Nick Park and Steve Box interview
Wensleydale cheese-loving Wallace and his faithful silent canine Gromit are back - this time in a feature length, first ever (one can safely say), vegetarian horror: The Curse of the Were-rabbit, out in cinemas this week.
The film is an action-packed plasticine delight, brilliantly cast with Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter joining Peter 'Last of the Summer Wine' Sallis, who's been voicing Wallace from his humble beginnings 15 years ago. The B-movie references and in-jokes are still peppered throughout - from the high jinks nods to Hitchcock to Wallace's bookshelf laden with East of Edam and Grated Expectations. But mostly it is a treat to see Wallace & Gromit make the move out of shorts and into features with such panache, buoyed along by Wallace's bumbling enthusiasm and Gromit's Keaton-esque performances.
After the unmitigated box office success of Chicken Run, director Nick Park felt it was time to tackle a long-time ambition of bringing his two favourite characters to the silver screen. "It's really a dream come true," says Park, who co-directed the film with Steve Box, "Wallace & Gromit were my college creations, and it is quite something to think they are starring in their first full-length feature film."
But the sheer amount of time involved in creating a plasticine animated feature can be difficult to fathom. Although there is some computer animation in the Curse of the Were-rabbit, the claymation part is an incredibly slow part of the process. The film was 5 years in the making, involved a team of over 30 animators and 50 model makers, and on certain days had as many as 30 sets in simultaneous operation - with the goal to accomplish a mere 10 seconds of complete film. So, not a job for the impatient. Yet the film rolls on at such a crisp pace and its comedy moments boom on as freshly as ever, that one can't help but wonder whether the directors ever lost their inspiration along the way.
Co-director Steve Box explains: "Making a 30-minute Wallace & Gromit movie is time-consuming and requires a lot of patience and care. Making an 85-minute feature is like making the Great Wall of China with matchsticks. It's a monumental feat, actually. It was five years of solid work, because every tiny, little thing matters so much. But I think the biggest challenge was finding the story."
Both directors agreed that the sheer length of time involved actually gave them room for introducing new ideas throughout the filming process. While it would make sense to assume that with so many people needed and the amount of detailed work involved, they would have to stick faithfully to a script, Park explains that they had plenty of time to ensure the comedy worked to a tee: "We were often writing as we were animating, and would have gag ideas one evening that we might use the next day. The time involved almost makes the comedy easier to pull off. That's what the whole process is about."
Working with characters so familiar to them, and with so many other people and venues involved did the directors ever feel they were losing control? "We never gave up control!" says Steve Box, laughing. While they would let the animators get on with it, the directors always had final approval over the last shot and the entire process, from the wallpaper in Tottington Hall to the colour of Wallace's socks.
Were they apprehensive about bringing Wallace & Gromit to the big screen? Both directors agree they were nervous whether they could pull it off. " So many characters and stories work on TV or in shorts that don't necessarily succeed on the big screen" says Park. Box agrees - "Look at Morecombe and Wise - the TV series was hilarious and yet their feature film was awful!" But they both felt that Wallace & Gromit were rich enough characters that they could make the jump. "It took a while to come up with an idea we felt was expansive enough," Park explains. Drawing inspiration from classic horror films, they settled on their veggie-theme and a mutant rabbit, something with just the right level of absurdity for Wallace & Gromit's world.
Thankfully this world is as familiar as ever, with the duo still ensconced in their cosy terraced house at 62 West Wallaby Street. From their inception in Oscar winning A Grand Day Out, a labour of love finished after 6 years in 1989, to director Nick Park's second Oscar win The Wrong Trousers, and the recent 1 minute treats, Cracking Contraptions, Wallace & Gromit are still coming up with time-saving inventions to make their daily routine run smoother.
There's something wonderfully homemade and endearing about each of these inventions that, despite the big budget attached to Were-Rabbit, still translates on the screen. "We didn't want to get away from what is Wallace & Gromit," Nick Park explains, "We had the production values of a feature film, and yet we maintained the handmade quality, which I think is quite important. We had a giant production behind us, but it was our duty to keep it looking as if we're still just a couple of blokes working out of a shed in Bristol. There is a feeling of 'smallness' that was important to keep. That," he concludes, "is where the charm is."
Watch a mini Wallace and Gromit adventure in the 1-minute short Soccamatic