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August 26 2013

How Filmmakers Use Unscripted Audio in Animation: A Survey From “Moonbird” to “Waltz with Bashir”

One of the better-known shorts made by John and Faith Hubley is Moonbird, from 1959. This film came about when the Hubleys made a secret recording of their two sons one night, playing a game in which they pretended to be hunting for the elusive Moonbird. The result was a soundtrack with a complete narrative, courtesy of the two children; the Hubleys and their studio then visualised the story to create the film.

It is surprising how well Moonbird works, considering that its story is simply two kids making things up as they go along. The personalities of the children come through very strongly and much of the recorded dialogue is inherently funny, as when the younger boy tries to recite “Hey Diddle Diddle” but has trouble remembering past the second word.

Moonbird was followed by the 1967 film Windy Day, based on the same concept but using the voices of the Hubleys’ two daughters. This short is much looser, with a transformative element as the two characters morph from one identity to another. Instead of a single narrative, the children deliver a free-flowing conversation which makes several twists: The two girls start by playing at being a knight and a princess, and later play at being animals; between these sessions they discuss birth, adulthood, marriage and death in the half-grasped manner of children.

Windy Day was shown at the 1968 Cambridge Animation Festival; amongst the people who saw it were producer Colin Thomas and animator William Mather.

“We were blown away by the use of raw unpolished sound with a highly controlled medium like animation”, said Mather in an interview I conducted with him in 2011. In 1975 the two put together a pilot film entitled Audition, based around a recording of Mather’s son talking to an organ player as he auditioned for the role of a choirboy.

The film is very different to Hubley’s shorts. Aside from a very brief sequence in which the boy imagines the organ turning into a monster, it does not take place in a world of childhood fantasy: Its aim is instead to recreate the conversation in more straightforward cartoon terms.

The Hubleys sought to create fantasy films when they made Moonbird and Windy Day, and turned to the taproot of so much fantasy: the imaginations of children. By contrast, Mather and Thomas created a film which was closer to documentary. It is worth noting that Thomas was a documentary filmmaker, and that BBC Bristol – the branch for which the two men made their pilot – has a strong documentary tradition.

The pilot led to Animated Conversations, a six-part series produced in the late-1970s by various directors. Mather contributed Hangovers, based on a recording of a barmaid and her customers, but the best-known shorts for this series were made by Aardman founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton.

The two Aardman shorts take quite different approaches. Down and Out is a literalistic portrayal of an elderly man being turned away from a hostel which – unlike Mather’s shorts – lacks any humor; its emphasis is instead on pathos. Confessions of a Foyer Girl, on the other hand, plays its material for laughs. A young cinema employee discussing the banal details of her day-to-day life is contrasted with the glamorous and exciting world of the movies.

Lord and Sproxton’s work on Animated Conversations prompted Channel 4 to commission its own series of animation based on natural dialogue, this time made entirely by Aardman: Late Edition, Sales Pitch, On Probation, Early Bird and Palmy Day. As before, some of these went for wacky comedy, while others opted for melancholy tones.

Aardman’s subsequent work in this format includes Creature Comforts by Nick Park. As well as ranking as the single most famous example of the approach, it is one of the more playful in using its soundtrack. As the film is framed as a series of short interviews with various characters, Park was able to home in on the soundbites with the most comic potential. The earlier shorts built themselves around large chunks of undigested conversation, but the whole point of Creature Comforts is that the interviewees are quoted completely out of context.

Creature Comforts became an entire franchise, and in is now the key example of what is, today, a full-fledged genre of animation.

Sometimes the approach can serve a practical use. Animation students are often assigned the task of working to found soundtracks as lipsync exercises. “The Trouble with Love and Sex,” a 2011 episode of the BBC documentary series Wonderland, focused on people undergoing counselling; when it ran into the problem that these people were not comfortable being filmed, it simply used their voices, the visuals being animated by Jonathan Hodgson.

Meanwhile, other animators returned to the daring ethos of the Hubley shorts. Chris Landreth’s Ryan plays with intertextuality, using animation to illustrate interviews with and about animator Ryan Larkin. Sylvie Bringas and Orly Yadin’s’s Silence presents a child’s eye view of the Holocaust, alternating between harsh, woodblock-like sequences for the camp scenes and a softer, more childlike style for the postwar sequences.

