How Aardman's Stop-Motion Animators Broke the CG Software

While still in production of Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, stop-motion house Aardman Animations were preparing to go into production on their next film Flushed Away. This film, too, was slated to be stop-motion but Dreamworks, which funds Aardman’s feature film division, wanted the film to be released sooner than would be possible using stop motion. So the decision was made to use CG while trying to preserve the Aardman design and look.
We spoke with animator Dug Calder on making the transition from stop-motion to CG and back again, and from the relatively small confines of Aardman to the huge complex of Dreamworks Studio to create Flushed Away.

Explain the process on moving from stop motion animation, a process which you are familiar with, to working in CG, which was new to you.

Well it was difficult because the designs were all Aardman designs but we were trying to make them move in an Aardman style. At Aardman we generally work on doubles (shooting each setup with two film frames), which gives that jumpy Wallace & Gromit feel, but that doesn’t work in CG. So the CG animators were finding it difficult to do Aardman-style animation in CG, which is partly why DreamWorks brought on so many Aardman animators on it because at least we knew the style and were familiar with how the character was supposed to move. It’s just a challenge to get the computer to accept that and do what we wanted it to do.

Traditional animation moves around a lot and has a tremendous amount of energy but Wallace & Gromit doesn’t have that because they are a solid body made of plasticine that doesn’t move around at all. So we were trying to impose that on the computer and make it not move as much.

Asking it to work on doubles just didn’t work at all. For some reason on the computer made it look like it was strobing whereas on film with stop motion it seems to work. So we had to look at how the characters were moving and change it and tweak it.

How was working at DreamWorks?

A little odd. At DreamWorks you are part of a machine, there’s so many people involved at so many stages that you feel like you are part of the machinery. Quite often someone finishes your shot or vice versa. But you’re always doing just part of it so you don’t get so emotionally attached to it, partly because you are just sitting at a computer, it’s not hands-on like stop motion, and partly because it can get taken away from you at any stage and you are asked to do something else. You are much more of a computer technician rather than an artist.

At Aardman I feel quite important because I am the person who brings it to life, and when I have finished a shot it is on film and the only way to redo it is to redo. You can’t just dip in and change a line of dialogue or a color of hair or a background. Once you’ve finished a shot that’s it.

At DreamWorks when you finish the animation it goes off and is rendered and lit and someone else could tweak the lighting and someone else could tweak the animation and then you get it back and you think, ‘Is that what I did?’

How were you eventually able to get the animation the way you wanted it from the computer?

I can imagine how I want the acting in my head and I know I can create it in stop-motion so it was frustrating sometimes because the computer makes stuff up in an effort to help you but if you didn’t want it that way you have to find a way to stop the computer. In stop motion you work out it methodically from the beginning and build it up. In CG you can do little bits here and there and the computer fills in the gaps and usually it fills it in wrong. So to start with I was trying to figure out ways to tell the computer not to do things so it was a little but of a backwards workflow.

Was there anything you liked about working in CG?

I loved how flexible it was and how you can go back and change things and how if you didn’t quite get the shot the way you wanted to the first time you could go back and redo it. If the character blinks at the wrong point or his mouth isn’t moving right then you can change that so I liked that. Because quite often you’ll do a shot in stop motion there will be something about the shot that you don’t like, something you wish you had done different or bigger or better. And in CG you can change it.

So I think bringing that knowledge back to stop frame I can have targets within a shot where he really has to be at that point and try and be a bit bolder with it. You tend to be a bit timid with stop motion because it is all being caught on film and once it’s done it’s done so you can’t change it so you tend to play it safe. But now that I experienced the workflow of CG I think I will try to push things a little farther and take more chances when working in stop motion.