Here, he continues and updates…
JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?
DEREK: Yes and no. I got to be a director before the computers came in so, when they did, what I did was just stand there and tell someone technical: “Make it do that…” All I need to know is what it CAN do. I don’t need to know how to press the buttons to make it happen. I just need to know if the operator is bullshitting me about what it can and can’t do.
I can use things like PhotoShop, but don’t ask me to get into the technicalities. It is just a tool. At the beginning, you had to have a big desk with big machines and you needed an operator with it and you had to sit there and point at the screen and say “Could you put it there” or “Lower it a little bit” or “Make it a little bit more red”. It was really frustrating. But, as things got smaller, you could start to use it yourself.
They were just coming to the end of production on Chicken Run and Dreamworks was insistent they should get straight into the next feature – just keep ‘em turning over and keep all the crew on board. They were still six months or more before the end of production on Chicken Run and they asked me to come in and chat to Karey Kirkpatrick, who had been a writer on Chicken Run.
He was going to develop a new idea and they wanted me to come in, help develop it and maybe then direct it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I had just agreed to do Otherworld.
JOHN: (LAUGHS) Run that Elevator Pitch past me again…
DEREK: A domestic story set in some normal city but with animals as the characters… and what came out of that was The Tortoise and The Hare.
JOHN: The Greek fable?
DEREK: Yes. They developed a script for it and actually went into production. This was while I was doing Otherworld. They were making sets, doing all kinds of stuff. But, pretty soon, they realised the script wasn’t right. So they had to stop it, get rid of everybody; and they then pushed on with the first Wallace & Gromit feature.
The basic problem was that, with The Tortoise and The Hare, you only have two outcomes to that story. If you use the Aesop one, the hare loses. And the other is where the hare wins.
No-one is going to sit watching, waiting for either of those – because it’s just too obvious. That was the main problem and they didn’t solve it for quite a while.
But, when I had finished Otherworld, they came back to me and said: “We have sorted it out. Do you want to come on board again and carry on developing?”
JOHN: How had they solved the problem?
DEREK: They had basically put the race at the beginning. They had Harry the Hare, who was the fastest athlete in the world and really big-headed and stuck-up and was really getting on his manager’s nerves. And there was the Park Keeper, Maurice the Tortoise. They had known each other as kids.
So Harry the Hare is coming back to his home town for this race and the manager, who is sick of him, decides he is going to sabotage him, make the tortoise win and the tortoise will be a much better kind of client because the manager can manipulate him and what is bigger and more interesting than The tortoise that beat the fastest animal in the world?
It’s just a ‘changing places’ story after that.
Harry the Hare gets fatter and Maurice the Tortoise goes on to fame and fortune, until they finally realise that they are being manipulated and they have to get together to sort it out.
So we were just developing that…
Chicken Run had done well at the box office, but Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit… It did really well around the world EXCEPT in America,
JOHN: Too British…
DEREK: Yeah. That’s right. Basically, it was all a bit too British for the Americans. They were asking weird things like: “So there’s this guy and he lives alone with a dog?? What is he? Weird or something??” They couldn’t make him into an ordinary family man and all the rest of it.
JOHN: The Americans want ‘family’ all the time…
DEREK: Yes. I always felt it was really weird that Dreamworks would take on Aardman for what they did and then try to change what they did.
JOHN: That’s Hollywood. You buy something original and you try to change it into ‘normal’…
JOHN: According to the Falmouth University website, you are currently “researching different models of storytelling”. Is this just waffle?
DEREK: Well, I am making a film, which may never see the light of day, that basically tells one story through lots of different films.
JOHN: Lots of different full-length films?
DEREK: No, I usually describe it like… Well… You could make a new Western out of all the old ones, because they all have the same structure. You have the bar room fight. How many times have you seen that? Someone smashes a chair over someone else’s head. Somebody falls on the table and it collapses. Somebody jumps off the balcony.
You could make a bar room fight out of all the Westerns you’ve ever seen. One actor could throw a punch and a completely different actor in another film would get punched.
So the idea was to marry that idea with another idea I had about scratches and dirt on film. Inside every scratch and on every piece of dirt, there would be a different movie… So you could go through a scratch and you would find yourself in a different movie or scratches would transform into other movies.
They would all be different genres. Some would be animation; some live-action. But they would all star the same people. You could have a period drama that had a scene relevant to the story and you would have a science fiction film that carried the story on and you would be able to collapse it down and tell a story quite quickly.
You could use existing footage. A guy could put the McGuffin – a holdall – into the station locker. How many times have you seen that? So why re-shoot it? Just find an existing film with that scene in it.
JOHN: Copyright problems?
DEREK: (LAUGHS) Well, yes, of course, there IS that. But, if you think about something like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the number of films in that – the copyright must have been hideous but he got over it.
JOHN: Maybe there’s some legal loophole. Like sampling songs…
DEREK: If it’s a work of art… maybe you can do what you like, pretty much…
Two of Derek’s early animation collaborations with the late Phil Austin are currently online…
Skywhales (1983) is on YouTube…
…and The Victor (1985) is on the BFI website