Intro from Jay Allison: Transom is proud to welcome the creative team behind our favorite animated series, Creature Comforts. If you haven't seen it, get thee quickly to their Transom pages and catch up. This series comes from Aardman Animation in England (home of Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, etc.), and is inhabited by claymation animals whose identities are derived from audio interviews with real people. There's a kinship between radio and animation, because we all imagine the source of voices we hear, and if our imaginations are free-ranging and whimsical, the voices might look like this. Kit Boss, Richard "Golly" Goleszowski, and Dan Sinclair talk to Transom's Samantha Broun. The conversation is transcribed, illustrated with audio/video, and is downloadable in MP3. There's also a "Making Of" video, and all sorts of background and technique, including interviewing. And you can ask questions. This is good stuff. You'll like it.
Eyeballs and Fiships: The Making of Creature Comforts
Sound and Voice
Samantha Broun from Transom.org spoke with Supervising Director, Richard “Golly” Goleszowski; Executive Producer, Kit Boss; and All-Star Interviewer, Dan Sinclair from the Aardman animated television series, Creature Comforts.
|Transom:||As radio folks we’re all for things that start with sound and voices. My first question is, is this the only piece of animation that’s sound driven? Where the soundtrack is unscripted and comes first?|
|Golly:||[Nick Park and Aardman Animations have] a massive history of using vox pop type material. We recorded stuff in old peoples’ homes, and a radio station, and a local magazine. One of the films was an interview with a, a petty criminal that was just reproduced. It was a guy talking about his criminal past.
But Creature Comforts was the first one to subvert what had been recorded and turn it into something else. That was a brand new idea at the time.
|Kit:||Golly, I don’t mean to contradict you, and I could be wrong. Wasn’t there an Aardman short [prior to Creature Comforts] where old people were talking about going on holiday?|
|Golly:||Oh, of course, yeah, sorry. Ignore everything I’ve just said. It’s complete bullshit. [Laughter] Yes, there was the one in the old peoples’ home. It was in an old peoples’ home, but for the purposes of the film it was set on a desert island. So, it was plane crash survivors talking about how they actually quite liked it now on this on the desert island, which was old people talking about the old peoples’ home. Yes, sorry Kit, you’re right.|
|Kit:||Nick definitely took it and pushed it further and then Golly, when you did the first Creature Comforts in the U. K. I mean, Golly thinks in this kind of lateral way of taking audio and sliding it sideways. We kept talking about taking things that were meant for one context and ripping them out of that context and putting them in a new context that gave them a lot of humor, and a whole new level of subtext.
Golly’s the best at it. One that I remember distinctly, Golly, you were in L.A. listening to audio that we had just brought in. There was a guy from San Francisco, I believe, who was being interviewed about very mundane things, and he was really ill at ease and would laugh nervously after everything he said.
|Golly:||He came across as sounding dishonest. He was asked a question about birds and he said, “I don’t know anything about birds,” and kind of laughed nervously. So it was kind of useful to have him as a fox. “Birds? Why, I don’t know anything about birds, no.” And then in his shrug the fox momentarily produces two chickens from behind his back, so we can physically see he’s lying.|
|Kit:||It was one of those interviews where there was that moment of magic, you know. It was just a coming together of his discomfort and the right topic, and it was completely spontaneous and unplanned. Although Dan, I have to say, is really good at getting that out of people.|
|Dan:||And sometimes the interviewer will be surprised by what Golly and the team think of. I interviewed these people in an Indian restaurant and they were talking about how many Indians they’d had — they’d had three Indians on the premises that week. They were turned into two tigers in an Indian village, with little huts in the background. So when they were talking about how many Indians they’d had, they’re literally talking about eating Indian people, rather than Indian food. I think sometimes what I do is try out lots of different ideas. I might go through five or six different animals in my head that I think they might be, and go down different lines of inquiry.|
|Kit:||I have one, Dan, though you weren’t the interviewer. The idea was to get a couple of wine snobs to talk about wine, and taste some wine, and do the actual inhaling of the bouquet of the wine. And then turn them into dogs just hanging out on a street corner, sniffing each other and being very snooty about it, very kind of high-minded. Talking in these lofty terms about the bouquet, and the scent of raisins or whatever.|
|Golly:||“Hint of cassis” was my favorite line. “Hmm, hint of cassis, hmm, perfect.” [Laughter]|
In Search of Good Tape
|Transom:||When you guys send interviewers out, what kind of qualities do you tell them to look for in people?|
|Golly:||My favorite line, and you said it, I think, Kit, was: I’d like you to record people that you wouldn’t normally sit next to on a bus.|
|Kit:||It’s funny because Dan had the exact 180 degree opposite opinion. He was like, “Oh, I love to sit next to these people on a bus.” [Laughter] So, people who never give a short answer to anything; people who, you ask them the time of day and they tell you their life story.
