Aardman Vs. Bolex: Not Bloody Likely
Bristol, England is blessed with two of the finest animation studios in the world: Bolex Brothers and Aardman. The two have created 3-D stop-motion cartoons that push the media into new and fascinating directions, even if the products from the two shops could not be more diverse. One associates the small Bolex team, who were officially created in 1991, with quirky, dark films like The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, in which live actors were filmed at the same time as the puppets. This process made the humans seem even more alien and creepy than any of the animated creatures on the screen. With some charming commercials for bagels, beer and tea, the crew at Bolex Brothers can then go and make fascinatingly quirky shorts like The Saint Inspector and Keep in a Dry Place and away from Children. Their films have been popular on the festival circuit and taken home awards from The British Film Awards and from the San Francisco International Film Festival.
The larger Aardman has also had its share of acclaim and is certainly the better known of the two animation houses. Founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972, they've created memorable characters like Morph, Rex the Runt and the Oscar-winning duo Wallace and Gromit. Most of the Nick Park directed series involving the famous inventor and his smarter dog were shot by cinematographer Dave Alex Riddett. Riddett also shot Park's other Oscar-winner Creature Comforts, in which human London residents' voices come out of the mouths of animated zoo animals. He also supervised the photography on the studio's first feature, Chicken Run, a critical and popular favorite.
One might imagine the two studios attacking each other's work or belittling it. After meeting two representatives from them, it is quickly obviously that any rivalry is friendly and even supportive. Bolex mastermind Dave Borthwick, who wrote and directed Tom Thumb and edited the aforementioned shorts has long been a close friend and frequent collaborator with Riddett, Riddett worked with Bolex and even appears in Tom Thumb. The two were in Kansas City last April discussing their friendship and the art of making animation that actually does please both children and adults. As guests of the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee, the agreed to meet with me at a restaurant that was only a mile or two from where Walt Disney had his first studio. Thankfully, that prospect didn't seem to intimidate them.
Dan Lybarger: (to Riddett) Working with Bolex Brothers probably helped you with Aardman.
Alex Riddett: Of course, it was more like tricks with storytelling, from a photographic viewpoint. [At Bolex Brothers] we were playing with a lot of visual ideas, actually creating stuff you havenít seen before.
Dave Borthwick: Itís a little bit more organic way of working. It could be anything. Thereís a beast in there. Thereís a film in there, and itís dying to get out. I feel very much the same way with the way stories and scripts develop. Iíve written scripts, but the way we put that into the film, itís made up to camera. I like something thatís more than the sum of its parts. Basically, you come up with something different than the script.
I love things that are just visual poetry, without rationalization. You canít explain them; they just feel right. Thatís the sort of element I like to keep in the films I work in. Theyíre the sort of thing that keeps an audience engaged in the film. The imagination is engaged. Thereís a big risk when youíve got a film that lays it all on the line. Everythingís out there. Youíve got the action happening. Youíve got the verbals giving what the action said. It doesnít leave an awful lot to the imagination.
AR: Itís like the early ďAardĒ stuff. Itís not dissimilar. It wasnít an attempt to make feature films or just tell stories. It was finding a new way to do something. Itís like taking real voices (as in the Oscar-winning Aardman short Creature Comforts, on which Riddett worked as cinematographer) and adding visuals to it.
Itís kind of what happened in Bristol. The industry kind of grew around us. The Aardman style was invented and gradually built for a series of projects. It was a formula that was written in Bristol because there wasnít a way of making animation slightly adult oriented and for kids as well at the time. Thatís fairly commonplace now. A lot of the early ďAardĒ films which were just a big gag. Sometimes, it was just trying to do a very serious piece.
DL: Yes, because Peter Lordís Adam is clearly not for children.
DB: I think it really happened for us when this category ďadult animationĒ suddenly got invented. I donít know where itís come from. Our stuff suddenly fit in.
AR: Iíll tell you one of the reasons, actually. At (Britainís) Channel Four, there was a TV-station started up, kind of an independent television thing. They did alternative stuff, not just popular stuff. They had a reasonable budget to put stuff out.
