Don’t speak

From the first time the Road Runner zoomed across the screen with an exultant 'Meep, meep!' to this past summer's blockbuster hit WALL-E, whose star robot mesmerized audiences and critics alike with little more than a few mechanical sighs and beeps, the history of animation is ripe with characters who have spoken volumes without saying much at all. And while the bulk of this dialogue-free content has lived on the big screen, the genre seems to be migrating to TV and the web with greater frequency.
October 1, 2008

From the first time the Road Runner zoomed across the screen with an exultant ‘Meep, meep!’ to this past summer’s blockbuster hit WALL-E, whose star robot mesmerized audiences and critics alike with little more than a few mechanical sighs and beeps, the history of animation is ripe with characters who have spoken volumes without saying much at all. And while the bulk of this dialogue-free content has lived on the big screen, the genre seems to be migrating to TV and the web with greater frequency.

At a glance, creating series that rely more on character expression than verbage to drive storytelling seems like a no-brainer when it comes to cutting down on production costs and increasing international salability by eliminating reversioning/dubbing expenses, but that’s not always the case. In an effort to explore the ins and outs of creating and marketing successful dialogue-free series, we talked to a number of producers and broadcasters commissioning these types of shows and found that a lot more goes into crafting characters like Aardman’s wise, but mute Gromit – who never speaks, but always has the best lines – than is immediately apparent.

Extra resources are poured into the animation, and attention has to be paid to every eye twitch and mouth movement made by the central characters, pushing the animators’ creative abilities to the forefront of the process.

Character expressions

Bristol, England-based Aardman Animations, in fact, is developing something of an expertise in the non-dialogue genre. Coming off the success of silent series Shaun the Sheep, the company is in the midst of production on its first preschool project, stop-motion Timmy Time (52 x 10 minutes), which has a full cast of characters who get along just fine without talking. The Shaun spin-off stars Timmy the lamb and chronicles his day-to-day adventures at the nursery school he attends with an assorted group of wee barnyard animals.

‘You have to take into consideration whether or not the kids are going to be able to understand what’s going on, and what the characters are supposed to be feeling,’ says Miles Bullough, head of broadcast and development. He explains that rather than Timmy saying that he feels sorry, it’s necessary to show his remorse without always resorting to obvious means, like turning on the waterworks every time he feels a bit anxious. ‘The nuance of how the characters are feeling has got to come across through the actors,’ he says.

By actors, Bullough is talking about Aardman’s animators, who have drama training and often act out upcoming series’ scenes as part of their process for translating movement and expressions to the stop-motion figures they are manipulating. In some more challenging cases, they will record themselves on video to get a visual blueprint for exactly how the figures should behave and move.

Aardman’s directors also refer to neurolinguistic charts that map out facial expressions, so they know what a person’s face should look like when they tell a lie or have a ‘Eureka! I remembered’ moment. ‘Your eyes dart in different directions, depending on what you’re doing and thinking, for example, and using the charts as a guide helps add authenticity and convey meaning to what we’re doing,’ says Bullough.

The importance of getting facial expressions and movements just right is also top of mind for Carlos Biern, head of co-productions, licensing and new technologies development at Barcelona-based BRB Internacional. The studio’s Bernard the Bear, a 53 x three-minute series about a polar bear, is produced in CGI animation. Biern says this style works better for a dialogue-free format than traditional 2-D animation because of the level of detail you can show in the character’s face, as well as being able to play them up against a richer and more visually appealing background. ‘The animation needs to be alive as ever. You have to be able to mute the volume and still laugh at the character without the music or sound effects,’ he says. The key, he says, is putting a stronger focus on storyboard artists and designers. ‘You should spend much more time thinking about the animatics.’

Bullough agrees. He says having no dialogue makes shooting a bit easier, but the animatics stage is much more exaggerated to get complex animation and mouth shapes just right. In terms of timing, it boils down to the complexity of the mouth shapes, which varies. However, Bullough says one animator can shoot about a second of footage a day for Wallace and Gromit. For Shaun the Sheep, it’s about seven seconds.

Setting the stage

A lot more time is also spent figuring out how to meet the needs of the show’s target demographic when there’s no dialogue to help out. ‘Because it’s essentially visually driven, you have to have the visuals very strong and in your face,’ says CBeebies controller Michael Carrington. He adds that the wide-eyed, larger-than-life residents of In the Night Garden are good examples of defined characters that help kids enter the show’s world and understand where they are. By not having dialogue, the series lets kids ages two to four, who are at different cognitive stages, absorb the show at their own level. ‘They feel empowered. Nobody is saying that they should think this way or that way,’ Carrington explains, adding that the absence of speech can completely open up kids’ minds and let them be inspired through their own imaginations.

Shaun the Sheep, which Carrington commissioned from Aardman for CBBC, has similar benefits to a dialogue-free show. ‘In both cases, you’re drawn into a world that you don’t have to think all that carefully about,’ he says. The farmyard community of sheep creates a clear and strong setting that allows kids to relax and enjoy the comedy of sheep doing crazy things. ‘As older kids come to understand comedy and narrative, they can put it together, and it becomes all about their own imagination and how they feel empowered understanding those characters,’ he says.