A lot of it had to do with trying to break interviewers of standard, run-and-gun, man-on-the-street interviews that they might do for radio stations. To just take the time to find people who have nothing on their resume that would make them an interesting feature topic. We wanted normal people who happen to have interesting opinions, or who happen to have really interesting voices. That was part of it too.
Golly as an animator and a director knows that what the animators love is to have subtext, and to have the sound of acting that they can then animate to; where you imagine the expressions on the person’s face, or you imagine their body language. There are some people who are very animate-able, who are very animated when they speak.
|Golly:||The real magic, in animation terms, is when you can make somebody say something, but you believe they’re thinking something else. That’s the subtext thing, of which the fox would be a good example.|
|Transom:||So you’re sort of animating what’s not being said.|
|Golly:||In an ideal world, yes. And sometimes it’s just in a funny way. Sometimes it’s just pricking pretension.|
|Kit:||I like to find people who take things seriously because we can sort of undercut that a little. People who are full of themselves, but don’t have a reason to be, is inherently funny.|
|Transom:||What qualities make Dan your all-star interviewer?|
|Golly:||Well, I thought Dan was actually very brave, quite sort of fearless. He’d go into situations where a lot of interviewers wouldn’t want to go to because it was just too much effort to interview people. And he wouldn’t let a subject go. If he felt he was onto something he would absolutely mine it, and plumb it, and milk it for everything it was worth. Which was terrific for us because then we had lots of great material about one subject that we could piece together.|
|Kit:||Like any great interviewer, he was not afraid to make himself look stupid.
One thing Dan was so much better at than the average interviewer was not just talking to a small circle of friends. Part of that is about not just going to interview people that you would naturally spend your time with in your social hours. Find people who are of different social classes, whose sense of humor maybe rubs you the wrong way. Or somebody who’s old enough to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, or young enough that you feel a little bit awkward around them. Dan was great at moving out of his own class and age, and he had an amazing ability to bring in really good interview subjects. Partly because he would do a lot of pre-interviews, you know, so he was willing to do his homework in that, too.
|Golly:||He’s also good looking and slightly built, so he could get into lots of situations.|
|Kit:||Right. I swear to God, women just wanted to wrap him up and adopt him and take him home. Older women especially, just wanted him to be their grandson/boy toy. And I know there were some circumstances where, talking to older interviewees, he didn’t go out of his way to make his British accent easier to understand. He didn’t go out of his way to speak at the top of his voice so someone could hear him at all times. He knows that it can be really funny if someone misunderstands a question or has trouble hearing something. He was always hyper-aware of the possibilities that surrounded him, and of not leaving anything untried.|
|Kit:||Have you thought of a particular place you went into that made you feel a little uncomfortable?|
|Dan:||I think probably the place I felt that I stuck out the most, and looked the most absurd, was the wrestling place in the British series.
It’s an incredibly masculine environment, very butch. What they’re doing would probably be described as very homoerotic, but they would never see it as that. I just could not have fit in any worse. Everyone was very aware that I was there, everyone was looking at me like, what on earth is he doing here? That meant I had to work a lot harder to try and get the trust of the interviewees, so that I could get what I needed.
You can never sit back and think, oh, I know that I’m a good interviewer. I don’t think it’s a learnt thing. You can’t learn to be a good interviewer for Creature Comforts, you can improve, but I think that either you can do it or you can’t. If you can — and I don’t want it to sound pretentious — but if you can, if you are naturally a Creature Comforts interviewer, you just have a sixth sense for what is a Creature Comforts interview. I still think in those terms now. If I’m on the bus or in the London Underground and I’ll see someone and hear their voice, hear how they’re talking, and everything that’s non-verbal, their mannerisms and things like that.
