Monday, December 18, 2006

Before there was Creature Comforts...

When Nick Park and Peter Lord came to visit our office a couple months back, we asked them about the genesis of the idea for the original Creature Comforts short. Aardman was commissioned to make several short films using unscripted audio for a series called Lip Synch, and Nick Park's piece was the Creature Comforts short in 1989. Peter Lord mentioned that one of the first, if not THE first animated piece to use audio recorded from real people rather than actors was Moonbird (1959) which won an Oscar for best Animated Short. John and Faith Hubley had a unique collaboration and made over 20 independent, animated films together. You can learn more about them here.

Moonbird featured the voices of their children at play and the result is a beautiful short film which has been uploaded to YouTube for our viewing pleasure:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Like Wildfire

Unbeknownst to us Aardman folk in the U.S., more show clips have been released/found their way to the internet. SO, since the cat (or in this case, the penguin) is out of the bag already, why not take a gander at one of my favorite characters:

Oh, and for those who were wondering, the rope will not be seen when this clip airs on television.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, no a plane, oh wait, it's just an animator.

Greetings from super secret animation headquarters, here in Bristol UK. My name is Teresa Drilling, and I will be your key animator for today. Join me as I take you on an animator’s behind the scenes tour of “Creature Comforts” (USA). Be advised that perspectives may seem temporarily skewed as we enter the realm of smoke and mirrors. Please keep hands and feet inside the safety zone as we step together behind the green curtain to see what we can see.

Mind the gap, it’s dark in here…

Well, let’s see if I can live up to that intro.

I’m an American animator working here on “Creature Comforts.”
Strangely, despite my nationality, I’m not just another exotic import (British readers can snicker here…). I’m also a seasoned Aardanimator. I was first assimilated into the Aardhive seven years ago on “Chicken Run,” then again for “Curse of the Wererabbit.” I’ve split my time between here and Portland OR during these years, which can have some curious side effects. Like thinking once that marmite might be good in tacos. And then actually enjoying marmite in tacos.

I’ve been working nearly six months now animating some great pig characters. The pigs actually made it home before I did, as the show’s first Thanksgivings Day promo. That’s the usual way we animators start conversations with each other here, talking about our characters. “How are the polar bears going?,” “Still on the gerbil?,” “Are you moving onto the raccoon next?” It’s more normal to start conversations here in Britain with some comment or other about the weather, but we don’t see much weather deep inside the studio, and besides, we’re busy being immersed in other worlds.

This immersion trick is actually quite handy. I’m not going to go so far as to say necessary, as I forgot to poll everyone about that today. But it is necessary for me, and I suspect it is for a good number of the other animators as well. You see while stop-motion/stop-frame/model animation (which is the animation form being used for this series) is often described from a technical angle or featured as an idiosyncratic obsession for the daft, what it really is, at its very heart, is a form of acting. “Animation” is a word derived from the Latin word for soul. One doesn’t make a character come alive by merely moving the puppet around and filming it. An animator immerses their imagination into the scene, and thinks about how a character needs to appear to feel, to think, to react. Otherwise the result can look kinda flat. Working through a shot without engaging can get torturously tedious for me too, just as it would for anyone. I don’t think I have any vast wells of patience to draw upon to do this kind of work, just a lucky knack for focusing my attention with an open heart, and a good sense of timing.

Okay, up for a breath of air!

Let me describe for you the environment we work in. We work in a regular building in a regular industrial park setting, or as they say here, an industrial estate (a super secret industrial estate). There are offices for directors, producers, designers, and administrators, a canteen (cafeteria) that serves fantastic food, telephones, water coolers, the usual. There are also workshops for woodworking, for metalworking, for set building, for scenic painting, for modelmaking… reasonable to expect from custom design and manufacture companies. There’s also an editing facility that keeps track of everything that needs to be shot and shifted and sent out into the world, not unlike Wonka Bars. Finally there are the stages. A normal day can find me in any one of the other areas, but by far the greatest chunk of my day is spent out in the stages.

