Feat of Clay

You ordinarily wouldn't consider a cheese-loving Yorkshire inventor named Wallace and his mute dog, Gromit, the stuff of cinematic stardom. But in Toonland, where cults and corporations rise from the zany fiction of talking crickets, mice, ducks, moose, flying squirrels, the Simpsons and their heavy-metal cousins Beavis and Butt-head, just about anything convincing goes. Wallace and Gromit--now the focus of an exhibition at the Arizona Museum for Youth--have star quality.

Directed by the brilliant young English animator Nick Park at Aardman Animations, W&G's comedic run-ins with bad dogs, nefarious penguins and Wallace's weird household inventions have been credited with helping to spark the recent explosion of interest in animated movies. Long before the ballyhooed arrival of Anastasia, Toy Story, Aladdin, The Lion King or The Nightmare Before Christmas, spud-nosed, flap-eared Wallace and pooch could be seen hard at work in their cluttered basement on Wallaby Street (A Grand Day Out) building the rocket to take them on the ultimate cheese lover's holiday to the moon.

Since debuting in 1989, the duo has known nothing but success. Grand Day and two subsequent efforts have come out on video and have sold about two million copies. The Queen is reportedly a fan (but, then, that's her job). So is Britain-born NASA astronaut Michael Foale, who recently returned from a Wallace-and-Gromitlike stint on Mir. In fact, a story circulating in England is that Foale brought the W&G tapes along on the mission, and that they were lost in a now sealed-off module of the space station after it was damaged in last June's collision with a cargo ship.

Foale told New Times, "I'm enormously fond of them," but he declined to comment further. A spokeswoman for NASA--remember Tang?--says, "They [W&G] didn't fly with Mike."

All three W&G video episodes were nominated for Academy Awards, with the two latest, A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers, walking away with Oscars. (A Grand Day Out lost out in 1990 only because another of Park's inspired films, Creature Comforts, took that year's award for best animated film.)

Like all true animated heroes, W&G are becoming a merchandising bonanza. They staff a line of products--for kitchen, bedroom and bath--that extends from stuffed animals, knapsacks, alarm clocks, watches and radios to clothing, books, stationery, magnets and their own brand of Wensleydale cheese.

Organized by the Mesa museum and Aardman as part of the UK/AZ festival, "An Adventure With Wallace and Gromit" is the first American museum exhibition devoted to the pair. Next the show will travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it will open in a slightly modified form next spring.

In addition to screening the films, the Mesa exhibition offers a peek behind the scenes at the process, story boards, sets, figurines and other props employed to make the movies. It also boasts plenty of hands-on activities. Children can make their own story boards and flip books, for example. Or design their own Wallace and Gromit sets and moon rockets, and serve tea in a life-size replica of the English odd couple's living room. And there are several phenakistoscopes (feen-a-kis-toe-scopes), the grandmother of all modern movie projectors, which produce a moving picture with a spinning carousel of still images.

Barbara Meyerson, who heads the youth museum, says W&G have made it a magnet for animation fans. Attendance is way up, along with the average age of visitors. "We're seeing lots of junior high, high school and college students," says Meyerson. "And plenty of adults are coming through the doors without children, which is something we almost never see."

W&G are also luring diehards from outside the area. One out-of-state family apparently turned around at the Grand Canyon and beelined to Mesa when it heard that W&G were there. A woman called from Santa Cruz, California, to ask, "Is it true, are they really here?" And yes, says Meyerson, the word is out on the Internet. "People are talking about it in chat rooms."

The hubbub is understandable. As with all good animation, one of the chief attractions of Wallace and Gromit is their direct link to the artist's hand. Beyond such obvious things as lighting, movement of the figures and camera work, you can see Park and company's meticulous touch in all of the films' beautifully crafted figurines, backdrops and props. Every one of them--34 different sets in the case of the The Wrong Trousers--had to be fabricated. Just a handful of actual sets and artifacts is in this show, but each part is magically real.

The rivets on the rocket ship (A Grand Day Out) give you the sense that they're the reason this comfy space-home away from home reached the moon and returned. And all of the gears, bolts and mechanical minutiae on Preston the cyber dog (A Close Shave) convince you that he's the truly "Bad Dog" you get warned about on backyard fences.