Although you want the sound, it’s someone’s mannerisms and the way that they’re interacting that gives you all the clues. I still think of people as Creature Comforts characters. And I think you either get that or you don’t.
|Kit:||It’s great when you find people who will reveal themselves and reveal their relationships. Because there’s no reason that they should, and there’s so many reasons they shouldn’t let somebody with a microphone know what really makes them tick. Dan and the good interviewers are the ones who make the person feel like they’re really interested in what they have to say no matter how mundane. It’s so unusual for some people to find anyone who wants to hear them, who really wants to give them the time to say what’s on their mind. A lot of people open up really wonderfully when you do that.|
Working with Strangers
|Transom:||Dan, how do you approach people you don’t know? And how do you get people to relax and be themselves?|
|Dan:||How I approach people, I don’t know, there’s just no easy way around it. I’d say that’s probably one of the hardest bits, ironically. It’s just going up to someone that you don’t know and asking if you can interview them. And if I’m doing vox pops, I might want to interview them there and then. You’re always thinking, you know, are they thinking I’m just some absolute weirdo. [Laughter] So that’s the biggest thing in my mind.
When I approach someone cold, I’m just quite serious about it, and explain what I’m doing and tell them quite a lot about the TV show. It was harder in America because many people haven’t heard of Creature Comforts. You just have to be brave and be prepared that some people might reject you, and think that you’re weird, and that you’re trying to rob them or do something bizarre.
|Kit:||I think they assume that you’re some kind of leprechaun or some kind of elf from a magical kingdom.|
|Dan:||Yeah, so they’re thinking what’s he trying, what does this one want? Once you’ve got the microphone out and you’ve started recording, then they’re fine because they realize what you’re doing. They very quickly get distracted from wondering if you’re for real, because they start to enjoy that someone is actually interested in what they’re saying.
Putting people at ease, I think humor is my best weapon for that. If you can just make someone smile or chuckle then they automatically warm to you. I won’t put on an act because if you’re not yourself, people pick up on that, and they probably won’t be their selves either, because they’ll have some type of guard up. But what I do is allow the more bumbling side of my personality to come out, and there is an enormous bumbling side to my personality. They feel at ease because I come across as a normal person who’s a bit bumbling and possibly even a bit incompetent.
If I just went in as this media savvy, straight-to-business, know exactly what I’m doing sort, that’s the worst thing you could do for a Creature Comforts interview. That would make them feel very self-conscious: “Am I going to say the right thing?” I try and make sure that they don’t have any expectations of the interviews being a certain way, a certain standard. That gives them permission to, oh, well, he doesn’t really quite know what he’s doing, doesn’t know what he’s looking for, I can just be myself, it doesn’t matter.
|Kit:||That same technique always served me really well when I was a newspaper reporter and doing feature articles, profiles about people, where you just let that side of you come out. I would let myself be a bit more Columbo than I would naturally be in real life. Ask things in a roundabout, “Oh wait, I forgot to…” kind of way.
What I saw happen with Dan, and I’ve seen it with myself too, is that people start to feel a little bit sorry for you, like they need to help you make this work; like they feel you might get fired if it doesn’t turn out well.
|Kit:||We tried to get everyone using the same type of digital recorders. We gave a lot of advice about what sort of mics, in our experience, work the best, what formats work the best, what kind of file transfer protocol to use, all that stuff. That being said, we had one interviewer who was using analogue tape in some of his interviews, and we had others who were using top-end, NPR type recording gear because they worked on the side as network, or NPR correspondents. It definitely wasn’t very high-end stuff that you were using, Dan.|
|Dan:||The digital technology has got so cheap and so good now that you can actually get a decent Sony microphone and a minidisk recorder. The way that we did it was to record on standard minidisks. Then they’d be digitized in real time, which was really time consuming because you’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio. Now these little digital recorders you can actually plug into the computer and transfer it across a digital file. Literally, it cuts the time down enormously.
