Perfecting Improv with Aardman
Plus: animation news.
Happy Sunday! We’re back with another issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. This is the agenda for today:
1️⃣ The dialogue wizardry of Creature Comforts.
2️⃣ Animation news around the world.
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And now, let’s go!
1: Aardman’s perfect improv
Aardman needs no introduction. Everybody knows Wallace & Gromit, and the studio’s film Chicken Run remains the biggest stop-motion feature in box-office history. There isn’t an animation team in England, or a stop-motion team anywhere, with the clout that Aardman enjoys.
Creature Comforts is among the projects responsible for that clout. It’s not a film or a series — it’s more of a concept that crosses mediums. The whole thing began in 1989 as a short, which won Aardman its very first Oscar. That short led to a hit series of commercials, and then to a major TV show.
Guiding them all was a core idea: that unscripted, everyday human speech can shine as dialogue for animation.
The appeal of Creatures Comforts is obvious. We get to watch animals talk, like average people, about their lives. It’s sometimes droll, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, sometimes kind of tragic. Whatever the tone, it’s hard to stop looking at it.
That’s been true since the original Creature Comforts short (embedded below). As one newspaper explained in 1991, the film:
... features “news interviews” of such zoo inhabitants as three polar bears, a gorilla, a few birds and turtles, and an especially articulate and philosophical [jaguar] who misses his Brazilian homeland.
It is a five-minute film of great subtlety and wit, brilliantly conceived and executed. These stop-motion creatures are most expressive, amply conveying a wide range of emotions. Amazingly lifelike, they temper the humor with the sadness of animals who’d much rather be in their natural environments.1
As obvious as the appeal is, the paper was right: a huge amount of subtlety underlies Creature Comforts. Very little happens on screen in the original short. It has no story; the motion is minimal. Its success is down to the believability of the dialogue — and to the small, entertaining ways that the animators and designers sell that dialogue.
It could easily fall flat, but it doesn’t. For that, you can thank Aardman’s creativity, tenacity and willingness to experiment.
Creature Comforts had an unassuming start. It was conceived, directed and (mostly) animated by Nick Park, who worked at the Aardman studio in Bristol. He did the film for British TV — just one episode of a series called Lip Synch (1990), featuring claymation shorts by various Aardman directors in various styles.2
His idea didn’t stand out when the team took its proposals to the network. “We presented them all,” Park recalled, “and mine was the least successful. […] I remember presenting it to the commissioning editor at Channel 4, and he hardly looked at it. It was just part of the package.”3
On paper, Creature Comforts wasn’t that unique. Aardman had been animating unscripted conversations since the ‘70s, starting with films like Down and Out (1979). The studio’s co-founder, Peter Lord, felt that “Nick’s idea was close to what we’d done before.”
The other Lip Synch films had more exciting premises. One of the best, Going Equipped, would be an animated interview with a longtime thief. Another highlight, War Story, applied that format to an old man who’d lived through World War II.
Creature Comforts was scant by comparison. It didn’t help that Park’s idea kept changing — mainly because he kept trying things that didn’t work. As he explained:
I got a sound recordist to put a hidden microphone on me and I went to the zoo and tried to record the conversations of people looking at the animals. [...] The idea was to put the words of the people into the mouths of the animals as they looked at the people outside [… but] I didn’t get any really good, concrete conversations. Everything was a little disjointed and the recording conditions were not much good because there was usually a fan going in the background or a waterfall, or something. I remember that after two days of recording all I had were two usable sentences! So I then thought: this is so difficult, why don’t I simply interview people [about the zoo]? […] But it was pretty boring, really. Everyone said the same two things: “It’s nice to see the animals close up, especially for the children,” and, “But it’s a bit cruel.” And, in effect, that’s all I got from hours of recording.
And so it went, with Park trying and erring. The material was either too flat or (when they asked interviewees to “pretend to be animals”) too fake. It wasn’t working.
According to Park, the breakthrough arrived when they “happened to come across some people who, in a sense, seemed to be in a parallel situation to animals in a zoo.” People in small houses or care facilities, or foreigners stuck in Britain who missed their home countries. It was funnier, more honest. Now, they were on to something.
