|The Wrong Trousers is the second of the Wallace and Gromit trilogy from Aardman Animations and the next film from Nick Park after his celebrated Creature Comforts scooped the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1990. It marks the return of Wallace and Gromit, the stars of the BAFTA award-winning and Oscar®-nominated A Grand Day Out in a fast-moving comedy thriller of positively Hitchcockian proportions.
Nick was delighted to be re-united with his two plasticine friends. "It is an honour and a privilege to be working with Wallace and Gromit again," he enthuses. "I've grown very attached to them over the years, although it can be something of a love/hate relationship at times". The film also introduces two new memorable Park creations; a mysterious Penguin and a pair of automated Techno-Trousers. "I've always loved Penguins and always wanted to use one as anti-hero" says Park. "They make such unlikely villains."
Work on the film began when Aardman decided that the time was now right to move into the half-hour format for which hitherto, says company co- founder Peter Lord, they had "neither the clout to raise the finance nor the freedom to invest so much time in one project". However, with growing recognition as a world leader in character animation, the Oscar® for Creature Comforts and a whole raft of other accolades to their credit, the market was primed for something altogether more ambitious from the Bristol based animation team.
Peter Lord and his partner David Sproxton first met Nick Park in 1985 when he was still a student at the National Film and Television School struggling to finish his epic graduation film A Grand Day Out. There was never any question in their minds that he had a unique talent worth nurturing and they immediately invited him to join Aardman where he finally completed A Grand Day Out three years later.
"When Nick had his great success with A Grand Day Out & Creature Comforts, it was clear to us that not only did he deserve to make a longer film but also there was no way of stopping him," chuckles Lord who cites "extraordinary single-mindedness and determination", "bravery", "an incredible instinct for comedy" and an ability to make you feel as if you've known his characters for 20 years" among Park's qualities as a director/animator.
"Even though they've always been Nick's characters, Wallace and Gromit mean infinitely more to us than just a commodity," continues Lord. "It was quite irresistible to support the project when he announced that he wanted to work with them again. The storyboard was magnificent, full of humour, full of life. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was going to be a winner."
For Nick Park, working on The Wrong Trousers meant seizing a long-awaited opportunity to explore cinematic possibilities that were only hinted at in A Grand Day Out and Creature Comforts.
"I've always thought of myself as a film maker first and foremost," asserts Park. "With The Wrong Trousers, I wanted to do something much more complex and ambitious than A Grand Day Out. From the very start we took an overtly cinematic approach in the lighting, in the animation, in the music. I really wanted The Wrong Trousers to have the look of mini feature film with Hitchcockian and B movie thriller references thrown in."
Park, who spends much of his time "sitting up days and nights sketching and doodling", started the pre-production process on The Wrong Trousers by scripting and storyboarding. On the former, he collaborated with screenwriter Bob Baker who helped him to sketch out in detail the individual scenes and the development of the characters.
Bob also helped to give a structure to the complex threads of the film's plot, weaving in a myriad of Nick's more imaginative ideas.
"Wallace & Gromit are very much characters in a drama," observes Baker. "They're not particularly animated on the page. It's Aardman's job to give them life and they do it superbly well. In fact, they manage to create something more than a normal human response, something special."
Another early arrival to the project was art director Yvonne Fox who, together with lighting cameramen David Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver, was responsible for interpreting and realising the very special look and atmosphere of the film. As in a live action drama, it was crucial to decide on the requirements of the action before making any final design or lighting decisions. Explains Park:
"I think that what makes this production so interesting is that we design and build everything around the camera in order to keep it visually interesting and to maintain a filmic look. Too many other model animation companies just build the set and film on it like a theatrical set. "
The characters themselves are made from a mixture of ordinary Plasticine, shinier and more colourful American Modelling Clay and beeswax and dental wax for extra sheen or hardness. Though not especially tall (Wallace measures in at around nine inches and Gromit at about half that size) the characters have armatures - reinforcing articulated metal frames to facilitate movement and to combat the effects of gravity on sagging torsos. Special modelling clay that can be baked hard is used for non-moving parts while the eyes are wooden beads with holes in the pupils, allowing the orbs to be moved in their sockets with the tip of a paperclip.
"I think the material that we use is terribly important," says Peter Lord. "Plasticine gives you the freedom that an artist has with a pencil because it's endlessly flexible. If you as an animator have the energy and the will, you can always fashion Plasticine the way you want to and make every line say the right thing to you."
While Park concentrated on animating his favourite protégés Wallace & Gromit. "Their instincts for the roles were absolutely spot on and they're both so flexible to work with!" He also recruited the talents of animator Steve Box to work with the Penguin. Although the little feathered chap did not always prove to be the easiest of subjects to work with, Box was nevertheless delighted to be involved with the project.
