They've got the look

Painstakingly, computers replicate charms of Aardman handicraft.

By Susan King
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 2, 2006

"Flushed Away," the latest collaboration between DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features, may look like their previous two productions, "Chicken Run" and the Oscar-winning "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." But those two films were done in stop-frame animation; "Flushed Away" was animated strictly with computers.

For stop-frame, the Aardman artists make Plasticine models with metal armatures, which enables animators to painstakingly pose the puppets and fashion their facial movement frame by frame.

Initially, "Flushed Away" was conceived as a traditional hand-made stop-frame project. But as the film, which opens tomorrow, became bigger in scope, directors David Bowers and Sam Fell realized it couldn't be done the old-fashioned way.

Set on and beneath the streets of London, the story begins with a pampered pet mouse named Roddy St. James (voiced by Hugh Jackman) a cross between David Niven and Inspector Clouseau who accidentally is flushed down the toilet into a vast mouse metropolis in the sewers.

He quickly forms a love-hate relationship with a streetwise rat named Rita (Kate Winslet) who agrees to take him back to his home. Ian McKellen voices the villainous Toad, who hates rodents; Jean Reno is his slick mercenary, Le Frog.

"It's the big things that are hard the water, the vast amount of people and the size of the sets," Bowers said. "We wouldn't have had enough room in our studio [in Bristol, England] to do it. If we had to do it in stop-frame, it would have been a much smaller and much dryer film, that's for sure."

The different production technology notwithstanding, Bowers and Fell kept the same distinctive design aesthetic of the Aardman shorts and features, including the characters' expressive brows and pronounced, wedge-shaped teeth. "We wanted to feel part of the Aardman family," Bowers said.

Visual effects supervisor Wendy Rogers steered the whole movie in terms of the look, he said. "I think she was one of the first people on the movie and she really made sure that we kept that Aardman look."

"Flushed Away" marks the feature-film directing debut of both Bowers and Fell. Bowers was a story artist on "The Prince of Egypt" and "The Road to El Dorado" and did the storyboards for "Chicken Run." Fell had directed commercials for Aardman. But they said that making the movie with computers wasn't a big technological challenge.