The kit that we use is not expensive. What’s the priority there is the technical competence of the interviewer. It’s not rocket science, but if they don’t pay attention, if they haven’t had some type of professional training, then it can make the interviews really difficult to use.
|Golly:||Yeah, we had a few disasters, didn’t we? The other thing I wanted to add is, I personally like the varying quality of recordings, as long as they’re audible. It kind of adds to the realism. When we had a sound editor and he’d clean all the tracks up, I said actually I’d prefer it left because it sounds like what it is. If you clean it up too much, it all sounds too studio, then you pull people out of the realisms and they start thinking of it as a drama.|
|Kit:||When you leave some of the ambient noise in, or some of the stuff that an audio engineer would try to clean up at the final mix, there’s something about it that makes your ears perk up a little bit and say, wait a minute, this does not sound like everything else that I’ve watched on TV. Even down to the level of the audio being a little bit dirty, to me it sells the realism of it and the fact that we didn’t make these things up.|
|Transom:||When you would have a group of people you were interviewing, how would you mic that?|
|Dan:||That was really tricky. The interviewer does need to be pretty competent with what they’re doing. There was a situation I remember on the U. K. series where we put multiple mics, and had a sound mixer, and the interviewer. That went against a lot of what we were trying to do with people being at ease and natural, because there was equipment and an extra person making them hyper-aware they’re being recorded. The mic frames that we use have a setting where they can pick up sound from a wider angle. I would interview quite large groups and just use one mic. You just have to predict who’s going to move next and actually move the mic to pick them up. That was the best way.
Creature Comforts is sort of different from anything else I’ve worked on where you’d put radio mics on them all and then have a boom mic above, and get perfect sound from everybody. But it’s about people being themselves, so you have to compromise a bit. Like Golly and Kit were saying, if the sound’s a little bit dirty, and not perfect, and rough around the edges, it adds to the atmosphere.
|Kit:||I think Dan may have done the interview where two old guys were talking in a retirement home and one of them leaned forward and actually touched the mic. He either bumped into it or he turned the mic to himself so that he could make his point. And Golly had seeped enough into my head by that point that you hear that and go, oh, that’s going to be great to animate to — to have the animator have this lion lean forward and adjust the microphone so he can make his point.|
|Transom:||It sounds like you leave a lot in, but do you ever add additional ambience or even a sound effect?|
|Kit:||We would add some source music sometimes, coming from afar, you know, radio or boom box. We would occasionally add traffic noises to things that were set outside. Or barnyard noises to something that was in that kind of soundscape. So yeah, we would try to richen the environment sometimes with noises like that. It’s not like we had somebody in the room doing foley to picture, but we had someone at another location that our sound guy would call and say, “OK, we need four good sounds of a door slamming.” And he would create some of those sounds himself. They weren’t just things that he pulled off a hard drive somewhere.|
|Dan:||The foley would never leave the narrative. I think it would exaggerate what was already there, but maybe wasn’t picked up very well in the original recording. Or if someone’s environment had been changed and they were suddenly in water, well, obviously the interview wasn’t done in water. Extra sounds would be added just to help contextualize it so the sound would be consistent with the image.|
On Becoming a Creature
|Transom:||How do you decide on animals for people? What it is that you hear in their voices that helps you decide what kind of animals they’re going to be? And do you know what people look like when you assign them an animal?|
|Kit:||I can answer the second one first. Except for those interviews that I conducted myself, I never knew what somebody looked like and I was a bit of a nut about avoiding any sort of on-line image. A lot of the interviewers in the office got really got into their characters, into the stuff they would listen to. They would occasionally start surfing the web trying to find some kind of image, to see what they really look like. I did not want to see what these people look like. But Golly, why don’t you start talking about pairing voices with animals because you’re the master of it.|
|Golly:||A boring answer is that I kind of go on what people say. I always take the compliment when people say, “Oh, that fits great. The character looks just like the voice.” But usually it’s the performance; it’s the acting that matches the voice.
For the second series we were testing animators. We were giving them clips from series one and we were pairing them with different animals from the series that the voices didn’t come out of, and golly, they nearly all worked. It was very rare that they didn’t work. It’s hard for it not to work, if the acting is good.