Maybe five dozen interviews, and five months of work, went into Creature Comforts. The animation was quick and dirty, and the recordings were cut down to just the best: revealing personal talk, plus standout lines about zoos. “We couldn’t have any camera moves because we couldn’t afford the time to set any up,” said Park. “The characters couldn’t even walk because we couldn’t afford to put their legs on.”
It was a far cry from the first Wallace & Gromit film, A Grand Day Out (1989), which Park had just finished. That was a 23-minute epic he’d spent the ‘80s making essentially by himself. Creature Comforts was a side-project done “in the rather long gap between finishing the actual film of A Grand Day Out and mixing the sound and music.”
As it happened, Park’s side-project premiered together with his main one. The result shocked him. “I always dreamed of this moment when Wallace and Gromit would come into the world,” Park recalled. “Suddenly, I had a film that stole the limelight.”4
Creature Comforts became a giant hit. Both it and A Grand Day Out were nominated for the Oscar, but Park’s five-month TV short beat his seven-year magnum opus. “It was all about Creature Comforts. Even before the Oscar, it was getting all the attention at festivals,” he remembered.
The strength of Creature Comforts tied back to its unscripted dialogue. Done right, there’s nothing like it in animation. Aardman wasn’t the first team to notice.
The style has two grandmasters: Faith and John Hubley. During the ‘50s, they used it in their commercials for Maypo cereal — one of the biggest ad campaigns of that time. They edited recordings of freeform play with their son, turning them into stories. “We did not use a script,” Faith later said. “We culled the improvisation for the best lines and adapted the storyboard from the improvisation.”
The Hubleys kept using this improvise-and-edit technique — winning Oscars for it with their films Moonbird (1959) and The Hole (1962). It lends an air of casual authenticity. Hubley dialogue is condensed enough not to feel aimless, but it retains the tics of real speech: false starts, pauses, stuttering, hems and haws, sentences that trail off. It has mistakes, and it sounds like people.
In the late ‘60s, a Hubley film called Windy Day reached Britain and ended up in front of two BBC people, who were “blown away by the use of raw unpolished sound with a highly controlled medium like animation.” This ultimately led to the British series Animated Conversations — for which Aardman made Down and Out in the late ‘70s.
Nick Park was in this Hubley tradition when he did Creature Comforts, but he used it for a slightly different effect. By gathering tons of material and clipping it just so, he could get perfect imperfect dialogue. Then, animating it with his uncanny eye for subtlety, he brought out every tiny detail of the vocal track in the characters’ acting.
It makes for compulsive viewing. And, in 1990, it brought Aardman a lucrative and ultra-successful new gig: an ad campaign for the British Electricity Board.
This campaign (embedded below) was a blockbuster on British TV during the ‘90s. Park noted that the ads “became more popular than the original film.” But their format is identical to Creature Comforts — and they work by the same principles.
To start, Aardman recorded hours of interviews with British people, this time about their feelings on electric heating, cooking and cleaning.5 Long reels of audio were then cut and spliced into short, punchy TV spots. The BBC aired a half-hour special about the campaign that gives us an insight into Aardman’s process:
Nick Park: Out of two hours [of an interview], we’ve got to somehow condense it into 30 seconds, basically. It’s a really hard job, because most sentences that people say are over 30 seconds, and no one sentence is right.
Narrator: Although the final soundtrack seems continuous, there can be as many as 20 edits in a 30-second commercial.
Nick Park: We often start off with a sentence that’s got lots of baggage, lots of extra bits attached to it. And what we’re trying to get down to is the essential part of the sentence that we need, because we have to be streamlined and fit into our 30-second bit. [...] So, we’re always looking for catchphrases, but, at the same time, we’re looking for something that isn’t sounding like it’s been written for a commercial. It’s got to sound very natural. So, at the same time, we haven’t to over-edit so that we lose that kind of natural character that comes across.
Aardman took its unscripted style one step further when it turned Creature Comforts into a TV show, which hit the air in 2003. Here, the studio developed the Hubleys’ trick into its most polished, most strangely perfect form yet. Nick Park left the series to director Richard Starzak, who’d worked alongside him on Lip Synch in the ‘80s.
