Film, News & Commentary

Mr Bean at 25: animating the legacy

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For the last few years, Rowan Atkinson has consistently said that he doesn’t want his most famous comedic creation to get old. Every time he’s been asked whether he’d don the Mr Bean suit again for more episodes or a film, his response has been that the misfit, who first appeared on our screens 25 years ago this year, should remain ageless. (Although a recent promo appearance and sketch for Comic Relief had him wondering if there might be something in an “Old Bean” movie.)

Of course, there’s one obvious way to ensure that your characters never age, as demonstrated by The Simpsons, another group of iconic characters who have just turned 25: live life in animation.
While Mr Bean was created as a live action physical comedy, inspired by silent film legends and Jacques Tati’s comedic creation Monsieur Hulot, in 2002 the character made his animated debut in a series produced by Tiger Aspect Productions — the company behind the original live action series.
Series producer Tom Beattie says an animated version of Bean was always the logical next step in his life.
“The character is very cartoony to begin with,” Beattie says. “His expressions, the way he moves and his physicality — it’s a bit of a no-brainer to go into a cartoon.”
Beattie has spent the last two years working on the newest season of the animated series, made up of 52 new episodes. He and director Tim Searle were charged with bringing the series back after a decade-long absence and have worked closely with Atkinson for this 25th anniversary season.
Although the live action Mr Bean series unexpectedly ended up in a primetime slot and was a massive hit, the animated spin-off didn’t find its feet quite so quickly. The character has always resonated across broad audiences — his brand of physical comedy is about as universal as comedy gets — but it initially struggled in its primetime Saturday night time-slot on British channel, ITV.
“When it was first aired, it was commissioned by TV comedy, and not a children’s channel, and it kind of got lost in TV land,” Beattie says. “It was originally made for family viewing, but Pop Idol and those reality shows came along and it got put on the back shelf.”
It was a very expensive show to produce, with 500 animators working on the entirely hand-drawn first series. But now, after years of syndication, it’s found its natural home and a more cost effective digital animation style.
Beattie says it plays to different audiences in different markets around the world. “In some Asian markets, it’s family viewing in the same way The Simpsons is family viewing.”
Although the new series have been commissioned for CITV, the network’s children’s channel (and is currently airing in Australia on Boomerang, a children’s channel on Foxtel) Beattie and Searle say it still has the intelligence and integrity of the original series and resonates across age groups. That’s largely down to the contribution of Atkinson himself, who serves as an executive producer and voices the character, who speaks a little more in the animated version than the largely mime-based live action series.
“It’s amazing how animated Rowan becomes in the recording booth,” Beattie says. “When he’s portraying Mr Bean, he’s not just delivering those lines. We very much have live Bean for four hours every two weeks, which is absolutely amazing.”

But director Searle says that Atkinson is involved at every stage of the process, right from sorting through the initial story ideas to crafting the finer moments of the animations and comedy in the recording booth.
“We’re often just about to hit record and he goes ‘ah, hang on a minute’,” Searle says. “There’s one episode where there’s a power shortage and Bean improvises and makes himself a wind turbine. And Rowan’s got two engineering degrees, so everything that features in Mr Bean need to look like it could actually work. He’s a real stickler for logic — it’s a fundamental thing. If you’re asking yourself a question about whether something actually works, even if it’s in the back of your mind, you’re not necessarily going with the comedy. Everything needs to have an explanation so you can go with it.
“Rowan is a tough cookie but he really knows his stuff. I can’t think of a person alive who has that understanding of physical comedy.”
Atkinson has even found aspects of animation suit his comedic style more closely than live action.
“He absolutely adores animation, because Rowan is very much about the science and the nuance of comedy,” Beattie says. “He’s all about the beats and the timing and every time we send him an animatic he comes back with heaps of notes about that. With animation, it’s an interesting job for him to do because there’s so much control. You can move things ever so slightly as you can’t do in film.”
So, with that in mind, do Searle and Beattie think Bean is due to spend the rest of his years as a two-dimensional cartoon?
“I know Rowan said he wasn’t too keen on getting back into the suit, but we did some promo work where he got back in the suit for some green-screen promos,” Searle says. “And I’d worked with him for a couple of years and to see him suddenly appear as Bean in the full get-up is really strange to see. It’s a full transformation. I wouldn’t necessarily say he will never do it again.”
[box]Mr Bean Animated Season 2 is out now on DVD[/box]

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