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Babylon is a 1986 British short created by Aardman Animations. It is the first film in the Sweet Disaster series. The short film focuses on the thin line between human definitions of war and peace.

Series Name
Season Sweet Disaster, Episode 1
Air date May 4th 1986
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"Babylon" by David Hopkins from Sleeping Weazel on Vimeo.

In 1989, when Nick Park shook the animation world with his ground-breaking shorts Creature Comforts and A Grand Day Out, he pretty much defined Aardman's style as one of droll, wide-mouthed whimsy.  The quaint, characteristically "very British" quirkiness that exudes from the world of Wallace and Gromit has become synonymous with the Bristol-based animation studio, and while series such as Angry Kid and Rex the Runt are testaments to the variety of different tastes and sensibilities that Aardman have catered to, ultimately it’s Park’s style that continues to dominate their mainstream projects (including their theatrical feature films) and the public's general perception of them. So much so that a lot of Aardman’s weirder, more experimental output, particularly from the 70s and 80s before Park was able to make his mark, tends to get passed over.  A shame, because not only did Aardman produce some really interesting work within that period, it's also fascinating to observe how the studio developed during those early stages, and some of the wonderful little oddities that surfaced as they were in the process of shaping their identity, and in their quest to create animations with primarily adult appeal.

Aardman Animations was founded in 1972 by school chums Peter Lord and David Sproxton (who set up shop in Bristol in 1976), and before Park’s success at the 1990 Academy Awards managed to put them on the map in a big way, their most popular creation was “Morph”, a small, gibberish-spouting plasticine humanoid who first appeared in the children’s BBC series Take Hart.  In 1978 Lord and Sproxton also worked upon a couple of experimental pieces aimed at adult audiences, Confessions of a Foyer Girl and Down and Out, which were produced for BBC Bristol under the banner of Animated Conversations.  The Beeb didn’t take to these, but they later caught the eye of Channel 4 executive Jeremy Isaacs, and led to the commissioning of Conversation Pieces, a series centred upon the concept of taking audio recordings of real-life conversations and bringing them to life via stop motion animation.  Two of the resulting films, Palmy Days and Early Bird, were particularly witty in how they interpreted and represented the audio in question, and traces of the DNA for Park's short about life in the zoo can certainly be glimpsed therein.  We're not talking about those shorts right now, but I’m sure that it'll only be a matter of time before I get around to them.

This entry focuses upon what, as far as I’m concerned, is the unsung masterpiece of Aardman’s fledgling output, before Park’s breakout success re-shaped them and took them in an altogether different direction.  Ironically, Babylon was the very first short that Park himself worked on after joining Aardman (who agreed to provide funding for his then-unfinished student film, A Grand Day Out, in exchange for his services).  Another rising Aardman star who provided animation for Babylon was Richard “Golly” Golieszowski (now Richard Starzak), who went on to create Rex the Runt and would later helm the TV spin-offs for Creature Comforts and Shaun The Sheep.

Babylon was Lord and Sproxton’s contribution to Sweet Disaster, a series of shorts conceived and written by David Hopkins, and broadcast by Channel 4 in 1986.  Anyone who’s checked out my previous entries on the series will know that they dealt with the terrors of nuclear apocalypse, and in Babylon's case, proliferation is the specific issue on the table.  In its present state, the Wikipedia article for Sweet Disaster references the obscurity of the series and backs this up with a quote from Nick Park (taken from an interview with The Onion A.V. Club) about Babylon not having seen the light of day for a long time.  Worth noting is that the interview in question was from June 2000 (around the time of Chicken Run’s theatrical release), and that Babylon has since gone on to be by far the easiest of the Sweet Disaster films to access.  As an Aardman film, Babylon is definitely a bit unloved and lurking in the shadows, and yet it’s enjoyed a limelight which no other film in the Sweet Disaster series can boast, thanks largely to its inclusion on the Aardman Classics DVD released in November 2000.  In 2012, Sleeping Weazel uploaded the short to their Vimeo account, along with two other Sweet Disaster films, and once again I have them to thank for enabling me to share the short itself alongside my coverage of it.

