a feeling of that style. I could apologise for it, but I'm not going to. I'd worked with Nick, it had rubbed off on me, but there is a difference.
"Nick is a great storyteller, he's a great comedian, his timing is second to none, and I'm not just talking about the timing of animation, I'm talking about the timing of sequences, and the way jokes build and pay off. I think what I brought to The Wrong Trousers was a very filmic -- I wouldn't say a darker edge, I don't think it's quite that, but I think I brought a weight to it that isn't in Grand Day Out. The Wrong Trousers had a great script, but I had a hand in the way things were shot, and obviously I had a hand in the way the penguin evolved, led by Nick. What's great about model animation, what I love about it, is when you start animating, you are in control, and the same shot can be done so differently, it can make you feel a different thing. I think that's somehow what I brought to Nick's work. I think what people saw when The Wrong Trousers was finished was a very coherent, powerful film. Whether that was anything to do with me, I don't know. When we worked on A Close Shave, stuff that I handled seemed to have a similar intensity and -- you know, it's hard to talk about your own work -- but even now, when I watch A Close Shave, when there's a sequence comes up that I've done, I'm suddenly transported, I'm suddenly fixed. All I can say is that I'm incredibly passionate about what I do, and I treat it with such gravity and such seriousness, even if it's ridiculous, and Nick likes that. Maybe that's the difference. But there's a great similarity as well. Stuff that I did before I ever came to Aardman has got such similarities to Nick's work."
No Thanks CGI
Aardman now has a department developing computer-generated animation, and I felt I should ask Steve whether he was interested in moving into that area. "I would never want to use a computer to animate. Whether I ever direct computer animators, I can't say that would bother me. Again, this goes back to spontaneity. I get a buzz from being in a studio, on a set, with a character that exists in three dimensions, and you have to put your hands around it and make it come to life. You can't have a go and then alter it, in my mind, you've got one shot at it. I never want to do a re-shoot. I remember once getting Peter Lord to re-shoot something for me! When I do a shot, I have to get very worked up about it, it's hell to get me on set, they have to put a banana on the end of a stick and threaten me with it, because I don't like bananas! I have to go through all sorts of routines before I start animating, I have to play with the puppet for ages, to get that feel of it, and then I will go, and you cannot interrupt me, I will get into character.
"On A Close Shave, when I was shooting a scene with Wendolene arguing with Preston, the floor manager, Harry Lyndon, stuck his head in and very politely asked, 'Have you finished yet?' I went mad with him, and I started shouting at him. What happened, which I didn't realise at the time, but he did, thankfully, was that I was obsessed, I was in character. Doing that for three days, holding your face in an angry pose, I think if you're doing it properly then that's how you're affected. And so I never want to go through that again. I don't know if that will ever happen with computer animation. I wouldn't like the opportunity to adjust my work, I'd rather do it and live with it."
Aardman is famous for its lip synch technique, and yet Steve's most famous character, the penguin Feathers McGraw, is a silent character. Steve's own film, Stage Fright, deals with the crossover period between music hall and silent film. I wondered if those two details were pure coincidence, or whether silent film held a particular fascination for him?
As it happened, I'd hit the nail on the head. "I adore it," he said. "I'm a huge Buster Keaton fan. And Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin. Laurel and Hardy were my first love. I know they're not strictly silent, but they've come out of that background. The connection is the visual humour, the visual style, making a huge impact, a huge statement. You know, just a look from Stan Laurel can speak volumes. I used to look at all these old films, and see it as this weird world, somehow removed from ours."
The desire to recreate the world of silent films in animation was behind the original idea for Stage Fright, in which a music hall star moves into screen acting. "Unfortunately," he adds, "it's only a small part of Stage Fright that's got it in, and I didn't even get to animate it in the end."
I wanted to ask Steve about that particular scene in Stage Fright -- although it's a scene from a silent film, the two characters are actually singing as if the film is a musical. Was this perhaps another interest?
He suspected I'd been fed the question -- "because that's my ultimate ambition, to make a model animated, feature-length musical. I wouldn't say that James and the Giant Peach and Nightmare before Christmas are musicals, they're films with songs. One of my favourite films ever is Oliver! It's got the feel of an old music hall, the songs are all integral, and written so specifically, in character."
Steve actually wrote the song the Stage Fright characters sing himself. "I love writing songs," he says. "I'd never profess to be able to do it if I ever did a musical, but I'd like to be involved in it. When Ron Moody as Fagin sings 'Reviewing the Situation,' it's tuneful, it's melodic, it's got great clever rhyming schemes. But it's revealing it's like a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play. You get to know something about that character. In a normal film, you never have that, they never stand and tell you what they're thinking or feeling."
Stage Fright, Box's own project for Aardman, pays tribute to the great silent movies. © Channel Four 1997. Wallace and Gromit, will soon be in a feature, which Box will co-direct. © Aardman/W & G Ltd 1989.
Finally, Steve talked about his future plans:
"Nick and I are working on a Wallace and Gromit feature film, and at the moment we're writing, along with Bob Baker [who co-wrote The Wrong Trousers and Close Shave with Nick]. So I'm a new addition to the writing team this time, but it's going really well."
I asked how he felt about the prospect of co-directing a feature film: "I had to think very hard about it. That's not to say for a moment that it wasn't so flattering and generous of Nick, and such a great opportunity, because what it means is that I won't animate, and Nick won't animate, which has already happened to him, and that's very difficult, very hard to think about. Making a feature film is a massive process, and it's not something to be gone into lightly. But the characters are great and strong, and it's a great idea, better than any of the other films.
"I think the main challenge is working with such a vast number of people. I just think making model animated films seems to fit very well with a small crew, complete control freaks, making a world that you're totally in control of. When you end up with thirty people animating for you, and countless model makers, and so many people to organise, it's very difficult to maintain that vision. Of course not impossible, but an entirely different type of work. That's going to be really difficult, I know it's been difficult for Nick."
And does he have plans for future films of his own?
"Well, it takes a long time to make an animated film. Stage Fright, an eleven-minute film, was probably four years' work. We've been working on the Wallace and Gromit film for coming up to a year now. Depending on what happens with Tortoise and Hare, you're not going to see it for years. I would say you're looking at 2005. To take on something like that is incredibly daunting. Not only the amount of time and the volume of work, but any other ideas I have, and I do have other ideas, are circling over Heathrow, and there's no room for them to land until that one's out of the way."
Roger Whiter makes puppets for animation, while Ruth Whiter is a puppet animator when not looking after their two young children. They live in Bristol.