How Aardman is embracing the digital age — WIRED

02 NOVEMBER 2010

The stop-frame creators of Wallace and Gromit have embraced the digital age. But can they keep their analogue charm?

When imagining the production facility behind one of the most highly anticipated animated films of 2012, it would be natural to think of the studios of southern California or perhaps Pixar, a few hundred kilometres north of Hollywood, near San Francisco. Instead, wired is visiting Bristol. Here, in a business park in the north of the city, Aardman Features is in the early stages of production for The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, a $60 million feature film pitched at multiplexes that’s being made in partnership with Sony Pictures Digital Productions. Pirates! is based on the cult books by Gideon Defoe and tells the story of a motley crew of misfit and largely incompetent cut-throats.

Live-action movie sets are usually teeming with people, but step on to the set of Pirates! and what strikes you is that model animation is a near-silent world: voices murmur from units behind curtained-off sets in a giant studio. Today, the month long process of assembling and dressing a set — here, the tavern where the pirates go to wind down after a hard day’s pillaging — is finally over. The pub’s interior bears all the Aardman hallmarks, notably its meticulous attention to the tiniest — invariably handcrafted — detail. Panes of glass are mottled with air bubbles. The woodwork on the tables is worn. The tankards are sticky, the costumes stitch-perfect. “This is the very first shot we’re setting up to do [on this unit] and we’ve been prepping for a few weeks,” says key animator Chris Sadler. “It’s a very long scene. I’m going to be here until the middle of next year.”

Pirates! blends Aardman’s “traditional” model animation with CGI. Yet there’s further evidence of the painstaking nature of stopframe animation at the in-house model-making design department, which is based in a busy workshop upstairs. Senior supervisor Andrew Bloxham cradles one of 25 versions of the lead puppet, the Pirate Captain, which is 34cm tall without his hat. “There are anywhere between 300 and 400 puppets for this film in this storage room,” he says, as we pass a shelf laden with Pirate Captains. The character will be voiced by Hugh Grant. “It’s one person’s fulltime job to keep track of them all. Some of them are worth tens of thousands of pounds,” Bloxham says. Genuine Aardman models are extremely collectable.

The Pirate Captain has been sculpted over an armature — a steel skeleton of ball-and-socket joints. His hat is made from Fast Cast resin. His hair, moustache, coat and trousers are foam latex.

His brow is modelling clay, his eyes resin, his belt buckle brass and his boots silicone. The most complex element to construct was his head, which was first sculpted, then scanned. “Scan data is used to build and sculpt a new head on the computer,” Bloxham says. “That head is then split into pieces separating the mouth-shape area.”He produces a tray of perhaps 200 versions of the character’s mouth, representing every conceivable shape. “The mouth is ‘rigged’ in CGI so that it can be moved, sculpted and animated into each of the hundreds of mouth shapes required. When this is completed, the mouths and head are printed out on rapid-prototyping machines, cured with UV light, then sanded and painted by hand.” He removes the model’s head. “We like to store the heads separately. The resin is fragile.”

It might be a story featuring 34cm-tall puppets, but the scale of Pirates! is enormous. The tavern, for example, is one of seven sets typically requiring eight crew each: a key animator and technicians for lighting, rigging and electrics. As filming progresses, crew numbers will rise: at its peak, the 2005 feature Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit had 28 units shooting simultaneously.

“Pirates! is an ambitious film,” says Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital Production, which is financing it. “The set is spectacular and the movie will be in 3D, which only adds to complications in terms of production.”

When shooting animation in stereo — an industry term for 3D — each frame has to be shot from two positions with the same camera. This means creating an automated rig for each of the 30-40 cameras, allowing each of them to shoot an offset left and right frame. Shooting double the footage creates storage and processing complications and adds to postproduction work.

Pirates! is the first part of a three picture deal signed with Sony in April 2007, and one of two Hollywood movies Aardman has in production. The other, a CGI film called Arthur Christmas, has a budget of over $70 million, and will be voiced by James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy, among others. Currently shooting in Sony’s Los Angeles studios, will be released next year.

Whereas feature films are the most visible parts of Aardman’s operation, the company — founded by producer/director Peter Lord and animator/cinematographer Dave Sproxton in 1976 — is undergoing a period of transformative growth as it adapts to the digital revolution.

Aardman’s features are being produced alongside six episodes of Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention, a BBC1 series that ambitiously mixes animation and live action. Meanwhile, Aardman’s intellectual-property, broadcast and digital arms are pushing aggressively into China. The firm’s digital department, which has an annual turnover of more than £1 million has developed a reputation for building successful online games — Shaun the Sheep’s Home Sheep Home, for example, has notched up over 55 million plays. Last year, the firm’s commercials division produced more than 100 campaigns for brands such as Hershey’s, Nokia, Procter & Gamble and Kellogg’s.

