The Shows that Got Me Interested in Animation | Part 1

by Nataliya Donow

Characters from I Am Not an Animal at dinner table

Since this is my first blog post, I figured, why not write something about beginnings? In this case, I'm writing about the things that first got me interested in animation as a career. The answer isn't complicated: I love cartoons! Digging a bit deeper, as a kid I was drawn to animation because of the infinite possibilities. Anything could happen and for me, the more outlandish and absurd, the better.

For this and the next handful of posts, I'm going to jump into the time machine and take a look back at animated shows that had an important impact on me as an impressionable youth and try to figure what drew me to them. As an adult with more insight, I'm looking forward to seeing how the shows hold up and what new insight I might gain. Most importantly, I have an an excuse to watch cartoons.

Nothing quite like it

Many people who have pets tend to anthropomorphize them and wonder what they are thinking or what they would say if they could talk. The 6 part series I Am Not an Animal does just that, with a 'be careful what you wish for' warning. The show ran on BBC2 in the United Kingdom from May 10th to June 14th in 2004 and you can view it now on Amazon Prime. It's a show about animals who gain the ability to speak and think like humans as a result of experimentation done on them in an animal testing lab. The majority of the show revolves around how they have to learn to live in the real world as opposed to the lab where they were comfortable and everything was taken care of for them.

The original plan for the show was to use rendered 3D characters (see image below) and I think changing course and opting for a less time consuming and more unique visual approach was a highly effective approach. The technical 3D animation style was exchanged for a more handmade look. Peter Baynham, the show's director said, "We had ideas that it would be like Toy Story, but on the BBC. But the difference is that the BBC doesn't have Toy Story money." At the time the show was created, animating 3D characters with fur was quite an undertaking so instead, they opted for a Cutout style of animation. The characters and sets were Frankensteinishly stitched together using a collage method incorporating 30,000 photographs. The look of the characters is off-putting at first, but once you get a feel for the show you realize everything is as it should be. 

Early Render Tests of Horse and Monkey
Scrapped Early Render Tests

Necessity being the mother of invention, the animation team at Steve Coogan's Baby Cow Productions created a visual look that gives the impression of being born as the result of Lotte Reiniger and Terry Gilliam having a love child who makes cartoons during chemical-induced nervous breakdowns. Tim Searle, 30-year animation vet, was the animation director of the show and had a lot to do with the visual style. As far as we know, there's no proof he's the progeny of Terry and Lotte, but there's also no proof he isn't. Looking at some of the other projects Searle has been involved with I discovered Roadkill by Rathergood. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what else this guy has been a part of because I can't stop singing the Fun With Pork song from Roadkill: Episode 3, and I don't want to.

The video below is a cut down version of the 30 min Making-Of documentary. The full version of the doc can be seen on the DVD which is currently available on eBay, just be warned that it will likely be European encoding and you will need one of those DVD player contraptions. If you don't want to go through that hassle, all episodes plus the Making-Of Doc can be seen on Dailymotion, as long as you are OK with ads and reduced video quality. If you are interested in the behind-the-scenes technical details of the show, the doc is great. It also has a fun satirical angle under the guise of the director traveling to the studio to see how the creation of the DVD menu is going.

But what about plot

The story isn't too different from a standard Disney tale—talking animals leaving home for adventures of self-discovery—but in the Bizarro World. The plot line
—more squiggle than line—lies somewhere in the world of Fish Out of Water / Riches to Rags / You Can't Go Home Again / East end Boys and West End girls

Despite the jarring appearance of the characters, the animation is smooth and quite well done for what it is. The cutout animation style used is much faster to create than other forms of animation giving the creators room to insert comedic quips as they arise. This flexibility gave the story many opportunities to evolve—so much so that changes were constantly made. Even within days of the release date, the director was still making manic changes to get a laugh in. One thing I've learned over the years is that more often than not, your best animations are the ones you can get done the fastest. Being a perfectionist with such a time-consuming art form can lead to things getting stale, or worse yet, not getting finished.

One subplot was wholly abandoned after the first line of the first episode. A rat character, Claire, pretends to be a film critic even though she has never seen a film. It's a shame too because she turns out to be one of the flattest characters in the series. Although, in that first scene she had one of the best lines of the show reading a film review as if it were her own clever thoughts she says, "The film's structure was sub-Altmanesque." It's wonderful and refreshing to see this kind of high-level writing side by with potty humor—in the literal sense, there is a horse character that is obsessed with his bowel movements and has a hilarious system of levers and pulleys so that as a horse he is able to use a toilet built for humans. When I saw that first bathroom scene, I knew this show was going to be something special.

While there was a script, the voice actors were encouraged to improvise, and apparently they were quite good at it. That's not surprising considering the comedic talent behind the voices. For me, Steve Coogan's horse, Philip, and Simon Pegg's cat ,Kieron, are two of the best voice acted characters ever. They fill their animals with personality, tone, and ethos. Coogan brings a misguided gravitas to his pseudo-intellectual horse with a touch of hubris and Pegg gives his cat a sarcastically depraved selfishness and pretentiousness. And that's was as many pretentious descriptions as I could fit into one sentence.

In an effectively disturbing way, the characters are fully made from photographs of animals, but they are given human eyes. This makes them able to emote better, sure, but the more lasting effect is that it raises the chance that they will show up in one of those dreams where you wake up in a cold sweat. The photographs of the animal's eyes were taken from the show's animators and the human characters are wholly made from photo collages of the animators.

Characters from I Am Not an Animal
Windows to the soul

A few times throughout the show The Fog, a novel by James Herbert, was shoehorned in without obvious reason. For the purpose of completeness, and against my better judgement I read the book. There are no significant connections that I found between the book and the animation other than they are both British, they are both crudely presented, they both go for shock value.

One of the best motifs of the show is subtle irony. The animals are given the ability to speak, but they are so caught up in their own lives and neuroses that they have difficulty communicating with each other. Their lives are centered around the fact that they feel they are destined for greater things and once they get to London, all their dreams will come true. To survive outside the lab the animals have to learn to rely on each other, which adds another opportunity for subtle irony. The horse character, who is best suited for leading the group, physically has the most difficult time adapting to the human world outside the lab. Being as large as he is and with no hands, he is dependent on a monkey to do basic tasks like go shopping or holding a gun. The irony is that the monkey has a highly diminished mental capacity and nobody ever knows what he will say or do.

The overarching theme of the show can be found in holding up a mirror to society and showing some of the more embarrassing aspects of human nature. Just like with real people, the harsh realities of life teach the characters a thing or two. Do they grow and become better "people" by the end of the series? Maybe a little, but like most real people, they basically stay the same. Also like the real world, things are rarely black and white, even though the loudest voices might want you to think they are. In reality, there is a lot of grey area. The characters of this show can't easily be defined as heroes or villains, some are a little bit of both and some are neither. I would hate to get too philosophical at this point, so I'll end on an insightful quote from the character Philip that may or may not sum up the show, "If everyone was a genius, there'd be no one to clean the toilets in mental hospitals."