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On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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Archive for the 'Animation' Category

Pausing and chortling: A tribute to Bob Clampett

great-piggy-bank-1.jpg

The Great Piggy Bank Robbery

Kristin here–

During my first year as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the great animator Bob Clampett paid a visit to our campus. I actually got to sit next to him at lunch, and he was a charming, amusing man. Unfortunately I didn’t really know at the time what a genius he was, and, to my eternal regret, I neglected to ask for his autograph.

Today Clampett is less well-known to the general public than is Chuck Jones or Tex Avery. Jones and the other main creators of the classic Warner Bros.’s cartoons reportedly resented Clampett’s attempts to promote his own reputation by claiming sole credit for major achievements, such as “inventing” Bugs Bunny. When Jones put together The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979), there were no Clampett-supervised cartoons included. Clampett never wrote his memoirs. Jones did and left Clampett out. (Below, Draftee Daffy, 1945.)

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These three major directors had their own distinctive approaches. Jones was on the whole more cerebral and often opted for beautiful visuals, perhaps most obviously evident in What’s Opera, Doc. Avery had a penchant for bad puns, often assembling whole cartoons based entirely around them. Clampett went for craziness and often for break-neck speed. The Wikipedia entry on him has this to say: “his characters are easily the most rubbery and wacky of all the Warner directors’.” (Above, Baby Bottleneck [1946].)

That wackiness was built into the name of one of Warner’s two animated series, “Looney Tunes.” Daffy Duck’s name characterizes him, but modern audiences may not be aware that “Bugs” also was a slang term for “crazy.” Along with Porky Pig, those were the two characters that Clampett used most often.

I’m not going to sum up Clampett’s career here. There is already quite a bit of excellent material on him available on the internet. For an overview of his career and style, see Adrian Danks’s “It Can Happen Here! The World of Bob Clampett” on Senses of Cinema; Michael Barrier’s epic 1970 interview with Clampett, with comments and corrections, is available on his website. That website contains many other shorter pieces on Clampett. Danks and the Wikipedia entry both give enough bibliographical sources to direct enthusiasts to additional information.

My purpose here is more modest. I simply want to point out how to find even more hilarity in Clampett’s cartoons beyond simply watching them.

As I’ve mentioned, David and I are in the process of revising our second textbook, Film History: An Introduction. The other day I was working on the section that deals with Hollywood animation in the 1930 to 1945 period. We’re adding more color to the book for its third edition, so I decided that Draftee Daffy, which we describe briefly, should have its own color plate.

As I watched the film on DVD, I paused on a number of possible frames to use, and I found myself laughing out loud at almost every one—something that doesn’t often happen during the revision of a textbook. Some of the character movements in Clampett’s films are so fast and brief that they come across as a flurry of images too fleeting to register. Frozen, they reveal some of the extraordinary means that the director and his animators used to achieve those effects of speed. Clampett was also adept at highly exaggerated reactions and hilarious distortions of the animal body. Watching these cartoons with a finger on the pause button can yield hilarity and teach you a lot about normally hidden aspects of the art of animation.

David has written about the artistry in Walt Disney’s films. He points out that a quick movement may be accomplished by adding extra limbs, as when in Melody Time Johnny Appleseed gathers an armload of falling apples and multiple arms and hands convey the speed of his gestures—as do a pair of phantom heads in the uppermost frame of the three David reproduces.

Such multiple images work without our noticing them. It’s not an obvious sort of technique to use. As David wrote, “Through trial and error Disney’s animators learned that rather strange single images will look exactly right on the screen; these men were practical perceptual psychologists.”

The same was true in the Warners animation department. In The Big Snooze (1946), Clampett’s last cartoon for the studio, he includes a scene of Bugs rapidly tying Elmer to some railroad tracks. In a couple of frames, he sprouts extra arms and hands. In The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946), phantom images of Daffy accompany his firing a machine gun.

     

But Clampett’s single images were often far stranger than the ones in the Melody Time example. In this one from Draftee Daffy, for example, the extra figures of Daffy as he frantically builds a wall between himself and his nemesis (the little man from the draft board) are purple.

I suppose that’s because multiple black figures of Daffy would blend together, but it’s still a bit weird. As an animator, how do you decide on a color?

Maybe it’s because purple is a subdued color that won’t call attention to the extra ducks and yet will contrast well with the black. It’s also the same color as the floor, so that might create an extra reason why we won’t notice them as standing out from the overall composition as it flashes past. If you know those purple ducks are there, you can just barely see them during normal projection. If you don’t know that, then you’re likely to miss them.

(I used that example of Daffy building the wall in my sole academic publication on animation, “Implications of the Cel Animation Technique,” in Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, eds., The Cinematic Apparatus [St. Martin’s Press, 1980]. There it had to be in black and white, unfortunately.)

Clampett often draws upon a standard animation device, “stretch,” to convey a sense of speed–although his characters may cross a room in as little as two or three frames. The first image of the telephone scene from The Great Piggy Bank Robbery is a fairly straightforward example of stretch, yet in the same scene, Daffy rapidly turning around uses the opposite technique, “squash.”

