An Imperfect World: An Interview with the Directors of Flushed Away
Would CGI's sparkle brighten Aardman's earthy touch? Would stop-motion puppetry's three-dimensional depth be flattened into two-dimensional popcorn?
Ever since it was created by Peter Lord and David Sproxton as a homegrown experiment back in the 1970s, Aardman Animations and its stop-motion productions like Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit have retained a rugged handmade charm. Mostly because its signature characters and sets carried the literal fingerprints of the artists who helped breathe them into being, a tactile presence that hasn't translated as well into the shiny, happy CGI metaverse found in films like Dreamworks' Shrek, the cleanest film ever made about an ogre's love of filth.
So when Dreamworks teamed up with Aardman to deliver the Bristol-based lifer's first full-length CGI effort Flushed Away, which hits screens large and small near you in early November, the worry was palpable. Would CGI's sparkle brighten Aardman's earthy touch? Would stop-motion puppetry's three-dimensional depth be flattened into two-dimensional popcorn? Flushed Awaydirectors and Aaardman vets Sam Fell and David Bowers floated up the pipes to sniff out the answers. So to speak.
You've been in the Aardman trenches for awhile? What does it feel like to finally have a go at a feature film?
Sam Fell: It's fantastic. It's a joy really. It's a long process; I've been at it for about four-and-a-half years. It can be a bit trying at times, but mostly it's been an incredible privilege. Because, for one thing, I love working in the Aardman style, not just the physical look but also the overall spirit. I've been working with them for about 16 years; I actually first took a job with them while they were shooting "The Wrong Trousers," so I've been with them for a long time. I love the humor and offbeat flavor of their work, and obviously the look and everything, so it's great to work in that mode. And it's been especially great being able to use all of the tools that Dreamworks has given us to do this job. The people here are amazing, especially the crew, and they pretty much deliver whatever we ask for. They seem to find a way to dig in and deliver.
Let's talk about the Aardman look? How did the process of transferring that look and style over from stop-motion into CGI?
SF: Well, I have actually been doing CGI for a number of years for Aardman; we have a small CGI department at Aardman, although one not large enough to make a feature film. In any case, they're both three-dimensional environments, and they both involve three-dimensional modeling, characters moving in 3D space, surface and lighting, at least conceptually in the same way. So the transition was just a matter of applying my approach to each of the different departments as I would myself with the computer. I went down to the rigging department and got them to rig the characters in the computer as if they were rigging a puppet. I went to the painters and surfacers and told them I wanted the characters to feel like you could reach out and touch them. I had everyone put imperfections into everything, paint everything to look as if it was a real substance. Everywhere I went, I tried to translate the look of Aardman or the approach I would have taken were I working on a puppet film into the new CGI environment.
An interesting approach, especially the idea of creating imperfections in what is usually an imperfection-free CGI environment. That concept of imperfection has given Aardman films that reliably handmade look in the past, wouldn't you agree?
SF: Definitely. That's right. It's funny, because you almost get it for free when you're working with stop-clay. Everything has been touched by human hands. Weirdly enough, the very first thing we did was build a set out of rubbish over in Bristol , because the film is about a rat city built out of junk in the sewers of London . We got a room together and filled it with old furniture, suitcases, piles of bottles and bicycle parts, just a big pile of junk basically. We also built some rat houses, shops and rows of buildings, and then we turned our cameras on and lit it up. We inserted some rat-sized props as well. And that's how we approached the look. We basically built an idea of what the real world would look like if it was made out of real junk! I told the modeling staff, "Spend half a day making your models asymmetrical. Knock the edges out a bit." We wanted it to be much less than mathematically perfect. I did the same thing with the painters and everyone else. A lot of the painters went out with digital cameras to photograph flaking paint on old doors, to study the real world of the city and how it exhibits wear and tear, how things get damaged. Because there is a very specific way things get damaged: It's not a general process. Everything wears in certain ways through multiple use, depending on how it sits in the sun or what kind of weather conditions it has to exist in. So we used extensive reference to the outside world and asked our artists and animators to go in and spend some extra time touching it with virtual hands. I actually feel that once you're into the film, you forget that it was made using CGI. I don't think you're conscious of it being a CGI film anymore. And it's really because, in a strange way, the whole thing has been handmade. And people will be confused by that: "What do you mean handmade? What, do you wear glasses or something?" No, it's just that each artist has intervened using the computer to make it all imperfect or wonky. The process definitely had a wonkiness level to it. Everything has been touched or considered by the human mind, which at some point has intervened in the process, you know? Same with the animation process: We didn't have any secondary animation, such as cloth or hair, done by the computer; it was all done by hand. Which means that the animator had to deal with the cloth or the hair, and because they're human and not robots, there is a visible imperfection to it, especially since they had to build it frame by frame. So even in that sense the animation has a handmade look to it. There was a lot of intervention.
So what you're telling me is that virtual hands went into a virtually perfect environment to create some virtual imperfections?
