Animal welfare charity Born Free Foundation has teamed up with animation studio Aardman on a new short that taps into the public mood around lockdown to address the issue of wild animals in captivity.
Titled Creature Discomforts: Life in Lockdown, the animation exposes the plight of animals held in zoos, aquariums and circuses who, unlike most of us, have endured their freedom being stripped away for far longer than the duration of the pandemic. The film was orchestrated by Engine, which also worked on Born Free’s previous film The Bitter Bond about ‘Instagram lions’ that received an honourable mention in the CR Annual.
The new short takes cues from Aardman’s popular series Creature Comforts, which pairs charming claymation animal characters with everyday human conversations. Due to lockdown restrictions, the teams necessary to create the clay animations couldn’t be brought together, with the studio instead opting for a 2D approach. While it can’t help but miss some of the obvious charm of Creature Comforts, the connection is easily established with the tone and sense of humanness.
The dialogue comes from people around the UK reflecting on their experiences of lockdown, often touching on feelings of isolation and the struggle to explain the situation to children.
“As with all Creature Comforts dialogue it was all spontaneous reactions and unscripted. That’s what gives it its authenticity,” explains director and character designer Peter Peake, who has worked in the animation department across the Creature Comforts series. “Given the restrictions of lockdown we approached our families and friends to be interviewed over Zoom, and luckily they were very eager to help out.”
The people were interviewed without knowing the context of the project, in a bid to capture as authentic soundbites as possible. “It was really important for us that they didn’t know what this was for. That way, we could be sure we were getting their honest feelings in lockdown,” explains Engine creative Pete Ioulianou. “When we matched them to the animals it worked straight away, that’s when the heartstrings started getting tugged.”
“The similarities between us in lockdown and wild animals in captivity became really apparent when we heard what everyone had to say,” adds creative Ollie Agius. “It was key for us to choose the right nuggets of the recordings so that they could fit with an animal behind bars. The best bit was seeing it all click together and seeing the locked up animals speak up for the first time.
“We made sure to record as many different people from all walks of life to get a good range of everyone’s experiences. Everyone from a lonely 89-year-old grandmother who hadn’t left her home since February to a young family who had just welcomed home their second child during lockdown.”
The team started by gathering the voice recordings, and built the characters and animation around that. “We were adamant that it couldn’t be scripted or done with actors. Once we had the perfect voice edit with the right amount of humour and emotion, we could start to picture which characters would fit best,” Ioulianou explains.
While the animation feels distinctly Aardman, the key difference is in the content of the dialogue. Creature Comforts is known for warm, recognisable snapshots of everyday life, yet Creature Discomforts comes with a heartbreaking message. “We really wanted to find the overlap between how humans were feeling during lockdown and how wild animals must feel in captivity,” he adds. “Creature Comforts gave us the chance to merge the two in a charmingly familiar yet heartwrenching way.”
Engine sought to draw a link between this collective lack of freedom and animals being held in captivity. “Lockdown is something we’ve all now experienced, so we were in a unique situation where we knew everyone was struggling one way or another. By drawing a comparison to wild animals locked up, we knew we’d create that tension and hopefully give the audience a new found empathy,” says Agius.
For creative director Steve Hawthorne, the pairing couldn’t be more apt: “The power of using Creature Comforts lies precisely in its relatability and mundanity. Because it’s the mundanity of the lives of millions of captive wild animals which is the problem. While some are actively abused, many aren’t. For the majority the horror is far more insidious.”
CCO: Billy Faithfull
Creative Directors: Steve Hawthorne, Katy Hopkins
Creatives: Pete Ioulianou, Ollie Agius
Production: Aardman Animations
Director, character designer: Peter Peake
Animator: Jane Davies