A similar technique which Clampett uses occasionally for a character about to launch into a rapid movement is a sort of squash with a perspective effect stretching the character toward the viewer, as in The Big Snooze when Bugs instructs Elmer to “Run this way.” (Bugs isn’t the only one who gets into drag in these cartoons.)

I’ve picked some of my favorite Clampett films, but many frames worth pausing on are to be found in others. With the Looney Tunes boxed sets still coming out, in five volumes to date, one can hunt out the Clampett films–though annoyingly, the indexes list neither the date nor the supervising animator, and there seems to be little logic involved in which films go on which discs. (There are also occasional jumps where something has presumably been censored.) It’s best to get thoroughly familiar with these films by simply viewing them. Then, pick up that remote and begin your search. You’ll discover that Clampett was one of the most imaginative of those “practical perceptual psychologists.”

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The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.

Do sell us shorts

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Kristin here—

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single theater playing all five nominees for the best-picture Oscar. It’s happening now at the six-screen Sundance Cinemas here in Madison, plus they’ve got The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (nominated for director, cinematography, adapted screenplay, and editing) and Persepolis (animated-feature nominee). The latter is very impressive, and I think it would win in an ordinary year, but probably not when it’s up against Ratatouille.

[February 9. That outcome seems even more likely now. Last night Ratatouille won nine Annie Awards, prizes given out by the professional animation community. In the 35 years of those awards’ existence, only once has the top animated feature prize not gone to the film that went on to win the best animated film Oscar. Pixar’s accompanying short, Your Friend the Rat, won best short subject. It’s not eligible for an Oscar, since it was a supplement on the Ratatouille DVD and not shown theatrically.]

Films like these get widely seen, obviously. An awful lot of films, though, get nominated for Oscars that far fewer people will see. How many people fill out their office Oscar pool ballots knowing anything about the short animated and live-action films? Some you can track down online or on TV (HBO, Sundance, the IFC, and so on), but viewing them all would be difficult.

For three years now, however, Magnolia Pictures has been packaging the films in those two categories into a single program that goes out to theaters and then onto DVD. Magnolia is a small independent distributor, best known perhaps for its documentaries, including Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room and Capturing the Friedmans and for its imports like Ong Bak and The World’s Fastest Indian.

This year’s program, “The 2007 Academy Award Nominated Shorts,” is listed on the company’s website as playing in 80 theaters, though perhaps that number will rise. Many of the runs (including the one at our Sundance Cinemas) start on February 15, and others are scheduled from then on into April.

Thanks to Sarah Simonds, manager at Sundance, I was able to get an early look at the ten films on the program.

As one might predict, the range of quality is greater in the live-action films than in the animated ones. I’m not sure why that would be predictable, but I have my suspicions. There’s not much of a theatrical market for live-action shorts, which mainly get seen at festivals and on TV. They tend to be portfolio films, made by people trying to attract attention and move up to features. Hence they more often come from beginners. Animators who don’t want to work their way up through big studios—and who stand little chance of ever directing a major animated feature—or who simply value their independence may stick with shorts.

Another factor working in favor of animation is that it’s a medium that demands the detailed planning of literally every frame. No improvisation, no casual shooting in real locales, no direct sound. All in all, I think that if I were an Academy member, I’d have more trouble making a decision in the animated-shorts category.

Real, Live People

In the live-action category there’s no doubt that I would vote for The Tonto Woman, a UK short directed by Daniel Barber from an Elmore Leonard short story. Remarkably, Barber had mainly directed TV commercials before embarking on this, his first 35mm short, as a way of breaking into the film industry. He produced and funded it himself, with a ten-day shoot in Spain using locations and standing sets that had figured in such films as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The result might be described as The Piano meets There Will Be Blood. A cattle rustler (well played by Anthony Quinn’s son Francesco) encounters a rich man’s wife (Charlotte Asprey) who is living in enforced seclusion after having been kidnapped and held for eleven years by Mojave Indians (image above). The film has landscapes with the epic quality of both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, and its drama has the depth of a feature film without feeling rushed in its 35 minutes.

Leonard’s website has a press release giving more details, as well as a profile of Berber. The latter suggests that the director has been contacted by people within the film industry. All I can say is, fund this man immediately. I definitely want to see what he could do at feature length.

David has written quite a bit about the lively contemporary Danish cinema, including two entries on this blog, here and here. The country continues to be on a filmic roll in terms of Oscar nominations, with the short At Night being the one I’d vote if I were an Academy member and weren’t already voting for The Tonto Woman. It’s directed by Christian E. Christiansen and produced by Zentropa with support from the Danish Film Institute.

at-night.jpg

The subject matter sounds like the sort of thing that would ordinarily make me run the other way: three very young women with cancer bonding in the hospital ward they share. But the film avoids the touchy-feely clichés that so easily could sink such a project (except for a conventional Polaroid-photo montage of their little New Year’s party). It’s not just a sick-women’s-solidarity picture. One does come to care about these three and to understand how their illnesses make them better able to communicate with each other than with their families. It manages to pack a considerable emotional impact into forty minutes. Again, here is someone who could probably direct a fine feature film—and, given the current strength of the country’s industry, may well get the chance.

