Aardman Animations Ltd. is among the world's most celebrated film and video animation studios. Aardman has achieved widespread recognition for its stop-motion animation techniques--filming three-dimensional objects frame-by-frame--and especially its series of Wallace and Gromit short films, including the Oscar award-winning The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. Led by cofounders Peter Lord and David Sproxton, Aardman has branched out into feature films, including the 2001 success, Chicken Run, through a $150 million, four-film production agreement with DreamWorks. That agreement also includes the first full-length Wallace and Gromit film, expected to be released in 2005. Yet a primary source of the private company's revenues has long been its groundbreaking production for the advertising industry. Aardman is also a noted animator for the music video industry, particularly through its work for the 1980s hits "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel and "My Baby Just Cares For Me," by Nina Simone. The company continues to produce for the British television industry, as well as for other television markets, including the Crackling Contraptions series aired on BBC One in 2002 and streamed on the Internet, through AtomFilms, in 2003.
Kitchen Table Animators in the 1970s
Peter Lord and David Sproxton met in school in Woking, England, in the late 1960s and began making short animated films using Sproxton's father's 16mm camera. The pair were initially influenced by the animation techniques of Terry Gilliam for the acclaimed BBC series Monty Python's Flying Circus. Yet the clay-based animation techniques pioneered by the legendary Ray Harryhausen--whose work was featured in such film classics as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, One Million Years B.C., and Jason and the Argonauts--provided the strongest influence on Lord and Sproxton's own developing style.
Lord and Sproxton initially worked on the Lord family's kitchen table, using Lord's drawings and cutouts from magazines to produce their first film, titled Trash, after the Andy Warhol film of the same era. Sproxton's father then showed the film to an acquaintance, a producer at the BBC, who asked to see more of the boys' work. As Sproxton told the Independent: "He said to us: 'Here's a roll of film, if we like what you do, we'll buy a sequence off you.'"
Sproxton and Lord set to work developing the new film, and in 1972 created an "idiotic superman" called Aardman (supposedly an Afrikaans word meaning "earth pig"). That film was subsequently purchased by the BBC and broadcast as part of a series of animated films. Sproxton and Lord then went off to university, with Sproxton studying geography in Durham, and Lord studying English in York. The pair met up again during the summers and continued making animated films.
Adopting the "company" name Aardman Animations, Lord and Sproxton began producing short films for Vision On, a television program for deaf children produced at the BBC Bristol station. It was during this time that Aardman began specializing in working with plasticine clay, in part because that medium had been largely ignored in English animation circles. The success of this early work led to a request from the station for a new animated character to act as a foil for the program.
In response, Lord and Sproxton created Morph in 1976, a small humanlike figure that, as its name suggested, could adopt a variety of forms--or none at all. The pair moved to Bristol to be closer to the BBC studios, officially launching Aardman Animations. The success of the Morph character led to the commissioning of a larger series of 26 five-minute episodes that aired between 1981 and 1983.
While Morph helped establish the Aardman name among the United Kingdom's top children's animators, Lord and Sproxton sought to attract a wider, and especially, adult audience. In 1978, the company received a new commission, again from BBC Bristol, for two short films to be aired in the late night segment. For that project, Aardman launched its Animated Conversations concept.
For these films, Aardman used recordings of actual conversations, and then created clay-based animated films to "act out" the dialogue--a radical departure from the standard animated films of the day. The company completed the two films, Down and Out and Confessions of a Foyer Girl, yet the films were ultimately rejected by the BBC. Instead, they came to the attention of Jeremy Isaacs, then in the process of launching the United Kingdom's first independent television station, Channel 4. The new station liked what it saw and Aardman received a new commission, now for a series of five "Conversation Pieces," which aired between 1982 and 1983.
Aardman's work for Channel 4 brought the company to the attention of a new and unexpected market: England's advertising community. As Lord told Campaign: "We never intended to get into advertising. I mean, if we had, I don't suppose we'd have ever set up the studio in Bristol for a start." Nonetheless, the Aardman group quickly learned to appreciate the income, as well as the technical challenges, brought by advertising campaigns for Enterprise Computers, in 1984, and for Scotch Videotape, Lurpak Butter, Domestos bleach, Perrier, and many others through the mid-1980s. With a new source of revenue, the company began investing in upgraded equipment and studios.
