Magazine article Variety

At 40, Aardman Stays Stubbornly Eccentric

Magazine article Variety

At 40, Aardman Stays Stubbornly Eccentric

Article excerpt

In 1995, at pretty much the midpoint of Aardman Animations' 40-year history, the Bristol-based cartoon studio's co-founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, hatched the crazy idea of making a feature-length stop-motion film. It would be a send-up of the classic prison-break movie "The Great Escape."

But starring chickens.

"It was really kind of a freak idea," recalls Lord, who directed what became "Chicken Run," the first of Aardman's six features. This was shortly before Pixar launched the CG revolution with "Toy Story? and though Aardman was about to win its third Oscar for the Wallace and Gromit short "A Close Shave" [incidentally, the project in which it introduced hit character Shaun the Sheep], hardly anyone was making big-screen cartoon. In fact, apart from the work Henry Selick was doing for producer Tim Burton in the United States [most notably "A Nightmare Before Christmas"], the idea of an entire movie in stop-motion seemed outlandish.

But then, Aardman didn't get to be the animation powerhouse that it has by thinking like the flock. A certain British eccentricity runs in the company's DNA, dating back to its origins as a summer sideline, a glorified hobby, really, based in a spare room in Sproxton's house.

"Now, talking to young people anywhere in the world, I'm surprised how many of them are doing animation," Lord says, encouraged by a creative sea change they helped to inspire. "Back in our day, it was extraordinarily unusual." So unusual that neither dreamt of doing it for a living: Sproxton had gone to study geography, while Lord majored in English literature.

And then, practically overnight, their passion started to earn money [the first check they cashed was for a hand-drawn short starring a character called "Aardman," after whom they decided to name their fledgling studio]. And inspiration struck when they happened to catch American animator Eli Noyes' "Clay or the Origin of Species" on TV. "That put the idea into our heads that you could animate clay? Lord says. "Drawn animation was kind of a blind alley for us."

Working with clay - technically, Plasticine - has since become Aardman's trademark, being the medium in which Morph [their earliest stopframe character] and later daffy inventor Wallace and his pet dog Gromit were sculpted. "Audiences love that sense of tangibility, the sense that it isn't perfect, the fact that you can see the fingerprints," Sproxton says.

Aardman no longer holds a near-monopoly on stop-motion, as Wes Anderson ["The Fantastic Mr. Fox"] and Laika ["Coraline"] have entered the arena, but the company has slyly managed to keep its old-school charm while staying on the cutting edge. Most recently it collaborated with Google Spotlight Stories to develop a 360-degree video project called "Special Delivery" designed to be viewed on a smartphone.

"That came from the realization that clay animation, which we love, is inherently quite limited," Lord says. "We wanted to do bigger, more ambitious projects, so we cheerfully moved into anything else. Today, we kind of do a bit of everything."

Since nearly the beginning, Aardman's co-founders have adapted to changes in the market by seeking out and empowering young talents. Early on, they were lucky to stumble upon Nick Park, who invited Sproxton and Park to visit the National Film and Television School, where Park was developing his first Wallace and Gromit short, "A Grand Day Out." The company had just four employees when Aardman's co-chiefs invited Park to come aboard and help them finish "Babylon," a stop-motion political satire in which arms dealers destroy the world. The tradition continues, as Aardman tapped Tim Ruffle to spearhead the "Special Delivery" project.

"You always have to be quite fleet of foot," says Sproxton, explaining how a company that upholds a certain old-school spirit has actually positioned itself on the cutting edge. When longtime British TV partner Channel 4 commissioned the "Angry Kid" series in the late '90s, "They were desperate to have online rights. …

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