Tanghi Argentini is a charming comedy from Flemish director Guido Thys, dealing with an office worker who asks a colleague to teach him how to tango to impress a woman he has met on the internet. It combines a clever concept with a surprise twist at the end that works so well in both the short-story and short-film format. It’s entertaining but not so unusual or substantial that I would think of it as Oscar-worthy.

The two other films, France’s Le Mozart des Pickpockets (director/writer/actor Philippe Pollet-Villard) and Italy’s The Substitute (director Andrea Jublin), though both amusing, seemed surprisingly lightweight and conventional to have received nominations.

Puppets and Pictures

Trying to decide which of these animated shorts I would vote for is more difficult. Each is well-executed, entertaining, and imaginative. I tried thinking which I would want to watch again, which I would recommend to friends.

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By those standards, there are again two stand-outs for me. I’d ultimately opt for Même les pigeons vont au paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven), a French puppet film by Samuel Tourneux. It’s about a priest who attempts to sell a heaven-simulating machine to a miserly peasant about to be visited by the Grim Reaper. It’s fast-paced, very funny, and beautifully detailed in its depictions of the characters and settings. It’s not claymation, but it has some of the polish and wit of Aardman shorts.

my-love.jpgMy close second choice would be a very different sort of film, My Love, from Russia, directed by Alexander Petrov. It’s a pretty, lyrical tale of a fifteen-year-old boy’s idealistic yearnings after a pretty servant girl and a more glamorous and mysterious woman who lives next door. The animation is impressionistic and shimmering, with constantly added brushstrokes transforming the compositions. Its visual style is derived from nineteenth-century Russian realist painting, especially that of Ilya Repin.

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Suzie Templeton animating the Duck for Peter & the Wolf*

I suspect the Oscar winner might well be Peter & the Wolf, a British-Polish co-production that illustrates the classic Sergei Prokofiev tone poem. It was directed by Suzie Templeton and made at the Se-ma-for Studios in Łódź. There’s no doubt that it’s an impressive item, with elaborate miniature studio sets that could pass for real landscapes, precise and amusing puppets, and a mind-boggling frame-by-frame manipulation of furry puppets that leaves nary a ripple in their hair. (The photo above hints at how the latter feat was accomplished.) Still, the appeal of the original music is its evocation of events in our mind’s eye, and for me the literal playing out of those events at times carried a faint air of tedium. It’s the sort of prestige project that one can imagine a lot of Academy members loving.

i-met-the-walrus.jpgThe same cannot be said for the edgier I Met The Walrus, from Canada. It’s derived from an existing soundtrack, a tape-recording made by a 14-year-old Jerry Levitan when he snuck into John Lennon’s hotel room and interviewed him. Now, many years later, director Josh Raskin has created an animated image track to accompany it. It’s a clever idea, but to me the illustrations of Lennon’s words soon became a bit too literal, and I found myself thinking that the animation was Terry Gilliam (in his Monty Python days, that is) meets Yellow Submarine meets Max Ernst collage-novel.

I’m very much of two minds about Madame Tutli Putli, the seemingly inevitable entry from the National Film Board of Canada (directed by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerborski). A puppet film four years in production, it is an extraordinary technical accomplishment. It deals with a mousey woman who takes a train journey that confronts her with bizarre and ultimately threatening events. The grim tone and grubby puppets and objects reminded me of Jan Svankmajer’s work.

madame-tutli-putli.jpg

The most disturbing thing about the images, however, is not the subject matter but the creepily realistic eyes. To me it was obvious that real eyes had been superimposed onto the puppets’ faces. Investigating how this had been done, I found this brief making-of demonstration on YouTube, which indeed revealed the main character to be a puppet with blank areas where the eyes would be. Looking further, I learned that the special effects were done by painter/animator Jason Walker, who devised a complicated process to coordinate the photographed eyes with the animation. Some demonstrations of that process are available here, and there is an interview with him here.

There’s no doubt that the technique is unnerving, and yet at the same time it’s distracting (if one notices it). Is it “fair”? Of course people have been combining live action and animation in various ways since the 1910s. Yet superimposing photographed elements in such a way as to make them appear to be part of the animation almost seems like cheating. Here one would be tempted to marvel at how skillfully the animators had simulated human eyes—a notoriously difficult subject to capture realistically. I suppose for many viewers the eyes and the rest of the image would blend seamlessly and not prove distracting. For me, it didn’t quite work.

Overall, the program is undoubtedly worth seeing on the big screen.

As to the previous two programs of Oscar nominees, see here for the list of 2005 shorts and here for the DVD; see here for the 2006 list and here for the DVD.

*The production image from Peter & the Wolf derives from a making-of short on the British release of the German-made DVD (from Arthaus Musik), which now seems to be out of print.

