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Wallace & Gromit go to any length

Times Staff Writer

“I didn’t really design it to travel,” Nick Park says, still a bit baffled after all these years. “It was simply my own taste, the kind of film I wanted to see. It always astonishes me how universal it’s become.”

That short film, 1989’s “A Grand Day Out,” was seven years in the making, so long that when actor Peter Sallis, who’d voiced the lead for free, was called back for pickups he didn’t remember doing the original job. Now, Park relates, “he says it’s one of the best things that ever happened to him. He’d rather have this role than a permanent place at the National Theatre in London.” Such is the power of Wallace & Gromit.

The madcap, multipart adventures of a hapless and rather dim inventor of Rube Goldberg-type mechanisms and his dog, a poker-faced know-it-all who barely tolerates his nominal master, turned out to have resonance all over the world. The second and third Wallace & Gromit shorts, “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave,” have won more than 80 international awards between them, including two of Park’s trio of animated short film Oscars. (The third was for “Creature Comforts.”)

The Claymation shorts have also led directly to an enormous 30-foot, inflatable Gromit holding court in front of the Carlton Hotel and a trip to the film festival for their creator on a private jet provided by DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg. “I never realized,” the genial and quick-witted Park admits, “that clay animation could get so glamorous.”

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The glamour and the trip to Cannes are in the service of the first W&G; feature, “Wallace & Gromit -- The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” to be released in the U.S. in October. “It’s the first vegetarian horror movie ever,” the 46-year-old Park says with sly sincerity. Taking his creatures to feature length -- a project that took 4 1/2 years, including a mammoth 18-month shooting schedule -- was fraught with all kinds of obstacles.

Though Park admits he “aspired to make feature films,” when DreamWorks approached Aardman, the company in which he is a partner along with animators Peter Lord and David Sproxton, about going longer, “I didn’t want to risk Wallace & Gromit, who had been so successful as shorts, in my first feature.” So what came first, co-directed with Lord, was the phenomenally successful Mel Gibson-voiced “Chicken Run.” (DreamWorks on Thursday announced their next film collaboration with Aardman, a new comedy titled “Crood Awakening,” a comedy set in the Stone Age, being co-written by John Cleese.)

Park also didn’t want to proceed with a feature without a viable plot, which he didn’t have until he and another writer came up with one in a pub in Bristol, England. “We thought, ‘What if it was a werewolf movie and it was with rabbits, and it was not human flesh they were after but vegetables?’ ” he remembers. “This allowed us to use typical horror movie characters, like the skeptical policeman and a vicar who spouts all kinds of mumbo-jumbo about the beast within.”

It also allowed for parts strong enough to attract the likes of Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes as voice talent. She plays Lady Tottington, an “eco-toff” who is attracted to Wallace’s humane pest control firm, inevitably called Anti-Pesto. He is Victor Quartermaine, “a blood sport fanatic” who is her evil suitor. “It really is astonishing to me,” the director says, “when you can go to people of that stature and ask them to play quite ridiculous roles.”

That’s especially astonishing to Park, who began with Claymation as “a 12-year-old kid who worked alone in his parents’ attic” and who rarely told people what he was up to because “I didn’t think anyone would be interested. When I went to Sheffield art school, I didn’t tell the tutors, I didn’t think it was proper art. An art teacher, disgusted that I had drawn a cartoon, had told me that when I was 13 or 14. I thought it could only be a hobby, that it was too much fun to be taken seriously.”

Given his solo beginnings, one of Park’s key challenges was “slowly learning on each film to collaborate more and more.” There was a crew of 40 on “A Close Shave” and close to 200 on “Were-Rabbit,” including 30 animators. That meant the first co-director in Wallace & Gromit history: Steve Box, who’d animated the villainous penguin in “The Wrong Trousers” and Wendolene Ramsbottom in “A Close Shave.”

All these people are necessary because clay animation is an astonishingly labor-intensive business. The clay is molded onto a metal skeleton called an armature, a frame of film is exposed, the clay is moved slightly, another picture is exposed, the clay is resculpted and shifted again, another picture taken. Twenty-four pictures equals one second of film, which means that three seconds a day per animator and two minutes total per week for the entire group of thirty is considered good production. “Clay animation doesn’t lend itself to being industrialized,” Parks says. “It’s a cottage industry and it always will be.”

Parks’ biggest worry in involving all these people with characters he considers “my family, really,” is that their work “continues to feel handmade, that it keeps the soul of the original films.” To this end, all the animators “go through a long process, they have to take Wallace & Gromit classes, lots of talks and workshops on how to do it the right way. I encourage them not to make things too slick and polished, they have to unlearn that. I don’t mind fingerprints on the clay.”

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One of the great pleasures of a Wallace & Gromit short is distinctive and deliberate pacing; “it takes its own time,” is how Park puts it.

“We’re in a culture of very short attention spans, and we’re feeding it, conditioning an audience,” he says. “I think you don’t have to hit people, you can appeal to their deeper nature. It’s about respecting people, their ability to appreciate things if given a chance to.”


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