I saw the advertisement for the DVD of I Am Not An Animal on the ABC before they actually started broadcasting the series – as is the way now, the ABC will actually commission shows on the strength of being able to sell the DVD and the book of the series through ABC shops. I figured this thing about talking animal animations was the legacy of the Aardman studio’s Creature Comforts.
When a copy of said DVD appeared on my doorstep, courtesy of FilmInk, I popped it on and realised that I Am Not An Animal was a very different show indeed. Rather than a bunch of animal animations built around real-life interviews with people, this show features a bunch of animals that, as the result of animal experiments, think that they are people; their dialogue is voiced by contemporary comedians. But the biggest difference is that, although you can get into Creature Comforts almost immediately, I Am Not An Animal takes perseverance.
I say with total confidence that if you watch and enjoy the show, you didn’t come to it by accident in the first episode and stick with it; you must have been promised by someone you trust that your dedication would pay off. The style of animation demands a lot from your eyes, the different voices, a lot from your ears, and all the information that has to be imparted to set the scene and the characters in that first episode just makes your head hurt by the end of it. But by about episode three, the satire is working a treat, you know which character does what, and the laughs are coming thick and fast. If you packed it in early, next time the opportunity comes up, give it another go.
I got to interview animation director Tim Searle for FilmInk just before the show started going to air in Australia, so I was able to slip a snippet onto NewsRadio the day of the first broadcast. But I never got around to re-cutting a long version, partly because the phone line wasn’t so good, and also because there was a lot of um… um…ing to edit out – much as I would have loved to pull some choice quotes of the DVD. Maybe one day when I’m cashed up and bored I’ll give it a go just for this blog. Meanwhile a short, narrative version of this interview will appear in FilmInk any minute now.
And just for anyone who isn’t aware, the show’s title comes from the now-legendary lines attributed to John Merrick, the so-called ‘elephant man’ in the 1980 film of the same name, directed by David Lynch and produced by Mel Brooks:
“I am not an animal! I am a human being.”
Demetrius Romeo: How did I Am Not An Animal come about?
TIM SEARLE: I started work with Steve Coogan and Henry Normal, trying to develop an interesting narrative animation. Peter Baynham, when we were working with Steve Coogan, had this vague idea that it should include talking animals and we worked it out from there. It was very much of Peter’s brain, and we started looking at various technologies that we could utilize to bring it to fruition and we ended up with the photocollage look that we ended up working with, mainly because it’s so productive as well as looking a little bit odd. It’s got some sort of vague realism without going completely realistic.
Demetrius Romeo: How do you mean it’s more productive?
TIM SEARLE: The thing is that we do comedy, and the way that animation has tends to have evolved over the last few years is that you take it to storyboard and thereafter send it off to a cheaper market for animation. I wasn’t really into the idea of doing that. What I intended to do when I set up in animation, was do animation.
We do comedy, and I think comedy is very easy to get wrong. A scene can be as easily destroyed by over-acting or by doing an animation drum solo, as easily as if it were too wooden or too simple. I think the animation part of the process is too important to just let go of, so we use a digital desktop system that enables us to maintain a good degree of control.
Demetrius Romeo: You’re right about it being very distinctive, that digital collage method. How did you hit upon the idea to use that sort of graphic?
TIM SEARLE: We’ve been using the desktop system, using vector graphics, flat colour, and I’ve always been into photocollage. Mainly we use that sort of stuff in background work and what-have-you. We were looking at all sorts of ways of realizing it and Peter had this idea that the animals should look very distinct from other talking animals, like Yogi Bear, in terms of standing up and walking around, in that it should look a bit awkward that these animals wanted to be human and have human characteristics. So we needed to explore a way that would give us some sort of realism without it costing a fortune. We looked at full CG [computer generated images], but ultimately we realised that we couldn’t realize the ambition of this series using CG. It would have been too restrictive in the number of environments we could have had and characters we could have built. So we needed to find another way forward so we got the guys whose software we’d been using and they wrote us a means of using bitmaps, effectively, so that’s the way we could use the photocollage.