Tracking down Aardman creatures

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Cracking Contraptions: The Tellyscope

Kristin here—

David and I are currently plugging away on revising our Film History textbook. In setting out to update the section on Aardman animation, I ran into difficulties pinning down the dates of certain television series or the director of a given short film. Indeed, I was quite surprised at the dearth of complete chronologies or filmographies for such a famous and important company.

The obvious sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Data Base, are helpful but sketchy. Aardman’s own “History” section on its official website is even briefer–and ends in 2005. The filmography in Peter Lord and Brian Sibley’s coffee-table book, Creating 3-D Animation (p. 189), is far from complete. (I must confess that I’m still using the first edition, but even so the filmography is sketchy for the period it covered. The revised edition came out in 2004.) Each source was, however, incomplete in different ways. I decided to try and compile as comprehensive a chronology/filmography as I could as a research and reference tool. This turned out to be a considerable task. Given how little of this work will end up in the textbook, I decided that I might as well offer it to the world.

I expected to find one or more fan-originated sites that would provide additional information, as so often happens in the world of popular culture. The main “unofficial” site that came up when I Googled Aardman is actually an online shop with scarcely any actual information.

What follows is not by any means complete. It’s more like a rough draft for a filmography, though it’s more detailed than any that I have found so far. No doubt it has gaps and perhaps inaccuracies. One problem I encountered is that dates given in various filmographies seem to waver between when a film was made, when it was copyrighted, and when it was released to theaters or first shown in TV. I’ve tried to stick to release/broadcast dates when I could find them.

Aardman has produced many ephemeral animations for station-identification logos, credit sequences, and websites, as well as perhaps hundreds of commercials. I’ve made no attempt to include commercials, apart from the Heat Electric series, which are available on DVD. The following primarily includes television shorts and series, as well as films.

My main sources of information are: The Internet Movie Datebase; the history section of Aardman’s official website (which ends with 2005); the Big Cartoon Database’s Aardman page; Lord and Sibley’s Creating 3-D Animation; Insideaard (a booklet included in the British DVD Aardman Classics); and the credits of various Aardman films on DVD and on AtomFilms. Some details have been filled in from the Wikipedia entries on Nick Park and Steve Box. The main Aardman entry is so far rather sketchy, though it includes some films not listed in other filmographies and links to entries on the individual films and series, given below.

[Added January 29: Aardman itself might seem to be the ideal place to start, but the company doesn’t currently have a list of all its productions. It recently hired an archivist who, among other tasks, plans to compile such a list, including the commercials. In the meantime, this entry can serve as a stop-gap reference source.]

* indicates a music video, as identified in Lord and Sibley.

1970s

c. 1972, Friends and amateur animations Peter Lord and David Sproxton sell an untitled cel short featuring a “Superman” gag (illustrated on p. 10 of Lord and Sibley) to the BBC for about ₤15, for itsVision On” series (producer Patrick Dowling; aimed at deaf children). The superhero’s name, Aardman, would give the pair’s company its name.

confessions-of-a-foyer-girl.jpg1976 Aardman Animation founded

1978 Two films for “Animated Conversations” series, BBC: Down and Out (copyright 1977) and Confessions of a Foyer Girl (left; both dir. Lord and Sproxton). First use of real-life interviews for soundtracks.

1980s

1979-1982 Morph shorts for BBC. Initially part of “Vision On” series, then “Take Hart,” and finally on its own as “The Amazing Adventures of Morph” (dated 1981-83 in Lord and Sibley; 1980-81 on imdb).

c. 1982 Aardman starts making commercials. This becomes the financial staple of the studio and allows the company to move into larger facilities and hire more staff. Thereafter Aardman has produced 25-30 commercials a year. Lord and Sibley’s filmography contains a list of the products/companies for which Aardman made commercials from 1982 to 1998, but listed alphabetically without individual dates. (A few of these are on YouTube, such as this one for Chevron.)

1983 “Conversation Pieces” series: Sales Pitch, Palmy Days, Late Edition, Early Bird, and On Probation (dir. Lord and Sproxton). All shown during one week on Channel Four for its first anniversary.

1985 Nick Park joins Aardman full time

1986 Babylon (Lord and Sproxton) First film that Nick Park worked on. Channel Four

* Sledgehammer (dir. Stephen Johnson; Aardman’s portion animated by Park, Lord, Richard Goleszowski) Peter Gabriel music video.

my-baby-just-cares-for-me.jpg

1986-91 Aardman provides the “Penny” segments for five seasons of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” CBS.

* 1987 My Baby Just Cares for Me (dir. Lord; right)

Going Equipped (dir. Lord)

* Barefootin’ (dir. Goleszowski) On YouTube

* 1988 Harvest for the World (one sequence, dir. Sproxton, Lord, and Goleszowski)

next.jpg1989 “Lip Sync” series: Next (dir. Barry Purves; left), Ident (dir. Goleszowski; first appearance of Rex the Runt), Going Equipped (dir. Lord), Creature Comforts (dir. Park), War Story (dir. Lord) Channel Four

Creature Comforts spawns the “Heat Electric” series of ads

A Grand Day Out (dir. Park) Produced by the National Film & Television School and finished with help from Aardman. The introduction of Wallace & Gromit.

