There’s no mistaking an Aardman character, with their silly teeth, tight-spaced eyes and British accents.
In 30 years of stop-motion work, Bristol-based Aardman Animations has become something of an Academy favorite. To date, the studio has earned seven Oscar nominations and won four times, including last year’s animated feature prize for “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”
That pic was the second release under Aardman’s deal with DreamWorks Animation (following the hit “Chicken Run”). Now, the two studios have transformed their collaboration in a dramatic way: Released by Paramount, “Flushed Away” was animated at DreamWorks’ L.A. facility, home to the Oscar-nominated “Shark Tale.”
Why the switch? Under the guidance of Aardman-trained directors David Bowers and Sam Fell, “Flushed Away” follows puppetlike rodent characters through a complex world that only CG’s bells and whistles could depict. That included 1,000 extras and a roiling-water boat chase through London’s sewers.
According to Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, who co-authored the story and co-produced “Flushed Away,” “This was a great chance to find a new language for CG films.”
Lord recalls showing his Aardman mates a test of a character swirling down a water pipe. “Their jaws hit the floor. It was so compelling.”
“Flushed Away” originally was budgeted two ways: as an all-CG feature and as largely stop-motion with CG effects. As DreamWorks’ “Shrek” veteran Wendy Rogers notes: “The scope was so big. For 10-inch puppets, their boat would be over 5 feet long. This had to be full CG.”
Acting as visual effects supervisor, Rogers traveled to Aardman to do research, which included climbing into London’s sewers wearing a haz-mat suit.
She explains that back at DreamWorks, “We prepared an ‘Aardman University.’ We weren’t attempting a slavish duplication of puppet animation, but we modeled characters’ mouth shapes like Aardman does. That provided a graphic style.”
Traditional clay puppets sometimes show animators’ thumbprints, but generating “CG clay” was largely avoided. “That would have felt dishonest,” Lord says. Yet — citing scars on the film’s beat-up villains — he adds, “When characters have textures, that relates to who they are.”
Although DreamWorks employed state-of-the-art fluid-simulation techniques, the rodents aren’t furry, and their clothing doesn’t move realistically. It’s here that the unique blends of Aardman’s handmade style and DreamWorks’ CG textures are especially evident. “Most characters’ clothes come from ‘found objects’ that are human-scale,” Rogers explains. For example, one pirate rat sports a sharpened pencil in place of a peg leg.
Asked about doing more CG films, Lord says there are no serious plans to expand Aardman’s own modest computer animation department, which typically works on TV projects. “But I am ambitious to build it up in the future, not the least because everybody had such a blast doing ‘Flushed Away.’ “