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Bringing Wallace & Gromit

By Ross Atkin / May 12, 1998

At the end of a long day, key members of the crew have done maybe three or four seconds of work. But that's a good day at Aardman Animations, where animators make movies a fraction of a second at a time.

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The Bristol, England, studio specializes in stop-motion (they call it stop-frame) movies. In their films, clay figures are moved a tiny bit, then photographed with a movie camera. The figures are then moved a tiny bit more, photographed again, and so on. It takes 24 pictures to make one second of film.

When the pictures are shown together as a movie, the clay figures seem to make breakfast, walk on the ceiling, even fly to the moon. It takes a loooong time to create this illusion.

"It's a bit like painting the Sistine Chapel," says David Sproxton, the cofounder of Aardman Animations. "You say, 'Oh, my! I've got to cover all this acreage!' You start in one corner."

Wallace and Gromit are Aardman Animations' most famous stars. They were created by Nick Park. Mr. Park was still in school when Mr. Sproxton and his partner Peter Lord found out about him.

It was 1985. Park was struggling to finish his final project at the National Film and Television School in Britain. The title of his film was "A Grand Day Out."

Does that title sound familiar to you? It became the first in a series of animated films about an eccentric English gentleman and his quietly expressive and thoughtful dog.

"A Grand Day Out" (1989) followed Wallace and Gromit as they flew to the moon in a homemade rocket. In "The Wrong Trousers" (1993), the two tangled with a pair of mechanical pants. And in "A Close Shave" (1995), dog and man took on sheep rustlers.

The half-hour films have been enormously popular. All three were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Animated Short. "Trousers" and "Shave" won Oscars. "A Grand Day Out" was beaten by a film called "Creature Comforts" - a film Park had also made! The films have been shown on TV and are on video.

Some of Wallace and Gromit's many American fans can visit a special exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts through June 21. "An Adventure With Wallace & Gromit" features movie sets, figures, storyboards, and film screenings.

A room from Wallace's home is about the size of an oven. The furniture is scaled to fit figures 10 or 12 inches high.

"If they get any bigger than that," says Sproxton, who was in Boston to promote the exhibit, "the figures get too heavy and the heads tend to fall over. We're fighting gravity all the time."

The characters are usually made of Plasticine clay, though other "clay products" are also used. The clay is put onto a jointed metal armature. The armature makes it easier to adjust the clay figures and "freeze" them into position for filming. Magnets in the character's feet may keep them stuck to a set that has a steel plate underneath it.