Sunday, October 09, 2005

Musing Pictures: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

I think I enjoy the Wallace and Gromit claymation films because their humor is so easy to enjoy -- it tends to be clean-ish, with an occasional hint at something sardonic and different... perhaps it's the British origins to this particular humor which make it so appealing to me? But what I really, truly appreciate about Wallace and Gromit in this age of cheaply-produced "reality TV" is the clearly excruciating level of absolute detail that these films exhibit. I just got back from "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit", their first feature (Wallace and Gromit's first feature, that is -- Nick Park already has the likes of "Chicken Run" on his resume).

Again, the humor fit me very well -- it was generally fairly clean, always sharp, and always funny in a good-natured sort of way, a way that made me enjoy laughing. And again, the details struck me as ridiculously impressive.

In a documentary on Film Noir which I show to my students every year, one of the talking heads (whose name, admittedly, I ought to remember) says something about film which strikes me as both true and forgotten: If you are making a movie, you have to be in total control of everything which appears on screen, because if you're not controling it, you're not making a movie -- you're just taking pictures.

My first reaction to this line when I heard it was that of course it couldn't be absolutely true -- when I shoot my films, I can't afford to construct a set, so I use real places, real locations, and as such, necessarily, my choice of location is in leu of my ability to fully control an environment -- I pick a location, rather than creating one, and that's about as close as I can get to full control.

But that's just it -- it's still a manipulation of the narrative, or, rather, a manipulation (by eliminating all other possible locations) of the place in which the narrative unfolds, and in that sense, it's still more control than simply 'taking pictures'.

But then there are reality TV shows, where there's really very little directorial intent behind the actions of characters or their background. And films have been edging towards this trend as well ("The Blair Witch Project" was a fluke in its day, but there's a tendency now to shoot from the hip in movies -- especially in independent films, shot on video, because tape is cheap, and it's all about 'accidentally' getting the right shot... it's like entering a marksmanship competition with a howitzer, or an M-16: the target will get hit by something, but it doesn't really matter how much else will get hit as well.)

With claymation, though (and, in some ways, with most types of animation), there is an absolute necessity to pay full attention to the details, because they can not be accidental. Animations from the age of classical hollywood (think: "Snow White") tended to showcase a few details, and to use the background the way live-action films would use a painted backdrop. A bird flying through a tree, for example, was intentionally placed there, and as such, would not be "background" in the way that the forest is a background, 'behind' it...

In fact, the way the early Disney features were shot would allow to get rid of the quotes around the word 'behind' -- the camera would be set up on a device that would show several "layers" of the image, with foreground objects closest to the camera, and the backdrop farthest from it. The camera would shoot 'through' all of these layers, compressing them visually in to the one image which we'd see on the screen.

The difference with claymation is that although there is a "set" in which the action takes place, that "set" has to be constructed with the care and detail of everything that appears before it -- there is no "background" in claymation, the way one would see it in a classical Disney animation. Since claymation is authentically three-dimensional when it is shot, the sense of depth in the image is much clearer than it is in classical animation, which takes on a two-dimensional, image-within-a-frame look. A city street in claymation is a model of a city street, not a painting of one, and whereas paintings do not require detail, models, somehow, demand it.

I don't think I'd appreciate Wallace and Gromit nearly as much if the settings of their films were dulled -- if walls were just flat expanses of clay, and if books were nothing more than rectangular clay blocks.

The great thing about the detail in these films, though, is that none of it is there just to 'look pretty'. Something I recommend to anyone who sees a Wallace and Gromit film is READ EVERYTHING! Every word placed in to the background is placed with such intention and care that the background of the film is its own entertaining device, where all sorts of humor lurks, awaiting discovery. Somehow all of this is placed in to the background of the film with such skill and with such care that it does not detract from the narrative itself, nor does it attempt to upstage the narrative like a bluebird flapping its way through an early Disney feature, stepping in to the foreground for its moment in front of the lens. No, the background here stays background, and beckons the viewer to really dive in to the film's surface, among its textures, to really experience the full richness of the humor involved.

Perhaps my favorite example of this, not from this most recent film of theirs, but from an earlier Wallace and Gromit claymation (perhaps "The Wrong Trousers?" but I don't remember):

Poor Gromit the dog has been placed in prison. We get a shot of him laying on his prison bunk morosely reading a book. To see a dog in prison, reading a book, is kind of funny in itself, but if you really look closely (at a detail that is not meant to stand out), the book he is reading is (none other than) "Crime and Punishment"! And if you read the smaller print (if you go through all that effort, you're already inside the frame itself, inside that prison cell, because you can't read the small print otherwise), you see it's by none other than that great canine, "Fido Dogstoyevsky"

It's not a bluebird flapping its wings for the audience -- it's a little, tiny detail underneath another little tiny detail in a small part of a small shot in a small scene in a short film. It could have just been any old book, and no one would have noticed, but someone on that animating team went through the trouble to create those letters on the cover of that book, and that's where making movies really happens.


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