Absurdity and the Freedom of the Medium

In this column, Amos Lamb will take you through the wonderful world of animation. Exploring what makes it such an appealing genre/medium for all ages, with the focus spanning from the mainstream animation studios like Disney & Studio Ghibli, to more obscure animation such as Japanese OVA’s, British claymation, Czechoslovakian stop-motion and everything in-between. 

In last week’s column, I wrote about how animation can be used to capture historical events and the collective trauma of humans through its medium. This week, however, I decided to highlight the complete opposite: how animation can be used to capture the wholly absurd and unbelievable, in amazing ways through impressive technical achievements in the medium. And what better staple of British animation captures this feeling? For me, it’s Nick Park’s classic series of short films: The Wallace & Gromit films.

Before I delve into the films themselves, I thought I should take some time to talk about the style of animation that Park uses and the history behind it. This style is, of course, stop-motion animation, a technique where models are moved and the film is captured one frame at a time, resulting in the complete film will look like the models are moving independently. The technique itself dates back to one of the earliest animated films of all time (and one I will definitely write about for this column at some point); The Adventures of Prince Achmed. In this film director, and animation pioneer, Lotte Reiniger, used a precursor to stop-motion through a technique known as Silhouette animation in which she would manipulate paper cut-outs in each frame in order to tell her story. Reiniger had a tremendous impact on British Animation as one of many famous animators who ended up emigrating to Britain, and her legacy can still be seen in modern-day animation. Stop-motion animation too, has a lot and important history within British animation, with many cultural icons stemming from this sub-genre, including; Andy Pandy, Bagpuss, the Clangers, Fireman Sam, The Magic Roundabout, Paddington, and Postman Pat, among others. Then in the late 80’s & early 90’s, Aardman Animations broke into the mainstream conscious (although they did have some success in the companies early years it must be said) through Nick Park’s two creations: Creature Comforts & Wallace and Gromit. 

The first entry into the franchise is A Grand Day Out, which was always my favourite growing up, which started as a graduation project for Nick Park, which he completed part-time while working for Aardman. I include that detail that Park was working on this while studying, because the level of detail and smoothness that goes into the stop-motion is incredible considering the stage Park was at in his career. Things that most people probably wouldn’t consider like the water being poured from the kettle and Wallace spinning the globe are small details that help flesh out the scene and its energy, but also show an incredible level of detail and effort from the animators. As film progresses this idea of how smooth the animation is becomes clearer, scenes like Gromit shuffling the deck of cards require so much delicacy being made 1 frame at a time. But the biggest example of this level of care is through the characters themselves, there’s so much detail and expression shown through the models, even in characters like Gromit & the robot on the Moon who can’t convey emotion through dialogue in the same way as Wallace. The latter example is arguably the more impressive of the two as it doesn’t even have a face through which to convey emotion, but there’s never a moment in the short that you couldn’t tell what the robot is feeling. This care, attention and level of detail extends further than just the characters, and that is to the settings as well, Wallace & Gromit’s house is so drenched in British design it not only adds to the humour of the short, but shows a level of authenticity that meshes well with the absurdity of the short later on. From the wallpaper, to the travel catalogues, to the patterns on the sofa, all feel lifted out of real-life homes, and it’s this level of attention to detail that show the care and effort devoted to this short. One of the main reasons I love these shorts is that Nick Park creates the most wonderfully absurd storylines that reveal in the animation style and the freedom that the medium gives it. In A Grand Day Out we follow the titular duo as they take a day-trip to the moon in order to find cheese to match their crackers (could you come up with a more British storyline?), but upon arrival they encounter a disused robot who resents the two’s disruption to the moon’s surface and tries to chase them down. Going back to what I was saying about the absurd, the story is drenched in it and doesn’t feel the need to explain or justify anything (nor does it ever feel like it has too). The story combined with the freedom of the animation gives way to some fantastic visual gags; rats in sunglasses watching the rocket launch, the beach-ball gag on the moon, and pretty much everything the robot does, are all hilarious. It’s a fantastic first entry on its own merits, the animation holds up well and even revisiting it so many years later I still found myself smiling and laughing throughout.

