Joe Strike chats with the stop-motion master at Aardman Animation about bringing their distinct British humor to an Americanized version of Creature Comforts.
It's been quite a while since CBS last dipped a toe into the waters of primetime animation -- the early 1990s to be exact, when they aired the short-lived Fish Police and Family Dog cartoon series. What drove the network to take another shot at a genre that so far has had little success outside of FOX's Sunday night schedule?
Perhaps it was the pedigree of the people involved and the show itself -- the world-famous Aardman Animation stop-motion studio and its 1991 short Creature Comforts. Nick Park's Oscar-winning work inspired a series of popular British TV commercials, followed by a 2003 U.K. TV series. Then again, NBC's hugely successful adaptation of the BBC series, The Office, may have played no small part in CBS's decision to commission a short-run, seven-episode U.S. version, due to premiere June 4, 2007.
"When you're hired to adapt a show, you feel like you have to change it, but we dismissed a lot of changes we talked about." So says Kit Boss, seven-year writing veteran of King of the Hill, and exec producer of the American version of Comforts. "Greg Daniels [who adapted The Office for NBC] hired me to work on King, I consider him a mentor and friend. He talked about how he changed The Office pilot -- which was not much at all. Instead he focused his creative juices on anticipating questions from NBC and coming up with smart answers why the show didn't need to be completely revamped, but given a chance to find its own tempo and footing with American characters."
For the uninitiated, Creature Comforts -- both the U.K. original and its U.S. adaptation -- take unscripted audio interviews with average folks and clay-animate them into Aardman-style talking animals. The result -- the critters' observations on their bestial lot in life turn the subjects' original chatter into an ironic comment on the human condition. Beyond the obvious switch of replacing British accents with all-American voices, Boss fine-tuned to the show's basic concept to make U.S. audiences (and CBS) more comfortable, "The obvious question is how do you translate this into 22 minutes without a through-line, a single narrative driving a show? I think the answer is to establish regular characters you look forward to seeing and hearing what they have to say about different topics.
"We tried for a higher proportion of paired characters [than the British version] so we could have two voices interacting with each other. We were looking for the moments where the relationship between them came through in the things they said. Writing a sitcom, you'd spend so much time trying to reveal that without coming right out and saying it. You ask a couple going to the doctor if they're afraid of needles and, in 10 seconds, you understand the kind of issues they face in their relationship -- your partner has forgotten the most obvious details about your life. And we made them porcupines, which helped the joke about the needles."
Boss adds that the regularly appearing couples will be supported by a variety of one-shot and supporting characters "who will provide the more bizarre moments." The American tendency toward speaking one's mind (Boss observes that "the British talent for dry understatement is much less common in America") helped the series quite a bit.
According to Aardman's supervising director Richard "Golly" Goleszowski, "Americans are much more confident with the English language; the few people who can do that here go into politics."
Casting can make or break any project, and the stakes are even higher with non-professional talent whose personalities are meant to carry the show. The show's interviewers found their subjects on their own, according to Boss, ranging from Civil War re-enactors to people who seemed completely unremarkable but revealed surprising depth once they started talking. "We weren't interested in their résumés, only if they had interesting, 'musical' voices -- any kind of 'music,' including experimental or atonal. And they had to have lot of opinions; people friends describe as 'real characters.'
"At first I thought we'd try to find the kind of people you don't want to sit next to on a cross country flight, but a friend said no, you want the people you do want to sit next to; people who won't shut up are a good place to start." In Golly's eyes, they're "people with a passion," to which Boss adds "[their] voices are filled with passion and personality that gives the animators something to animate to, not announcer voices. It's fine if they stutter, giggle or have a bit of lisp; it shows they're real people, not actors we put in a studio."
While interview subjects were told where their voices would wind up, "we didn't go out of way to drill it into them," says Boss. "We wanted them to know it was Aardman, the Wallace and Gromit people, and that we were using their audio as basis for animated creatures. We just wanted them to act like themselves and not think 'what would an animal say about this?' or 'what is my animal, what are they going to turn me into?' We steered away from that because we didn't want them self-conscious. Some of the interviewees could probably paste it together themselves based on some of the questions we were asking. But whenever there was a hint of them getting on stage and pretending to be something they weren't -- we never used those answers, because they came across as artificial and fake."
