In Review: One Frame at a Time – Aardman, an Epic Journey

By Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman: An Epic Journey

I’ve been in love with animation in all its forms (especially stop-motion) for as long as I’ve been in love with comics and books, but even for those who aren’t passionate about animated film, Bristol’s Aardman has established a very special place in so many hearts – the phrase “national treasures” springs to mind. Inventive, nurturing of new talent, funny, clever and quirkily, lovably, eccentrically British, with works as likely to reference the Beano as much as it may a classic Powell and Pressburger movie (indeed the many cultural references that litter their works are ones shared with so many of us, part of what gives them their appeal). In this book the founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton, and a whole slew of Aardman creators (including Nick Park) and collaborators effectively give us a biography of themselves and their wonderful studio, from schoolboy hobbyists to international Oscar success.

Those of you of a certain age may remember 1970s BBC programme Vision On, a children’s show that aimed to be especially inclusive of deaf viewers. Becoming friends at school, Peter and David started making tiny short animated films using a parent’s old camera, a home-made rostrum for it and crafting the animations on an old table that was now surplus to requirements. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others, and a family connection leads to the boys getting some of this very early, rough, hand-drawn work onto the show.

When the now iconic Take Hart succeeded Vision On, the producers wanted more than animation, they wanted a character that Tony Hart – a beloved artist but not an experienced show host – could play off against. Abandoning 2D drawn animation the boys pick up a childhood play material – Plasticine. Morph was born and although they could never have guessed it, one of the mainstays of how they and their future collaborators would work was being laid down.

Aardman: An Epic Journey - Photos

Aardman: An Epic Journey - Photos

Some of the pages of photographs that come with the biography, showing Peter Lord with one of their influences, The Dandy and work on Sledgehammer, early sketches of Morph, Wallace and Gromit, and more

Through school and university they remained friends and still worked on some short professional animations, deciding after their studies to give it more of a go and see what they could make of it. From that tiny acorn, look what grew… The 1970s moves on into the 80s and young Aardman, now in the city that would become their home, Bristol, and about to benefit from several fortunate pieces of timing – the growth in big-budget advertising looking for interesting new ways to showcase products (Aardman’s style soon becomes very in demand – remember Douglas the wee Lurpak Butter man, or the “re-record, not fade away” skeleton ad for Scotch Video Tape?), the birth of MTV, leading to a new demand for stylish music videos (the legendary Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, which required a big team that included Nick Park and the now-legendary Brothers Quay), and the creation of Channel Four, complete with a budget to spend on innovative new British programming – including animation aimed at adults as well as kids.

Here’s Aardman’s now rightly famous animation for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, one of the first big music video hits of the MTV era.

Aardman had previously created a well-received stop-motion short using dialogue recorded of ordinary people talking unaware, then re purposed and added to the animation, and for Channel 4 this would lead to the brilliant Creature Comforts series, where dialogue of humans was given to stop-motion zoo animals talking about their lives. This didn’t just go down well with viewers and critics (and remains fondly remembered by many), it lead to Aardman’s very first (but not last!) Oscar nomination.

Interestingly, Nick Park’s first Wallace and Gromit, A Grand Day Out (completed in spare time over years between other work at the studio) was nominated the same year. Creature Comforts won, which means Nick basically both won and lost the Oscar at the same time. How very Aardman.

This success brings more work and attention, including large studios from the US. Lord and Sproxton are unsurprisingly interested but wary of Hollywood studios – this is a chance for decent budgets and to reach wider audiences at home and abroad, but it also could clash with the Aardman way of working, crush what makes them so special. Refreshingly, all those involved refuse to back-bite about those US co-adventures, noting the problems they caused but also the huge benefits, and that they learned a lot, both positive and negative, that has helped them to grow further down the line, as well as reinforcing to them and their staff that they very much prefer doing things their own way (and hey, it works for them!).

That way includes giving the sort of support and encouragement both Lord and Sproxton had received as schoolboy chums experimenting with a dad’s old camera all those years ago. In fact being supportive and nurturing of talent is a theme throughout this book, and how lovely is that to see?

Not long before the book came out these two founders, considering the future as they get older, decided to put their shares in Aardman into a trust for the entire staff (now in a lovely, purpose built headquarters, still in Bristol, a city whose community life they are very much a part of), essentially making all the staff owners of the studio. It rewards all who have worked there, and at the same time ensures no big media conglomerate can just snap them up for their now considerable assets like Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep (both massive international successes, not just in film but merchandising, theme parks and more. Who could have imagined all this coming from Morph?).

There’s no chance such a conglomerate can treat the staff and the Aardman way of working as redundant as they grab just the intellectual property. It’s a very Aardman thing to do and another reason to love the studio.

Aardman: An Epic Journey - Wallace and Gromit

Aardman: An Epic Journey - Endpapers

Above: (the lovely endpapers from the book, with sketches of Aardman’s two greatest creations, Wallace and Gromit at the front, and Shaun the Sheep at the back

This is a delightful look into not just a wonderful animation house, but a genuine (and lovably oddball) British success, a celebration of a small company who played big but did it – and continue to do it – in their own fashion. All in all this book is much like Aardman’s films – it’s warm, it’s often funny, and it leaves you with a big, contented smile on your face (and humming the Wallace and Gromit theme music).

Joe Gordon

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1 reply

  1. Just another reminder of how some things follow you through your life. From Morph onwards, I have been drawn to all the characters here – and my late wife also loved them. To pick out one is hard, but Creature Comforts stands out for its simplicity of an idea where the whole was so much greater than the parts.

    But then Harbutt’s Plasticine (I can still remember the name and the smell!) was very much one of my childhood playthings. And I was a member of an amateur cine group that dabbled in 8mm stop-motion.

    Aardman – an aard act to follow.

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