There are three general approaches taken by these films. The first is a literalistic portrayal of the conversation, as with the melancholy Down and Out, the lighthearted Late Edition and the harrowing Waltz with Bashir (the last of these being the only feature-length animation of this type that I am aware of.) The second approach creates comedy by placing ordinary dialogue into an unusual situation, as with Creature Comforts.

Finally, the third approach uses animation to illustrate the more subjective aspects of the soundtrack, usually by attempting to recreate the mental state of the speaker. Examples include Silence, Ryan, Marjut Rimminen’s Some Protection, Paul Vester’s Abductees and Andy Glynne’s Animated Minds.

Jan Svankmajer once remarked that “animators tend to construct a closed world for themselves, like pigeon fanciers or rabbit breeders.” When an animated film uses unscripted audio, what we see is pure fantasy, but what we hear is an actual moment in time—the closed world of animation is suddenly opened up to stark reality.

1.) Still from Moonbird
2.) Still from Windy Day
3.) Audition
4.) Still from Confessions of a Foyer Girl
5.) Still from Creature Comforts
6.) Clip from “The Trouble with Love and Sex”
7.) Still from Waltz with Bashir

August 20 2013

Aardman Animates Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”

Director Darren Dubicki of Aardman Animations created this strikingly elegant mixed-media piece to celebrate Pink Floyd’s legendary album The Dark Side of the Moon.

The three-minute piece serves as a trailer/supplement to an original radio drama based on the album, written by playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, premiering on BBC Radio 2 on August 26th. Dubicki also created an extended film loop that will complement the audio experience online.

More details about the production from the official Aardman release:

Aardman director, Darren Dubicki saw the piece working as a film trailer and the team spent time absorbing the rich detail from both Pink Floyd’s music and Sir Tom Stoppard’s play. In doing so they developed a striking visual concept where images juxtapose with carefully considered lyrics and dialogue from the play encompassing the underlying themes of greed, conflict, consumption, humanity and the descent into madness…

Dubicki says, “What was fundamentally important to us was that we retained a consistent visual tone that echoed the imagery created over the years for the band. The intensely surreal and powerful artwork created by Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis has always had a strong distortion on reality. Their sense of space and twisted context make for some uncomfortably beautiful art. This tone has been consistent for decades and we wanted to honor this with our contemporary digital (and analogue) slant on the style.”

Created using a collage of digital imaging, CGI, studio-based effects and hand crafted elements the films were produced with depth and richness that reflects the classic tone of Pink Floyd’s art.

Client/Agency: BBC Radio 2
Producers: Rhian Roberts/ Rowan Collinson

Aardman Animations
Director: Darren Dubicki
Executive Producer: Heather Wright
Producer: Helen Argo
Production Assistant: Danny Gallagher
Production Co-ordinator: Louise Johnson

DOP: Mark Chamberlain
Camera Assistant: Joe Maxwell
Gaffer: Nat Sale
CG Modeling: Olly Skillman-Wilson
CG Modeling: David Klein
CG Modeling: Saul Freed
CG Animation: Mathew Rees
CG Animation: Rich Spence
CG Lighter: Andrew Lavery
Supervising Senior Compositor: Jim Lewis
Compositor: Spencer Cross
Compositor: Paule Quinton
After Effects Artist: Tom Readdy
Editor: Dan Hembury

May 11 2013

“Princess Mononoke” Back on the UK Stage By Popular Demand

After a successful UK premiere and a short run in Tokyo, Whole Hog Theatre’s stage version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke will return to London’s New Diorama Theatre next month due to “unprecedented demand.” The production is a collaboration between the British theatre troupe and Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and features large scale puppetry and a recreation of Joe Hisaishi’s original film score.

Miyazaki, who is known for refusing the re-versioning of his films into theatrical productions, approved the project after being presented with a video proposal from Whole Hog by way of Aardman’s Nick Park. As recalled by Studio Ghibli producer, Toshio Suzuki, he gave his consent “a couple of seconds” into viewing the presentation. Suzuki was equally impressed: “I wanted to watch a strange ‘Princess Mononoke’, he told the Wall Street Journal.