"I came to know the Penguin's character so well that I knew instinctively how he would react in any given situation," says Box. "With commercials you can't develop characters to the same degree. I don't think Nick has given so much away creatively in one of his films before and it was a great honour for me to be asked to become involved. I learnt a lot from him."
"Because they are your characters and you have such affinity with them, having somebody else do anything to them is like having someone else copy your signature," admits Park. "But Steve had a commitment and an understanding which established us as a team."
Exhibiting Park's trademark too-close-together eyeballs, bulbous noses and mouths as wide as coathangers, the puppets are not what you might call physiologically correct. The sets, on the other hand, are very much grounded in reality.
"Everything was taken from real life references," confirms art director Yvonne Fox, who travelled to Manchester researching authentic visuals for Wallace & Gromit's terraced house as well as background material for the street scenes and sky lines. "We wanted The Wrong Trousers to look different from A Grand Day Out with more texture and detail . Everyday objects and references are always just slightly exaggerated, slightly larger-than-life so that everything becomes very much a part of Wallace & Gromit's world rather than the real world."
For example, the beautifully wrought furniture in Wallace & Gromits house is chunkier and more rounded than normal. The props are scaled up in proportion to Wallace's enormous hands and the decor in each room is carefully chosen, even down to the choice of wallpaper bone motif for Gromit's room and fish motif for the Penguin.
Exteriors too got the Nick Park treatment with buildings and background shapes ever so slightly distorted by false perspectives. "In traditional cartoons, they paint the perspective onto the background" says Park. "I wanted to build the sets using the same theory. I wanted to keep away from flat horizons and to help exaggerate the distortion that a wide angle lens produces anyway by building a certain amount of distortion into the sets."
When shooting, Park uses low lighting levels to avoid the risk of melting his actors but the entire film making process is otherwise approached in the same manner as a live action shoot.
Everything we do at Aardman is informed by the way that Peter Lord and David Sproxton produced their early films, Peter as the animator created the characters and David as the lighting cameraman created the environment in which they moved. His guiding aesthetic was to photograph a model setting as though you were shooting live action and that philosophy has informed most of the company's work.
Lighting cameraman David Riddett concurs. "Obviously there are limitations because of the size of the sets but we can achieve a wonderful look by using smaller lamps and using mirrors to bounce light into difficult corners."
Because of the large number of scenes required, David Riddett shared the photography duties on the film with lighting cameraman Tristan Oliver "It worked very well because we tended to light separate scenes" says Riddett."The look and approach was very much dictated by the sets themselves which were so good and so plausible that it was easy to get a immediate feel for the atmosphere, be it film noir for the street scenes, sinister for the first appearance of the 'Technotrousers' or cozy for Wallace's living room. Nick would indicate the mood he wanted and we would conjure it up."
The soundtrack too is vital. Nick carefully synchronises Wallace's lip and face movements to the recording made of Wallace's voice by actor Peter Sallis. He works with 'dope sheets' which break down the speech into phonetics on a frame by frame basis. This allows him to know exactly what sound is being made by the character at any point in the shot. Actually establishing what the lip and face movements are is a matter of repeating the words over and over, more often than not while watching himself in a mirror to catch the essence of each facial gesture.
Julian Nott, a fellow National Film and Television School graduate, composed the music for A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. "What is really special about Nick is his ability to create warm characters out of such a cold material as Plasticine ... having done that he actually manages to make them both engaging and entertaining."
For Nott himself, The Wrong Trousers offered a feast of aural opportunities plundered from over 70 years of cinema, and a full orchestra with which to achieve them.
"A story that sends up film genres both requires and enables you to do the same in the music," he says. "An obvious reference point for me were the scores of Bernard Hermann for Alfred Hitchcock. Hermann always provided a very definite and characteristic atmosphere to the films he scored, a sense of lurking danger and imminent events which was a good feeling for this film because to heighten the humour we wanted to play it incredibly straight."
For Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, The Wrong Trousers marks an important milestone in the company's history.
"It means an enormous amount to Aardman emotionally because so many of us worked on it," he explains, "and I guess it's the expression of what we've always believed in and have been working up to: that you can do successful long-form films using this technique. Although it's Nick's film, it's our statement as a group about what is right about an animated film: that it's a film first and foremost and, incidentally, it's animated."
Indeed, Aardman's future aims all point to a continuing concentration on long-form work and include the very real possibility that the company will produce full length feature films in their own inimitable style.
"In one sense it seems like the natural summit of some pyramid that you're aiming for and the great thing about feature films is that they get taken that much more seriously," adds Lord. "The long-form film is hellishly difficult and challenging but now I think we can do it. I feel that the market is ready for it."
The Wrong Trousers is An Aardman Animations Ltd production in association with Wallace & Gromit Ltd, BBC Children's International, BBC Lionheart & BBC Bristol.