I’ve no doubt that many people, like myself, were introduced to Babylon while watching the Aardman Classics DVD from start from start to finish, and I have to wonder if, like me, they were initially caught off guard by the extreme sombreness of the piece, which is about as far-removed from the whimsical world of Shaun the Sheep and Frank the Tortoise as one can get.  That’s not to say that Aardman hasn’t frequently delved into some fairly dark subject matter (even the world of Wallace and Gromit isn’t all cheese and crackers, what with its array of murderous villains), but it’s hard to envision an Aardman film more downbeat and deliberately devoid of humour than this one.  Sadly, the accompanying booklet to the Aardman Classics DVD provides almost no context for Babylon whatsoever – aside from a passing reference to it being the first Aardman project that Nick Park was asked to work upon, virtually nothing is said about the short in its run-down of the studio’s history, which may account for why it remained such an enigma to me for so long.  Babylon works fine as a stand-alone piece, but as an Aardman film it's a total oddity, and an understanding of the film within the context of the Sweet Disaster series is somewhat necessary in order to fully appreciate it and its place in Aardman history.

Babylon opens with a landscape in utter chaos – a smoggy city in which police sirens and gunfire ring out continuously.  The only creatures who appear to be thriving amid this desolation are the vultures circling in the skies overhead and the well-presented assembly at a grand function taking place in one of the buildings.  Ostensibly, this genteel gathering might appear to stand in total contrast to the havoc outside, and yet right from the beginning there are hints that these people (a gathering of arms dealers) are really just another facet of it.  The title "Babylon" calls to mind the ancient city of Mesopotamia, along with its broader meaning in indicating any place of immense power or luxury that also harbours great vice and corruption, an association that stems from the Biblical references to Babylon in the Book of Revelation, and which points to the apocalyptic theme of the film.  Images of the guests greeting one another and talk among themselves are juxtaposed with further shots of the vultures, and a map of the world with illustrations depicting all manner of weaponry being distributed across the continents.  We also see another, separate character out on the balcony - the waiter of the function, who is smoking a cigarette and observing the vultures circling above him with apparent nonchalance.

Something I have to note about Babylon is just how ambitious it is upon a technical level, given the extensive number of stop motion figures involved (around fifty, according to one source), and the intricacies of the sets (both the dark grandeur of the meeting hall and the desolate urban wasteland outside), all of which was upon a scale that went far beyond anything that Aardman had attempted to date.  Only one character, credited simply as “The Speaker”, has any amount of significant dialogue (courtesy of Tony Robinson, who also supplied the voice of The Speechwriter in Death of a Speechwriter), with most of the communication between characters being conveyed through gestures and mannerisms, and the attention to detail for each individual figure, even the majority who serve merely as background “extras”, is nothing short of stunning.  Despite my earlier suggestion that Babylon is totally devoid of humour, there actually are a number of quirky little background details to be picked out here, in the very greatest of Aardman traditions.  Watch closely and you'll be rewarded by a variety of antics from the minor characters, one of my personal favourites being the gentleman seated next to the Speaker who falls asleep during the latter's speech, and the discreet efforts of his companion to rouse him.

The two most significant characters of the film, besides Robinson's Speaker, are the aforementioned waiter (who might be described as our protagonist, although he has very little involvement with the events in question and acts largely as a passive observer throughout) and a hulking, bald-headed man who has an intimidating presence right from the go.  He is threatening not merely for his hefty physique, but also for his vocalisations, which consist of low, beastly growlings that mark him out as a monstrous being and also give the film an eerie connection to Death of a Speechwriter, one of its fellow Sweet Disaster shorts.  As I noted in my respective entry upon Death of a Speechwriter, the growling noises emitted by this character are identical to those heard during Speechwriter's opening sequence, in which the camera circles the titular character in a manner evocative of a prowling predator.  It might seem a bit of a stretch to suppose that this therefore indicates that it is literally the same character entering and patrolling the Speechwriter's premises, but then there is something distinctly uncanny about the bald-headed man in Babylon.  He serves as the film's central metaphor - a personification of the perils of nuclear proliferation.  As the meeting progresses and his rapacious nature becomes increasingly apparent, we see him swell, quite literally, to monstrous proportions, with devastating consequences for those around him.