Choosing those animals was the show's next challenge. "[Some species] are pretty much handed to you, like the Baltimore couple. She told us how she thought her boyfriend wasn't right for her and introduced him to her girlfriends, one of whom he described as 'too horsy' and the other as 'not horsy enough, and finally we got together.' Okay, we've got to make her a horse and he's a donkey in that shot."
Boss described one couple as so deeply in love, he couldn't resist making them a pair of lovebirds, while an elderly, retirement-home husband and wife whose "symbiotic" relationship turned them into a rhino and its companion oxpecker, the bird that rides on the rhino, cleaning ticks off its back.
"Then there were others, like the nervous guy in San Francisco. He faltered, stammered and kept giving circuitous answers. 'How do you feel about birds?' 'Well, I uh, never, never thought about birds.' One of the beauties of the show is we're free to invent what was going on, what that emotion meant. To us it sounded like he was hiding something, like he was guilty. We talked about what would be interesting creature." Golly's solution, "We came up with a fox hiding two chickens behind his back -- 'birds, I don't know anything about birds, no idea." "And at one point," Boss adds "he kind of forgets himself and gestures with his two hands; he brings them out from behind and you see he's got them around their necks."
Both the U.S. and U.K. Creature Comforts bring their animal personalities to life via 'Live Action Videos' or 'LAV's -- not of the interviews, but the animators and directors acting out the newly imagined scenario suggested by the interview audio. "We'll act out the lines in front of a camera," explains Golly, "sometimes dozens of times to find the right characterizations. The tiniest eye movements can reveal the subtext to what's being said. The key thing is making you believe character is thinking."
An LAV is recorded in the U.S. for every shot sent over to Aardman's Bristol studios where all the show's animation is produced. "We try to envision the attitude and the body language," Boss says, "to make sure they don't miss any typically American gestures or attitudes on the U.K. side. The animator has it for reference. They get it in their head, start to embody it and own the character.
"They can refer to it constantly and follow it frame by frame to make sure the key movements are captured in the finished animation. I've seen 2D animators acting out their scenes in a mirror, then go off and do a sequence, but never to this degree."
Golly describes those "key movements," and how important they are, "I'm talking in 25ths of a second, a narrowing of the eyes, a tilt of the head. I tell the animators if it really works and nails that character, copy it. Once you've done it you'll know how to do it next time. It's an active learning process for us as well."
The payoff, according to Boss is "when one of those tiny gestures gets a huge laugh. The low point is performing some of these scenes. I wouldn't ask my people to do anything I wouldn't do, so I acted out a character called 'leg humping dog.' I had to get myself in position using an old carpet roll as the leg. We never used the shot -- cooler heads prevailed, maybe next season we'll see him, but my LAV is preserved, it'll probably be on the DVD extras." When Golly interjects "oh, I hope it will," Boss tweaks him in turn, "you probably already have it on your desktop."
Interviews for Creature Comforts American-style began February of last year and wrapped up this past January, while animation kicked in halfway through in early last summer. "It's a seat of the pants job," Says Golly, "because you have to start shooting before you know the shape of an episode. You just go for the good stuff and let [the episodes] form as you go along." One or two U.K. creatures, including a pair of hippos were repurposed to overcome the time crunch resulting from the snail pace of stop-motion production. "Each animator can produce 3 seconds of footage a day," Boss points out. "It's one of those numbers you just can't get around. At the peak of production we had 34 sets hot at the same time; you're getting to be as big as a feature at that point."
Golly's answer to a question as to why clay was chosen over conventional 2D animation for Comforts might have been a touch less than impartial, "Audiences still can tell the difference between CGI, drawn and stop frame -- they're very sophisticated. I think the fact you know it's a hunk of plasticine and occasionally you can still see the fingerprints -- some of the process is revealed and that actually helps you tune into the character. I can achieve a lot more subtlety than in 2D with same budget, because you're manipulating one model as opposed to hundreds of drawings; we can make it as subtle as we need to without worrying about budget."
"Everyday, unremarkable people are in their own right very remarkable and very entertaining," says Boss, summing up Creature Comforts' appeal. "This is a chance to give them the spotlight, not people who want to be famous by being on a reality show, which is a very different kind of person" -- as well as a different kind of species.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.