Giving Wallace and Gromit “A Close Shave”

Stop-motion stars Wallace and Gromit have their roots in Park’s early sketchbook, and they first took shape in A GRAND DAY OUT, the Oscar‑nominated short that Park began as a school project and completed at Aardman Animation. After directing the Oscar-winner CREATURE COMFORTS, Park brought Wallace and Gromit back to even greater acclaim with THE WRONG TROUSERS, which won him his second Academy Award for an animated short subject in 1994. Two years later, he featured the characters once again, in yet another Oscar‑winning effort, A CLOSE SHAVE. (For those keeping score, each of Park’s four short films have been nominated; the only one that didn’t win, A GRAND DAY OUT, lost to his own CREATURE COMFORTS.)

So, what was it like going back and trying to follow up a film that had won an Academy Award? “It was difficult, actually,” said Park, interviewed while in town to pick up ‑his third Oscar. “It, was a hard act to follow. It’s only afterward, when you try to do it again, that you realize you just hit on a magical formula which seemed to work. It was very hard to write something that was going to work again.”

In a way, Park had an even greater challenge than with his first sequel, THE WRONG TROUSERS. A GRAND DAY OUT is an amusing piece of film-making, in which Wallace and Gromit, take a, trip to the moon, but the, storytelling is fairly basic, leaving room for improvement. WRONG TROUSERS, on the other hand, took the eccentric comic characters and threw them into the middle of a Hitchcockian suspense plot ‑‑ a pastiche as finely executed as any live‑action thriller. After that stroke of brilliance, what more could Park do with A CLOSE SHAVE?

“In a way,” said Park, “I didn’t try to make it better — that, could have. been a mistake, so I tried to make something that was different and had other ingredients — like the romance, for example. We still had a chase sequence and a sort of Hitchcockian atmosphere.

“I did want to make a better chase sequence, but I’m dubious of that at the same time,” Park continued. “I’m always a little bit dubious of sequels that just look at what was in the last one and try to make it bigger — like bigger explosions. I didn’t want to just get into pyrotechnics or technically thrilling bits. It does look more sophisticated, but that wasn’t intentional, really. It comes from more people working on it; the story itself required more, because there are five characters in this one and thirty sheep. It was complicated, and there were a lot more shots. That’s why it seems to be more fast-moving, more condensed — which wasn’t always my intention. I was always worried that that might be too much. The subtle aspects of THE WRONG TROUSERS ‑‑ I would like to have maintained that a bit more. It’s not the technically sophisticated flying sequences that make it; it’s the looks on Gromit’s face — it’s the emotions — that matter. And the chase sequences have to have emotional content as well. I think we did it, but ideally I would like to have given the whole film a bit more breathing space. Our stricture was fitting the whole thing into thirty minutes.”

That thirty‑minute limitation was the result of financing. Michael Rose, one of the producers at Aardman Animations, explained: “Although our films are made for cinema, they are usually financed by television money. That is why there’s so much stop‑motion coming out of England: we have access to TV money to produce it. That means we have not been able to do much theatrical [distribution] in England. A CLOSE SHAVE was finished in November last year and was on television for Christmas, whereas abroad we have a window of a year. Ironically, our films are seen more theatrically abroad.”

How did the sequel come to be? “It’s a slow process that happens from a lot of discussions,” said Park. “Basically, it comes from us thinking what we want to do next. I talk about it to Peter Lord and Dave Broxton, the co-founders of Aardman; they’ve actually made me a director of the company as well. Also, we have this general policy that we want to make films of our own ideas.”

Part of the impetus was that the BBC, who co‑financed THE WRONG TROUSERS with Aardman, wanted a follow‑up. “That was so successful for them that they came back to us and said, ‘Let’s do another Wallace and Gromit film,’” said Park. “I wasn’t against the idea; I liked the idea. Really, I wanted to make something longer. I wanted to make a feature film, but we thought, ‘We’re not really ready for that yet; it would be good to get some more practice making a short.’ And the BBC really wanted another holiday special.”

Park took the opportunity to expand the scope of A CLOSE SHAVE, adding another speaking character so that Wallace could at last have a real dialogue, as opposed to simply speaking to his silent dog, Gromit. He also came up with a supporting cast of sheep, who provide much of the comedy. The idea may not sound promising — may even sound ludicrous — but part of Park’s genius lies in the humor derived from the absurdity of his outrageous concepts.