In his corner office on the first floor, Peter Lord, Aardman cofounder and the director of Pirates!, has just stepped off set and falls into his chair, pausing only to check the cricket scores on his Mac. “I hope we are smart enough, as we grow, not to spoil the things about Aardman which made us special,” he says. “We are alert to it.” Lord — who codirected the 2000 hit Chicken Run, which had a $42 million budget and grossed over $220 million worldwide — sees Aardman evolving into a “broad church” built around “pleasure and pragmatism”. “When we started, our niche was stop-frame in all its forms, but on a small scale. Between us all, we could produce perhaps 30 minutes of film a year. Now, with far more staff [Aardman has 120 full-time staffers, with freelancers and contractors boosting numbers to 700 at full production], we can produce, say, 50 times that. And digital has allowed us to do it.”

Pirates! is being shot on top-of-the range Canon EOS 1D digital stills cameras — which were also used for the BBC Wallace & Gromit series — rather than Aardman’s collection of “bunny-eared” Mitchell classic film cameras, which have been retired. “We’ve got 40 Mitchells, which cost us a fortune, in storage,” Lord says. Digital-stills cameras speed up the process, as do CGI effects. On Pirates! this will be all done in-house. “In the past, the whole shooting day depended on the rushes coming back from Technicolor, which is near Heathrow, with a motorbike messenger,” he says. “Until we’d seen them, we daren’t strike [dismantle] the set. With digital, if it looks right [on the monitor], then it is right — which is very liberating.”

CGI, meanwhile, has liberated Aardman in other ways, allowing it to stretch itself creatively. “Within our specialist world, I’m a whore! I’m shameless!” Lord says, dismissing the notion that he is a stop-frame-animation purist. “I don’t worry about theoretical purity. I just want to hear the technician at my shoulder saying, ‘I can do that’ — and you know they will. What charms me is being able to take our handmade world and make it bigger; free it up a bit.”

The company’s creative hub lies in a specially designed animation factory ten minutes from the centre of Bristol. It houses storyboarding, model-making, sets, CGI, editing facilities, TV, commercials, rights and licensing, digital and production technology. In the lobby, there’s a human sized model of Morph, the clay character who first appeared on television in 1977, next to a cabinet containing Oscar and Bafta trophies. Scattered along the corridors or peeping from shelves are models — including a small army of Wallaces and Gromits — plus sets, props and memorabilia from Aardman films and shows.

Over lunch in the staff canteen, departmental bosses — Miles Bullough (broadcast and development), Heather Wright (commercials), Karen Heldoorn (digital) and Robin Gladman (digital content and partnerships) — discuss the company’s strategy to monetise Aardman properties across all platforms. “Digital is now part of our planning right from the get-go,” says Bullough, an affable forty something whose producer credits range from the Wallace & Gromit film A Matter of Loaf and Death to Trigger Happy TV. “If we come up with an idea for a new TV show, for example, we now involve everyone right at the beginning — not just the television guys, but the digital department, the licensing people, the distribution people. We just try to make it as wide ranging as possible.”

A tie-in earlier this year with Procter & Gamble, in which Shaun The Sheep character Timmy Time appeared on Fairy Non Bio and Fairy fabric-conditioner products, shows Aardman’s transition from its tabletop origins. The multiplatform campaign, devised by ad agency Leo Burnett, also included a TV commercial, press ads, a viral game and a branded microsite — all featuring Timmy, the megastar lamb. A Matter of Loaf and Death, which clocked 16.15 million viewers on UK television, was similarly spun off on a range of platforms.

“The day it came off the iPlayer, where it was a runaway smash hit, it went on to iTunes, which led to the [W&G] exhibitions business, the nPower commercials, the [W&G] website and games,” Bullough says. Aardman’s intellectual-property and licensing strategy is to exploit rights to their properties at every turn. The company’s rights department does this for each piece of IP coming from its broadcast arm, by gauging financial expectations and identifying the number of platforms it can sell to. Aardman’s rights division differs from, for example, Disney’s because it is nimble enough to tailor presentations to individual clients. With the Wallace & Gromit nPower commercials, for example, it worked with the firm’s four-time Academy Award-winning animator/director Nick Park and creative director Merlin Crossingham. “Distributing our own intellectual property internationally, everywhere, TV, digital, all rights… that’s what we do,” says digital-content-and-partnerships manager Gladman.

When Aardman content began popping up on YouTube — much of it filmed by fans with trembling handheld cameras — the company struck a deal with the video sharing site. It would offer pristine copies of its work in return for a revenue stream from overlay, preroll and other forms of ads that YouTube sells around its programming. Now every time a dodgy copy of an Aardman film appears on You- Tube, it is promptly removed. Although YouTube generates limited revenue, Aardman mainly treats the channel as a marketing tool. “We have someone in the team who is on YouTube and other fan sites every day, posting new videos and chats,” says 35-year-old Gladman.

