Wallace & Gromit's 30th anniversary: Gromit was nearly a cat and more weird facts about their origin

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Nick Park of Britain poses with his creations, plasticine figures Wallace (C) and Gromit, (R) in a New York hotel October 21. Wallace and Gromit, who appeared in the 1996 Oscar winning animated short film "A Close Shave", were returned to Park after being left in a taxi October 19.

2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of A Grand Day Out, Nick Park’s 23-minute stop motion film that launched the characters of Wallace & Gromit into the public consciousness.

The Oscar-nominated short was just the beginning for the hapless northern inventor and his wry canine sidekick. The duo returned in three sequel shorts - The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995), and A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008) - a feature-length movie: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), plus countless comics, video games, and a world of spin-offs built around side-character Shaun The Sheep.

With three Academy Awards to their names, it’s no surprise that Park has plans to resurrect Wallace & Gromit for another adventure, but the series could have been very different, had fate not intervened.

We spoke with Park ahead of the launch of Wallace & Gromit’s Musical Marvels, a nationwide tour featuring specially created animations and Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers accompanied by a live orchestra, who told us Gromit was nearly a different animal altogether.

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“When I first started drawing [Wallace & Gromit], I first wondered about Gromit as a cat,” Park tells us. “I think there are some early drawings [of that], but as soon as I started making them in clay I just found a dog much easier to make. A dog is more of a companion I guess, you know? Someone, who - for want of a better word - is more subservient. Cats are more independent.”

Wallace and Gromit on the 'Breakfast Set' with the hand of an animator. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Gromit was also going to talk in early versions of the film, which Park began in 1982, seven years before it was finally finished. Find out what else we learned about Wallace & Gromit from their creator Nick Park below.

Yahoo Movies UK: You’re celebrating 30 years of Wallace and Gromit, but I understand the origin of it actually predates the 30 year anniversary?

Nick Park: Absolutely. 1989 is when I finished A Grand Day Out, but been I’d been working on it for seven years. The first couple of years was at film school. And then Aardman helped me finish it. But it remained a graduation film.

I'd been working away on it, and I ran out of time at film school. And in those days, they just let me carry on. They could see it was going to take forever.

I’d got to know Peter Lord and David Sproxton on the set at Aardman, and they were looking for people. And they said ‘come and work for us’ and I kept refusing, because I needed to finish the film. But eventually I had no money. And I took work in Bristol, and they said ‘work for us part time, and we'll help you finish the film in the studio’. So I did do that. But because I was part time it took seven years altogether.

What was A Grand Day Out it like originally, and how much did it change over the time before it was finished?

Things kind of evolve. And since the earliest days, I was making animated films at home to start with and I went to art school in Sheffield and I made puppet animation films there and drawn animation, and I wasn't sure which way it was going.

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And when I went to the National Film and Television School, I was looking for a project and I had loads of sketchbooks from art school of different characters, and didn't know if they belonged to the idea or not.

I did a work placement for three weeks on the film The Dark Crystal, which was in about 1982. And I saw Jim Henson working and Frank Oz, and I was making tea for the special effects team, and it was watching just how they did things.

And that helped this idea in my mind to formulate of how I might go about doing it. And it was about this guy who builds a rocket - that was the joke - because this guy built a rocket in the basement of his house. That was that was the basis of the joke. And it was going to take off through the house.

Nick Park's A Grand Day Out was his graduation film. (Aardman)

But anyway, I couldn't wait to get back. And I started - with a friend - writing the script in a pub and then put it forward as a project and started working on it. And I thought ‘this belongs to clay’. It has all the ideas I've always wanted and they all come together.

All the things I loved as a kid: the adventure films and Tintin and things like that. And I've never seen this in stop motion. All the cartoons and comedy from Laurel and Hardy to Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck but in clay. But it was very British, you know, set in terraced houses in the north of England. And it was a guy who invents things so it's full of visual stuff.