Joining Aardman at this time was a young animation student, Nick Park, who had been working on completing his thesis film, A Grand Day Out, featuring the man-and-dog team Wallace and Gromit. Park had been working with animation since childhood, and at the age of 13 had already seen his first film aired on the BBC. Impressed by Park's talent, and particularly his attention to sound (Park had spent most of the budget for his film in hiring a 22-piece brass band to perform the theme music), Lord and Sproxton brought Park in to help on their growing list of projects. In return, they agreed to help Park finish his own film.
The Right Trousers for the 1990s
With Park and a growing number of other animators on board, Aardman began accepting new and more diversified commissions. The growing market for music videos offered a natural outlet for the company's technical prowess. In 1986 the company broke new ground with its work on Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" video. That effort was followed by a number of others, including Nina Simone's 1987 music video for "My Baby Just Cares for Me."
By 1989, Park and Aardman had completed A Grand Day Out, which went on to receive an Oscar nomination that year. Aardman had also begun work on a new project, the "Lip Synch" series of short subjects, featuring films from each of the group's animators. That series, completed in 1990, gave Aardman its first Oscar, for Creature Comforts, directed by Nick Park. The success of that film also inspired a number of television commercials, both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
In the meantime, Aardman had begun work on a new Wallace and Gromit film. Competed in 1993, The Wrong Trousers earned Aardman a new Oscar--and international acclaim. The strong appeal of the Wallace and Gromit characters also spawned a new and steady source of product licensing revenues for the group.
If Wallace and Gromit became Aardman's signature characters, and Nick Park, the company's public face, during the 1990s, Aardman's growing staff of animators continued to produce a wide variety of films, including Ident, by Richard Goleszowski, produced in 1991 and launching a new character, Rex the Runt. Other films of the 1990s included Peter Lord's Academy Award-nominated Adam (1991) and Wat's Pig (1996); Knobs in Space (1994), by David Riddett and Luis Cook, as well as that duo's Sam Fell's Pop (1996); and Stagefright (1997) by Steve Box.
In the meantime, Aardman went to work on the next Wallace and Gromit film, A Close Shave. Completed in 1995, the new film once again met with international acclaim, and earned the company a new Oscar. The success of Wallace and Gromit went beyond mere financial rewards. As Lord explained to Billboard, "It's proven to appeal to every audience. And that makes British people feel good about our own culture and says that we don't have to pretend to be something we're not to succeed in Europe or America."
Wallace and Gromit's success also encouraged the company to attempt a still riskier transition, from short subjects into full-length feature films. The company likened this decision to that of Walt Disney before them, who had met skepticism when he began work on his own first full-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Aardman began development of its first film in 1997, working with producer Jake Eberts, who had previously worked on Dances with Wolves and the animated film James and the Giant Peach.
Eberts then brought Aardman into contact with DreamWorks, and former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. The DreamWorks partnership quickly solidified into an agreement that promised Aardman $150 million in a four-film, 12-year contract signed near the end of 1999.
Big Plans for the Future
Aardman released its first feature film, Chicken Run, to critical and box office acclaim in 2000. Featuring a cast of chickens attempting to escape from a POW camp-styled chicken farm, the success of the film also proved that Aardman's appeal extended beyond Wallace and Gromit characters. The company's next project reached a snag in 2002, however, due to problems with the screenplay. That film, based on the "Tortoise and the Hare" fable, was put on hold indefinitely.
Nonetheless, Aardman continued to push ahead on a number of other fronts, including the development of a new Creature Comforts series. At the same time, the company began pre-production of the next Wallace and Gromit film, the first full-length film to feature the popular characters. Although that film was not slated for release until mid-2005, the company moved to slake its fans' thirsts at the end of 2002, with the release of Cracking Contraptions.
The first installment of the new series of ten short films aired on BBC One in October 2002, followed several hours later by a release on the Internet, through AtomFilms. By the beginning of 2003, the full series of Cracking Contraptions--each featuring one of Wallace's rather unusual inventions--was available for downloading and streaming through the paid AtomFilms service.
Aardman remained buoyant as filming began on the new and eagerly anticipated Wallace and Gromit feature in August 2003. At the same time, the company remained focused on the future, as Peter Lord started development of the next feature film to be produced within the DreamWorks agreement, Flushed Away, a story of two rats expected to begin shooting in 2005. Aardman Animations had molded a reputation as one of the world's top animation houses.
Principal Competitors: Warner Communications Inc.; Mediaset SpA; DreamWorks SKG; Carlton Communications PLC; Lucasfilm Ltd.; Pathe SAS; Maxell Europe Ltd.; Vox Film- und Fernseh-GmbH und Co. KG; Industrial Light and Magic Div.