Ardman Animation, the British producer of stop-motion commercials and short subjects has numerous entertaining films to its credit, including PIB AND POG, NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG, and THE INFINITE VARIETY SHOW, but the company’s crown jewels have to be the delightful duo of Wallace and Gromit. Their first film, A GRAND DAY OUT, was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1990 animated short category but lost out to Aardman’s own CREATURE COMFORTS; both of their next two short subjects, THE WRONG TROUSERS (1993) and A CLOSE SHAVE (1995), managed to take home the Oscar gold. Since then, there have been merchandising tie-ins and a series of vignettes made for the Internet, eventually leading to a feature film WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT.
The stop-motion comedy team began their career, modestly enough, in a sketchbook that director Nick Park kept in art school. “At one point, I was thinking of a book that would be illustrated for kids, and I had these two characters, though originally Gromit was a cat,” Park recalled. “Later on, at National Film School in London, I needed a couple of characters for my graduation film, so I went back to my old sketch book, found these two, and changed Gromit to a dog. They were really just fitted into the story basically.”
The film was A GRAND DAY OUT, in which Wallace and Gromit run out of cheese and hit on the idea of going to the moon to replenish their supply. Park worked on the film, off and on, for several years before hooking up with Aardman Animations, who offered to help him finish it while he worked on other projects for them, including the Oscar-winning CREATURE COMFORTS. “I was working on [GRAND DAY OUT] single-handedly, because it was quite low-budget, being at college, so I couldn’t really pay people properly to help me. Then Aardman gave me part time employment and helped me finish it. It took six years in total.”
The film justified the years of effort by earning a nomination for an Academy Award. It also established the trademark Nick Park style of wide-mouthed toothy characters speaking in amusingly exaggerated lip-sync. Park’s Ardman Animation films used stop-motion figures fashioned from plasticine (similar to Play-Dough), which allows the animator to “sculpt” the expression of the characters, lending an expressivity often missing from stop-motion achieved with traditional armature puppets.
“Partly, I wanted to make my mark,” Park admits. “But the biggest catalyst was Wallace’s accent after I recorded the voice with Peter Sallis. He’s got a very nice voice; he puts on this sort of Northern accent, which really stretches the vowels. I let that dictate to me. I animated a little bit of dialogue in A GRAND DAY OUT, and it was a bit subtle. So on the next take, I thought, ‘Just got for it.’ I thought [the approach] was just for Wallace. When it came to CREATURE COMFORTS, I thought it would be a more natural style, but as soon as we came to designing and animating the animals, I just found I liked that approach too much to get away from it.”
CREATURE COMFORTS, which employed Aardman’s innovative technique of creating “documentary” animation by lip-syncing puppets to taped interviews, won Park his first Oscar. The approach, with its locked-off camera, minimal action, and reliance on dialogue, might have seemed limiting, but Park managed to bring quite a bit of nuance to his characters (who are all animals discussing life in a zoo). “I just let the soundtrack, which was recorded first, dictate to me. Very little is planned; you just listen to it and play it back again and again and see what it suggest to you. The lip-sync is the easy bit, because you’ve got it all written out on a sheet which tells you what to do phonetically for every frame.”
More challenging were the numerous sight gags inserted behind the speakers. “It was very difficult, because you constantly calculate where the audience is looking at any one time. You don’t want to distract from the funny things in the dialogue, so you’re looking for spaces. It’s all about timing. On one of the commercials we did, there’s a parrot talking in the foreground and his friend in the background waving around and eventually falls off the perch. Somebody said to me, ‘After the first three seconds into the ad, you’re just watching the other parrot. You don’t watch at all the one that’s talking.’”
After these successes, Park and Aardman returned to Wallace and Gromit with a bigger budget and greater ambition. “A GRAND DAY OUT was very much a linear story, which works well with very young kids — they can grasp it easily,” he explained. “With the next film, I felt like more of a filmmaker than an animator, and I was more ambitious to do something more filmic, with more story and plot. With a bigger financial commitment, we all wanted to see something much stronger come out of this, something pushed forward in terms of storytelling. We put more effort up front into that side of things, about six months of writing. We went to a writer named Bob Baker, whose done ten years of DR. WHO.
With the overt Hitchcockian influence in the film, it is surprising to note that the title is not an intentional play on THE WRONG MAN. “I didn’t know there was a film called that,” said Park. “It’s funny, because I’m into Hitchcock films very much. I was aiming to get something of a B-movie thriller feel to it, like THE THIRD MAN.That’s not exactly a B-movie, but I love that sort of title.”
In keeping with the Hitchcock tradition, Park presents two marvelous, visual set pieces, so brilliant in their execution that they almost justify themselves quite apart from how they fit into the story. The first is the sequence wherein the penguin uses Wallace, in the “Techno Trousers” (a robotic NASA invention), to steal a diamond from a heavily guarded museum. Park then tops that with an uproarious chase atop a model train. “I tend to be more visually led, and I just loved the way the penguin fit onto the train. In fact that whole sequence was a kind of ‘set piece’ we had on the shelf which might have been used in the plot and might not, because I had many different ideas.”
Feathers McGraw, the felonious villain of the piece, also goes back to Park’s art school sketchbook. “I had this idea of a bunch of penguins coming to stay with Wallace and Gromit; then I wanted to strip that idea down to one penguin and use it as the basis for this new story. At first, he was going to get up a lot of mischief and get on Gromit’s nerves, basically. Then somebody said, ‘Why not make him a kind of hardened criminal living undercover?’ That fit in with the Hitchcock idea — the kind of strange lodger who comes and goes without saying anything, and you wonder what he’s up to. That element started to come out and form the story.
“I just wanted a villain that was the most unlikely,” Park continued. “There’s something about Wallace and Gromit that goes back to the English tradition like the Ealing comedies [which include such crime-ridden comedy classics as 1949’s KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, 1951’s THE LAVENDAR HILL MOB, and 1955’s THE LADYKILLERS]. That’s a feeling I tried to capture — that there’s something just quirky about the story. I tried to inject unlikely things into the story, like the Techno Trousers and the penguin, always having a twist so that nothing’s predictable. Whenever the story is doing what you think it should, then don do it; take it somewhere else. Don’t let anyone have quite what they’re expecting.”
After the success of THE WRONG TROUSERS, there was no doubt that the adventures of Wallace and Gromit would continue, but there was some question as to what form their future films would take. In particular, Park was concerned about not ruining the characters in a rush to cash in on them. “We are talking about some of the ways it might go,” Park said at the time. “We have a lot of interest in doing more films; I feel the iron’s hot and ready to strike. We’re talking about a longer film at the moment, though what the actual length would be we don’t quite know. It could be 50 minutes long; it could be a TV movie or even something longer. We’re working on a script with Bob Baker again, a 75-minute story that we may very well condense down. We think we probably could get the feature film money for it, but it’s a matter of: the more money there is, the more commercial pressure there is, and with these two characters I think they’ve got to be handled sensitively, not driven by people in suits saying what they should be doing and what kind of market they’ve got to appeal to, because I think it would destroy them.”