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Stop Motion City: Visible and Invisible Production in Bristol

There's no denying that Bristol is the stop motioncity, especially with Aardman Animations' coup of bringing a feature filmto the area. Andrew Osmond investigates the hubbub.

John Wright Modelmaking provided the robotic dog model for Aardman's A Close Shave. © Aardman Animations.

The Wrong Trousers helped establish Aardman Animations as a major player on the world animation scene. © Aardman/Wallace & Gromit Ltd. 1993.

There are three types of stop motion animation in the UK today. There's the type everyone knows about; the type no one (bar serious festival-goers and professionals) knows about; and the type everyone `knows,' but barely registers on a conscious level. In Bristol, the island's undisputed capital of stop motion, the three levels are reflected throughout the town.

Aardman: Bristol's Hub

Bristol animation is, of course, dominated by Aardman, the only domestic `toon studio that's also a household name, thanks to the Oscar-winning triumvirate of Creature Comforts (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995). The director of all three, Nick Park, is immersed in the production of the studio's first feature, Chicken Run , to be released by DreamWorks SKG in summer 2000. Pathe will handle the distribution in Europe. A clay epic à la Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run concerns a group of chickens, voiced by the likes of Mel Gibson and Miranda Richardson, on the run from a poultry farm. The plot was paralleled in Britain last year by the much-publicized escape of two pigs from an abattoir.

Nick Park co-directs and writes with company founder Peter Lord. Lord and Park also produce, as do Lord's partner David Sproxton and Jake Eberts of Allied Films, who developed Chicken Run with Aardman and Pathe. The film has led Aardman to plan expanding its harbor site in central Bristol, as well as taking a bigger studio in the north of town to house the shoot. Unfortunately, little else has emerged about a film as closely guarded as the new Star Wars.

Peter Lord's Wat's Pig helped garner Aardman another Oscar nomination. © Aardman Animations.

Chicken Run is not the only new Aardman stop motion. Following the well-received shorts Wat's Pig (1996) by Peter Lord and Stage Fright (1997) by Steve Box, Aardman launched two TV titles this Christmas. Rex the Runt consists of thirteen ten-minute segments, repeated in a range of BBC timeslots during the prime holiday season. They are directed by Richard Goleszowski, who made Aardman's Barefootin' pop promo in 1987 and a couple of two-minute Rex films at the start of the `90s. In its present form Rex, about three gingerbread-men dogs who, bizarrely, keep a dog of their own, is clearly aimed at the alternative comedy market, with stream-of-consciousness adventures - to call them `plots' would abuse the word - and voice-cameos from Brit comedians Eddie Izzard, June Whitfield and Paul Merton. Animator Steve Box voices the psychotic Vince. Meanwhile, Channel 4 gave less-publicized airtime in the small hours to Angry Kid, three 90-second skits about a gross but excellently-animated teenager, directed by Darren Walsh.

Production Goes On

Beyond Aardman, the bolexbrothers is a good case of a studio operating on two tiers, producing a showreel of popular commercials beside a steady series of adult, much-acclaimed films - though even the ads, such as the EleFanta series, feature bolex's trademark flapping insects, pixilated human actors and perverse black humor. Since the feature The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), the studio has gone on to make the enjoyably grotesque shorts The Saint Inspector (1997) by Mike Booth, part of Manga Entertainment's General Chaos cinema tour, and Keep in a Dry Place Away from Children (1998) by Martin Davies. Both Booth and Davies are debut directors. The films respectively feature a fat, naked Buddha-like figure and a deformed baby who follows the fate of Icarus.

bolexbrothers' The Saint Inspector toured with Manga Entertainment's short-lived animation festival General Chaos. © Manga Entertainment.

Continuing the infant theme, the studio also assisted on Hazel Grian's equally bizarre Baby-Cue (1997), a fourteen-minute animation of everyday toys for the Traveling The Edge arts company. The latest in-house film is Booth's Little Dark Poet, commissioned by Channel 4 and premiered at 1998's London Film Festival. It follows Aardman's Stage Fright in homaging early cinema, with live-action silent actors at the mercy of a Humpty-Dumpty creator. bolexbrothers is preparing a second feature, provisionally called Clusterworld, written by Paul Davies and Dave Borthwick, who set up the studio with Richard Hutchison and directed Tom Thumb. According to bolex's press-release, Clusterworld `will make use of pixilation, as used in Tom, as well as other techniques we're developing to explore the possibility of working with human actors without conventional live-action methods.' One of the most recently formed production companies is Spike Island, run by Stephen Williams and featuring animation directors Charles Mills and Terry Brain (who formerly operated from CMTB). At present, Spike Island is involved with three new TV pilots: Universally Challenged, a gameshow featuring stop-frame animal characters, directed by Mills, and The Pudding and Slimin' Sniffin' Snorks, both by Brain. The company is also working on a major Coca-Cola campaign, to be shown in 27 countries across Europe. Another production company becoming increasingly visible is Elm Road Productions, established by Mike Waudby and Michael Wright. Wright is an ex-Aardman director. So far Elm Road is best known for slick and funny commercials, such as the `Giant Smartie' ad -- the one with Puppet Factory's hairy mountaineers, who we will meet below -- and `Candle Power,' a Madame Tussauds cinema promotion which has won numerous awards. The studio created the credits on mainstream TV series Stars in Their Eyes and the laddish Top Gear, as well as producing the kids' show Spider and Fly for Nickelodeon.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb is a unique animated feature from Bristol's bolexbrothers utilizing pixilation. © Manga Entertainment.