“It’s like the other ideas, like the penguin [from WRONG TROUSERS]; it goes back to my early sketchbook,” said Park. “I’ve found that all these ideas have their roots in earlier ideas. You don’t know it at the time; it must be like a stream of consciousness. It’s whatever grabs you, whatever you like. If there’s something I can’t stop thinking about, that’s what I want to do. So I’m led by that feeling of ‘What do I enjoy? What have I loved since being a kid? What’s always fascinated me?’ Which maybe explains the broad appeal ‑‑ which I can’t explain [otherwise] ‑‑ to some extent: I’m trying to make the things I wanted to see as a kid. Also, it’s got to work for me now as an adult, so I bring in all these filmic devices — techniques to make it more of a movie.”

Speaking of reviving earlier ideas, Park’s initial concept for WRONG TROUSERS was that a flock of penguins, not just the solitary criminal Feathers Mc­Graw, would invade the home of Wallace and Gromit. For A CLOSE SHAVE, he seems to have revived the idea but re­placed the penguins with sheep­ “Actually, you’re right, because there were going to be a lot of penguins that cause havoc, and then I narrowed it down to one,” said Park. “It’s funny‑‑‑as if those ideas were there from the beginning, and you just discover them. In A GRAND DAY OUT, on the wall there’s a pic­ture of sheep. I don’t know why I did it — it just made it more interesting. I thought it was a cu­riosity that people would ana­lyze in the future. I didn’t real­ize then that sheep would be in a future film.”

The film repeats some motifs from WRONG TROUSERS but in new variations. For instance, this time Gromit is wrongly imprisoned ‑ — and ends up in the jail cell occupied by Feathers at the end of WRONG TROUSERS. (This may only be apparent to sharp‑eyed viewers who note the graffito on the wall: “Feathers was here.”) “I seem to have a fascination with zoos and prisons, as in CREATURE COMFORTS,” Park admitted. “The zoo phenomenon is interesting — prisons, being captive — maybe because it has resonances for people; it’s all about ‘What is freedom?’ We’ve always been able to relate to animals. A lot of our culture ‑‑ all cultures really ‑‑ are about animals, using them for metaphors. They somehow speak to us by their situation. I can’t get too deep about it, but I thought there might be something in that.”

One of the more memorable visual gags from WRONG TROUSERS was the sight of Feathers, the penguin criminal, wielding a gun. Park tops that in A CLOSE SHAVE with the even more deliciously absurd sight of a sheep wielding a power saw to cut the bars from Gromit’s prison cell. Park credits this sort of inspired lunacy to long hours of script sessions. “I worked with the same writer as on WRONG TROUSERS, Bob Baker, who was involved with DR. WHO for years when Tom Baker was playing the role, and John Pertwee. It was a combination of his kind of traditional British writing, which is very much like Ealing comedies, plus my own cartoon sense. When we’re writing, we sit there for ages, looking into our cups and not thinking of anything, stuck, and what goes into the script is what makes us laugh, because suddenly we’ll think of something and crack up. That’s the way it works, really; we just talk a lot, and it’s whatever gets that reaction.”

Because the home invaders in this film — i.e., the sheep — turn out to be benevolent, that left the villain role open. Park came up with Preston, a nefarious canine who turns out to be a “cyber-dog.” “I always have loved robots,” said Park, “especially in old‑fashioned, very simple ’50s robots, like in Bugs Bunny cartoons, where they just fed in a piece of paper with a rabbit on it. I’ve never really seen that done with plasticine — although the cyberdog wasn’t plasticine — in this kind of movie. I suppose it’s a traditional sci‑fi thing: somebody turns out to be a robot. It was just a good twist in the story, partly because no one had suspected it, although we telegraphed it early.”

The revelation occurs late in the film when Preston’s fur is removed by Wallace’s Knit‑0‑Matic (one of the self-styled inventor’s many Rube Goldberg‑type contraptions). “To a lot of people, that’s obviously [derived from] TERMINATOR,” said Park. “I think people are right, and I think the music enhances that [perception], as well. That did cross my mind. I think a lot of these influences, which seem like film references, are often just things that occur to you at the time. You might describe it to somebody like TERMINATOR, because it’s the most obvious thing. I try to weigh the references very lightly; I don’t want to copy bits from films. I’m trying to put across atmospheres of certain films that I’ve grown up with, like Hitchcock.”