The sheer scale this time was incredible. Producer Julie Lockhart noted that six months went into recording and planning before the animation even started. “The audio material,” reported The Guardian, “was gathered from 300 interviews conducted all over the UK to ensure a broad spectrum of accents, ages and social types.”
They collected thousands of hours of talk — the vast majority unusable. A whole group was involved in finding and recording people, and it took a team to listen to the tapes and jot down highlights. “It’s inevitable that in a 90-minute interview, no matter how dull it is, you’ll find one good line for one particular animal,” said one listener.
The pipeline was unusual and in many ways circular, as the interviews informed the production and the needs of the production informed the interviews. Lockhart said:
We had an idea that we’d be able to record, edit everything and then just shoot it, but what happened was that, after the first batch of recording, we might have had twenty percent of the first batch of episodes finished, and after the second batch of recording we might have had thirty percent. Gradually we’d be building up and building up, while still leaving it creatively open, so that, even ten months into the shooting, if we’d found someone with fantastic views on the garden, for instance, then there was still an opening to record them and slot them in.
Slowly, they sculpted raw audio into characters — even recurring ones. They looked for tones of voice, and for traits and patterns in people’s replies that might connect to the theme of a given episode (and to an overarching personality). Creating a suitable animal to fit this character was a challenge in itself.
But the thing about the Creature Comforts series, just like with the short and the ads, is that this work is invisible. The dialogue feels totally spontaneous as you hear it, and the characters’ motions, handled with Aardman’s world-class technique, express the subtleties of that spontaneous dialogue in a way that feels equally spontaneous. It’s just breezy, funny and engaging TV.
Without the behind-the-scenes stuff out there, you’d never guess that you were watching something cobbled together, piecemeal, out of thousands of odds and ends.
This is a revised reprint of an article that first ran in our newsletter on February 23, 2023. It was exclusive to paying subscribers then — now, we’ve made it free to all.
We lost Gennady Gladkov (88), one of the major animation composers in the USSR. He scored The Bremen Town Musicians (1969) and many more.
The week’s animated hit is The Amazing Digital Circus, an indie pilot from Glitch Productions in Australia. Since its YouTube debut on October 13, it’s risen above 22 million views and become a sensation online.
In Taiwan, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron has earned above 100 million TWD (more than $3 million) and become one of the country’s top 10 Japanese film releases — Ghibli’s only project on that list. Meanwhile, in Korea, it climbed to first place in advance ticket sales despite limited marketing.
The excellent Estonian film Dog-Apartment is now streaming via Arte — free for anyone in France, or anyone with a VPN. A favorite of ours from last year.
On a related note: Dog-Apartment screens in America this month at SASAFF in New York City. The festival is showcasing a range of Baltic and Nordic animation.
In Russia, animator Oleg Kuvaev (Masyanya) and animation producer Pavel Muntyan (Toonbox) face criminal charges for their comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both are expats — one in Israel, one in Cyprus — but convictions in Russia would carry sentences of up to 5 and 10 years, respectively.
Iizuna Fair, a hypnotic and widely praised installation piece by Sumito Sakakibara of Japan, is free on Vimeo for a limited time.
Animation had a huge summer in China, but it fell off during the recent Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day film season. There were six animated debuts — they earned below 10% of the total box office for the period. The PAW Patrol movie did the best: Maoyan has it over 118 million yuan (around $16.4 million).
In Mexico, Cinema Fantasma (Frankelda) is holding courses on animation in person and over Zoom. They start in November — spots are limited.
Last of all: we wrote a piece we’ve planned for a while. Busifan is the Chinese director behind the cult film The Guardian (Dahufa, 2017). Before his success, he struggled on a tough project called Mr. Miao that almost destroyed him. We subtitled his Mr. Miao series for the first time, and told its story.
See you again soon!
Creature Comforts aired on TV in 1990, but its festival premiere was in late 1989, alongside A Grand Day Out. An article in Films and Filming (“Single Frame Trickery,” February 1990) noted that Creature Comforts was “particularly well received” at the festival. That’s one of the few press mentions we’ve found from the time — this showing was historic, but who knew?
As quoted in the book Creating Creature Comforts (2003), our main source for the article — a large part of the information and many of the quotes come from here.
From Nick Park’s interview in the book On Animation: The Director’s Perspective Volume 1, which we used a few times.