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The Origins of Aardman: A Short History of the Stop Motion Company.
From the kitchen table top to making CHICKEN RUN.
By Mike Lyons
June 22, 2000
If Disney can claim that 'it all started with a mouse' than Aardman Animations can say that 'it all started with a kitchen table.' Growing up in England, Peter Lord and David Sproxton were boyhood chums who were fascinated with the work of special effects, stop-motion wizard Ray Haryhausen. Sproxton's father, a professional photographer, noticed the boys' growing interest and loaned them a movie camera. Young Sproxton and Lord immediately began experimenting with stop-motion animation, using their kitchen table as a set.
'Well, that really is the classic way into the business, isn't it?,' jokes Lord today. He can laugh all he wants, but those two budding filmmakers and their kitchen table creations went on to open the doors of Aardman Animations, Ltd, - one of the pre-eminent stop-motion animation studios in the world. This summer, the studio, located in Bristol England, leaps into the feature film fray with CHICKEN RUN, their first full-length film (distributed by DreamWorks). The film tells a GREAT ESCAPE-meets-ANIMAL FARM story, in which a group of chickens make a desperate bid for freedom.
Now the new toast of Hollywood, Aardman's artists once struggled like many others in the business. 'When we started out on that kitchen table, there was no market for what we were doing at all,' remembers Lord. 'Nobody wanted to see clay animation. If you looked, then, at the obvious career path stretching in front of us, the best thing that we could have hoped for was a kids' series. That was probably as high as you could have aspired. It was just the two of us, me and Dave, two schoolboys, doing this thing that no one else in the world seemed to be doing.'
The studio did indeed secure that children's show THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF MORPH, a series of short subjects shown on the BBC in 1980 (and recently released on video). The show was a success (pulling in the highest ratings for its time slot), and two years after MORPH's debut, Channel Four Television commissioned Aardman to produce a series, entitled CONVERSATION PIECES. These were five-minute shorts that matched stop-motion with improvised dialogue. CONVERSATION PIECES caused many producers and directors to sit up and take notice, and Aardman's style soon found its way into numerous television commercials, as well as Peter Gabriel's music video, 'Sledgehammer.'
Aardman's improvisational use of dialogue, however, was put to best use in 1989's short subject, CREATURE COMFORTS, in which animals in a zoo are interviewed about their living conditions. The short would bring the studio its first Oscar and also introduce the world to director Nick Park. A native of Preston, Lancashire, Park was inspired by Aardman's television work, while still a student himself. So inspired was Park that he used stop-motion to create his student film, which he would complete after joining Aardman in 1985.
The short would turn out to be 1989's A GRAND DAY OUT, which would change the face of the studio forever. In it, a hapless, lovable inventor, Wallace, and his pet dog, Gromit (the true brains of the outfit), take a trip to the moon. The two characters would strike a chord with audiences, and today they have an incredible following (as well as the blessing of mass merchandise). Park brought Wallace and Gromit back for the sequels, THE WRONG TROUSERS (1993) and A CLOSE SHAVE (1995), both of which won Oscars. Recently, it was announced that the two will star in their first full-length feature, but to Park, they're still like members of the family.
'They started off with me when I was a student at the National Film and TV School,' says Park, 'so they've kind of grown up with me, and then I brought them to Aardman. They've become part of the furniture.'
Like the Wallace and Gromit shorts, all of Aardman's films have used the almost century-old technique of stop-motion and combined it with innovative styles to tell some revolutionary stories. WAT'S PIG (1996), directed by Lord, put a new spin on THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER by placing the tale in split screen; 1997's STAGE FRIGHT told a bleak tale about the death of vaudeville with a non-linear plot and creative editing techniques, and last year's HUM DRUM told its tale using a 'shadow puppet' technique. All three of the films were nominated for Academy Awards.
'I really like the way things happen at Aardman's,' says HUM DRUM's director, Peter Peake. 'Here, you work with a crew: there's lighting; there's a cameraman, a set builder, and a model maker. To me that's the best way to work.'
What's also unique about Aardman is that in this sleek, computer-generated age, they're all very happy to work in the 'horse and carriage' realm of stop-motion. 'The funny thing is that people are actually less familiar with our technique than they are with CG,' admits Park. 'We have that to our advantage, in a way. It makes it a novelty. What we've always loved about it is the way that you can create very human characters. They can do the kinds of things that only human beings can do - very small movements, such as eyebrows. You're also working in a world that is somewhere between live-action feature films, in that you have a tactile, tangible, 3-D character and a 3-D set that can be lit in a 3-D way. At the same time, you can break into 'cartoony' things.'
Now, with CHICKEN RUN, Aardman and the technique of stop-motion, find themselves thrown headlong into this constantly shifting animation Renaissance. Lord, who co-directed the film with Park says that CHICKEN RUN 'completely exceeded our expectations. Very late into the process, we projected a test piece that we had shot at the beginning of production. It had been our way of getting the whole technique and look of the film. It was incredible how crude it looked and how far we had come from those days. And the fact that we've achieved all of those things that we wanted to achieve - attractive characters, great one-line gags, and an exciting ending - seems phenomenal.'
And, for full-length Aardman, it's just the beginning. The studio recently signed a five-picture deal with DreamWorks, which will include, not only the WALLCE AND GROMIT feature, but also a re-telling of THE TORTIOSE AND THE HARE.
'It's always been important for us to be taken seriously as filmmakers,' admits Park. 'If CHICKEN RUN is successful, that would be one of the single greatest feelings, that we would be taken seriously as mainstream filmmakers.'
'The great thing is that animation, now, is inclusive and ambitious,' adds Lord. 'In one year we've seen SOUTH PARK, IRON GIANT, TOY STORY 2, DINOSAUR and now CHICKEN RUN. These are all incredibly diverse films, and that's the way it should be. This says that animation isn't just a specialist ghetto. It's a branch of filmmaking that has room for lots of ideas and techniques.'