Typical of animation, Park’s work is carefully scripted and story‑boarded so that the film can more or less be edited in the camera, “because you can’t afford to keep reshooting and shooting things you won’t need,” said Park. “We actually shoot the story boards on video; I time the action and shoot it, according to those timings. That gives you an idea how the story’s working in terms of pacing, and how well the story’s being visually told. Even though that is a rigid story board — or ‘animatic,’ as we call the video — I’m constantly editing it as we shoot. Because often the way a shot works in reality isn’t like the story board. It’s got to be adaptable. Animation is such a human endeavor, not a robotic thing, so there’s always going to be some improvisation in the way it’s shot, in terms of what the animators bring to the characters.

“People are constantly bombarding me with questions, especially with the larger crew on A CLOSE SHAVE, and I hate making decisions in the camera that limit me in terms of editing scenes,” Park added. “I’d like to shoot these things like live‑action and have as much choice as possible. So I’m always asking the animators to shoot a little bit more: if a character’s turning out of frame, I ask the animator to get him out of frame; otherwise, you’re stuck with one cutting point.”

Are there ever any surprises when the footage is cut together?

“Constant surprises!” exclaims Park. “Quite often something makes you laugh when you see it for the first time, when you get the dailies back from the labs. Everyone in the cutting room laughs when you show it on the machine, but then you cut it into the film and it’s not funny any more. I shouldn’t worry about that, because often it’s not the individual shot that’s meant to be funny; it’s the overall scene that’s funny in concept. It’s funny how things work in different ways when you edit it. There are certain things that nobody laughs at, and I thought everybody would, and vice versa: bits that everybody laughs at that weren’t meant to be that funny. What’s more satisfying is when something you have planned works exactly — like the sheep breaking into prison.”

Although the Aardman staff are pleased that the popularity of Wallace and Gromit has created a demand for more, they are concerned that fulfilling the demand might overrule aesthetic considerations. “We’re very fortunate that in England Wallace and Gromit have been established as major character stars, almost,” said producer Michael Rose. “Characters like that come along very rarely. You have to be very careful to protect them, to make sure they’re not exploited or used cheaply. This is pretty much it for the time being; I think Nick will come back to Wallace and Gromit but not for awhile.”

Is it best to move away from Wallace and Gromit? “A lot of people think it isn’t, because we’ve created popularity and the demand for it,” said Park. “But I don’t want to keep doing them just because they’re popular. To me, there’s always got to be a new challenge. I don’t ever want to be doing something out of repetition — just easy things that I know I can do. The feature format will be a new challenge, and it would keep me sane, in a way.”

Park’s feature ambitions are apparent in A CLOSE SHAVE, which occasionally seems to be bursting at the seams with ideas which could have been expanded. “I’d have liked it to be longer,” admitted Park. “I thought it needed more shots. During some of the busy sequences, it needed more characters’ reactions. I think it could have been quite a bit longer. You’re right: there’s a frustrated feature film in there.”

Nevertheless, Park and Ardman Animation chose to avoid the obvious route when it came to making their first full-length film, “We’re planning a feature now, but it’s not Wallace and Gromit,” Park explained at the time of his third Oscar win in 1996. “Since I started A GRAND DAY OUT in college, I’ve actually been doing Wallace and Gromit, on and off, for thirteen years. I really feel very strongly for them: they’re my babies, and I still think of ideas for them; I would like them to have more of a life, and I’d like to come back to them and do more short films or a feature. I think there would be no problem getting financing for a feature film. But I think for now I just want to get on with some new ideas, new characters.”

The result was CHICKEN RUN, which Park co-directed with Peter Lord, another one of Ardman’s top animation directors. The film went on to become the first stop-motion feature to make over $100-million at the U.S. box office, when it was released by DreamWorks in 2000.

Unfortunately,that blockbuster success did not ignite a boom in stop-motion movies, but it did pave the way for Wallace and Gromit to make their long-awaited full-length movie, WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, which was finally completed in time for a release in 2005 — over fifteen years after the completion of A GRAND DAY OUT and over twenty years after Nick Park first conceived of the two characters who would go on to earn such a beloved niche in the history of stop-motion.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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