Bringing Wallace & Gromit

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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.

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.

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"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.

The figures are constantly handled. Grease and grit from the animators' fingers get on the clay. So the animators sometimes have to put a fresh, clean head on a figure. The old head is scraped and cleaned. When the figures become worn out, the clay is taken off the armature and thrown away. The armatures, with their ball-and-socket joints, are used again and again.

HEAT is a problem. Under normal studio lights, the clay characters would soon soften and droop. Instead, 12-watt lights are used. (The light bulbs in most table lamps are five times as bright.) The movie camera is set at a slow shutter speed - 1/2 second or more - to let in more light to expose the film.

A stop-motion film doesn't have to be a team effort, but it helps. Park's first film took seven years to complete. With 35 people working on "A Close Shave," the film took 18 months.

Park's current film has more than 120 people working on it. It's called "Chicken Run." Unlike his other, short films, this one will be a full-length movie. It's about two chickens who fall in love and plot a daring escape from a poultry farm. Filming was to start this year.

Several techniques help speed up the production of a stop-motion film. Teams of animators can be trained to work in a particular style. That way, scenes can be shot on several sets at once. (And if an actor must be in two scenes at once, just make another copy of him!)

Pre-formed mouths speed up scenes in which characters talk. About 20 pre-formed mouths can be inserted and removed in characters without much difficulty. The various "mouths" represent different speech sounds. That way, animators don't need to constantly shape and reshape a character's mouth.

Speaking parts are difficult. Wallace and his lady friend Wendolene (in "A Close Shave") have had the only speaking roles.

To make sure that the animation looks natural, a video camera is linked to the film camera by computer. The animator can play the video to see if the scene looks right. Knowing how much to move a figure to create the illusion of fluid movement is part of the animator's art. It's also important to understand a character's character.

"The animator needs to get inside the character the same way an actor does before going on stage," Sproxton says. "What a character is thinking or feeling must be expressed in body language." Aardman has its trainees take mime classes to learn about body language.

Big scenes with lots of characters are difficult. Sproxton recalls a scene from "Babylon," another Aardman film. In it, some 50 characters at a banquet are applauding. How to keep track of which hands were moving apart and which were moving together? Animators finally marked the figures with directional arrows not visible in the final film. Liquids also are tough to film, as when jam is flung from a spoon or raindrops pelt a sidewalk.

But one of the biggest frustrations for animators is when things move that aren't supposed to. If an elbow bumps a prop, it's hard to put it back precisely. The answer: Stick down everything that isn't supposed to move, using everything from wax to Superglue.

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