Demetrius Romeo: There are samples of, I guess, early ‘demo’-versions of animations on the DVD, and I’ve got to say they’re nowhere near as interesting to look at.
TIM SEARLE: Bear in mind that that stuff was generated four or five years ago; the CG work is something that everyone has a very high expectation of with Dreamworks and Pixar people doing what they do. The benchmark is so high that you need to hit it or you’re always going to be on the back foot. I quickly dismissed the idea of using CG, even though Peter was quite enamoured of the idea of having it look quite naturalistic so that the bizarreness of the comedy would be even more dominant. But in the end he was as much of a fan of the way we ended up working as anyone else.
The other thing we tried was motion capture because Steve Coogan, who played the Horse and Martin the Sparrow because he was quite interested in finding a way of getting his acting facial characteristics into the animation. We looked at that, but that was all in its infancy and it was going to be too restrictive as well. A lot of that stuff, you can’t get in to adapt the code – or you certainly could at the time – so it was just going to be too proscriptive. We wouldn’t have been able to control it effectively, I don’t think. So I just decided one day that enough’s enough, and I came back and worked up a few character designs on the basis of what would I do if no one was telling me that we’ve got to do this stuff and showed them to everyone who needed to see ’em and they just saw it as a way forward. That part of the process went very, very quickly; we went from situation where it all looked like the project was falling to bits, to a commission and getting going in a matter of a couple of months. I was very pleased that we just bit the bullet and went for it.
Demetrius Romeo: I want to talk about the antecedents to the show. You’ve got a few different animation fore-runners to the show, Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, and another show you do, called 2DTV that is satirical and animated. Tell me how these two shows might have influenced where you went with I Am Not An Animal.
TIM SEARLE: Technically, they were very important because Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, that was the first thing we did using cell action, which was the digital tool we were using for I Am Not An Animal. That was the first one we cut out teeth on it. Also, we were using animals and they were quite surly and conversational. I’ve always been into the idea of animals, or characters, having a bit of depth to them. Those characters were very broad.
And 2DTV is a topical comedy show, so we learnt to work very quickly on that. It is topical, so up to eight minutes of a twenty-four minute show are made in the last four days up to transmission, so we have to work real quick in order to turn it around. In order to make six half hours for I Am Not An Animal, we needed to work well and work quickly. Both those projects enabled us to do I Am Not An Animal, in more ways than one.
Demetrius Romeo: You’ve got great talent on hand doing voices on I Am Not An Animal – virtually the entire cast of Big Train plus Steve Coogan. A comment is made in one of the docos on the DVD that it would be too expensive to get the talent together to make it now if you were starting from scratch now.
TIM SEARLE: That was just an excuse from that exec from the BBC not to recommission it. I don’t think that’s true. I think the people who worked on it were such fans of the project that we would have been able to get them back.
Demetrius Romeo: With such a ground-breaking show, why weren’t BBC prepared to run with another season.
TIM SEARLE: Your guess is as good as mine. I really don’t know. It sounds presumptuous I guess, but we were working future episode ideas and we were looking forward to another series. I mean, we were critically well-received, and when people like Matt Groening of The Simpsons get in touch to say they thought it was excellent, then you think you’re on some sort of good path, but the BBC decided that because it didn’t get the ratings they were hoping for, they’d give it the chop.
Demetrius Romeo: I remember a sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus where John Cleese says, “I wanted to get into program planning, but of course, I’ve got a degree.” You’re up against the same woes that comedians have been up against for some time.
TIM SEARLE: Well, the thing is with comedy, I think, if you make it animation, you’re making it a little bit harder for audiences to immediately grab. I’m Not An Animal, specifically, does take a few episodes to get your head around. I think comedy, generally, is one of those things that takes a while to bed in. You’d imagine that people at the networks might have grasped that one by now.