The stages are vast open areas in the middle of the building. They are entirely separated from the rest of the building by fire doors. They have no windows, no skylights. I have seen the overhead lights turned on only three times in the last seven years. Here is a little factoid that very few people here know… there used to be a window that overlooked the stage floor from the canteen. I haven’t seen it open since 1998.

When you walk out onto the stage floor your eyes adjust to the lower light level. Each separate shooting space, or “unit” has its own specialized lighting, and it is important that the lighting from one unit doesn’t interfere with the lighting of another, so light outside the units is kept to a minimum to prevent “light spillage.” Isn’t this a great business, to be able to think of light as a flowing, malleable thing? The floors are smooth concrete and very solid so there is no bounce or jiggle in the floor, which is very important in animation. They are also easy to clean and move heavy equipment and set pieces over.

Inside this vast space you see that there are tall, moveable wooden “flats” lined up to make walls and avenues inside. It’s like a giant rat maze. The flats can be moved around to form little rooms, or “units” inside which a scene is set up, lit, and installed with an animator. On the feature films, these walls were often moved around to make bigger and smaller units throughout the project. It really was like a rat maze then, because the “hallways” you were used to traveling through for months would suddenly disappear, and new ones would appear, and you’d have to find another way to get a drink of water.

Over the years I have animated in nearly every possible spot in Stage 1. It’s a funny thing to walk into a new unit and remember that you were in the same place before, only then it was a dining room, and before that it was a moonlit road. And because of the immersion thing, these other worlds seemed very complete and real, but are now in some other parallel universe. Even though I’m spending a good chunk of my life in the same big, dark room, a room that I know intimately from one end to the other, it’s still a new and interesting space every time (I did warn you about the smoke and mirrors aspect of this tour).

The second thing you notice is the smell of plasticene (the modeling clay we sculpt and animate). It’s a smell that always makes me feel like I’m coming home. I’ve spent many other years in another large studio on vast stages, and there too there was the smell of plasticene in the air. It was a different kind of plasticene, and so a different smell, but the same warm and fuzzy feeling.

The third thing you notice is the buzz. There are people moving quickly through the maze, with light stands, clipboards, eyeballs and fish lips, tea and toast. You can hear the low hum of conversations, the somewhat louder hum of vacuum cleaners, the percussive bursts of dialog being previewed in the units, the crackle of walkie talkies, and almost always, somewhere, a laugh. It’s really nice working in a place where people laugh.

As I said earlier, I’m working with the pigs. In fact, I’ve been working with the pigs from the very beginning. There are a lot of pig shots. They’re great characters. I’m in lucky unit 13, which happens to be in the geographical middle of Stage 1, so I get to experience a lot of what criss-crosses across the floor, albeit through the walls of my unit! Here’s a super secret picture of me working on the pigs.

If you wish to see what more of me looks like, check out the Aardman 30th Anniversary Party pictures from October. I’m the Spotted Snow Leopard standing next to the Peacock.

Well! There you go, a first peek at the men and women behind the green curtain. Actually, we use black curtains, but you get the idea. Please be sure to return your badges at the front desk, spare us a kind thought, and don’t forget to pick up a marmite taco or two on your way home tonight. Cheers!

guano and jet engines

Kieran Thomas spent a long time sculpting a large statue out of clay, then formed a glassfibre mould from it.

This he then painted a beautiful verdigris to create a realistic ancient metal statue. I lit it very simply with two lights and a plain sky behind to keep all attention focussed in the centre.

We covered it in guano of course.

At around the same time, Manon was wondering how to construct a working realistic jet engine for a shot involving a crazy adrenaline-junkie crow. She contacted Rolls Royce who have been building airplane engines here in North Bristol since the second world war. They had a spare correct sized engine we could use, provided we didn't damage it...
Al and Dave rigged this onto a large scaffolding rig about 10' long, obviously it's very heavy so it was set at a slight angle to eliminate the possibility of falling forwards and squashing the Animator. The riggers then liaised with George, our MoCo expert, to figure out how to turn the huge vanes which go all the way back through the engine. They found a way of attaching a pole to a central spindle, and gearing a motor so it could push the weight.
George could then program a move on a controlling computer which would slowly ramp up the jet one frame at a time, it was essential that this "move" be repeatable so that I could shoot a plate later to remove any visible rigs and each frame match up. It was also important to eliminate "strobing", or the flicker effect you get when moving objects nearly line up. We carefully set the engine speed to look dangerous in the first shot, but still give us extra speed left to use in the second. Thankfully it pushes past the strobe, and starts to do a pleasing backwards wagon wheel effect as it goes faster..