SF: Yes, exactly! (Laughs) At first, it went kind of slowly, and was very difficult. But then we sped up, and everyone got into the groove. Once they caught the flavor of it, it began to happen automatically. Same with the lighting. With virtual lighting, you can put the lights anywhere, which is something we definitely didn't want. Originally, the artists lit up the characters' teeth and eyes, and it was a bit bright. It's a cartoon thing, like on Madagascar; that kind of lighting helps you build the cartoon style in three dimensions. After a while, we were going, "What's wrong with this picture?" So we took that down a notch, and let the shadows fall onto the eyeballs, until they began to look the same as they do in our stop-motion films. The funny part is that the artists who we had trained to work in the manner had to rehabilitated once they moved onto other projects! One guy went from Flushed Away to Over the Hedge, and when he started dirtying everything up and making it imperfect, they were going, "No, no, no! We don't want this to look like it's been worn down for the last ten years!" Over the Hedge has a fresher, cleaner environment, like you usually find in cartoons. So yeah, some of our artists got so deep into the imperfection-creating process that they practically needed animation therapy afterwards.
Well, Aardman has always negotiated that balance between adult and children's entertainment, so it's style has always seemed a bit more worn than the sparkly cartoon films like Over the Hedge and Shrek. From what I've seen of Flushed Away so far, it seems to have retained that Aardman aesthetic.
SF: Yeah, it truly does fit into the family along with Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. But we did in fact set out to make Flushed Away more colorful and bright than previous Aaardman projects, because it's set in the big city, you know? It's set in contemporary London , which is a bustling metropolis, so we wanted the film to have a more vibrant sensibility. Wallace and Gromit is set in a Northern English town and Chicken Runis set in the postwar British countryside, but this film has a much more modern setting. And because we were setting the film in the sewer, we didn't want to be in the dark the whole time. So we chose to have daylight pouring in from above through what we imagine to be holes, grates and the like, which helps with the main story point, which is that it is in fact a fantastic place. That aids the character development of Roddy, who goes down there and ends up finding the place to be wonderful. But having said that, it still fits in with the Aardman aesthetic: wear-and-tear, strong shadows, tactility, a naturalistic color palette. And I'm really pleased, because I think that our film is unlike any other film in a rather crowded year for animated movies. We don't really look like anything else, which is great for us. We really wanted to stick with the look, as well as incorporate the possibilities that advances in CGI filmmaking have provided us.
Was there something that CGI brought to the table that wasn't part of the Aardman tradition, so to speak, and that you decided to keep?
SF: Yeah, a few subtle things. For example, we used a little bit of squash-and-stretch on our rubbery frog characters. Normally, we don't use squash-and-stretch on our puppets, but with the frogs it feels right. As far as the water effects go, we tried to get pretty realistic. With the rain in The Wrong Trousers, we actually used little bits of gelatin or glass beads, whereas now we're building realistic splashes and so forth. To be honest, we've actually been pretty strict, but we've also enjoyed working within the limitations of the style. But the use of CGI has helped as far as the interaction between characters and effects, which is much better looking than it is with stop-motion. The primary thing the computers have brought us is an increase in style and scope. We've been able to build these huge sets and populate them with thousands of characters, which we would really have struggled with if we were working strictly with puppets.
Why did you decide to go full CGI with this film, and what has that transition involved for you?
David Bowers: We conceived it originally as a stop-frame film, but once we started to explore the story and think about the kind of things we wanted to do, we found that our ideas were a bit on the big side. We initially thought a stop-frame film with digital extensions and huge sets would do the trick, but because of the size of the project we figured CGI would be the way to go. And truthfully, while it is known for its stop-frame work, Aardman has done an awful lot of CGI commercials. It even has a CGI department. So the evolution to a CGI full-length made sense, what with all the water, massive sets, big chases and the rest. It seemed like the right choice.
What had to change for your process, given the switch?
DB: Well, the only thing that changed for us was the process of making the thing. In terms of the story, characters, writing, jokes and everything else, the film is exactly the same as the rest of Aardman's output. I don't think anything had to go. If anything, what we did get was an opportunity to work on a much bigger scale with a much bigger world. For example, if we were doing a traditional Aardman stop-motion film, we would never put a thousand characters on the set, because it would be trouble, as you can imagine. There was in fact a scene in Chicken Run with 150 characters in it, but they all stood still. None of them moved! (Laughs) They've all got things on their minds. We couldn't have possibly done that with stop-motion, so the CGI process encouraged us, really, to make a grander film.
How about the process of creating imperfections in the characters and sets?
DB: It made sense to me. There are Aardman trademarks; clay is a rather tactile, malleable form, and you can't help but leave your fingerprints on it. And in fact we toyed with putting fingerprints into the film. But nevertheless you can feel the human, textural element in the film to the point that you might find a thumbprint on the side of a character's nose or something.
Did the warehouse fire have anything to do with the decision to steer clear of stop-motion and work virtually with CGI?
DB: No, it actually didn't. We were already so far into production. In fact, we've been in production on this film for five years now. So the fire didn't have anything to do with it, although I'm sure that we'll be storing all of our files in a very safe place.
CGI has the capacity to free animators and artists up a bit more than stop-motion. Did you veer from the Aardman style at all to exploit the opportunities that CGI provides?
DB: Well, the Aardman style is very intimate, but I think the most important thing about is its look, which was completely retained. What really changed with Flushed Away was the scale: If we were still working with stop-frame, there is no way we would have framed all that water into the movie. It takes an awful long time for a stop-frame animator to film his character walking, but not so with this film. And it did free us up to put the camera wherever we wanted to, so it has been quite liberating.