Lifting the Blues (dir. Sproxton)

1990s

1990 Steve Box joins Aardman

1990-91 Rex the Runt: How Dinosaurs Became Extinct (dir. Goleszowski)

adam.jpg1991 Adam (Lord; right)

Rex the Runt: Dreams (Goloeszowski)

1992 Never Say Pink Fury Die (dir. Louise Spraggon)

Love Me … Loves me Not (dir. Jeff Newitt)

1993 The Wrong Trousers (dir. Park). Co-financed by Aardman and the BBC. Shown during the Christmas season.

Not without My Handbag (dir. Boris Kossmehl) Channel Four

pib-and-pog.jpg1994 Pib & Pog (dir. Peter Peake; left)

1995 A Close Shave (dir. Park), shown on the BBC at Christmas.

The Title Sequence (dir. Luis Cook and Dave Alex Riddett)

The Morph Files (dir. Lord and Sproxton) BBC

1996 Rex the Runt: North by North Pole (Goleszowski) “Pilot”

Wat’s Pig (dir. Lord) Channel Four

Pop (dir. Sam Fell)

* Never in Your Wildest Dreams (dir. Bill Mather)

stage-fright.jpg1997 Dreamworks pre-buys the U.S. rights to Chicken Run

Stage Fright (dir. Box, right)

Owzat (dir. Mark Brierly)

1998 Humdrum (dir. Peake) Channel Four and Canal +

Al Dente (dir. Brierly)

“Rex the Runt” (dir. Goleszowski) 13 episodes for BBC2, aired December 1998 to January 1999

“The Angry Kid” series (dir. Darren Walsh) 3 episodes posted on the internet by AtomFilms

* Viva Forever (dir. Box)

1999 “The Angry Kid” (dir. Darren Walsh) 13 episodes distributed on the internet by AtomFilms

Minotaur and Little Nerkin (dir. Nick Mackie) Theatrical release

Rabbits! (dir. Sam Fell)

2000s

2000 “The Angry Kid” (dir. Walsh) episodes 14-25 (continuation of season one)

Chicken Run (dir. Lord and Park) Aardman’s first feature. Released in the U.S. by DreamWorks and in the U.K. by Pathé.

Non-Domestic Appliance (dir. Sergio Delfino) This and the next four films were posted on AtomFilms in 2003.

Chunga Chui (dir. Stefano Cassini)

Comfy (dir. Seth Watkins)

Ernest (dir. Darren Robbie)

Hot Shot (dir. Michael Cash)

rex-the-runt.jpg2001 “Rex the Runt” (dir. Golwszowski; left) second season, BBC2, 13 episodes, aired September to December

The Deadline (dir. Stefan Marjoram) A CGI short imitating Aardman’s traditional claymation style, made for an Aardman retrospective in New York. Nickelodeon subsequently commissioned twenty one-minute episodes with the same characters to create the series The Presenters (The Deadline on YouTube.)

2002 “Cracking Contraptions” (dir. Lloyd Price and Christopher Sadler) Ten episodes shown by BBC during the Christmas season.

Chump (dir. Fell) Theatrical

2003 “Creature Comforts” (dir. Goleszowski) First season, 13 episodes, ITV1

“The Angry Kid” moves from the internet to BBC3

2004 The Angry Kid: Who Do You Think You Are? (dir. Walsh) 22 minute film outside the series.

2005 Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (dir. Box and Park) Released in the U.S. by DreamWorks and in the U.K. by United International Pictures.

“Planet Sketch” (dir. ?) 13 episodes, 2005-2006. For a breakdown of episodes, see the Wikipedia entry.

Creature Comforts, second season, ITV starting in October.

2006 Flushed Away (dir. David Bowers and Fell) Distributed in the U.S. by DreamWorks and in the U.K. by United International Pictures. Aardman’s first CGI feature.

Purple and Brown (dir. Richard Webber) 21 episodes, Nickelodeon U.K. (Episode list on Wikipedia; a collection of the YouTube postings have been collected here, with some repetition.)

2007 January, DreamWorks terminates its five-feature contract with Aardman (claiming a write-off of $25 million for Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and $109 million for Flushed Away)

“Pib and Pog” (dir. Peake) Five shorts for the AtomFilms site: The Kitchen, X-Factor, Peter’s Room, Daddy’s Study, and The Dentist (copyright date 2006)

April, Sony announces that it has a deal to distribute Aardman features

“Shaun the Sheep” (dir. Sadler) 20 episodes, BBC, first series March, second series September.

“Creature Comforts America” (dir. ?) CBS, seven episodes. Three episodes aired in June, and the rest were cancelled due to low ratings.

The Pearce Sisters (dir. Cook) Theatrical

“Chop Socky Chooks” (dir. Delfino) 26 episodes, Cartoon Network (For character list, see Wikipedia entry)

2008 “Creature Discomforts” (dir. Steve Harding-Hill) Four public-service spots featuring disabled characters (with sound provided by people with disabilities), on ITV beginning January (also online).

