Aardman: Putting magic into the art of stop-motion

A special treat for those attending the UKCA West of England Branch meeting at the Everyman Bristol was a Q&A session with Dave Sproxton of Aardman Animation.



A refreshing addition to the agenda of the recent UKCA West of England Branch members’ meeting was a Q&A session with David Sproxton CBE, co-founder, with Peter Lord, of the Aardman Animations studio. After watching clips from Aardman favourites, we were privileged to a sneak preview of Early Man, due for release in January 2018. Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man is the story of Dug and sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age city to save their home.

The UKCA’s Phil Clapp asked David lots of questions before opening up the session to the floor. It was fascinating to hear just how this Bristol-based company had come into being and found success worldwide.

PHIL CLAPP (PC): Why animation?

DAVE SPROXTON (DS): Stop-frame animation is a practical way of making movies — it doesn’t need lots of people, special locations, or complex facilities, and is a do-able project that me and my school friend Peter Lord could carry out in a bedroom. What you finally see on screen from stop-frame is something that never existed in real life, opening up all sorts of imaginative possibilities. As a schoolboy prank, we registered the name Aardman Animations, after finding that it cost only a few shillings to register a company name. Perhaps we should have used ‘Lord Sproxton Animations’ instead! When we moved to Bristol after university, we produced our first professional production, creating Morph for the children’s art programme Take Hart.

PC: And what about the story-writing?

DS: A typical Aardman project tends not to involve a big team, but just one or two, and we go through a story-boarding process (show it, not tell it) before working with others. The process is like building a house — the initial architects bring in designers and builders and plumbers to bring their ideas to fruition. Our ideas and humour tend to be terribly British, reflecting the time and the place that we grew up in — our influences are The Beano, Spike Milligan and The Goons. The move to Hollywood with DreamWorks necessitated many changes as to how we worked. Chicken Run was a great success, but our next planned Hollywood movie didn’t get finished. Although Dreamworks regarded Aardman as bringing something positive and different to their films, once Dreamworks became
a huge public company, financial considerations made working with such a small partner unviable. Dreamworks wanted to make minor changes to the scripts to adapt them for a US audience — they wanted ‘torch’ to become ‘flashlight’ and ‘marrow’ to become ‘courgette’!

PC: Do the hi-tech animation developments at companies like Pixar affect you?

DS: We track the developments that the big companies are involved with, but Aardman is different from companies like Pixar and we don’t tread on each other’s toes.

The hi-tech companies use vastly more labour than we do — a project that would cost $100m in Hollywood could be done at Aardman for $10m. Sony closed down its Hollywood animation facility because it was too costly.

PC: How much work is involved?

DS: As an example, Early Man has perhaps 40 sets, some table-top sets, others larger, at the 80,000sq.ft Bristol Aztec West site. The typical output is one shot (3 or 4 seconds) per animator a week, with frames recorded on a digital stills camera, although some films (like Shaun the Sheep) can be quicker. 

PC: Is there a different way of thinking and working for film and TV?

DS: The main difference is in the length of the feature. Writing the story for a longer production is a bigger task, but the actual way of working on the production doesn’t change. Numerous test screenings are carried out in the viewing theatre, but it can be difficult to be sure that you will get an audience laughing and the pacing has to be different between TV and on the cinema screen. Early Man is the first Aardman production to be created using Dolby Atmos sound, which has made the sound mixing process far more exacting — and this is being done locally in Bristol.

PC: Is getting talent for your films hard?

DS: On the contrary, many top actors like to take part — they like the medium, since we can often fit their voice recordings around their busy schedules, and it adds another string to their bow, often allowing them to take on characters that are totally different from to those they would play in a movie.

Hugh Grant was great in The Pirates! Hollywood would never have allowed him to play such a part in a film, it is not what he is known for. Because the Aardman work is usually attractive to children, many actors are pleased to play parts that will give their grandchildren a different, softer, more humorous view of the parts they play.

PC: Thinking of Creature Comforts, at what stage did you bring in the actors?

DS: For Creature Comforts the real and unscripted voices of the British Public were put into the mouths of plasticine animals. The original plan was to go round Bristol Zoo with a hidden microphone, recording visitors’ remarks about the animals, and then edit the tapes and dub the sound over animated models.

Many hours were recorded at Bristol Zoo but much of this didn’t work as originally envisaged — the technical quality wasn’t good enough — so special recordings were made, and many pictures were sketched to fit the voices. The jaguar, with its miserable responses to ‘how do you find living in Britain?’ was particularly memorable, and Creature Comforts was developed further to make a memorable TV advertising campaign for ‘Heat Electric’.

PC: How much time does it take for a feature film to go from concept to the screen?

DS: The Pirates! took four and a half years — the bulk of the time is in the gestation (2-3 years) with the active production taking around 16 months.

PC: What percentage of planned films make it through to the end?

DS: Probably one in three. Some have a very long life — Morph is still going strong after all these years, and even has his own YouTube channel.

PC: Finally, will the distinctive voice of Wallace remain forever silent now that the actor Peter Sallis has died?

DS: No — various potential replacement voiceover artists are being trialled. Though we haven’t yet found  one with all the nuances Peter brought to the part, we are confident of finding a replacement.