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Aardman's Claymation Films Taking Shape on Web

April 21, 2000|ERIKA MILVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even if you've never had the pleasure to make the acquaintance of Wallace, the cheese-loving Brit with a passion for bizzaro inventions, and his faithful hound Gromit--the conscientious one in the relationship--you have no doubt spotted some Aardman animation. Perhaps you recall the frenetic music video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." Maybe you're fond of those talking cars that hawk Chevron.

In any event, hunting down Aardman animation and the early works of Wallace and Gromit's creator just got a heck of a lot easier.

Aardman, a 28-year-old animation production company in Bristol, England, whose artists fancy playing with clay (we call it Claymation, they call it stop-motion animation employing Plasticine), is taking the Web by storm. Atomfilms.com has launched the Aardman Observer, a multimedia newspaper offering all the clay that's fit to stream (at http://www.atomfilms.com).

A slew of Aardman shorts, which previously have been screened only at film festivals, are premiering on the Internet, along with the all-new adventures of Angry Kid, an annoying animated brat who is easily Aardman's least cute creature. Aardman becomes the first U.K. production house to make the best of its back catalog available for online viewing.

While millions of Brits and oodles of Americans have come to savor the lovable antics of Wallace and Gromit, their sculptor and parent, Nick Park, will become a Hollywood player when his and Aardman's first feature-length film debuts in June. Produced by DreamWorks, "Chicken Run" stars the voice of Mel Gibson as a rooster named Rocky, who tries to escape poultry-farm captivity with his girlfriend, a chicken named Ginger. (A trailer and other information about the film can be found at http://www.reel.com/reel.asp?node=chickenrun.)

But long before Rocky and Ginger or Wallace and Gromit, Park began making films up in his parents' Lancashire attic at age 13. Even then he was prone to claymate. "I used to make models out of Plasticine, and of course it wasn't long before I wanted them to move on film. I used my mother's Super 8 to shoot my first film. Maybe I'll speak to the bosses at Atom and ask them to show it on the site."

At present, you can catch early Park on Atomfilms.com in the form of the 1990 Oscar-winning "Creature Comforts," an endearing pseudo-documentary about the lives of various animals at the zoo. The animated animals lip-sync to the voices of ordinary men and women who were interviewed by Aardman staffers about their lives, especially their living arrangements. Park selected bits of these interviews for his characters: An old woman who spoke about "not getting out much" became the voice of a caged gorilla. The result is charming and clever.

Park says he is "delighted with any new media that can take the studio's films to a wider audience" but he is aware that "streaming films on the Internet is relatively new. And with all new media there are teething problems." Park has faith that bandwidth will continue to bloat, and while he's happy that new audiences are discovering his work online, he doesn't see the Net as ever replacing traditional theatrical venues.

"Because the shared experience of watching a film in a theater is so enjoyable, it won't disappear," he explains. "Remember that they thought radio would die when television was invented, and they said that television was the end of theaters. I don't think it will happen."

While animators like those at Pixar ("Toy Story") and Industrial Light & Magic ("Jurassic Park") have conjured remarkable images with the use of high-tech computer vivification, Park is sticking with the painstaking method of moving clay arms and legs one millimeter at a time.

"We've had a look at [working with computers] but clay-animation does not look the same through a computer," he says. "I'm sure some studios will do it but we prefer to get our hands covered in good old Plasticine."

While "Chicken Run" is giving Park a brief rest from Wallace and Gromit, who got themselves into various pickles in "The Wrong Trousers," "A Close Shave" and "A Grand Day Out," he promises the quirky duo will be back soon, possibly in a feature film.

Park confides that Wallace was inspired by his father. "He actually thinks he is Wallace and I must admit that I did base much of his character on him," Park said. "When we were young, my father built a caravan which he wall-papered inside; that's where I got the idea for the spaceship in 'A Grand Day Out.' "

As for Gromit, he started out as a cat. "I decided to change him to a dog, as dogs are less independent than cats."

Asked if he makes his films for children, Park answers, "No, not all--nor adults, really. I don't think of either audience. I do think of an audience but I think of myself as it! So I suppose in that sense I am making the films for myself. I think of an audience full of me!"

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