And it was always these two characters that went to the moon?

Yes, it was. I think when I first started drawing them, I first wondered about Gromit as a cat, and I think there are some early drawings, but as soon as I started making them in clay I just found a dog much easier to make.

A dog is more of a companion I guess you know? Someone, who - for want of a better word - is more subservient. Cats are more independent.

And Gromit originally might have talked too?

Yeah, that's right. I did actually plan that. I actually recorded a voice where he basically, in a doggy-like way, repeated everything Wallace said. And I recorded it with the guy who did the voice for all the stuff I knew when I was growing up - the Wooden Tops, Bill and Ben and things like that - a guy called Peter Hawkins, and I spent the morning recording with him.

But I didn't use any of it, because I found just moving Gromit’s mouth so much work, and he wasn’t going to be extrovert and more doglike. And I found that just by moving the brow, whether it was laziness or practicality, suddenly I found he could say everything.

Jay Smart, Junior Model Maker, measuring Gromit. The average size of Wallace and Gromit is 8 inches although some are 6 or even 4 inches depending on the size of the film set. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

And he became suddenly a more interesting character, more sophisticated than Wallace and more sensitive and thoughtful and more feeling and suddenly he became a nice contrast with Wallace. He was more simple.

That's amazing, because that's almost like the crux of the brand: Gromit doesn't talk but he's more intelligent and, and that came through a compromise?

Yeah, a kind of discovery once I started on it.

You also truncated the story?

Oh, yeah. It's easy to write words on paper. It's easy to say there now follows a sequence where 13 helicopters explode. Not that we’ve got scenes like that, but you know what I mean.

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One of the scenes, it just goes ‘there now follows a sequence where Wallace and Gromit build a rocket’. That paragraph took me a year and a half to film.

The film was released and was nominated for an Oscar, and you were already nominated for Creature Comforts. Did you go to the Academy Awards that year?

Yeah. Because the film was so stretched out in the making on A Grand Day Out. I’d finished filming and I was waiting for sound mixing facilities to become available at the film school. I was booked in just before Christmas to finish it. And in the meantime, because I was working part-time for Aardman, and together we devised this series called Lip Synch where five of us made different films, and mine was Creature Comforts.

Plastincine models used by Aardman Animation to create the short film Creature Comforts.

That took me three months to film, just before I finished A Grand Day Out, and it pipped it at the post really. Suddenly Creature Comforts drew all the attention because it got a BAFTA nomination. Grand Day Out won the BAFTA, against Creature Comforts, and then they both got nominated for an Oscar.

And Creature Comforts won, and they became the more popular film really by far. Wallace & Gromit had more of a slow burn effect over the years. But Creature Comforts stole all the limelight.

What was the night at the Academy Awards like?

You spend years in dark rooms, and you come out, and you not only go to Hollywood, but to the Oscars. I'd never been to the west coast of America before. To suddenly be at the Oscars, and every famous face that you've known from movies is there in the same room...

I remember seeing Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, incredible people who are just on the silver screen, in another world. But I was just so utterly nervous thinking: ‘What am I doing here?’ I know i’m there for short film, but I was worried.

Prince Charles, right, examines an Oscar won by makers of the films starring animated characters Wallace and Gromit with company director Nick Park, in Bristol, England, Monday, July 2, 2001. (AP Photo/ Paul Grover, Pool)

What I was most nervous about is that because I had two films - it was a nice problem to have - but if I did win, that I had to remember to thank the right set of people because there are different credits for two different films.

I don't remember my legs carrying me up, or how I got up to the stage. I was so utterly nervous. And you're also a bit scared that in case you're so worked up that you think your name’s been read out, and it hasn’t! You start worrying about all sorts of things.

But it wouldn't be the last time you went up for an Oscar.

Four times altogether.

And why did you decide to make a sequel to A Grand Day Out and follow these characters rather than doing something new?