Bo Smith, head of the film department at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, says the distinction of W&G is that Park and his collaborators "put as much effort into creating compelling stories and characters as they put into developing the sets and props."

The movies were made with the same claymation technique--shooting frame-by-frame movements of plasticene figures--that brought us Pokey and Gumby. But Park's approach, right down to the use of Julian Nott's carnival-ride and Hitchcock-thriller music, gives the movies the wacky feel of a Gumby Noir.

Wallace's techno-schemes and gadgets are always going awry or falling into the wrong hands. And just when things are at their worst, Wallace, his voice cracking, warbles, "Don't worry, everything's under control"--the signal for Gromit to save the day. Gromit goes about it with the world-weary cinematic presence of Charlie Chaplin. Less a pooch than a faithful conscience, he never utters a sound. Yet he commands an expressive assortment of deadpan twitches, furrows and frowns that tells you exactly what he thinks of his pet Englishman's plans, and what he fears he'll need to do about them.

In The Wrong Trousers, he sniffs out a felonious penguin who rents a room from them and commandeers a pair of mechanical pants--Wallace's latest invention--to pull a diamond heist. In A Close Shave, he puts the kibosh on a sheep-rustling robo dog who has used Wallace's plans for a knitting machine (knit-o-matic) to build his own mutton-o-matic, a processor and cannery to crank out his own brand of dog food.

"Another part of Wallace and Gromit's magic," says Smith, "is that the stories are filled with subtleties and details that really reward keen observers." The visual sleuthing usually begins with Wallace's array of household inventions. His unflagging enthusiasm for better living through technology has led him to fill the place with the delirious sort of specialized techno-gadgets (porridge guns and jam catapults for efficient breakfast service!) one expects from NASA and Star Wars movies. The search continues with the portraits of cheese that hang on background walls, or the titles and names of books and newspapers the pair read.

At one point in A Close Shave, Gromit can be seen reading the Daily Lamp-Post newspaper; at another, the Daily Beagle. And, doing time in the big house for a crime he didn't commit, he cracks open Fido Dogstoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

These and scores of other touches are unusual for a medium that easily falls victim to its own arduous process. The complexity of creating good animation partly explains why, with few exceptions (check out Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs), weekend cartoons amount to little more than chase scenes. And claymation is far more onerous than most other methods of animation.

Michael Rose, head of development at Aardman, likens it to creating live-action films in miniature, with actors that need a lot of help getting around. Like other animation, the dialogue is written and recorded first, so the characters can be properly lip-synched. Words become actions--each sound having to be put into the mouths of Wallace or the fetching Wendolene Ramsbottom (A Close Shave). Yet just to get Wallace to say the word "toast" requires eight separate movements--a third of a second.

Claymation has the added complication of gravity. "Figures are always sagging," says Rose. "And it's particularly difficult and time-consuming to do scenes of things flying, being poured or catapulted."

It took Park six years, working on and off as a student, to make the 25-minute A Grand Day Out. With the help of a co-animator and a small crew of 10, he was able to complete The Wrong Trousers (30 minutes) in a little more than a year. Rose says that Aardman used A Close Shave as an opportunity to gear up the studio for doing feature-length animations. "We wanted to see if we could shoot a film quicker, in a slightly more industrial way, without losing the quality or charm of the craft. So Nick moved into the role of directing six animators and a crew of 25 all working simultaneously." Yet, even with several sets going at once, he says, the work progresses at no more than five to 10 seconds of screen time a day. A Close Shave took more than a year to complete, too.

At the moment, Park and Aardman are developing a feature film called Chicken Run--a prisoner-of-war movie about two chickens, Ginger and Rocky, who share a troubled romance and a dream of freedom from an oppressive chicken farm in north England. No new W&Gs have been scheduled yet. But Rose says another one is bound to emerge sometime in the next century. "Even though Nick is making a feature film about chickens, he'll sit there during meetings, idly doodling sketches of Gromit. He just can't get them out of his mind."

Two weeks ago, the Museum for Youth announced that it's giving people more time to acquire the same problem. "An Adventure With Wallace and Gromit," originally scheduled to run through January 16, will be extended through March 27.

"An Adventure With Wallace and Gromit" continues through Friday, March 27, 1998, at Arizona Museum for Youth, 35 North Robson in Mesa. For more information, see the Kid Stuff listing in Thrills.


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