Wallace and Gromit in Trouble at Mill (dir. Park) Half-hour Wallace & Gromit film to be shown by the BBC at Christmas.

[February 19, 2009: This films was shown under the title Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death. The DVD is currently available for pre-orders on Amazon.UK and will be released March 23.]

1000 Sing’n Slugs (dir. ?) Bonus disc for re-issue of Flushed Away

2009 Announcement of “Timmy” (dir. Jackie Cockle) Spin-off from “Shaun the Sheep” aimed at pre-schoolers. 52 ten-minute episodes for BBC.

These features are currently announced as in progress: Tortoise vs. Hare (2009), Pirates (2009), Untitled Wallace & Gromit project (2010), Operation Rudolph (2010), and The Cat Burglars (2010).

Aardman has a CGI department mainly used for commercials and station-identification logos, including BBC’s three “Blob” spots, Nickelodeon’s “Presenters,” and BBC2’s “Booksworms”

Lord and Sibley list an undated, untitled public-information film on HIV/AIDS.

DVDs and the Internet

I won’t attempt a complete list of DVDs, given that some of these films have been repackaged in various compilations. I’ll mention the ones in our own collection, which cover most of what is available on DVD.

Leaving aside the Wallace & Gromit films for now, the crucial DVD for the studio’s output is Aardman Classics, which contains 25 shorts plus 12 “Heat Electric” ads that use interviews with animals in the style of Creature Comforts. Unfortunately this DVD was issued only in the U.K. [Added January 22: It was also issued in Australia with Region 4 coding.] It’s still available, and if you have a multi-standard player and are interested in Aardman, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It contains most of the films to 1998, going back to Confessions of a Foyer Girl and Down and Out. Presumably for rights reasons, it does not include the classic music video, Sledgehammer.

not-without-my-handbag.jpgAmerican viewers restricted to Region 1 DVDs have far less available to them. The American DVD of Creature Comforts (now out of print) contained only three other Aardman films: Wat’s Pig, Adam, and Not without My Handbag (left)—among the best, no doubt, but far from the cornucopia on Aardman Classics.

Sledgehammer is included on the Peter Gabriel: Play the Videos DVD. I assume the quality there is distinctly better than the many copies available on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet. By the way, the Quay Brothers did the rest of the animation for Sledgehammer.

Some of the TV series are available on DVD. Both seasons of “Rex the Runt” were released as a boxed set in the U.S. It’s rather pricey but has a 260-minute running time and some minor extras. The British DVD of the first season of “The Angry Kid” is now out of print. Both seasons of the British series “Creature Comforts” are available as a set in the U.S. The ill-fated “Creature Comforts America” has also been released. So far the two “Shaun the Sheep” series are only available in the U.K., separately or in a boxed set containing both.

Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Flushed Away are all out on DVD. (The Were-Rabbit disc includes the classic 1997 Steve Box short, Stage Fright, as well as some good making-of supplements.) I had held off ordering Flushed Away in the hope, probably vain given the film’s weak U.S. box-office showing, that an edition with making-of bonuses will be forthcoming. Now, however, a re-issue (NTSC, but with no region coding) is coming out on February 19. (U.K. here.) It includes a second “all-new slugtacular disc,” 1000 Sing’n Slugs (not sold separately). Forget the making-ofs, my pre-order is in!

Finally, the all-important question: which DVD of the three classic Wallace & Gromit shorts to purchase? For once the American disc, “Wallace & Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures,” has the advantage, in that it includes all ten episodes of the “Cracking Contraptions” series. These are all available on the Aardman website, but for a larger image and better visual quality, fans will want the DVD. The British disc, “Wallace & Gromit: Three Cracking Adventures!” has only the three films and a bonus, “The Amazing World of Wallace & Gromit,” a brief history of Aardman that I remember as being pretty good.

Apart from its own website, the official outlet for Aardman shorts on the Internet is AtomFilms, which currently has lists 37 titles under the category “The Best of Aardman.” A group of very short films, Non-Domestic Appliance, Chunga Chui, Comfy, Ernest, and Hot Shot (all copyright 2000 but posted in 2003) look to me as if they might have been training exercises for young animators who also worked on Chicken Run. A group of classic films are available: Creature Comforts, Minotaur and Little Nerkin, War Story, Wat’s Pig, Stage Fright, Hundrum, Pop, Owzat, Adam, Al Dente, and Loves Me, Loves Me Not. The original Pib and Pog is also there, as well as a “Pib and Pog” series of five original shorts posted in 2007. Another series, “A Town Called Panic,” has six episodes; it is a Belgian production (copyright 2002; see the Wikipedia entry for episodes, characters, and links) which Aardman distributes. It was posted on Atom Film in 2007. There are also several “Angry Kid” episodes.

There are many Aardman items on YouTube. Many are bad copies of films available elsewhere, but there are some treasures to be found among them. I leave it to you to continue the search.

I would appreciate any corrections, additions, or other significant links that readers can provide.

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Cracking Contraptions: The Autochef

What does a Water Horse sound like?