With puppets by Charlie Hoare and costumes by Yoseph Hammad, the show translates the film’s eco-friendly theme and inherent Asian aesthetic by use of reclaimed materials and a form of Japanese textile work called Boro, which involves the patch-working of rags into garments.

“Being a big Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki fan myself, I have no desire to alter the film’s narrative and atmosphere, or to add a ‘new spin’ on the story. I only want to re-tell it in a different form,” director Alexandra Rutter told “However, whilst audiences can expect to see much of the film’s narrative happen onstage, they should also expect the techniques we use to tell the story to be quite different.” And her artistic objective has paid off as the production has been picking up positive word of mouth, selling out entire runs and was even featured as one of Lyn Gardner’s theater picks in The Guardian.

The second UK run of Whole Hog Theatre’s Princess Mononoke is scheduled for June 18th-29th at the New Diorama Theatre in London. The cast is led by Mei Mac as San/Princess Mononoke and Maximillian Troy Tyler as Prince Ashitaka. The production also features musical direction by Kerrin Tatman and design by Polly Clare Boon.

August 24 2012

Patrick Boivin Teams With Aardman For Nike Spot

Even if you don’t care about football shoes, this Nike commercial provides good entertainment value. Montreal-based filmmaker Patrick Boivin (of Iron Man vs. Bruce Lee fame) directed the stop motion spot starring a marionette version of footballer Andrés Iniesta. Aardman produced the animation, South Korea’s Coolrain created the figures, and Wieden+Kennedy (London) was the agency.

(Thanks, @eee)

Cartoon Brew | Permalink | No comment | Post tags: Aardman Animations, Coolrain, Nike, Patrick Boivin, Wieden+Kennedy

November 17 2011

November 11 2011

“Pythagasaurus” by Peter Peake

While we await their CG Arthur Christmas and their clay-mated Pirates feature, Aardman tempts us with this superbly crafted short from director Peter Peake. Produced by Aardman’s commercials division during downtime between jobs; here’s sneak peek of the designs and a brief interview with Peake at 3D Artist Online.

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation | Permalink | 2 comments | Post tags: Aardman Animations

October 04 2011

Aardman Tackles Batman and WB Animation’s Moribund State

Aardman Batman shorts

During last Sunday’s keynote speech at MIP Jr, Sam Register, the exec vp of creative affairs at Warner Bros. Animation, revealed that they have teamed up with Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run) to create stop motion Batman shorts.

The rest of Register’s depressing keynote is about Warner Bros. Animation’s short-sighted (but typical) brand management strategy of exclusively resuscitating old properties instead of encouraging fresh talent to develop the next generation of concepts and characters. In Register’s own words, “Currently we have nothing in the pipeline that is original. We are not taking any pitches, because we are busy. I get a lot of calls to meet or see new properties. I can’t.”

This is the video of Register’s entire speech:

(via Mayerson on Animation)

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation | Permalink | 26 comments | Post tags: Aardman Animations, Batman, Sam Register, Warner Bros.

August 04 2011

“Gulp” by Sumo Science

Gulp is a short stop-mo animation created by “Sumo Science” (Ed Patterson and Will Studd) for client Aardman Animations. The film has broken a world record for the “largest stop-motion animation set”, with the largest scene stretching over 11,000 square feet. It was shot frame-by-frame on location on a beach in South Wales, using the camera on a Nokia N8 smart phone. But even more inspiring than the film itself (embed below) is the making-of video (click here).

(Thanks, Craig Yoe and Simon Acosta)

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation | Permalink | No comment | Post tags: Aardman Animations

November 24 2010

James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, and Ashley Jensen join the cast of “Arthur Christmas”

James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, and Ashley Jensen, have joined the voice cast of the 3D, CG-animated family comedy, Arthur Christmas. The highly anticipated film, produced by Aardman Animations for Sony Pictures Animation, is slated for release November 23, 2011. Set on Christmas night, the story of Arthur Christmas at [...]

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