Comedy plays a starring role in most successful dialogue-free series, which Treehouse & Discovery Kids Canada’s director of content, Jamie Piekarz, says draws on a European clowning tradition of physical comedy that kids love. Carrington adds that slapstick comedy also works really well with the five- and six-year-olds he programs for on CBeebies. For example, Alto the cactus, an interstitial character on CBBC that grunts and groans, has kids in stitches with his naughty behavior, and they can imagine on their own what words he might be thinking or saying.

‘Silent comedy was the first form of comedy,’ Carrington notes, harkening back to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. ‘The more we can invent for new audiences, the better.’

Layering on the sound

Dialogue-free doesn’t mean shows that are totally devoid of sound, of course. Treehouse’s also broadcasts In the Night Garden, and Piekarz likes how its audio elements complement the moment-by-moment life of a preschooler, including emotional sounds (giggling and sighing, for example), gibberish in lieu of actual words, and audible patterns that occur across episodes, such as the twittering of a bird.

Similarly, the baby animals on Timmy Time don’t speak, but they do use animal sounds to communicate with one another. And Toronto, Canada-based Cuppa Coffee’s 26 x three-minute 2-D animated preschool series Tigga and Togga revolves around exploring the concept of music through beats, rhythms and sounds. Cuppa Coffee president and executive producer Adam Shaheen says the non-verbal sounds help the characters act a bit over-enthusiastic, which in turn helps them express themselves and clarify what’s going on in the story.

Having a narrator interact with viewers and the on-screen characters is another trick of the trade for keeping the direction of the story very clear. For example, Cuppa’s Bruno and the Banana Bunch, a 26 x 11-minute 2-D animated preschool series depends on a narrator rather than dialogue to move the story forward. Shaheen says having the storylines unfold by way of a narrator was inspired by ‘a charming traditional sense of storytelling that goes back to being a kid and having our moms and dads read us stories.’

Short, sweet and silent

For BRB’s Biern, musicality was the starting point for Bernard the Bear, which he thought would fill a gap for kids shorts in the burgeoning VOD and mobile market in 2004. He explains that when he tried to shop the Bernard shorts around, broadcasters saw them as filler material and interstitials; they weren’t interested until they saw the traffic online for Bernard downloads. Eventually, the show sold to broadcasters worldwide, some of whom didn’t necessarily have space in their schedules for filler.

Biern sees shorts as a great alternative for independent producers to test characters online and deliver pilots to broadcasters at much lower costs in hopes of getting noticed and picked up. ‘If you’re able to deliver worldwide…in 10 or 12 months, you could have a classic.’

That short-format episodes are becoming more ubiquitous on-air, online and via mobile goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of dialogue-free series. Most producers will tell you that shows without dialogue work best as three- to seven-minute episodes, and no longer. Shaheen says he toyed with stretching Tigga and Togga from three minutes to five minutes, but the show started to drag. ‘It became a bit redundant; we already had all we wanted to get across with building the episode,’ he says. To add extra interactive content for preschoolers, he added more musical activities to the companion website, which he says takes the show’s concept a step further.

Sales appeal

Pierre Sissman at Paris-based Cyber-Group Animation, learned that age demo, episode length and comedy are all factors that

come together in determining how well a series will work without dialogue. The studio’s 52 x two-minute Ozie Boo series initially targeted two- to five-year-olds, but Cyber-Group had to do an about-face when Sissman decided to increase the episode lengths to age it up. Speech became necessary to tackle the more relevant subjects in the day-to-day lives of kids ages five and up that Cyber-Group wanted to cover. After a long discussion with Disney Europe, Sissman realized he’d have to add dialogue to the penguins’ interactions to sustain interest.

The longer-format show has since been sold into 150 countries in 22 languages, and Sissman says he doesn’t think it would have achieved this level of distribution pick-up had he kept it dialogue-free. ‘The notion of abstraction that comes from gags in speechless cartoons is not that obvious to kids under four,’ says Sissman. ‘And older kids won’t pay attention unless it’s very funny,’ he adds.

As for worrying whether additional dubbing costs would taint the momentum he had with the first season of Ozie Boo, Sissman wasn’t worried. He says no broadcaster has ever turned down a great show because it had to be dubbed, and besides, there are still the bulk of production costs to consider, including the story-boarding, animatics, sound design and post-production. In fact, he says the cost associated with having speaking characters is only a fraction – an estimated 10% to 15% – of the total cost of the series.

One advantage for international broadcasters, however, is that without having to dub, a show can be put up on screens worldwide with no translation period. BRB’s Biern says the benefit of that is getting a consumer products program to market a lot more quickly. ‘With dialogue-free, we don’t have to take the time to look for great adapters; the humor works on the screen immediately,’ he says.

Getting broadcasters on-board with dialogue-free shows, however, isn’t always that easy. Cuppa Coffee’s Shaheen says that in the US, in particular, executives were wary of Bruno and the Banana Bunch at first, whereas broadcasters in Canada and Europe were open to its alternative type of storytelling. The series has since gone on to air in more than 70 territories on Nickelodeon, CBC, TFO and BabyTV.

Shaheen also says he hears broadcasters say that preschoolers are more sophisticated now, but he’s not buying it. ‘They’re more sophisticated about using computers and opening email, but stories are still stories,’ he says. ‘Some of the stuff we’re doing, with Bruno in particular, is harkening back to stories that kids love, and part of that simplicity is not having dialogue.’

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