DL: Is there a better market for ďadult animationĒ in the U.K. than in the U.S.?
AR: Thereís a lot of good underground stuff here, but I donít know.
DL: I just mention that because I donít know if the U.S. has any animation filmmakers like Japanís Hayao Miyazaki. When his adult oriented Princess Mononoke made it here, no one knew what to make of it, and it was a hit in the rest of the world. A lot people failed to understand that it was not for kids.
DB: The amazing thing is unless youíre getting into porn with any adult animation, kids love it as well. My kidís eight years old and he watches all the really edgy stuff. He also loves Thomas the Tank Engine as well. He loves the really naughty stuff as well; he finds it really funny.
AR: The only real outlet (for animation) other than television was the festivals. The festival scene in the early 80ís was great. (In the U.S.), we had Spike and Mike pick up on Aard stuff, and in there you had a good mixture of stuff. You had some twisted stuff and some gag films. Thereís a good following coming up with (Aaardmanís video for Peter Gabrielís) Sledgehammer and MTV.
DL: I had some friends in L.A. who instantly knew who you guys were and had seen Creature Comforts.
AR: What helped on that was the Oscar stuff as well. That year Nick (Park) was nominated for two categories (for directing Creature Comforts and the Wallace and Gromit debut A Grand Day Out). Heíd just finished Creature Comforts, which he was doing as part of a series we were doing for Channel Four. He thought we got a nomination; Iím on the map now. He went to Hollywood never thinking he might actually win it. He had a good chance he had two out three (possible nominations). It was like ďWow! Itís for Bristol!Ē
DL: One of the things I loved about watching the Wallace and Gromit DVD recently is getting to see the evolution of Nick Parkís work. When you see these two really early things he did: Rat and the Beanstalk and Walter Goes Fishing. Theyíre light years away from the quality he eventually mastered, but yet in the early stop motion stuff you can see he has an awareness of all the real time stuff that has to happen like waves and candle light. Itís fascinating that even at this early point he understands these things that will show up later in Chicken Run.
DB: A lot of that is coming at it from a filmmakerís point of view, how you represent things on film like time passing.
AR: Itís cinematic technique. (Animation) has all of the elements youíd expect in a live-action film. Weíve never thought of it as anything other than a proper film.
DB: I think the other side to that is that their shooting animation the way they would shoot live action. Itís a proscenium arch, locked up camera.
AR: Simple lighting, so you donít have to change it.
DL: Thatís interesting that you mentioned the lighting because one of the things that makes Chicken Run so effective is the noir-ish lighting and how you captured the look of movies like Stalag 17 and The Great Escape.
AR: We looked at those films. Thereís a joke in there. As it starts, we got a thing like prison camp with real people so we try to delay the point that itís about chickens by using shadows running behind sheds. You say film noir, but itís actually pretty easy. Itís a lot easier than trying to light a normal scene and make it interesting or stylized. Itís always good to have a reason for it. You never do it just for the sake of it. Itís what you wanted, a sense of mystery. As soon as the characters get in, you have to play it a little bit careful because theyíre not people in rubber chicken suits. They have to be real people, real characters. The lighting, the camera angles, and the composition get so important. You probably have to think about it more than you do in live action.
DL: Because you guys work with clay, doesnít all of the heat from the lights hurt the models?
AR: Not much. It does get hot in there, but unlike live action, you donít need a massive amount of light. We get away with two-second exposures. So thereís an advantage in that respect. You know where the characters are and where theyíre going to be.
DL: You have a movie like Chicken Run, which is co-financed by big companies like Pathť and Dreamworks, which was still an incredible film despite these outside influences.
AR: You work with very little money, where theyíre not going to hound you, or in our case we ended up in a situation where there was a lot of money about and there was a lot of influence. What DreamWorks wanted was something quite unique. What we produced wasnít Wallace and Gromit, but something they produced themselves. They had very careful that they werenít getting killed. There was some resistance with the British way of working. Theyíd have some specific ideas or theyíd be very vague about something. I think we were quite lucky in that respect. They treated us quite kindly.
