|Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry, Astaire and Rogers.... and Wallace and Gromit.
The latest in a long line of great movie partnerships, Wallace and Gromit first emerged from the Plasticine in A Grand Day Out , Nick Park's BAFTA-winning National Film School graduation film. But the duo really took the world by storm in their next outing, The Wrong Trousers, winner of an Oscar® and over thirty other international awards. "I really didn't expect them to achieve this level of success," says Park, their agent and director, 'they literally started off as sketches I did in my bedroom - I didn't realise that one day I'd see their names up in lights!" And now they're back, in their greatest adventure yet: A Close Shave.
After the enormous success of The Wrong Trousers, the head of the BBC's animation unit, Colin Rose, was understandably eager to make another Wallace and Gromit film and it was he who approached Park and Aardman with the idea in April 1994. There and then it was decided that the new film should be ready for broadcast on Christmas 1995. That left only eighteen months to write, story-board and animate; very little time in animation terms, and far less time than it took to make The Wrong Trousers. "Right from the outset we set ourselves a very tight deadline," says co-producer Michael Rose, "partly because we were looking at A Close Shave as a dry run for the feature film we hope to do in the near future. We wanted to see if we could turn what was essentially a cottage industry of Nick and one or two other animators, into a more industrial process, without the quality of the animation suffering."
Reducing the time-scale meant taking on more animators, model-makers and cameramen (the complete crew numbered 25), with a consequent increase in the budget. A Close Shave was budgeted at about £1.3 million in comparison to The Wrong Trousers' £650,000. Moreover, the new, more industrial, production process pushed Park himself into a radically different role. Instead of animating most of the key moments in the film himself, as he had previously, he was obliged to become more of a director, overseeing what the four other animators were doing. For Park this was a difficult step to take. "We make films in a very personal way," he explains, "and what concerned me was how you manage to keep that consistency of style and quality when there are many different hands at work. Also, to begin with I found it quite frustrating not doing much animation myself and it was odd seeing other people handling my ideas. I did animate the prison sequence with Gromit, and some other bits and pieces, but not much."
On The Wrong Trousers Park already had most of the plot worked out by the time he started to collaborate with his writmg partner, Bob Baker. But on A Close Shave the two began together pretty much from scratch. "Nick takes his old notebooks as a starting point," says Cohn Rose, who supervised the script's development. "They are filled with sketches and ideas, some of them going back years and years." Park knew that he wanted the film to be a comedy-thriller, like The Wrong Trousers, but with the addition of a romantic element; "I really like the idea of the audience having their heart strings pulled by a six inch Plasticine puppet," he admits with a smile.
Perhaps Park's greatest source of inspiration is old movies. In A Close Shave he says there are references to Brief Encounter, Indiana Jones, The Third Man and even Alien.
Because of the time pressure Park was changing the story-board up to the very last minute, "We really could have done with another couple of months at the pre-production stage," he admits. Before production proper began, Park spent a fortnight teaching the animators his technique, and introducing them into the world of Wallace and Gromit. "Nick works almost like a theatre director," says Colin Rose, "the animators are his actors and he has to direct their performances." The ten month shoot proper began at the start of November 1994.
"One of the consequences of the rush in pre-production," says Park, "is that we actually ended up shooting about five minutes more than was necessary. Most of that was editing on either side of a shot, but we did actually have to lose a couple of shots. It's always sad to see good animation go to waste, but the film has to come first. In fact, I like to have a bit of room to manoeuvre in the editing. A lot of animation just looks like a photographed story-board, but by having extra bits here and there to play around with, we can edit much more like a live action film."
Park's insistence on treating his films like live-action features extends into other aspects of post production. He takes particular time and care over the sound-track working with Julian Nott the composer and Adrian Rhodes the sound designer, both of whom were contemporaries at film school and are veterans of all three Wallace and Gromit films. "Adrian is very good at highlighting moments of comedy," says Park, "and he really understands the world Wallace and Gromit inhabit, so he knows what things should sound like." Perhaps most indicative of the seriousness with which Park treats his animation, is the fact that Julian Nott has been able to record the score for A Close Shave using a sixty-five piece orchestra, a rare size for any British film, let alone a short animated one. "Julian's music has enhanced the adult thriller elements of the film and Julian always has a wonderful understanding of the mood which Nick aims to achieve." says Michael Rose.
After just over two months of post-production, A Close Shave was ready for its premiere on 16th November at the 1995 London Film Festival.
And where next for Nick Park and his Plasticine pals? Well, Aardman have a development deal with Jake Eberts at Allied Entertainment for a feature film, which, it is assumed, Park will either direct or co-direct. And will it star Wallace and Gromit? "We don't know yet," admits Park, "But I think I'd like to do something different, explore some new characters. On the other hand, I can't ever see myself letting them go, they're my babies, after all..."
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