Somone said to me on set that you can always see through the engine once it's spinning so I put a huge lamp behind to try to punch some daylight back through all those fins, I also set up a lot of soft lights to create the ominous stormy look set by the dense cloudy sky.
We also rigged some tiny lights on the airport control tower, along with a pulsing wingtip light, spending far too long discussing when the airplane lights are on/off on the runway or in the air, better go look it up..
Cath and Susie dressed the set with a tiny airport and false perspective runway while Damien skinned the inside of the engine with a liner and cowling we could paint and attach rigs to, he also remade the nose cone with a jazzy blue and white spiral and finished it all with an air blasted look.

Here's a frame from the finished shot, not bad eh?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Coast to Coast with Creature Comforts

I had quite the busy week this week. After the Thanksgiving holiday I went to New York City to shoot my first "Behind the Scenes" video for Creature Comforts. I really enjoy doing these sorts of pieces and if you have the time, you can check out a DVD extra that I did called "From Scout to Screen" for a film called "Little Manhattan".

Anyway, this shoot was with two of my favorite characters, the cockroaches. We tried calling them waterbugs for awhile, but lets face it, if they live in NYC, they're cockroaches. After listening to the wonderful voices of these two ladies for 6 months, it was so exciting to actually meet them. I got to the senior center early for the interview and was there when Natalie arrived. I knew it was her right away since she has a VERY distinctive voice. She was happy to meet me too and told her friend "Can you believe this guy came all the way from California just to have a date with me?". So I spoke with her for a little while outside the senior center where all of their interviews took place, near Washington Square park. It was a surreal experience meeting someone who I felt like I knew already. As a recent transplant from NYC to LA, I find it very comforting to listen to the voices of such New York characters. Both Natalie and Lilly were very sweet and it was a pleasure to finally meet them. I also invited Lilly to come by our office when she visits California in February, but I haven't told my boss yet. I'm hopeful that I got some good footage and that it will be a part of our promotional materials closer to the airdate of the show. Here's a snapshot of me with Natalie and Lilly that Hillary, their excellent interviewer, took:

Luckily, I was told not to reveal their animals to them yet and I'm happy not to be the one who tells them that they will be cockroaches on the show. Although, in the modelmakers' defense, I think they are just about as cute as cockroaches can be. And since their set really captures New York, I think they'll be happy about that at least. Take a look:

This image is a still from a holiday promo that may air during "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" on CBS, Friday December 8th.

Cafeteria Stats

I know what you've all been thinking: "Animation Shmanimation, how much coffee do these people drink?". Well wonder no more. The distinguished Brits pictured below in their enviable canteen have consumed the following over 25 weeks of production (forgive the metric figures):

1625 kilos of potatoes
375 kilos baked beans
6,000 pints milk
15, 000 pints coffee

Tea and cake figures were too astronomic to even guess at, clearly.

Creature Comforts Crew - September 2006

You see - it doesn't ALWAYS rain in England!

Bristol calling Houston?

Hi! It’s taken me a while to start contributing to the blog but my name is Ellen and I’m the UK-based production coordinator working in the Bristol (UK) production office. Things are pretty hectic here at the moment with just over a month left of the shoot and over 80 full time crew to look after. We’re still getting lots of new characters and setups which means keeping a careful eye that floor crew, art department and office files are kept up to date with signed off designs for any given character – we’re currently topping 700 separate designs submitted by both UK & US character designers. We’re all pretty excited about being on the show – although we’ve already seen Creature Comforts go out in the UK and be a big success this will be the first time it goes out in the US so we’re hoping you’re all going to love it! Keep looking out for little tasters on the net… more to follow soon x