DL: Didnít they also give you more production assistance, like more storyboard artists, etc.?
AR: Their storyboard artists are brilliant. They have a very good way of working and they work very tightly with the storyboards. Their storyboards donít change much from the finished thing. Whereas with us storyboarding is an indication of what you might do. You can always get more ideas later. We like to have that freedom to where youíre just going to make it turn out better. The only time that isnít allowed [with Aardman] is probably on some of their features and in commercials.
[In commercials], youíve made agreements, and youíre suddenly arguing about the seventeen shots that make up a commercial. Thereís too many people in the decision chain, and theyíre all worried about their back. ďWe donít want any surprises. We donít even want nice surprises!Ē
DB: ďWe havenít researched that! Thatís a great idea, but it might upset our target audience!Ē
DL: [To Dave Borthwick] That reminds me of The Saint Inspector. This thing is so delightfully weird, that one wonders what sort of target market was intended for that film.
DB: Itís the same thing when we were making Tom Thumb. We dare not think what sort of audience is watching because if we did weíd be making decisions on it that werenít appropriate. What we wanted was to make our film the way we wanted to make it. We enjoyed the process of making it. We liked it, and if anyone else liked it, it was a bonus. I think it went so well because was because we were trusted with it and did things that we normally wouldnít have done. As it turned out, kids liked it. It was never intended as a kids film.
AR: It was the parents who were the objectors.
DB: It was the parents who were disturbed, not the kids.
DL: When youíre looking at Tom, heís such a grotesque character, but yet you grow to love him.
DB: We tried to make [the characters] not just dumb and hairy. We tried to give them redeeming qualities. Suddenly, you're able to twist peopleís emotions around. The characters will redeem themselves in an unexpected way. You become emotionally engaged in the film.
DL: When I look at the stuff you folks have done where you incorporate living actors with the animation, it must be a nightmare for the performer. With the commercials youíve done, youíre moving away from that.
DB: A lot of that is that you take pixelation so far, and then thereís not much further you can go with it. I think in a way, weíve sort of reached that. The thing weíre still playing around with is still working with actors and working with an actorís performance in anything other than a live action. Using film like that is like using videotape. I want to increase the range of an actor by varying the speed so they can form expressions and movements that they couldnít possibly do in live action. I think a lot of actors like to have the chance to perform thatís getting the chance to allow them to expand their possible ways of performance.
DL: Tim Burton insisted on using puppets over other types of special effects in Beetlejuice because he felt the actors would give better performances if they could actually see the creatures.
DB: They audience may doesn't understand the details or the intellect how a thing is technically achieved, but they can feel it. It's magic. It's not some technical mysterious process it's gone through in post-production, where two separate elements have been married together. Technically, [my work] may have been very rough around the edges, but you had a sense of seeing that happening right in front of the camera. There's a real relationship there.
AR: There's the big difference with 2D animation. In 2D there has to be a lot of layers, and the actual filming of it is like a post event. No matter how much preparation you did on the set, it's a live performance stretched over a long period of time. Good animators have a sense of this timing. They know their character's performance. Their character can manages to do something quite different.
DL: [to Riddett]: When did you hook up with Aardman?
AR: I knew Pete [Lord] and Dave [Sproxton] when I first came to Bristol during the Morph series. I went to go visit to see what they were up to. It was around the point when they started to get commercial work. Otherwise, I was just going there to see what they were doing. They had been interested in what we were up to. It wasn't a career thing. You couldn't get a job there.
DB: You start thinking about doing it for a career, and you're not going to get anywhere near it.
AR: It must be quite difficult these days for people entering into it because at Aard there is a system set up. They do try to encourage everybody there to feel like they are part of the process rather than just you're coming in there as a model maker, and that's what you do.