I suppose design-wise I’d always choose a character based on what the character said. But occasionally you have a voice and it’s great to match it. You spend a lot more time on particular ones. I think the lions in Creature Comforts U. S. A. were great designs for the voices. They just matched so perfectly these kind of old, noble, and quite scary guys. So we made them into old, noble, scary animals. It worked really well. Sometimes it’s fun to subvert it. You get a very small character with a really deep voice, or a big character with a high voice. There’s all kind of permutations.
|Kit:||What is rare is finding animators who are talented enough to make a creature come alive. If an animal doesn’t have any life to it, the animator hasn’t been able to imbue it with a sense that it has weight, and that it gestures in a natural sort of way, then it would seem like a bad pairing for that voice. But because the animators are so good, and they fill these things with life, people respond that way and say: oh, yeah, that was such a great choice, to have that animal for that voice.|
|Transom:||Were there ever voices that you loved and you animated and they just didn’t work?|
|Kit:||There were certainly voices that we loved initially, and then they just didn’t quite pan out for whatever reason. But that again, I think, speaks to the high standards at Aardman — we had built into the process the freedom to try a few things that we would then throw out because they just weren’t good enough. I never really learned a lot of lessons from the ones we threw out, other than make sure when you say you want a character designed you really want the character designed. Because otherwise they’re going to get mad when you tell them you didn’t want that character built after all. It takes a lot of people a lot of time to make these things.|
|Transom:||Do you ever find that people are offended by what you end up turning them into?|
|Golly:||I don’t think anyone was offended, but no one likes the sound of their own voice, that’s a given. But when they see their voices put into the mouth of a slug or something, oh-h-h… We don’t make our animals particularly good-looking, nothing you’d find sexy.|
|Kit:||We didn’t have anyone who took exception to any of it. I think it’s just that the character design is so great. It’s like, oh wow, what an honor to be turned into an Aardman animal…. Aardman historically is always very good-natured in their sense of humor. They don’t kick the little guy when he’s down, they have a very generous spirit about things, and I think that comes through.|
|Transom:||Last question, I’m curious what your sources of inspiration are – beyond Aardman.|
|Golly:||I’m a big fan of Gary Larson, which sat very squarely with Creature Comforts. Talking animals. He’s been a big influence on me. And silent comedy. This could all go back to Laurel and Hardy particularly and the rest of them. I like silent slapstick comedy. You can all wake up now.|
|Kit:||I would say that’s not boring at all.|
|Golly:||[Snores, all laugh]|
|Kit:||I grew up on the Merrie Melodies cartoons and can’t get enough of Bugs Bunny and Road Runner and all of those. That was what I had drilled into me as a kid after school. So that’s a huge source. As an adult, I’ve been a big fan of documentary filmmaking — the Maysles Brothers and anyone else you care to name who’s doing interesting documentary work. I tend to draw inspiration from filmmakers who take a documentary approach, who are concerned about making it feel real. Anything from Mike Nichols and The Graduate, to more recent Alexander Payne movies Election and Sideways. Movies that are concerned with trying to capture realistic, feeling characters, and find the humor in real situations.|
|Dan:||I feel very inspired by everyday situations. I’ll see someone in everyday life that I don’t know, involved in some type of situation, and I’ll imagine what life they come from, what they do, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what motivates them. And that makes me excited about the possibilities. That person on the street you could see as just a mundane person, or you could see it as it’s this whole, if you open up what’s inside, what’s happened to them in their life… So I guess it’s the human condition I find inspiring.|
|Golly:||Or talking, it sounds like to me. [Much laughter]|
Part 2: How Dan Does It
Dan Sinclair sent us two of his favorite clips from Creature Comforts America. Read about them below, and then check out the raw interview tape, the transcript of the interview and the final animated clip.
Here’s what Dan has to say about these interviews:
Both interviews were carried out in a quiet room in old people’s homes in LA. I found the interviewees by asking a few simple questions of a staff member who was very familiar with the residents of the home.
For example, I asked “who stands out as being a character?” If they instantly said, “Oh, you’ve got to speak to Joan,” then I knew I was on to a good thing, i.e. if a person came into their mind that quickly I knew they must be a strong character. The great thing about this is the staff member acted as a sort of filter – they were familiar with hundreds of residents and only named a few. Rather than interviewing many people with the hope of finding the odd good one, I found people who could act as a gatekeeper.
