Aardman Animations is the home of Wallace and Gromit, Morph, Creature Comforts, Shaun the Sheep and Chicken Run, but co-founder Peter Lord is amiably candid about their humble beginnings.
Exactly who it was that suggested him and childhood friend (now business partner) David Sproxton experiment with animation has been lost in the mists of time. But Lord clearly recalls their first hobby-like go at a camera with a single frame facility in David’s parents’ house when they were 18 or thereabouts.
“We knew enough to know how it was done, how you took an image, moved it a bit, took another image and moved it a bit more and so we did stuff with drawings and simple cut outs ripped off, I would say, from Terry Gilliam in Monty Python,” Lord reveals in his inimitably honest fashion.
Admittedly primitive, those first dabblings were a magical experience, all the more so because there was no instantaneous digital playback then. “You couldn’t watch what you’d done until the film had been sent away to a laboratory and processed,” Lord notes, “Once we saw what we’d done, working away on that kitchen table just making things move with no narrative at all, we thought, ‘wow, that’s amazing, that’s alive.’”
That evolutionary spark stuck somewhere deep down inside and, Lord acknowledges with a great deal of luck and a lot of hard work, over 40 years later, Aardman Animations has brought joy to innumerable kids and the not-so-young world over.
That enormously entertaining output will be celebrated in ACMI’s latest Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Wallace & Gromit and Friends: The Magic of Aardman. Featuring over 350 incredibly detailed objects, from plasticine models and storyboards to Gromit’s famous vegetable garden and the flying machine from Chicken Run, Lord and Sproxton will also be on hand in its opening days to host industry master classes and public talks about their adventures in animation together. Aardman fanatics will also be able to catch several of their movies on ACMI’s big screens, including the much-loved Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
British television back in the 1950s, when Lord and Sproxton were kids, was far from the richly animated playing field it is now. “I’m obviously silly old, and as you can probably just about imagine English television then was black and white, incredibly polite and the only thing that I remember for kids was a program called Watch With Mother and there you got incredibly genteel puppet shows mostly.”
It was an American cartoon that first opened his mind to the power of animation; Hanna-Barbera’s The Huckleberry Hound Show. “That was amazing and spectacular and noisy and cool, with funny voices, funny music, funny sound effects and songs.”
As he got a little older the stop-motion skeletons and giant mythical beasts of Ray Harryhausen’s seminal hits like Jason and the Agronauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad entranced, as did Gilliam’s mirthful mayhem.
He and Sproxton’s first big break came, Lord says, with a helpful dollop of nepotism. “Dave’s dad worked in the religious programming department at the BBC so we had a media connection and he met, through work, the producer of Vision On.”
Designed for deaf children, Vision On was a very visual magazine-style show that featured art, mime and bits and pieces of animation, imported mostly from Poland and France. Meeting the producer, he challenged the glorified schoolboys to show him what they could do, sparking several weeks of fevered creation. “One of those pitches was a little story, not brilliant but with a beginning and an end and a character, a sort of a superhero... we called him Aardman, that was our joke,” Lord says.
It was good enough to land a commission, not to mention a business name. Next came Take Hart, the long-running art program for children that featured five-inch-high plasticine-made art lover Morph and his mischievous rival Chas. Then the birth of Channel 4 broadened the British market in more ways than one, championing alternative voices. That lead to the adult-focused animal mockumentary series that in turn became the animated short Creature Comforts, scoring their first of multiple Oscars.
Lord says a major key to their ongoing success has been his and Sproxton’s continued search for and support of new talent. Aardman struck gold with the discovery of Nick Park, who was working on his first Wallace and Gromit short while studying at the National Film and Television School. That thesis project would go on to become the Oscar-nominated A Grand Day Out. Both Were-Rabbit and A Close Shave have Oscars to their name too.
They also draw a great deal of inspiration from their world travels. Pointing to Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle as a recent favourite fellow animator, “there you’ve got a guy with a real clarity of vision and an artist’s touch,” Lord also favours the work of American twins the Quay brothers, “they’re so arty that it’s almost entirely incomprehensible to me, but they have an amazing integrity about them and do wonderful work.” He also loved Inside Out and adores the Toy Story films. “I wish I’d thought of that.”
Wherever they land, and France is particularly fertile ground, their reputation precedes them. “People make such a fuss of us,” Lord says, noting the animators who say Aardman inspired them particularly move him. “Of course, we hear that so often because naturally those people come to our talks, so they’re a self-selecting group, but anyway I’m always delighted to hear it.”
Lord really is humble about Aardman’s success. “What’s really incredible is that we’ve done what we wanted, we’ve had fun, we’ve worked hard, which is what most people do in life, you know, but somehow, by some amazing alchemy, it’s also worked out really well for us. I know we have made an international impact, that we’ll always be in the animation history book whatever else happens now.”
He’s looking forward to meeting fans and scouting a new generation of animators during the opening days of the ACMI exhibition. “I know absolutely certainly that the future of Aardman is ahead of us,” he says. “Obviously I want Wallace and Gromit and Morph to continue, but the great new character that will come along one day is the most important to us.”
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