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Kristin here—

Sentimental Journey

Regular readers of this blog will recall that David and I spent this past May in New Zealand, as Hood Fellows at the University of Auckland.

I did not have much of an excuse to go back to Wellington during our sojourn, but I decided to go for a few days anyway. It’s my favorite city in New Zealand, partly because I have so many memories of exciting events there and partly because it’s an attractive place in itself. Once my lecturing duties in Auckland were done, I took a train, the Overlander, that runs much of the length of the North Island. It’s a 12-hour ride through some very spectacular scenery (including Mount Doom, aka Mount Ngaurhoe; check it out on Google Earth at 39˚ 9’ 25.58” S 175˚ 37’ 57.89” E) and dizzying viaducts over deep gorges.

I was in Wellington for three days, staying where I had stayed on my previous three visits—the Victoria Court Motor Lodge. I originally chose it on the recommendation of Melissa Booth, a publicist on The Lord of the Rings, who had kindly acted as my point person for the first trip. During this year’s stay I had meals with a couple of people I had interviewed who also became friends. Judy Alley was the merchandising coordinator for Rings and King Kong and now works in publicity at Weta Digital. Given my interest in the franchise aspects of Rings, interviews with Judy had explained a lot about the nuts and bolts of coordinating with licensees. Erica Challis, co-founder of TheOneRing.net, had moved to Wellington since I interviewed her in Auckland. We snatched a quick dinner before she went to play French horn in a rehearsal for Swan Lake.

I also finally got to visit Te Papa, the national museum. It’s one of the main destinations for visitors, yet I had never gone through it. I felt it was rude to do that with my cell phone turned on. Sort of like keeping it on in a movie theater. But when I was trying to juggle appointments to interview people, I didn’t dare turn it off. It was worth missing some tourist opportunities, though, since every now and then that phone did ring, sometimes with good news.

For instance, on my first visit in 2003, a week after I had requested permission to watch Peter Jackson supervising the sound mixing on The Return of the King, I got a call at 7:45 pm on a Friday night telling me I could do so the next day. (If you hope to be a director’s or producer’s assistant, be prepared for long hours.) When I showed up, it turned out he and the sound editors were working on the Shelob sequence. Sometimes it pays to sit by the phone.

Park Road Post

During my Wellington visit, I learned from Barrie Osborne that coincidentally a film he is producing was in the sound-mixing phase, and I was invited to come and sit in for a day. Barrie is an American, but he produced The Matrix in Sydney and spent a long time in New Zealand producing all three parts of Rings. Like so many people who came from abroad to work on the trilogy, Barrie fell in love with the place. Now he lives there part-time and works on a range of Australasian projects, including executive producing The World’s Fastest Indian, a Kiwi film, and Little Fish, an Australian drama. (I saw these back-to-back at the American Film Market in 2005, going from the upbeat crowd-pleaser Indian to Fish, a drama about heroin addicts with great performances from Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving—both worth a look if you missed them on their brief American releases.) He also championed The Frodo Franchise from the start, and the book probably wouldn’t exist now without his help.

The film he was finishing up was The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, an adaptation of a popular children’s fantasy novel by Dick King-Smith. It will be released on Christmas Day and has a PG rating.

The mixing was taking place in Studio 2 of Park Road Post, the same place where I had watched Peter supervising the Shelob scene.

Park Road Post (formerly The Film Unit) is a state-of-the-art post-production facility that started moving into its new building gradually, starting in the summer of 2003. At that point only the sound studios and the offices along the corridor outside them were finished. A segment about 19 minutes into the “Soundscapes of Middle-earth” supplement on the extended-version DVD of Return shows the facility as it was then.

My first interview with Barrie was in one of those offices, with considerable construction noise right outside the window. Fortunately my microphone was directional enough that it didn’t overwhelm our conversation. (That office is seen in the “End of All Things” supplement on the same disk.)

By my third visit to Park Road Post, in late 2004, the editing rooms and the huge, beautiful front lobby had been finished, the garden in the center courtyard was being installed, and the processing laboratories were being built. Now the whole thing is finished, with a strange juxtaposition of beautiful modern design in the front and big windowless concrete buildings at the rear.

Park Road itself is a street in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, lined in one section by small houses and then by rows of undistinguished warehouses and small industrial buildings. Next door is the large California Garden Centre, a round, orange building. Gazebos and garden swings are displayed right up against the walls of the sound studios.

Walking from this mundane environment into Park Road Post is a disorienting experience. Suddenly one is in a modern building with a design heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. Natural wood, fireplaces, stained glass windows, cushy leather sofas. It’s a building that one doesn’t want to leave. It has almost an other-worldly quality, which is perhaps not surprising given that it was designed by Dan Hennah, the art director of Rings and Kong.

Making the place as attractive as possible was part of the brief that Peter and partner Fran Walsh handed Dan. As he told me, “It was partly about getting it technically correct and partly about creating an environment that, while being technically correct, was still human and homely and all those things—the comfort zone. So that you actually felt like getting up and going in there in the morning—rather than thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to go into that bloody hole again!’”