Demetrius Romeo: I must admit it did take me a while – at least the first episode. Once you get your head around the animation style and the characters, then you start to pay attention to what they’re saying and can enjoy it.
TIM SEARLE: The other problem with the first episode is we were so worried about setting the whole world up, setting up the whole rationale for how the animals got to where they got to, that the first episode is very plot-heavy and not as heavy on the jokes as future episodes. From episode three onwards, it settles right down, and each episode is funny in its own right, and we’re not so hung up on trying to explain everything all the time. I’m still proud of the first episode, but it’s just not as strong as the episodes that follow it, I think.
Demetrius Romeo: I know that the show copped a bit of flak early on because the animals are seen to be enjoying the environment of the lab where they’re being experimented on.
TIM SEARLE: Yeah. I think if anything, it’s an allegorical tale about people as much as anything else. It’s really having a dig at the way we all live our lives at the moment, in terms of people shutting themselves from real life. I think a lot of people, if they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere and had to fend for themselves, they’d be up the proverbial.
We all came to like the characters very much and sympathise with their plight. The fact that you’ve got this horse with literary pretensions who considers himself the leader and then Mark, who’s this bitter, fiercely ambitious sparrow with a penchant for writing bad, annoying songs. They’ve all got something about them which is a little bit irritating, and yet nonetheless they all get along as a group.
One of the things that we think it’s similar to is Dad’s Army: it’s a group of people who are all thrown together with a common cause, but their all different characters.
The backdrop of the vivisection lab was one of the things that got reported on early and the anti-vivisection lobby were quite vehement and got in early to criticise it without seeing it which is a shame. We were on the back foot from the start on that basis, I think.
Demetrius Romeo: That’s a pity, but then you do make good fun of the animal liberationists as well, I’ve got to say.
TIM SEARLE: Well, to be honest the animal liberationist is deliberately displayed in an over-simplistic way, but it would have been predictable and unfunny to portray the liberationists as angels. But you’d have to be a bit uptight to take offence at that, I think. A lot of people without watching it might think that we were making light of the suffering animals, but we certainly were not. The animals in I Am Not An Animal naively see themselves and all other animals as people, and to start with they’re clearly idiots and they’re innocent idiots who have no idea of what’s going on around them, and that’s made very clear. It’s a joke about ignorance and snobbery and the theme running through the series is about how they deal with other more ordinary and arguably more dignified creatures.
And the suffering of animals has been portrayed in other animations: Cruella DeVil wasn’t exactly kind to the animals in 101 Dalmations, and Chicken Run was set on a farm where the characters are destined to end up in pies. Numerous stories feature animals heading for a grizzly fate from which they are rescued and I think we weren’t unusual in that respect.
Demetrius Romeo: No, but you actually pinpoint the foibles of humanity particularly well in the process. Because they have human traits, we really are looking at how people behave. I particularly like the rabbit from the call centre – that is so funny.
TIM SEARLE: Arthur Mathews – he’s a really clever guy. He wrote Father Ted and Big Train. He was doing that rant quite a bit – the little Irish voice at the call centre – and Pete had this idea if part of that guy’s brain in the body of a rabbit and just goes off on these little rants.
Demetrius Romeo: The humour works well, the satire hits its mark and the animation is groundbreaking. Where do you go next?
TIM SEARLE: I don’t know, to be honest. We hope that we can continue to do other interesting narrative projects and we shall endeavour to do so. We’re developing material so we’ll wait and see what comes of it. At the moment we’re working on a pilot for the BBC which is a sketch show, and the animation is shared between three studios, so we’re doing a third of this pilot, so that’s the immediate future. But as Baby Cow animation we shall endeavour to do other interesting narrative work.
We’re really proud of the project and the fact that it’s animated I like to think is the icing on the cake. It’s a great comedy project that happens to be animated.