The way it worked was, after Creature Comforts got [the Oscar], then Channel 4 had bought A Grand Day Out for a while, for a few screenings. And then BBC came to us, because they were thinking of developing animation within the BBC, and came to us and said, ‘how would you fancy doing more Wallace & Gromit?’ I don’t know if it came from us, or them actually.

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And that got me going, I did definitely want to do more Wallace & Gromit, so it was a great opportunity.

And I learned a lot more about story and worked with Bob Baker on the story and more about plot and, and came up with The Wrong Trousers. And then they wanted another another one: A Close Shave. And then we were thinking very much about feature films for a long time as well. So that's a great opportunity.

In this photo provided by DreamWorks, Wallace and Gromit are cashing in with their humane pest-control outfit in "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." (AP Photo/DreamWorks)

We did Chicken Run before that, then we did Curse of the Were-Rabbit. And then I found myself liking shorts again, you know, the idea of a short with A Matter of Loaf and Death. The problem with animations, I feel like - same with my colleagues at Aardman - we have so many ideas, it just takes so long with a feature film to get them out. So sometimes shorts are more appealing.

I have got other ideas.

What are your favourite Wallace and Gromit highlights?

In a funny way, because I don't see watch the films very often, even on TV, it’s great to think that they are still wanting to be played and still have an audience. It's an amazing feeling for me, but I am always looking forward to new ideas. I have my highlights - The Wrong Trousers is probably the film I look to as the model, so to speak, the model film. There's a simplicity and a strength in the simplicity of ideas.

Plus it has the greatest chase sequence of all time.

The Wrong Trousers won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. (BBC/Aardman)

It's funny the way it's cited in that way.

What happened to Feathers McGraw? Is he going to come back? Surely there's an opportunity for him to be released from prison soon?

I thought a lot about that. It is a big question as to where is he now?

What are some of the low points of the franchise’s history? The fire in 2005, presumably?

We lost a lot of really lovely sets. Beautifully built sets. It was sentimental really. I mean, we were all just glad that no one was hurt. And really, our attitude is that we can rebuild it. Yeah, we can build. That's what we do.

So it didn't affect us in a massive way, the fire in that sense. It was a historical building that got burned down as well, the Brunel building, which was a great loss.

Firemen damping down a warehouse belonging to Aardman Animations in Bristol following a fire. (Photo by Barry Batchelor - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

You never know, in this business, when the success is gonna stop, and where to go next. From the outside - I was thinking this the other day - that we may look successful from the outside, but inside we’re all [makes panicked expression] and that's partly what's exciting about it really, is that it's a challenge always, to know where to go next, and what to do.

Over the years, we're slowly learning to keep a sort of slate going of films. We've got this incredible talent in the studio and keeping them all on is a big challenge, and making sure there's a project.

Not just a project that is, ‘oh, gosh, we gotta have something else to do’. It's got to be good. It’s got to be worthy of the Aardman name with that British sort of outlook.

So is Chicken Run 2 your next big project?

For the studio. Yeah. We're just finishing off Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon. And we're planning Chicken Run 2 right now.

Is there any update on that?

Not really. It's been on hold for a little while, just while we get the script right. But I think everyone's eager to get going on it now.

How important do you think the success of the studio is that it never moved from Bristol to London?

In a way, it's always been great. I always felt great that we’re not in London, because I used to live in London, and I love living in Bristol, because I love the countryside being quite nearby.

Even in the commercials that we do, agencies have always come out of London to see us, and that's always been a steady line of income as well.

Queen Elizabeth II admires the Oscars given to film animator Nick Park during a visit to Aardman Animations in Bristol, July 19.

But I think staying in the UK has been important too, just because of our sensibilities and humour. There's been temptation, and people have asked us to go and work in America, and move to America, but I think there's something that comes out of the blood just from living in the UK, and it might be a certain worldview, or sensibilities in humour that we don't want to get diluted.

