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Aardman Animations, B.C. (Before Chickens)
A look at some of the great short subjects that preceded their feature debut.
By Mike Lyons
June 22, 2000
In an age when so much centers on computer graphics, a film made with cut pieces of cardboard is not only daring, its refreshing. HUM DRUM, from Aardman Animations, the studio behind this summer's CHICKEN RUN, is just such a film. HUM DRUM's simple charms are so unique that they caught the eye of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, snagging an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Subject this past spring (it lost to THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA).
HUMDRUM's director, Peter Peake, says that the film was 'born out the need to make a film that was relatively cheap. In my sketchbook, I had been knocking around the idea of making an animated film using shadow puppets, if only because it meant we didn't have to spend a lot of money making complex models. It's a quick way of animating, because you're only concerned with the silhouettes and none of the interior detail.'
At a fast seven minutes long and with a look that's as a sparse as a stage play, HUM DRUM manages to pack in some powerful humor and personality. The short essentially tells the tale of two bored characters (seen only in silhouette) who decide to play a game of shadow puppets. That essentially is the entire plot, which is made all the more humorous by the fact that you realize you're watching shadows play shadow puppets.
'I purely wrote it as something that would tickle me,' says Peake. 'I have no idea what makes a particular audience laugh or a particular age range laugh. I get a little bewildered when people refer to certain groups and seem to know what they respond to. All I can do is write things that I think are funny.'
And HUM DRUM is funny, indeed. In one scene, when one of the characters gets frustrated at the other's ineptitude at shadow puppets, he shouts, 'There are blind people with no fingers who are better at shadow puppets than you!'
With HUM DRUM, Aardman has taken their knack for handcrafted animation to a new level. 'The film is all stop-motion, but it's all 'in camera,' so there's no post-production,' explains Peake. 'It is really low-tech, which is why I like it. I used a sheet of glass, with cut-out plasticine and cardboard shapes put onto the glass. Then, we used a powerful light to shine through the glass and project the shadows on a painted background. What the camera films is the shadows and the background.'
The end result of HUM DRUM is a rarity, in that it's almost exactly what Peake envisioned when he made those first designs in his sketchbook. 'Most films take different paths, and by the time you get it finished, it's quite far removed from what you originally had in your head. But, with HUM DRUM, it's pretty much what I imagined when I sat down and said, 'I wonder what this will look like?' So, in that respect, I'm dead pleased with it.'
Peake, who graduated from art school in 1992 and almost immediately went to work for Aardman, says that it was amazing to come into the industry at that time, when things were just beginning to heat up again for animation. Peake also notes that, eight years ago, when his career began, he would have never envisioned animation, particularly that from Aardman, to be such a large part of the mainstream filmmaking.
'There was a worry a few years ago that computers would take over, but I think now, obviously, we can see that it's going to exist with other forms of animation. There are many styles out there that we can all have a go at.'
In addition to HUM DRUM, here are other past Aardman gems worth checking out during this 'CHICKEN RUN summer' (most of which are available on video and DVD):
CREATURE COMFORTS: The ingenuity behind this short subject is astounding, which is probably why it brought director Nick Park his first Oscar. In the short subject, animals are interviewed (and speak freely) about what life in a zoo is really like.
A GRAND DAY OUT, THE WRONG TROUSERS & A CLOSE SHAVE: The Aardman triple-play. Each one of these shorts, starring the hilariously lovable team of Wallace and Gromit, is a miniature comedy classic. Of note is CLOSE SHAVE which combines a plot about sheep shearing with a film noir style.
ADAM: Director Peter Lord's story about what it was really like to be the first man on Earth. An ingenious use of silent-film style humor and, ironically, it's also a metaphor for the role of the animator as God.
WAT'S PIG: One of the most creative animated short subjects ever made, also from Lord. This decidedly different take on THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER uses split screen to tell its tale.
NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG: A woman finds that fine print in her washing machine warranty has her forfeiting her soul to the Devil. Director Boris Kossmehl's short film is like a Rankin-Bass holiday special on acid.
STAGE FRIGHT: Directed by Steve Box, this is Aardman's most melancholy film. Using elements of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the film tells a dark, dingy and touching tale of how vaudeville was eventually eclipsed by the cinema.