DL: One of the reason Japanese animation is sometimes a tricky sell in the U.S. market is that many of the cultural idioms in the dialog don't translate easily.
DB: One thing I'm really interested in is how much information you can get over without dialog. Film is a visual medium. It's about body language. It's about action. It's about movement. There so many other means by which you can get that information across. You can get quite a complex story over without dialog.
AR: That's what you've developed very well. The Aardman's thin is taking real words and getting a plasticine character to say them. In the early stages of Chicken Run, it was so bloody wordy. It was worked and reworked. There was too much dialog for my liking. My favorite scenes are the action scenes, the stuff where I get more involved in. The dialog is very much an animator's thing, and they've got to make it work. The Aard thing is about character animation, which is about people talking, eye movement. That is something that Aard's developed incredibly. Probably too much emphasis has been put on it.
DB: Our principle is basically if you can do it without words, do it without words. Words are the absolute last resort. If you convey the same information without words, first you've got something that's immediately internationally understood. You don't get into problems translating that into another language to get the same meaning. Body language is the same anywhere in the world. To me, that comes across more successfully and with much more impact. As long as you've got dialog to use as a crutch, you're going to go less effectively with the visuals.
AR: That stuck a nerve because that's the bit I least enjoy. That's the stuff at the start of the shot, and you have to keep it right in its place. You don't want any flashy photography. You have to keep to whatever is appropriate for the scene. It's the animators' little area to move around it. A lot of Aardman's character animation, the facial stuff, it's all centered around that. What I really love on the Wallace and Gromits is the chase stuff. That's where I come to the fore, with all the stuff whizzing by. Did the shot vibrate? Is it a quick cut? That's all about action stuff. It's more visual.
DB: The dialogue seems to me the weakest element. It's a stupid generalization, I know.
DL: Yes, when I saw the Bolex Brothers commercial for Lenders Bagels, I ignored the voiceover, and all I could think about was the bagels.
DB: My favorites (commercials) are the Nestea ones and the Carlsberg Beer one with the little (snowman) who's really frustrated, and the look his wife gives him is, "Please don't go. You're going to die!" He says, "Sorry, honey, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. You can say that in tiny expressions, and that's going to communicate to everybody.
DL: [to Alex Riddett] One of the most effective moments in Chicken Run is when we find out Rocky, the Rhode Island Red can't really fly by using the poster instead of dialog.
AR: You should let the audience think they've discovered it.
DL: In Chicken Run, how did the use of computer-generated images (CGI) affect the film?
AR: A lot of that was done outside, but not completely. We spent a lot of time with CFC [The Computer Film Company, the UK-based house that created effects for Cast Away, The Truman Show, and other films] because they used to do a lot of visual effects for live action films. We rejected so much stuff to star with because it was too real. We had to find something that was realistic in the context of the rest of the film. The gravy had to look like it was made of plasticine. The plane had to have a certain quality. If you stuck reality into our films, no matter how polished they are, it would stick out.
DB: It would be like if we'd stuck live action shots into Tom Thumb. It would have made the pixelation stuff look really bizarre. You have to be consistent with what you set to do. If you have something like water or flame, you choose something that's appropriate with the solutions you've already chosen.
AR: I'll give you several examples. In the Wallace and Gromits, when we did the rain effects, most of that was done in camera, like when Gromit is chunked out. Most of that is done in camera. All of the splashes are actually animated. The stuff that runs down his face is like glycerin. Then we did a superimposition of a shower against a black velvet background. It was very simple. When we did it more sophisticated in Chicken Run, we developed a lot of the stuff we do a lot more, and we worked very closely with the CGI guys. In the next one (The Tortoise and the Hare), we're going to involve them right from the start. There's not going to be a post-production facility where the just drop the thing. They should be part of the process.
DB: There's always that problem you run into when you start working with CGI. You have to keep your world consistent. A lot of our stuff was about doing it in camera because we couldn't afford it. We started resorting using postproduction in the commercials because the ad agency didn't think it was a real commercial if there wasn't some post. It's very rare we use [CGI] for an effect, and usually it doesn't work as successfully as something we've done in camera.