Have you ever had offers for someone to buy the brand part and parcel the Wallace and Gromit world? The temptation for a George Lucas style payday must be there?

I don't know if it has, I mean, I'm not really big on the business side. I tend to stick more to the creative. But we've just become employee-owned. I think Pete and Dave who founded the company, they would say that it's insurance against being bought out in the future. So that we stay as we are: a very British company. And be our own bosses.

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The danger is someone else buys you out and then strips the assets, or maybe thinks the clay side isn't that profitable. Let's just stick with the CG. And that kind of safeguards against the future.

It’s clear that the ‘thumbiness’ of Aardman animation is crucial to its appeal. Other stop motion companies are moving away from that style, but it's part and parcel of the success of your films - is that fair?

It is, and it's the is the draw of the clay animation. We to do a whole diverse set of animations, we've got quite a large digital department and doing all sorts. In a way we're trying to keep our own, more quirky offbeat humour, I think you might describe it, in all the work that we do.

One of the Wallace and Gromit model sets used by Aardman Animation. (Photo by Barry Batchelor - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

And originality is very important. We do CG feature films alongside the stop motion, but we always want to have a hand in how we started with the clay. For me, I've only worked with the clay so I feel like I am an ambassador for that more.

Only because I feel it. There's something about it: a charm or a humour, for me, that has come out of that. Like with Gromit, it was to do with animating his brow by hand that made him what he is. It was like a discovery that you can make him speak with his eyebrows. And I don't know... you can do anything in CG and do it amazingly. I’ve seen the trailer for The Secret Life of Pets 2, and that to me, is mind-boggling really.

And not just the clay, but in Curse of the Were-Rabbit or in Early Man, I really wanted to just keep the real fur fabric on the fur and on the hair.

Ray Harryhausen, master stop–motion animator recently completed "The Tortoise and the Hare" with the help of freelance stop–motion animators Seamus Walsh, Mark Caballero and producer Richard Jones. Harryhausen began filming in 1952 using the same puppets. (Photo by Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Just because there's something I don't know, it takes me back to Ray Harryhausen, or Mighty Joe Young, or King Kong, you know, before Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, there’s something tactile, authentic or something?

It must be a bittersweet anniversary without Peter Sallis. How much of him is in Wallace and how did he feel about the character?

Well, he was always quite sentimental about things. And he did say some nice things to me. Because he’d already been in various roles in cinema, and Last of the Summer Wine had gone on for what was it 30 years, or something? And that's where I really knew him from as well. So I think when we met, he was about 60.

So I worked with him around 30 years altogether. On and off, because we only have to record in short periods.

Peter Sallis reads a script, on the occasion of his 87th birthday, whilst in the studio recording for the forthcoming Wallace & Gromit TV special 'A Matter of Loaf & Death' (Joel Ryan - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

He said it's been a lovely thing that's happened to him when he thought that was his career all set. And then this came in for him.

And he was always very funny, and a very witty guy all the time. On mic, and off mic as well. He had this story of… when I recorded him, I didn't have much money as a student pay to actors. So I think I offered him 50 quid, to record for the morning.

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And he came into the film school and recorded and then seven years later, he said he got a phone call. He heard a small voice on the other end of the line saying ‘I’ve finished it!’ And he was thinking ‘what on earth is this guy on about?’

I did actually get him back in to do some extra voice work for the film, and we met again. And he was very pleased with what he saw.

Congratulations on 30 years, I hope they come back.

I am working on... early days, but I'm working on some new Wallace & Gromit ideas.

To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Wallace & Gromit, Wallace & Gromit’s Musical Marvels is going on tour.

For venues and ticket info visit: https://www.carrotproductions.com/wallace-and-gromit/

The production features a live orchestral interactive experience which sees specially created animation and Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers accompanied by a live orchestra, a unique opportunity for Aardman lovers to experience the films in an entirely new way.