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Ray Harryhausen is considered the king of stop-motion animation, but after having mastered this rather unique craft for over fifty or so years he finally hung up the unicorn-wings when Clash Of The Titans was completed in 1981. The visual shortcomings of this technique meant that it was becoming less desirable as a serious tool for creating special effects, however the television medium found that it was an ideal technique for developing entertainment programs, albeit usually only for children. Hence we have been treated to many different visual stylings that range from the sensibly educational right down to the unintelligible mumblings of various out-of-this-world creatures—most were developed in foreign countries so it's no wonder that we couldn't understand them, but we never knew that at the time ;).

As with all special effects methodologies (including CGI) stop-animation has its limits: one is the incredibly time-consuming process involved—especially for the more complex imagery and motion required—another is the subsequent cost of production. But more often than not it's the often jerky look inherent from filming static images at about two dozen frames a second, this more than anything makes the end result undesirable for realistic looking special effects sequences in cinema movies especially. Therefore the viability of this medium was nearly always relegated to fantasy situations that would only amount to a few seconds or even minutes onscreen, hence its ongoing survival in the television industry.

Some of the more famous television series that have made use of this clever medium are the now decades-old creations of Noddy and The Wombles, right up to today's generation of the primal Gogs and kiddies' current favourite Bob The Builder. However you will also find that this creative device pops its head out occasionally in full-length cinema features, albeit in small doses still but with incredibly lifelike detail, such as Robocop (1986), Evil Dead II (1987) and Army Of Darkness (1993). It also took some guts by both artists and bankrollers to go out on a limb and create a few more full-length stop-motion movies such as A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James And The Giant Peach (1996) - at least it set out to prove that this old workhorse still had some life left in it yet.

Creature Comforts Vol.1
Aardman Animations then must have done some very smooth talking (or just delivered a video of their efforts including Wallace And Gromit) to convince a major movie studio to finance yet another inanimate object (ad)venture into the movie business, the result of course being Chicken Run starring Mel Gibson. The facial expressions here were extremely wide and expressive as is typical of half of Aardman's creations nowadays—it's something that newcomers may not respond to well at first but you will quickly warm to its charming uniqueness. Aardman are also one of the few companies that can lay claim to such a diverse range of animated projects from the serious, side-splitting and surreal in the one place.

This DVD is the latest of their artistic endeavours entitled Creature Comforts, a collection of nine-minute episodes based on the original Academy Award® winning five-minute short, which also went on to create the equally enjoyable series of Heat Electric ads in Britain. However, this DVD only houses six from a total of thirteen episodes produced for this series. It would have been nice though to have had them all here, since there is more than ample room available on your typical DVD, but if you put these creations into perspective towards your average Hollywood movie today it probably has a much higher replay value so this kind of balances out the equation somewhat.

In order to generate even more talking animals for Creature Comforts, the Aardman Animations creative team went on the prowl literally to interview your everyday Joe and Flo about their opinions, likes and dislikes of the world around them. Armed with these aural gems they went back to the studio and let their creative juices flow like a burst artery, the main aim to develop an animal characterisation for each and every voice from their chosen recordings. And just like a box of chocolates you never know what you're going to get; this being the same forethought that Aardman and Co knew would occur as they discovered more and more funny subtexts that could be shown visually in their animations down the track. This is where Aardman's projects come into their own as they not only entertain the children but also adults alike with their multiple layers of ever-so-subtle winks and nods.

Creature Comforts Vol.1
The technical side of creating these images has improved drastically since the first ever film production, which had dinosaurs roaming the earth in the early twentieth century. However it will always take the creative genius of a hands-on animator to bring everything to life, if not give it soul and heart as well. The same goes with hand drawn animation of the Disney kind, but only stop-motion animation is able to deliver a depth of texture and realistic objectivity alongside the incredible motion and emotion onscreen as well.

Episodes
The first six shorts included on this DVD are The Circus, Pets At The Vets, Working Animals, The Sea, The Garden and Feeding Time—descriptions of each one are pretty much self-explanatory. Some of the characters find themselves in more than one episode, which is great when you want to revisit them later on, although I swear that one of the voices was actually Nick Park himself (creator of Wallace & Gromit).

My favourite characters here are the Lioness (with the shaking microphone in shot) and the continually distracted Greyhound (you'll know what I mean when you see it). The added bonus of watching an Aardman animation is that there is more and more to discover each time over, especially when you keep an eagle eye on what is happening in the background ... Some of them are also extremely subliminal.

Video
No doubt this was produced purely in mind for the widescreen telly in your lounge, with all the shots perfectly composed and framed for the 1.78:1 ratio. There's no panning or scanning on this sucker! The quality is superb, although still with a few hints of typical film artefacting, but honestly I would rather have this than something so perfect that it almost becomes unreal. The Aardman heads have said that their animation style is meant to suit the imperfect nature of the spoken word (especially in the English language). It is here that these relative inadequacies of film help to underpin the reality in which we experience both sight and sound, so any flaws are more than welcome as this also gives it a life of its own.