When I started interviewing Gita I realized she was a great character – however her English was not that good and she was a little hard to understand. I also quickly realized she was finding it difficult to understand my English accent. I did not change the way I spoke to make it easier for her to understand. It was actually quite funny when she was asking me to repeat myself. As a result, when we came across a word or question she could not understand I stayed with it – which is how we ended up with the “Food Fuse” clip. I think this is a good example of how the interviewer can sometimes interact in the interview and actively create material.
Rhino & Bird
Another question I asked the staff was: “Which people bounce off each other and have an interesting relationship?” In this case, I wasn’t looking just for characters but for people that had a dynamic between them, and not just those that argue and are funny, but perhaps subtle unexpected relationships too. That’s how I found Roland & Wilma, the couple in the “Rhino & Bird” clip. I was told they had a close relationship and quite a touching story. I had to work hard to gain their trust, and I did this by simply being myself and not acting too professional. Being natural and being myself created a relaxed atmosphere. It did not feel like a formal interview, which allowed Roland & Wilma to open up and say what they really felt. I tried to make it feel like we were all having a chat and I happened to be holding a microphone! I think this is a good example of getting the interviewees to drop their barriers and bare their souls.
About Kit Boss
Kit Boss was raised in Michigan surrounded by farm animals and religious zealots, then worked as a print journalist in Seattle for most of a decade before selling out and becoming a TV writer. He won two Emmy awards for his work on Disney Presents: Bill Nye the Science Guy. Since then his credits include a long stint on the animated series King of the Hill, a much shorter stint on HBO’s attempt to re-invent the dirtiest sitcom ever, Lucky Louie, and the shortest stint yet as executive producer of the U.S. adaptation of the much-lauded, much-loved Aardman animated series, Creature Comforts. He currently pickets with his fellow striking WGA members in Los Angeles.
About Richard Goleszowski
Richard Goleszowski (aka:Golly) was born in Suffolk, England in 1959. After completing a degree in Fine Art at Exeter, he spent some time working as an illustrator and DJ before joining Aardman in 1893. During his first nine years at Aardman he worked on several short films and promos including Morph, sledgehammer for Peter Gabriel, Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse in New York, his own film Indent and Rex the Runt pilot films.
His commercial work includes Domestos Big Dom, Grolsch, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, Weetos and Maltesers and several commercials for the European market.
In 1992, Golly left Aardman to pursue a freelance career during which time he worked in New Zealand as Production Adviser for Oscar and Friends, and wrote and directed 13 episodes of Rex the Runt for BBC2, winning the Carlton Award for International Animation at The Indies in 2000.
He then went on to direct Robbie the Reindeer in 1999 for the BBC Animation Unit. Robbie went on to win 19 international awards including a prestigious British Academy of film and Television Arts award (BAFTA).
Following the success of Robbie Golly worked for two years developing projects for Aardman’s feature film department a s well as overseeing the second series of Rex the Runt as Executive Producer.
From 2003 he directed two series of Creature Comforts — 2×13 episodes for ITV based on the Academy Award winning Nick Park short film. The first series went on to win 17 awards, and both series were nominated for BAFTA. The second series includes a half-hour Christmas special.
In July 2005, Golly rejoined Aardman as Creative Director of the busy Broadcast and Development team, writing scripts, and overseeing new projects in development as well as working on his own ideas.
Destined to be a huge success is Aardman’s first TV series for kids, Shaun the Sheep. The series is inspired by Nick Park’s A Close Shave but it is Golly who devised the 40 part series and has overseen the project as Series Director. Shaun the Sheep debuted on BBC1 & CBBC in March 2007 and has already been sold to 150 countries around the world.
About Dan Sinclair
Dan Sinclair was born and bred in North Yorkshire. Dan’s first job in television was directing short community based films for regional television in his university town of Bournemouth. He then spent over a year in Bristol at Aardman Animations as an interviewer on the UK series of Creature Comforts. After this he travelled the world as a field producer for Discovery Channel’s ‘Reel Race’. Dan moved to London in 2005 and has worked his way up to producer & director roles. During this period he worked in LA on Creature Comforts America. Daniel recently co-directed a 30-minute documentary for channel 4 television. He is currently working as a producer on channel 4’s flagship factual entertainment series ‘Gordon Ramsay’s f word’.