Negotiating the Chinese market has been challenging. To protect its own domestic animation industry and to curtail foreign cultural influence, China has restricted the amount of Western animation that it allows on its TV services. But Gladman has recently returned from Beijing, where the company sold the rights to the hit cartoon Shaun The Sheep to state broadcaster China Central TV (CCTV).

“We’d never done any business with our programmes in China and it’s obviously a massive new market for us, with a potential TV audience of 1.2 billion,” he says. “We first met a Chinese agency, who handle all rights including broadcast and merchandising, at [annual media-content marketplace] Mipcom. We then went to China and pitched it to CCTV. They loved Shaun, and played back-to-back episodes over a summer weekend. We had to thrash out a deal quickly, and translate the title sequence. They liked it so much they carried on the hourly Saturday block into September.”

Despite its success, Aardman was also burned: it took just three days for pirated copies containing 60 episodes to appear in Chinese shops for about £1.20. “The [pirate] DVDs were even foil-wrapped with a copyright note on the back saying ‘Do Not Duplicate’,” says Gladman wearily. Bullough adds: “One estimate I’ve heard is that for every one DVD you sell out there, 19 will be pirated. But if you come up with something very popular, five per cent is still worth quite a lot of money in China.”

Shaun is one of only a handful of Western shows to have succeeded in China, and Gladman is now angling to get Shaun and Timmy Time on QQ, the country’s social network and IM service, as well as on to China Mobile. “We’ve always done well getting on digital platforms early: we were the first British content partner with iTunes, we were early with Joost [the short-lived P2P television service], which shows things don’t always work, and then we launched A Matter of Loaf and Death with AT&T.” He describes the telecoms partnership as a “no-brainer” given AT&T’s market share: “We wanted to find ways to create a longer-lasting bang. AT&T enables us to do that via its ‘triple-play initiative’, a digital multiplatform launch using the Wallace & Gromit catalogue across all its services — mobile, online and digital TV.”

Aardman now has about 30 digital partners, ranging from online start-ups, established video portals such as LoveFilm and iTunes, and IPTV services including Blinkbox and BT Vision. “The commercial models vary,” Gladman says. “Most are on a revenue-share basis, splitting download fees or advertising income.” Aardman will not reveal financial data for competitive reasons but industry commentators estimate that its production business alone turns over £16.7 million a year and makes £814,000 profit.

Over the last three years the company’s digital department has grown from four staffers to 28 and, in the process, has shifted its emphasis from supporting existing Aardman properties to creating digital spin-offs that are destinations in their own right. “Home Sheep Home is the one we’re most proud of and it’s a very different take from Shaun [the TV show],” says Aardman’s 36-year-old digital chief Karen Heldoorn. “We’re launching it on the iPhone and iPad as an app, either paid for or as a [commercial] tie-in.” Five more Shaun spin-off games — Championsheeps — which use a combination of CGI and 2D Flash were awaiting sign-off from the BBC at the time of writing. Aardman is also building a German website for Shaun. “Germany’s our biggest market,” says Heldoorn. “German housewives in particular love it.” There are plans for a Chinese Shaun portal too.

Diversification doubtless makes commercial sense. But is there a danger that, as Aardman transforms itself from being a niche, quintessentially British stopframe animator to digital Goliath with global ambitions, it could lose its handcrafted charm?

“I think so, yes,” concedes the company’s codirector Nick Park. “That’s always a danger. Many people have visited us and said, ‘Oh, I’d always thought [Aardman Animations and its studios] was just two blokes in a shed.’ They’re amazed by these vast departments…But at the heart of it, though, we’re still a close family, really, inside the company, even though it may look massive.” It’s not been a cynical approach where you think: ‘How can we think of something that can be exploited across all media?’ We’ve always gone for what feels right.” Those essential Aardman qualities are key to its success, on any platform, says Heldoorn. “It’s all about reusing our assets,” she says.

Those “assets” — namely, the company’s proven skills at storytelling and animation — are being most profitably reused in commercials. Aardman’s advertising background stretches back more than two decades. “We kind of thought it’d be a short-lived thing,” recalls Dave Sproxton. “We thought we’d do a few ads, some based on [Academy Award-winning 1989 Nick Park short] Creature Comforts, some just based on our model animation, we’d be in and out of fashion in about six months… Much to our amazement the advertising work has continued to this day and actually, for quite a while, it proved [to be] the financial backbone of the company.” Early hits included campaigns for Hamlet cigars (1987), the animated butter men of Lurpak (1986) and a Domestos campaign (1987) featuring the sleep-haunting jingle “Big Bad Dom”. Most famous was the Electricity Board’s “Heat Electric” campaign (1990) — often misremembered as being a British Gas campaign — which used the animals from Creature Comforts.