The mantra of "peace and profit", chanted by a whispering, disembodied voice, reoccurs repeatedly throughout the film, and is the reasoning that informs the impassioned speech delivered by the Speaker upon the virtues of proliferation.  By this, it is only through the "gentle philosophy of deterrence" that mankind can be protected from the machinations of his neighbour and from his inherently evil self, and the arms dealers, being the real peacekeepers, are therefore entitled to reap the monetary rewards (the relish with which the Speaker delivers the line "and that cost can be high" leaves no doubt as to where his real interests lie).  The Speaker's bombastic claims to be a facilitator of peace are undercut by the atmosphere in the meeting hall, in which the bald-headed man, an embodiment of the greed, corruption and intimidation that fuels the Speaker's philosophy, grows increasingly dominant.  As he terrorises the other guests into signing a succession of deals, the threat merely intensifies, to the extent that the other guests, despite their visibly desperate efforts to deal with the looming peril, are gradually overwhelmed, rendering them defenceless and inert.  As he reaches the climax of his speech, the Speaker regards the bald-headed man, now his sole remaining addresse, with something resembling awe - he is, after all, a monster of his own making.  And, as tends to be the case with monsters, he proves to be the means of his creator's undoing - in the film's most dramatic moment, the bald-headed man, swollen beyond all containment, finally bursts open at the chest and unleashes a literal bloodbath that obliterates the Speaker.

Babylon closes in a similar manner to how it began, with the waiter, one of the few figures left alive, retreating back outside to the balcony to observe the vultures circling overhead, albeit in a visibly more fearful and contemplative mood than when we initially joined him.  The vultures are one of the film's most prominent motifs - they are likely a direct nod to the "loathsome, carrion birds" that are mentioned in Biblical references to to the city of Babylon (Revelation 18:2), and obviously, can be taken as a metaphor of the arms dealers themselves, a link made explicit by the Speaker himself when he refers, with great indignation, to the "communists" who have dubbed them "the vultures of society".  Ultimately though, I suspect that the vultures point toward an even higher level of threat - that of the nuclear annihilation which is presently looming over the world outside.  Their human counterparts vanquished, the vultures continue to hover above the city, anticipating the spoils of a much bigger bloodbath that will shortly be coming to the world beyond the meeting hall.  The lights in the city buildings abruptly fade out, an indication of the darkness that lies ahead.  The words "peace and profit" are repeated yet again, a chilling reminder of the emptiness and futility of "peace" that is enforced purely through the omnipresent threat of annihilation.

Thus concludes Babylon, the forgotten masterpiece of Aardman's pre-Wallace and Gromit era.  Lord and Sproxton demonstrate their directorial prowess, and the character animation is truly outstanding, so it's little surprise that Park and Golly both had bright futures ahead of them, but Aardman never again made a film even remotely like it, so much so that its bleakness will likely prove startling to anyone familiar only with their later output.  Beautifully desolate and wonderfully haunting, it is an excellent entry to the Sweet Disaster series, a fascinating oddity among Aardman's work, and a film that greatly deserves to be regarded as much more than a mere footnote in Aardman's history, as the project that indirectly enabled Wallace and Gromit to get their first adventure off the ground.

Availability: Appears on the 2000 DVD release Aardman Classics.  In the US, it was previously released by Lumivision on the 1993 LaserDisc New British Animation: The Best of Channel Four

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