By now the ironic story has become famous. A 17-year-old Peter Jackson, aspiring to be a filmmaker, left school and applied for a job at the Film Unit back in the late 1980s. He was turned down, so he worked as a photo-engraver at a newspaper instead. Eventually he got enough backing to quit and finish Bad Taste (1987), his long-gestating first feature. A little over ten years later he bought the Film Unit, then housed in what he described to me as “a sort of ‘Soviet bloc’ feeling place.” During my first visit in 2003, the editing and lab facilities were still there, in a dreary-looking industrial complex out in the distant suburb of Lower Hutt.

Tracking The Water Horse

At the Water Horse sound mixing director Jay Russell was present, though he slipped out at intervals for meetings. As I was about to leave, he remarked that watching sound mixing is like watching paint dry. That’s what everyone says about mixing, but I find it fascinating.

Back in the late 1970s when David and I had the opportunity to spend about half an hour watching the great Walter Murch working on a scene for Apocalypse Now, it was a slow process. Mixing was done on film, so every repetition involved a pause for rewinding, threading the projector, and so on. Now, with high quality digital images being projected on the studio screen, mixers can almost instantly go back to the beginning of a segment by sliding a control handle or move to a different scene by typing in a file number. As a result, there may be many repetitions of the same series of shots, but there’s not that much down time.

The repetition isn’t boring, either, since you can listen for the tiny changes that the mixers make between projections of the scene. (See David’s account of his experiences watching James Mangold’s team mixing sound for 3:10 to Yuma.) There may also be pauses, but usually they’re for discussions among the sound team members. Some of this was just too technical for me to grasp, but what I could follow was fascinating.

That particular day came fairly late in the overall process. Jay was there because the work on the sound was close to finished. The team was concentrating on the final mix of reel 1. It was quite a contrast to the footage I had seen being mixed for Return. In that case a lot of unrendered effects shots were still in the edit, and many scenes hadn’t been locked down yet. Shots of Gollum often just showed him as a figure made up of silvery bands against a black background, and in some cases there was only a title describing the nature of the scene—a close-up of Treebeard looking left, for example. (Again, the DVD bonus chapter “The Soundscapes of Middle-earth” shows some vivid examples of the process.) In the case of The Water Horse, all the footage was finished, and the editing had been completed.

A lot of what goes on at this late stage is tweaking individual tracks. Even though there’s a full mix by this point, the team frequently take out all the tracks except one, so that a bustling city street scene may have densely layered traffic sounds and a musical track during one run-through and only a couple of characters’ footsteps in the next.

As with many films, some musical instruments were on separate tracks. Jay could ask for a drum beat to be turned up to provide a more distinct rhythm to a scene or for certain instruments to be favored so as to enhance the atmosphere of the Scottish setting.

Some of the people present had worked on Rings as well, so I knew a few of them already. It was great to see Rose Dority, post-production supervisor, again. Since my book isn’t really a making-of study, I hadn’t interviewed her, but she had been very hospitable. I also recognized Dave Whitehead, the supervising sound editor, who seems to have worked on half the films made in New Zealand over the past 13 years.

At lunch I got talking with Dave, and he told an anecdote about how some of the war chants of the Easterling attackers during the Battle of the Pelennor in The Return of the King were done. The sound department couldn’t use English, of course, and no texts had been provided. One tactic the recorders and mixers resorted to was spelling the names of their children, friends, and colleagues backwards. In fact I had been present the day those chants were being synchronized and remembered vividly how at the time Dave had explained that “Revilo!”—which sounded very aggressive when shouted in unison by male voices—was based on his son’s name, Oliver. Rose got into the mix as well, as “Ésor!” In the final mix, those chants are not really distinguishable as individual words, being parts of a dense mix of battlefield noises. Still, it was fun knowing that they were there.

The Water Horse mixing went on until mid-afternoon, when a group of people came into the studio for a run-through of the first reel. By that point I was pretty familiar with all the footage and could concentrate on the soundtrack rather than figuring out the plot from the scenes shown out of order up to that point.

Once the screening ended, Barrie asked various people if they had noticed anything that might need changing. Rather to my surprise he included me. Fortunately, rather than sitting there saying, “Ummmm … no,” I did have a suggestion about one sound that was slightly too loud and distracting during a suspenseful moment. That got duly noted down with the other comments and fixed during the final changes. That was an unexpected treat!

The Water Horse is a story of a Scottish boy who finds a strange egg that hatches into a little creature that will grow into the Loch Ness Monster. In the reel I saw, the landscapes were beautiful, a smooth mixture of footage shot in Scotland and in New Zealand. With both Weta Workshop and Weta Digital providing special effects, it naturally has high production values–including a carefully mixed soundtrack. It’s a children’s film, but from what I saw of it, parents will enjoy it as well. (The favorable Variety review is here.)

It’s a production by Walden, which specializes in family-friendly projects. The company seems to like New Zealand, given that much of the first Chronicles of Narnia film and part of the second were shot there.

David Bordwell
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