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Speaking of animated conversations

By ERIC DEGGANS TV/Media critic
Published June 4, 2007


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He only worked for the St. Petersburg Times for a few months in 1984, the beginning of an eight-year journalism career that ended when he got a job writing for Bill Nye the Science Guy.

But TV producer Kit Boss has made the most of his connections to the Tampa Bay area.

First, he featured the names of two former Times co-workers in an episode of Fox's King of the Hill, where he worked as a writer for seven years. Now his new series for CBS, Creature Comforts, features the voices of seven Tampa Bay area residents, including our deputy editor of editorials Tim Nickens and his wife, Bridget. They are among dozens whose conversations were recorded and then used as the sound track for cheeky animated vignettes.

"There's something about Florida, " said Boss, 45, calling from his office in Los Angeles. "People who grew up there are unusual and people who are drawn there are unusual."

Boss' Creature Comforts is an Americanized version of a British TV series based on the work of Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park. The creators recorded interviews across the country and drew animated animals to fit the audio. Most vignettes last about 15 seconds, poignant snippets that are funny, sentimental or striking in a flash, amplified by the stop-motion visuals.

In different scenes: A reclining pig extols the virtues of her children while a pack of piglets nurses at her belly; two birds discuss whether animals can smell the fear caused by predators, as a cat walks up behind them, unnoticed; and a nervous porcupine talks about the fight-or-flight response.

Nickens, who met Boss when the producer was an intern at the Times' Clearwater bureau, voices one of a pair of birds sitting on a statue. "Bird flu!" he exclaims, his southern Indiana-bred vocal twang lending a distinctive impact. "Nobody's going to get bird flu . . . It's all a scam. It'll kill off all the Europeans first, anyway."

"I believe I was quoted out of context, " said a bemused Nickens, laughing after viewing a clip of the appearance with his wife in my office. "But they captured Bridget's trademark eye roll perfectly."

Nickens, like most of the other voices appearing on the show, recorded his conversations more than a year ago with interviewers hired from across the country to scout for interesting voices. (Some of the bay area voices were actually recorded by a former Times correspondent, Bob Andelman.)

"We didn't care about the resume of the people we were talking to, " said Boss, who sorted through 800 hours of audio for six episodes' worth of material. "All we cared about was that they sounded interesting.

"(We needed) people who were able to have opinions on a wide variety of things. I always tell them to find the person you dread sitting next to on a long flight; the person who never shuts up."

Imagine clay animals created in the mold of films such as Chicken Run, animated with a technique that involves building a model, taking a picture, moving the model slightly, taking another picture and so on.

Such "stop-motion" animation produces about 3.1 seconds of footage each day; small wonder they had 34 animators working on the film at the British headquarters of Aardman Animations, the company behind the English version of Creature Comforts and Peter Gabriel's trippy Sledgehammer video.

The long process also allowed animators to slip in their own jokes.

"One thing that turned out well was this guy in San Francisco who was really nervous about being interviewed . . . he was asked how he felt about birds, and he was taken aback, " said Boss. "We said 'What is this guy hiding?' We made him a fox outside a henhouse who has his hands behind his back. He's saying 'Birds? I never thought about a bird.' And it turns out (the animated fox) is holding two chickens by the neck."

Boss is enough of a showbiz realist to know it's not a great sign that CBS is premiering the series after the TV season has ended. And a cursory viewing of two episodes reveals that what seems a cute idea for 15 minutes or so loses a bit of luster over a 30-minute show.

But series such as Survivor and American Idol also started as summer fare, so he remains hopeful a collection of clay chickens, pigs and cockroaches can touch TV viewers' hearts.

"For shows that are trying to do something different, (summer) can be a more protected place to premiere . . . with fewer options, and less new stuff for people to check out and for us to compete with, " he said, laughing a little. "Hey, I'm trying to look on the bright side."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

REVIEW

Creature feature

Creature Comforts debuts tonight at 8 on WTSP-Ch. 10.

Grade: A-

Rating: TV-PG

[Last modified June 4, 2007, 02:03:16]


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