Characterful, quirky, and meticulously crafted animation helped Aardman, the British company behind Wallace & Gromit, build an international fan base and Oscars success. The studio’s new feature, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (it’ll be called Pirates! Band of Misfits, in the U.S.), stars the voices of Hugh Grant, Jeremy Piven, and Salma Hayek. The stop-motion film, which tells the story of a band of pirates who get into an adventure with Charles Darwin, is the company’s most elaborate and ambitious yet. As impressive as Aardman’s animations, though, has been its ability to grow without destroying what made it special in the first place—the feeling that its productions are a labor of love made by two men in a shed.
The reality could not be more different. The company, based in purpose-built premises on a business park just north of Bristol, is today home to a full-time staff of around 120 (which swells to 700 when feature film production is in full swing) and an array of disciplines—from storyboarding, model-making, and set construction to CGI, editing facilities, production departments specializing in TV, commercials and digital, and rights and licensing.
"In the beginning there was just the two of us," says cofounder and executive chairman David Sproxton, who launched Aardman in 1972 with his school friend Peter Lord. Here, Sproxton talks about how the studio grew from that creative partnership with its creative genius intact, aka the Wallace & Gromit guide to a cracking creative culture.
An early break for Sproxton and Lord was making animated shorts for BBC Children’s Television. Their first successful character was a stop-frame animated plasticine character called Morph. The launch of British TV station Channel 4 back in 1982 proved an important catalyst when it began commissioning animation for a grown-up audience, and the pair began experimenting with animating recorded conversations of real people—a groundbreaking technique. Aardman’s subsequent Lip Sync series for Channel 4 included Creature Comforts—the Oscar-winning short made by Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit, who joined Aardman in 1985.
"In the early days we had an accountant who’d say 'Just do the best work you can and the money will look after itself,' and that’s broadly how it still works today," Sproxton continues. "Though as a business we’re much larger in scale now, we’re not big and corporate—that’s just not us. We’re not just finance-driven. We’re about trying to get the best out of people, getting everyone to muck in, recognizing that everyone’s creative and encouraging them to be so. It’s all about coming up with the best creative ideas."
Be busy enough to create what you want to create, but not so busy you compromise the breathing space required to be creative
A perpetual balancing act for Aardman today is being busy but not flat out. It’s a challenge many smaller, less established production businesses would surely envy but one that Sproxton has paid particular attention to since Aardman’s ill-fated tie-up with DreamWorks in the mid-'90s.
Back in 1997, Aardman and DreamWorks joined forces to co-finance and distribute animated feature Chicken Run. Two years later, the pair announced a $250m deal to make a further four films over the next 12 years. In 2006, however, this arrangement was terminated prematurely because, some speculated at the time, of a clash of creative cultures. "Looking back, I think we were a little too risky for their business plan," is all Sproxton will now say.
A year later Aardman signed a three year coproduction, finance, and distribution deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment which was renewed for a further three years in 2010. "Ideally, you want a rolling program of feature films. The big challenge for us now is developing enough ideas for Sony to buy into to keep that momentum going. DreamWorks wanted a movie a year. Now we are doing one every 18 months," he explains.
Of course it doesn’t take 18 months to make an Aardman feature film—from start to finish is nearer five years, with three and a half years on average spent writing and rewriting the story to make it the best it can be. Which is why both financially and creatively Aardman’s business is underpinned by an array of diverse but complementary production activity.
TV production remains a staple with the focus here on extending the company’s range of successful intellectual property which, as well as Wallace & Gromit, include internationally successful children’s franchises Shaun the Sheep and Timmy Time. Commercials, too, are an important area—Aardman produced 100 ads last year, half of which were for the U.S. The company’s digital department, meanwhile, creates websites and interactive games for Aardman properties and third-party clients.
Strike a balance between bringing in new talent that fits your creative culture and new talent that will take it in new directions
A breadth of different kinds of production activity is an important way to encourage and develop both talent and new ideas, Sproxton believes: "Though some people naturally lean towards a particular type of production—ads because they are quick turnaround, or feature films because they’re not—we are trying to mash things up, encouraging more people to jump between different production types."
Find ways to harness the creativity within every member of staff—not just those officially designated "creative"
The company is currently exploring ways of releasing the latent creativity of its workforce. "Just this morning we had a session to discuss the culture of the business and where next. While people may have a particular production specialism, we encourage everyone to jump in together when it comes to generating new ideas. At the moment we’re considering one idea that came from someone in accounts—just a one-liner, but a great idea," he adds.
"But we need to take this further. The question is: Do we really know how creative our people really are? One thing we’re planning is an internal pitch festival to tap into this by asking everyone not just for one but a number of ideas, as the third on someone’s list may turn out to be the one that’s made. Although we’re developing a whole range of projects with a variety of TV companies, many of our most successful franchises are based around Nick Park ideas. That’s great, but we can’t just rely on this."
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! opens in U.K. cinemas this week and in the U.S. on April 27.