All Those Little Bits...

Companies like Aardman, bolex, Spike Island and Elm Road are surrounded by an extensive infrastructure of free-lance specialist companies, also based in Bristol, which support a range of productions. As one free-lancer commented, "After you've gone a certain way down the line, you tend to specialize...there's a niche you grow into." Naked Design and Modelmaking is representative: focusing on background scenery, models and effects, it spends two-thirds of its time on animation, mainly commercials like the recent Polo campaign. Its clients include Harum-Scarum in Bath, Puppetoon in London, and a stream of commissions from Aardman. Many of Naked's projects involve mixing stop-frame with CGI, interfacing between models and computer. In similar mode, Jeff Cliff Models provided the sheep-rustling truck for A Close Shave, complete with rubber tires, suspension and headlights, along with the Wurtlitzer organ for Stage Fright and sundry props, puppets, armatures and sets. Jeff Cliff himself acknowledges, though, that advertising is vital through light patches; his company designs prototype radio/alarm-clocks and air-freshener tie-ins to Wallace and Gromit. On the documentary side, Cliff created an `Ice-age city' for a section on the BBC's Wildlife On One which speculated on climate changes. The company is now working on Chicken Run.

Elvis the King is a personal project being designed and produced by The Puppet Factory. © The Puppet Factory.

John Wright Modelmaking is also participating on Aardman's feature. It previously provided the motorbike, sidecar and `Muttonomatic' mincing machine for Close Shave, and the Beetle VW in the epilogue to A Life Less Ordinary -- regarded by many as the best part of the movie. (Other elements of Life's scenery/design were done by Cardiff's Art FX, with animation being done by London's Passion Pictures.) In Britain, where A Life Less Ordinary had a lukewarm reception, a better-known case of live-action/animated crossover is the series of animated Cadburys inserts accompanying the four-times-a-week soap-opera Coronation Street. The company provided the buckets and ladders, as well as Morris Minor cars and more lorries. John Wright specializes in model engineering rather than sculpting, and produces ball-and-socket joints and armatures to order for companies round the globe. The armatures were used in Sarah Ann Kennedy's adult puppet sitcom Crapston Villas. The show's models were created by Bristol's Cod Steaks Model-Making, with Wright providing some of the vehicles. Cod Steaks is best-known for creating the sets for Wrong Trousers, Close Shave and Crapston Villas. They also design and produce sets and models for TV series and commercials worldwide.

Crapston's puppets, meanwhile, were the creation of the aptly-named Puppet Factory, founded in 1994 by Simon Quinn and Sam Holland. Holland began at Jim Henson's Creature Shop and made commercials at Asylum Models and Effects; he met Quinn at Film Fair. In the last few years, the company has made models for childrens' series The Wombles and Astro Farm, and for commercials by the usual clients: Aardman, Harum Scarum, Picasso, the Elm Road `Smartie' commercial, and many others. The end of 1998 saw the Puppet Factory `re-skinning' puppets for The Big Bug Show, produced by Israel's Noga Communications, and working on three `Badoit' commercials by the famous Quay Brothers.

Crapston Villas, produced by The Spitting Image, features behind-the-scenes work from Bristol's Cod Steaks, John Wright and The Puppet Factory. © The Spitting Image.

Chicken Bytes

Finally, James Mather's Soundbyte Studio provides services at a different level of production. It offers facilities for all stages of recording from initial dialogue to final post-production. "In animation, there's a great deal of initial recording, so that the animators have something to work with," comments Mather, who has worked on sound design for many of the titles cited earlier. He was also involved with the BAFTA-nominated Trainspotter (1995) from the now-defunct Hellzapoppin Pictures, and with MTV's `Eurochild' campaign for the group Massive Attack. More recently he's been working on Robbie, a new half-hour stop motion film commissioned by the BBC's Colin Rose for the station's Comic Relief appeal in early 1999. BBC Animation, headed by Rose and a major commissioner of animated films, is also headquartered in Bristol. Robbie is directed by Rex the Runt's Richard Goleszwoski and follows Aardman's trend in having a celebrity voice-cast, including Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse.

For Soundbyte Studios, though, as with many other Bristol companies, the dominant film is Aardman's Chicken Run. Mather has already provided a `temp mix' - a very rough version of the soundtrack - for DreamWorks and has recorded with Mel Gibson in Vancouver. He's preparing to assist with a larger post-production team once Aardman's animation has finished. It may be DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt that has caught the attention of the trade press worldwide, but Nick Park's fowl adventure has the greater magnitude in Merseyside. Bristol is already one of the most important animation cities in Europe: a blockbuster Hollywood feature could make its position unassailable for years to come. To purchase Aardman AnimationandWallace & Grommitvideos, visit the AWN Store. Andrew Osmond is a British freelance writer who specializes in TV, film and animation. His latest work will appear in Animefantastique.