All creatures great and small

Laurence Alster

Laurence Alster visits an exhibition showing an animated menagerie Ever since screenwriter Colin Welland's triumphant declaration "The British are coming!" on winning an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, our showing at the Academy Awards ceremony has, you might say, been patchy at best. In other words, a couple of bests here and a few best supportings there, but nothing too consistent. Unless you include the work of Aardman Animations.

Based in Bristol, Aardman has so far gained the coveted Best Short Animated Film award for Creature Comforts (1990) and for The Wrong Trousers (1993). Both gold statuettes hold centre-stage in a trophy-filled display cabinet at "Frame by Frame: the work of Aardman Animations", an enchanting exhibition currently at the City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol.

Housed in a single, largish display hall, the exhibits illustrate the time, dedication and inventiveness needed to produce the marvellous entertainments for which Aardman are celebrated. Not that we didn't already know, of course, that creating animated cartoons presumes such qualities; but it appears that plasticine, the preferred medium of the Aardman team, demands even more creative flair and patience.

Visitors learn this, and much more, from displays around the room. While 11 large picture frames offer illustrated accounts of everything from the basic principles of model animation to the benefits of using a video for instant impressions of one's work, the several large display cases are transparently the main attraction.

These contain some of the most endearing (and, in all probability, enduring) characters in recent film and television history. For instance, by far the biggest case holds the entire set of the diamond room from the museum heist sequence in The Wrong Trousers. It's a fascinating exhibit for all sorts of reasons.

In the first place, the set props themselves make a number of amusing references to other favourite characters in the Aardman menagerie. Children were quick to spot the Brazilian panther and the penguins from Creature Comforts here, they're stuffed museum exhibits, complete with ostentatious stitch marks while adults were amused at such other props as a miniature Rodin titled "The Snog" or, on one wall, a pastiche Mona Lisa, both with characteristic Aardman features.

Another doll's house-type display shows Wallace and Gromit, the central characters from The Wrong Trousers, in their sitting-room. Again, it's the attention to detail that takes the eye. Gromit the dog sits, knitting, opposite his owner Wallace, whose favourite cheese and crackers rest on an old-fashioned pouffe. A perfect picture of cosy togetherness but, as The Wrong Trousers buffs will recognise, there is something rather unsettling about the headline, complete with penguin mug shot, of the newspaper resting on a nearby armchair: "Feathers McGraw Back Inside".

If all this is very amusing, the main exhibit makes it plain that such fun is the product of hundreds of hours of careful planning and hard, painstaking labour. Covering almost half the available wall space are huge, framed displays of the storyboards drawn as part of the planning for The Wrong Trousers. Not so involving for children, perhaps, but utterly unmissable for serious students of the form.

Looking like pages torn from a giant comic book, the exhibit traces the development of the film from very first to final shot. It is an absorbing testimony to the careful preparation that made the finished product so memorable. Here are hundreds of hand-drawn scenes, each complete with dialogue, camera directions, movement arrows and set props (though not all; Aardman aficionados will note that some, like the chamber pot under the rascally penguin's bed, appear in the finished version only).

This is inspiration in the raw, and fascinating with it. On the other hand, those who prefer their characters fully-formed will probably settle for a gratifyingly lengthy loop videotape, with extracts from the Aardman corpus, plus an absorbing and often revealing commentary from the film-makers themselves. Many favourites are there: the terrific video of Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, Wallace and Gromit, naturally, the talkative beasts of Creature Comforts, plus some lesser-known but still stunning work, including advertisements for butter ("Leader of Lurpak") and the Manchester Evening News.

An audience of all ages lapped it up. There was, it is true, some concern at Aardman chief Nick Parker's admission that two years spent making The Wrong Trousers had left him feeling "sick of it all." But it was only temporary. He and the team are hard at work again, no doubt hoping for their third Oscar. After seeing this exhibition, few would bet against their getting it.

Frame by Frame: the work of Aardman Animation, City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol until August 29. Opening times 10.00am-5.00pm daily. Admission Pounds 2 to museum including Aardman exhibition. Tel: 0117 9223571

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