Following on from an impressive first entry, Nick Park and his team managed to knock it out of the park again with The Wrong Trousers. All the things I’ve just been praising about A Grand Day Out could easily be repeated for this entry. There is still an incredible level of detail in the animation that flesh out the world of the story; this is especially seen in the bedrooms of the different characters, whether it’s the mechanisms within Wallace’s room, or the bone-wallpaper and dart holes in the door in Gromit’s room. It’s details like this that turn the world from one made solely for the film, into a world that feels lived in by the characters, this level of care and attention just shows the heart of the animators. Similarly the animation looks so smooth and gorgeous in this film, this comes across most obviously in the various mechanisms and inventions we see throughout the film. From Wallace’s wake-up routine, to the techno-trousers, to the claw-helmet used in the climax, they’re all so smoothly animated, it highlights an incredible level of sophistication and technical prowess from the team. Once again the writers create an absurd storyline alongside a fantastic script, with lots of clever set-ups and pay-offs throughout the film. Peter Sallis is brilliant as Wallace, much like in the previous short, his distinct accent and pronunciations, along with the funny script make him absolutely unforgettable. Much like the robot in A Grand Day Out, the team manages to convey so much emotion through the mute characters; the whole opening half of the short showing a friction between the titular duo, as Gromit feels underappreciated by Wallace, and again later on when Gromit leaves home, there’s so much emotion conveyed through his facial expressions (helped as well by the ambience of the weather, cinematography & soundtrack). So much of the emotional stakes of this short is told through Gromit and his expressions and movements, and the detail in some of the scenes of Gromit’s emotions is simply stunning; the best example of this being the scene where he cries and tears run down his face, such a simple display of emotion that makes the entire scene so moving, while also demonstrating fantastic technical ability from the animators. Similarly to Gromit, the antagonist of the film, Feathers McGraw, is mute, but again there’s never any sense of confusion about what he’s feeling. The animators manage to craft a cocky & mysterious air around him, and during the heist scene the fear and tension comes across brilliantly, despite very few facial expressions on his face. This short is probably, in my opinion, the best of the three overall representation of these elements I’m highlighting in the series. The plot is so out-there and absurd, it’s really funny, it gets really emotional too, and the climactic train-chase scene at the end is one of the best sequences in animation history. 

Finally, for this column, the final entry into the original trilogy of shorts; A Close Shave. In this short, we follow Wallace & Gromit as they pursue a career in window-washing set against the backdrop of the mysterious disappearances of the local sheep. Learning from the last two entries in the franchise, we can see a similar innovation that can be seen in The Wrong Trousers, where the level of detail within the animation is even more impressive and detailed. Scenes such as the breakfast sequence where Wallace is pelted with porridge is not only a great visual gag, but also requires a very high level of technical prowess from the animators. But this level of quality runs throughout the short, with impressive sequences like the climactic chase scene, the movements of the Preston, especially after it is revealed he is a robot, and even small sequences such as Gromit washing windows are so wonderfully frenetic it is nothing short of impressive. For me personally, A Close Shave, is my least favourite of the three narrative-wise, but there’s not denying Nick Park & Bob Barker did a great job with the screenplay matching the sinister aura of Preston, with a good pace that flows throughout ultimately coming to a gripping climax. 

To me, the lasting impression these Wallace & Gromit films have had, not only on me, but in the cultural consciousness, is easily explainable. Nick Park and his team have managed to create these wonderfully weird and wacky worlds, with stories that could only be done justice through animation. For me, I look at these short films and see the absolute best of what can be done in the medium, there is so much technical prowess on show while retaining a joyful and hilarious feeling that I would argue is universal for the audience. 

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