Adrian Pennington chats with Peter Lord, Aardman co-founder and producer Flushed Away, on the companys adventures in CG.
During the production of Aardman Animations Chicken Run (2000), the idea for a feature involving rats in love, in a sewer came to light from animator Sam Fell. Fell had previously worked as stop-frame animator on Peter Lords directorial short, Wats Pig (1996), so he knew the Aardman co-founder well.
Everyone at Aardman was encouraged to come up with ideas for features for the DreamWorks partnership, says Lord. We liked Sams idea and he, myself and [development executive] Mike Cooper developed it into a storyline before pitching to DreamWorks. The trick was to find a project both companys liked and this one fit the bill.
"The pitch was simple: The African Queen with the gender roles reversed, according to Lord. "We swapped the spanner-wielding, oily rag working class character which Humphrey Bogart played to a female and made Katherine Hepburns very proper, out-of-her-depth, gentrified lady into an upper-crust male character.
Classic British comic writing duo Ian Clement and Dick La Frenais (The Commitments, Goal!) were assigned to the script, which was originally planned as a stop-motion feature to follow Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Then, for one reason and another, Curse got later and later, delayed a year from its original release date while Flushed Away got ever more ambitious, says Lord.
Creating the Ratropolis
It soon became clear that animating rats meant designing unfeasibly large sets to create an underground Ratropolis the films working title. The Wallace model stands 10 inches (24.5cm) high any bigger and it would be too cumbersome and any smaller and youd lose detail, Lord explains. If Wallace walks through a doorway we can build the door 12 inches (30.5 cm) high. But if we take the scale of a rat and make the rats 10 nches high and everything in the real world proportionate to that, you realize youd have to build 30-foot (9.14 meters) high structures. Everything becomes proportionately much larger. It which would push the budget up and require more studio space.
The final issue was recreating the water environment. Fluids are notoriously difficult to reproduce in stop-frame. We discussed long and hard about the various permutations and spent an interim period exploring a mix of CG backgrounds and set-extensions with stop-motion foregrounds, but we finally realized that CG was the right route for this project.
The decision was certainly not a question of cost, he declares. Flushed Away is way more expensive than any previous feature weve done.
At that point in 2002 the characters had been designed; the first half of the script nailed down and storyboarded. I had qualms about moving to CG, he admits as production switched from Bristol to DreamWorks Glendale, California, studio.
I guess we were quite arrogant in saying We dont want any of your questionable CG tricks here. We wanted to do it our way and to steer the DreamWorks crew to work in our style.
DreamWorks wanted us to do that too. The Aardman trademark look and feel is a style we are famous for and its also a selling point. But it was also a challenge to us and them to create a digital animation style, which didnt resemble other CG films. Our style shows the edges, its deliberately not silky smooth. We could have made the fur furry and the environments slick, but we dont want everything to look beautifully rendered and lit. Our priority is achieving a good acting performance from the characters and not to get the characters to gesticulate excessively which they do in a lot of CG.
He says he didnt see any point just recreating a plasticine quality for the characters. Flushed Away is a hybrid. It has a textured feel to mimic stop-frame but we used motion blur, for example, much more than normal.
Of the eight animators who transferred from Aardman to DreamWorks to retrain in Maya, only one had any prior CG experience. Never having made a CG film before, it took a lot of learning. The very best stop-frame animator may not be the best CG animator and vice versa, but theyre still very, very good. In my opinion its all about performance, having a sense of timing and humor.
The U.S. studio he says was, hugely respectful and very good about us casting the film in the Aardman image.
However, Lord ensured he had key personnel at the heart of production. Among them were co-directors Fell and Dave Bowers, an Englishman engrained in the Aardman culture who, while never directly employed by Aardman had worked on Chicken Run, the aborted feature Tortoise and the Hare and as a senior storyboard artist on Were-Rabbit. Supervising animator Jeff Newitt was a key figure for Lord tasked with carrying the Aardman gene into DreamWorks. Lord also assigned DP Frank Passingham to the project because I was amazed to discover that CG films dont commonly have a dedicated cinematographer, he says.
A series of video links kept Aardman HQ up to speed on dailies. Pitching the storyboard is very much part of what we do here but we tend to make it an intimate affair between director and storyboard artist. The U.S. artist would come on the video conference and either recorded or live would literally act out and perform the storyboard with sound effects, movements and funny voices. Extraordinary.
Theres a sense that there were battles between the two production teams to retain the original script. There were some differences, yes, he chuckles. As it went on it became clear to me just how wide a gap there is between English and American sensibilities. There are huge similarities of course, but our take on life is different.
Was Lord worried about losing control of the project? I was worried about it being done away from here, he admits. And in all honestly you cant possibly have the same control as one would when a project is under your nose. But thats okay because we had people like Sam, who I have total confidence in. Both CG and stop-frame are slow. If anything Aardman is more efficient as a company simply because were smaller.
He declares himself satisfied with the final version. Its fantastically entertaining, the design is subtle and there are some big comedic ideas which are what I look for as much as anything else in a project. Its certainly got an eccentric and British vein to it. Its not as quirky as Wallace & Gromit, but then its not made by Nick Park, but by directors with a different vision. Sams influences are filmic: hes taken Londons East End and gangster influence from films like Snatch, Layer Cake and Sexy Beast and, not directly referenced them, but informed his direction with them.
Lord says hes braced for reactions to the film that will claim his company has sold out to Hollywood. Previous articles, he says, have spun the Aardman goes CG story to claim that it is giving up on the medium that has made it a U.K. household name.
The biggest worry I have is that in six months time Ill still be defending the decision to go CG and to continually repeat that were not abandoning stop frame. A third Wallace & Gromit feature is scheduled he says (theres no script yet) and he expects CG and stop-frame features to alternate from Aardman in the future although whether this is in tandem with DreamWorks hes not saying.
I am personally more than happy to switch to and fro between the two mediums. Since 2001, our CG capability has expanded continually here and if that same decision to produce a CG feature happened today Id probably shoot in Bristol.
Adrian Pennington is a U.K.-based freelance writer and editor of animation magazine Imagine.