Creature Comforts Vol.1
In general the image has a slightly soft focus throughout (that is hardly noticeable anyway), it's also very detailed and vibrant with only a slight case of mild grain to ground us into thinking that the characters we see talking (and sometimes moaning) are very real indeed. Colours are perfectly rendered (for plasticine and model elements anyway) along with a wonderful black level that hides all trace of low-level noise. Shadow detail is also brilliant, given that there would have been various lighting issues to contend with such as making sure that the weeks of animation work is not destroyed by the changing of a busted light bulb etc. Artefacts in the film stock are few and far between as well. The only inconsistencies that really ever show up are on the plasticine characters themselves as they are being continually handled by the animators. As far as video errors are concerned there may be a few slight instances of macro blocking and/or blooming in the colour scheme, but you'd have to be on the ball to pick them out.

Audio
Presented as a perfectly acceptable Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, there is nothing much to complain about here.

Still exhibiting the same old-time style of voice recording as demonstrated in the original short, we are again held to ransom by the almost amateur audio recordings that were obviously created by the interviewers in-the-field. This isn't a necessarily a bad thing as the dialogue as a whole is still pretty much decipherable if you can just get past the many different accents that the British provinces entail, there are no subtitles available though. The voices have been slightly modified to reflect the environment they inhabit onscreen, although there are some that already have a small-room echo to them that were no doubt due to them being recorded inside their own homes—instances like this can be slightly off-putting, especially when the sea-creatures are talking, but I'm sure this is forgivable given the circumstances. There may be a slight hiss in places but this is also processed down a few notches.

For the most part the dialogue comes from centre stage, with ambient sounds emanating from both the front speakers (with effective stereo reproduction) as well as equal aural support within the surrounds. The only music that exists is the main theme tune on the beginning and end credits, which is suitably jolly and indeed imperfect just as the interviews themselves are. There are occasional bursts of aural life in such sequences as the ‘Pig In A Cannon’ and ‘Greyhound On The Track’ interviews. These are only loud enough to warrant a belly laugh, but not so loud as to reach for the remote control every time. Subwoofer usage was virtually non-existent, so you probably wouldn't miss the thing if it were turned off anyway. This soundtrack was also perfectly suited to my TV's internal speakers, so you won't be missing any key dialogue or getting blown out of your chair etc.

Creature Comforts Vol.1
Extras
There isn't much in the way of extensive supplemental material, but what we have here is a good complement to the six episodes included on this disc. The menus are fully animated, except for the bonus section, however give it a few seconds and it will surprise you (at least the first time).

The main offering is the Creating Creature Comforts featurette (23 mins) which is a surprisingly thorough behind-the-scenes look at the arduous steps of the creation process for this and every other Aardman animation project undertaken. We delve into how they went about collecting the interview recordings, as well as choosing between them all, to end up with a final selection of potentially funny titbits. From there it is a matter of coming up with the characters to those voices along with the background set designs that they inhabit and finally the animation of every verbal and body language nuance possible. It includes discussions from the big nobs of Aardman right down to the equally important but often unnoticed members of the team, such as the model people and even the lip-sync guy—this gives it more depth than your average self-promotional archive. We also see a few sequences that belong to episodes further on in the series that are not available here. One problem I had with the presentation was that all the earlier 4:3 ratio animations were stretched to fit the 16:9 enhanced display; this made everything extremely distorted and squashed down. Obviously this was completely unnecessary and it would have been more preferable to have them housed inside of a 4:3 framed window in their original ratio.

Bringing Creature Comforts To Life (4 mins) is a small comparison between the final product and the original video treatment. This stars mainly the director and his fellow wannabe-thespians as they act out the motions he wants from the interview snippets, which are to be animated from later on. Thankfully we are also graced by the original Oscar® Winning Short that started it all in 1990, the quality of which is understandably dated but on the whole is a gem not to be missed no matter how it looks or sounds. On the downside is a relatively pointless game entitled Who's Missing that ultimately only provides three brief character profiles from the series. Then there are the obligatory franchise promotional vignettes, which are the trailers for Wallace and Gromit: The Game and the Creature Comforts Vol.1 Video/DVD itself.

Creature Comforts Vol.1
To end with there is an apparent DVD-ROM only section, however this is little more than just a few sound bites from the interviews in a playable audio format, a couple of posters and three weblinks—all of these could have been stored on a floppy disc if cleverly compressed down. It might also have been nice to be given an audio commentary, although this would have been limited to talking about the discoveries they made in the R&D stage as well as booting out the work experience kid who knocked one of the cameras.

I'm just curious as to what kind of supplemental materials we might see when Vol.2 rolls around.

Overall
It's a pity that Aardman saw fit to only house half of the current series on this DVD, which might give some buyers out there the impression that this isn't worth the full asking price. However, even if the feature as such barely extends to an hour’s worth, it's a hell of a lot more entertaining to watch than movies twice the running length in time. By the same token I could say that watching over two hours worth of these animations at once might have you on the verge of insanity whilst you try to keep up with all the hidden exposition, innuendo and even back-story that have been generated for our amusement.

If you enjoyed Chicken Run immensely then this DVD will become another addition to your already overstocked collection. Depending on the day you watch this collection you may feel like the show is all over before it has begun, but the extras may help to fill the void until Vol.2 reaches stores. Ah, what the heck, give them the money ... gosh knows some others don't deserve it nearly as much!


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