Sproxton describes commercials as “the best-funded film academy you could have”. A typical turnaround is eight to 12 weeks. Nick Park, Peter Lord and Aardman creative director Richard Goleszowski all cut their teeth on commercials.

Today, the company’s commercials operation has become something of a production line. “We made 106 [commercials] last year,” says Wright.

“Not just in the UK. The other huge area is America with global brands like Chevron, Hershey’s, Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s. Ninety per cent of the work we do with commercials doesn’t look like Aardman work,” she says. “Brands need to own their own advertising.”

A recent example was a viral campaign for Nokia CellScope, a mobile microscope attached to a phone handset. Initially developed by Daniel Fletcher and his team at the University of California, Berkeley, the CellScope enables doctors working in the developing world — who may not have access to labs — to screen for diseases or send patient data to clinics. The campaign involved shooting animation on a microscopic device attached to a Nokia N8 smartphone. According to Wright, the brief was “an experimental film which celebrated microscopic technology for a viral audience”.

Aardman’s answer — Dot — involved filming a simple story using rapid prototyping technology to produce latex or resin models, then using CGI models that could be printed at any scale. The model girl in the animation was just 9mm tall, with arms less than 1mm round and prone to snapping when moved. The solution, for a figure too small to animate, was to make different versions depicting every body shape required and then mount them on pins. The character was painted using a few hairs of the finest available paintbrush under a magnifying glass. The set, meanwhile, was constructed from tiny “found” objects, including fabric fibres, pencil shavings and a dead bumblebee. “Our engineer took the N8 we were sent to the University of Bristol department of physics to work out which microscope would be the best one to hack up and then attach to the back of the mobile phone [to shoot with],”Wright says.

Technological development is happily integrated into Aardman’s ethos, and is the reason, says Park, for the company’s expansion, which has been driven largely by Lord and Sproxton. “They’ve got a very open attitude towards keeping up to date on what’s going on in the commercial world, virally, digitally and with the latest technology. We’ve got to be on the ball to survive, but without losing the heart of what we’re about.”

So how can the company handle these new pressures? “We still have that love of clay,” Park says. “I’ve always felt that each film we make has to seem like — and be — the work of an artist. Authenticity is the key. The thing I find satisfying is that we’re about finding films and characters and comedy that very much come from us as directors and artists, and then, if they’re successful, they take off in different directions. So the company has developed in an organic way. ”

A rare blip was the 2006 CGI feature film Flushed Away — part of a three picture deal with DreamWorks. With a reported budget of $143 million, the films finally grossed only $64.4 million in the US (and just £10.5 million in the UK), leading, ultimately, to Aardman and Dream Works parting company a year later. At the time, Aardman’s spokesman Arthur Sheriff said: “The business model of Dream Works no longer suits Aardman and vice versa. But the split couldn’t have been more amicable.”

Yet beyond the PR spin, the statement hinted that Aardman’s inimitable style was, perhaps, not commercial enough for mains t ream American audiences, something Park now confirms.

“It was a great learning curve and I personally enjoyed working with [DreamWorks],” he says. “I can only speak from my own point of view, but I could see that they were looking for a way out and so were we. I don’t think they were seeing us as that commercial. Making a film work in America for a family audience is tricky. I don’t know if we could ever have delivered Shrek figures on a film.”

Comparisons with Pixar and DreamWorks are inevitable, even though Bob Osher, president of Sony Pictures Digital Productions, which is financing Pirates! and Arthur Christmas, rejects them. “They don’t compete head to- head with Aardman, because Pixar and DreamWorks have much bigger volumes, and Aardman makes films a little more sporadically,” he says. “But it’s also that Aardman films keep very true to their vision — they love English comedy. They have a specific style; you can see their heritage.

And one of the reasons they are so special is that they’re not under the kind of pressure for business which requires them to make a film a year.” Back in his office on top of the Pirates! set, Peter Lord falls silent for a moment when asked whether he envisages Aardman rivalling the animation industry’s hit factories on their own turf. “Cracking the States… we constantly want it to happen,” he replies carefully. “I don’t see us being like Disney or Pixar in terms of superpowerful economic clout. We’re not such a factory that we can produce a movie every year. We’re now making two big-budget movies at the same time, which is amazing, but we’re running like mad. Like so many others in the UK, our biggest ambition is to take our culture to a wider market, and that means America,” he says. “But we’re not disposed to change what we do to make it happen.”

This article was first published in WIRED magazine in 2010.