DL: One of the things I noticed when I was looking back at the old Wallace and Gromits, you can see the animators' thumbprints. The characters are so endearing that after a few seconds, you don't notice.
AR: The reality in that world is that the characters have marks around their faces a lot.
DB: We've (Bolex Brothers) decided we want to go back to making films in the spirit that we first started making them. That means we don't aspire toward making features on the same level as Aardman. We've got a script idea we were (pitching) around in L.A. They were saying, "How much do you want?" It's like if we ask for less than $10 million, they won't take you seriously anyway. All time I was saying to my partner, "I don't want that much money." I could make this for a million and a half or two million, and I'd rather do it that way because of what it requires of us when we make a film. If you look at the $25 million plus it cost to make Chicken Run, a lot of that went into how that plasticine was made. I remember a lot of the concern that went into that. "This is going to be seen on a 35 mm screen. There can't be the slightest blemish on it." They didn't worry about that on A Close Shave or The Wrong Trousers, and they were on 35 mm as well. People don't necessarily get bothered by that. If you are going to spend money, spend it where it's bloody important.
AR: Why does it have to be that finished? To a lot more of a degree, it doesn't. It's weird thing. (Chicken Run) was our first feature film. "God, this has got to be slick." It does shift your mentality in a bad way. You look at it, and it doesn't need to be (slick). It work against it.
DB: That should be set up in a situation or environment where the soul of the film should be enhanced, not just the finish of it. I come across as being naÔve to the powers that be. But I know at the end of the day, one of the most important things about making the movie is that you enjoy doing it, that you're excited by doing it, you're challenged by doing it, and all the stuff that instills in you gets reflected and communicated in the film. That's what people relate to, not how polished it is. You could have a crap idea and tart it up with as much money as you want, and it's still a crap idea.
DL: Look at Titan A.E. They had no shortage of funds, and you can see the committee mindset creeping through.
AR: Can I just give you an anecdote on that? A few years back on of our top animators now, but he was just starting at the time, he went off to do a job with Ray Harryhausen, our big hero. Harryhausen was asked to do a commercial for some cheese dipping sticks, in which a dinosaur is chasing a bikini-clad woman. He picks her up and dunks her in the cheese and eats her. The agency obviously wanted something like a Harryhausen film because he did One Million Years B.C., and they got Ray to do it. Ray's brought into this job with our animator as his assistant. Ray's a master of special effects, but looking back people would say, "Look you can see the matte lines." All of the sudden you can use new technology, and you can do things like digital compositing. He got the background looking really good. You couldn't tell the background had been superimposed. He managed to get a good realistic look to it. The agency said, "No, we don't want that! We want it to look like one of your films!" They actually went and reprocessed it.
DL: That reminds me of what photojournalist and later director Gordon Parks (Shaft) once told students. He said if you have one exposure left in the camera and you have to shoot either a man's dead body or the wife who murdered him crying, what do you shoot? I guess you can figure out his answer. He said the dead guy doesn't have the story. Chicken Run reminded me of that because when Mr. Tweedy take the ax to a chicken's head early in the film, we don't see the chicken killed directly. We see Ginger watching. We don't need to see the chicken's head falling off.
AR: There was a lot debate about that actually. It was one of those screening things. We did a test screening of the original cut of the film, and it was dramatic. You saw the shadow, and you heard the crunch of the neck being severed. They had objections, not from the kids. There's a lovely creature being killed. We didn't have all the blood squirting out, but it was pretty close. We had to change it. A lot of the people in the crew were livid about it. We had to establish that it was a real death. It still works.
DB: That goes back to what we said earlier on about leaving it to the imagination. The audience can think of something much more terrible than what we can do showing it. You show [the chickens'] reaction to the thing. It's their heads. That's much more brutal than with any front-on shot.
AR: You don't need to do it with ketchup splattering everywhere. It's the subtle things. The iris in their eyes could be contracting or something.
