- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

English animator Nick Park was in the District recently to promote last week’s opening of “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” the belated first feature contrived around his popular cartoon characters, an eccentric inventor and his trusty dog.

The pair were introduced in the early 1990s in an animated short titled “A Grand Day Out.” That promising start led to a humorously confident and uproarious set of follow-ups, “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave,” which won Academy Awards for best animated short in 1994 and 1996, respectively.

Aardman Animation, a Bristol-based company, hired Mr. Park fresh out of the National Film & Television School in Beaconsfield, England, in 1985. When Aardman decided it was solvent enough to branch out from shorts and commercials to produce a feature, it was assumed that Wallace & Gromit would spearhead the expansion. Instead, Mr. Park and Aardman founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton took another tack. They collaborated on a witty parody of prisoner-of-war escape melodramas titled “Chicken Run,” released to resounding success in 2000.

“I was naturally a bit cautious,” explains the slight and soft-spoken Mr. Park, tucked into a corner of a dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel. “Sometimes, things that are short and small work because they’re short and small. It can be a mistake to force them into a bigger picture. I had the idea for ‘Were-Rabbit’ while we were making ‘Chicken Run’ and started playing around with the notion. Basically, rabbits stealing vegetables and Wallace trying to stop them. I sat around the pub with Bob Baker, one of the writers from ‘Wrong Trousers’ and ‘Close Shave.’ We hit on the idea of taking it in a monster movie direction. That allowed us to plunder a whole genre. I didn’t want something that would feel like a padding-out of an idea you could do in half an hour.”

Despite the technological advances and fashionability associated with computer graphic animation, Mr. Park believes that the methodology of the “Wallace & Gromit” films hasn’t changed much in 15 years or so. “It’s pretty much the same technique,” he reflects. “Three-dimensional puppets made from plasticine. In some ways we’ve gone more traditional than we did in ‘Chicken Run.’ There, we had the problem of feathers, which looked smudgy in plasticine. So we used all kinds of foam and silicone on the body casts. We do a bit of that in ‘Were-Rabbit,’ where it’s just easier to use foam latex for trousers and shoes.”

Mr. Park prefers to build duplicate plasticine models for the characters and detailed miniature sets for their interplay. “We don’t create sets in the computers,” he emphasizes. “Our guys do their planning and layouts in computers, working out scales and perspectives before construction begins. Like everyone else, we do light compositing and special effects in the computers afterwards. Gromit flying against a blue screen. Fog. Steam coming out of a kettle. Flames. Those sorts of things.”

Nick Park was born in Preston, Lancashire, in December 1958. He was the middle sibling in a brood of four boys and one girl. He recalls, wistfully, “Art was the only thing I was good at.”

He aspired to be a cartoonist as a boy and sketched his own comic strips. Belatedly, he noticed that the family 8mm movie camera had an animation button. So from age 13 or so, he photographed his own sketches and flip books in the family attic, transforming them into homemade cartoon shorts. He was also molding clay figures that became animated characters and props.

Mr. Park remained a provincial prodigy. He received a bachelor’s degree from the Sheffield Art School before moving on to Beaconsfield, where his student work was accomplished enough to attract Aardman and other professional companies. “A Grand Day Out” was a work-in-progress while he was still at film school.

The animator sounds far from finished with his pair of old friends. If ‘Were-Rabbit’ is a success, I’m sure we’ll start thinking about what might work for another feature,” he says. “I think you can kind of put Wallace and Gromit anywhere, but I’ll have to be inspired before we start.”

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