DL: Do you two have any advice for the people behind animation projects that didn't take off like The King and I or The Road to Camelot?
DB: I've never given advice to anyone that I didn't heed myself. If I give advice to anyone, it's to avoid formula. It's a gut instinct.
AR: Unless you really like formula.
DB: One of the problems about trying to get a film seen more widely is that all that distribution machinery is geared around formula. "It's really imaginative and incredible, but we don't know how to sell this." We didn't want it to be a particular genre. Now with the internet technology and everything else, it's going to help that because you're not necessarily held to ransom by that stuff. There are other ways of getting films and seen by people.
DL: One thing that really interests me about hearing you two talk about your two studios is that there's no real feud the way some commentators talk about it. Some claim there was a Beatles vs. Stones feud, when in reality both bands were actually on friendly terms and even played on each others' albums.
DB: [Aardman] was among the first there. We're kind of risking being competitive with them but not because of Aardman at all. The two ends of the spectrum are still there.
AR: It keeps a whole balance.
DL: It's like Blur and Oasis getting along.
AR: The only reason is because the press put (The Stones and Beatles) there as the two most popular bands of the time. "Let's make them rivals." They're not the same bands at all!
DL: There's a press-created Chaplin and Keaton rivalry, when in reality both were buddies. If there were, Chaplin wouldn't have warned Keaton not to sight with MGM, which Keaton admitted was the biggest mistake of his career. Chaplin knew that Keaton's spontaneity was a poor match for a regimented studio like MGM.
DB: I had a very similar thing that illustrates how much Bolex and Aarman can confide. When Tom Thumb first came over to the States and really got a lot of critical acclaim here, the studios like Disney were ringing us up saying, "We'd really like to do business with you. We really want to collaborate with you, etc. etc. My gut instinct said stay well away from these people. I just think these people are going to eat me alive. There's no way they're going to let us make this kind of film in collaboration with them.
I felt really doubtful in myself. I felt am I being really sissy here? Am I being really stupid? Should I be going with this? Pete [Lord] always sort of encouraged us from the first days when made the pilot film [for Tom Thumb], he'd say to us, "What happened to it? Where is it?" We'd say, "It hasn't gone down really well the BBC pulled it out." He said, "Get it into festivals! Get it seen! He'd encouraged us a lot." I'd gone to him around the time Disney was ringing us up. They started sending me scripts which were crap [laughing]. Pete said, "Don't worry about it. They've been trying to buy us for two, three years now. What they want is that they've seen something they think is really different and really interesting and they want to buy you into a film deal. They don't care if you make a film as long as you don't make a film for anybody else." He was always supportive of us and what we were doing.
I know having gone through all the doubts I went through, thinking, "Sh*t. I have tried to gear through all that machinery." I've come around thinking the only way we can do what we can do what we're wanting to do is to do it on the other end of the spectrum with a lower budget, independent kind of thing and making animation that kind of way. We're not asking for that much money that's going to be worrying people, and they're going to give you the freedom that you need. They're not going to interfere with it because they've got to get a return on a big investment. Unless you are able to take chances, there's no way we're going to be able to make interesting films.
DL: In many ways, Chicken Run seems like a miracle. Some of the early DreamWorks cartoons make with people Jeffrey Katzenberg brought over from Disney for stuff like The Road to El Dorado seem like retreads. Chicken Run seems unique.
DB: It was really bizarre at that time about three years ago when we were doing the tour (of Hollywood), they were all saying, DreamWorks as well, that we need to make films that are outside the Disney formula. What they were doing was the same thing. I don't know why. Why don't they spend less bloody money on it so they have less to lose and they can take more chances?
AR: What's the reason? None of them is going to be taking risks. It's just like TV adverts. You make a TV advert because itís the same as something people already like. It guarantees success. You can come up with something totally original and take a chance on it and you can lose. (With Hollywood), "Let's let somebody else come up with something and then buy them!"
DB: You're not going to come up with anything new by taking safe bets. It just stands to reason. Its just variations on the theme.