CBE David Sproxton is the co-founder and Managing Director of Aardman Animations. Alongside his partner Peter Lord, he is a pioneer in stop frame animation. During his lifetime, David has been a producer, director and a cinematographer.
David and Peter met in grammar school where they made their first animated film using David’s Bolex camera. In 1972, they founded Aardman where they have concocted several TV and Film animation classics. Currently they are working on their latest production: Pirates! which is scheduled for release in 2012.
Aardman has grown exponentially, you were 8 people in the mid eighties and you were starting to go into films.
Yes that’s right, we got Nick in 1985, actually he got to us a bit earlier when he was a student, but yeah we did grow and it is weird because as soon as you go into features and you crew up and obviously you need all those people but they run away with the pictures. Generally we’ve got about 150 people staff, the payroll this week was about 400 people, there’s a lot of freelancers in here.
You are also tackling the digital side of things as well!
The digital department: There’s about 30 people in there doing websites and games, you know and that feeds into all the other stuff we do it’s extraordinary because apart from anything else it is hard to make any money out of producing TV stuff, you know in commercials you make money but with TV you’ve got to do all these web-based things around it, so it has changed dramatically.
[…] rewinding the clock 30 odd years, it’s a much much harder world now than it was then to get into. It’s easier in some respects, the facilities and the stuff that you need to produce animation is easier to get hold of, you could do it on a laptop, could you not? But finding a break these days I think is tough.
What’s Aardman’s main priority right now?
The thing we’re really concentrating on is development, developing ideas. It is quite weird because the actual making of stuff is relatively straight forward these days we produce a lot of the stuff ourselves, there’s very little major work we out-source, so there’s a lot of people working on things.
But the hardest thing is writing a decent story, and that can take you a good few years, and I wouldn’t go in to the feature films side of animation unless you’re willing to lose a lot of money in the first few go arounds, because you’re up against Pixar and Dreamworks […] people have this extraordinary perception that “Hey! we have the kit, we have the people! Let’s make a feature film!”
That’s probably the hardest thing, getting good ideas.
Do you try to develop stuff in-house?
Yes, we have a features development department, it’s not very big. We use external writers. It’s kind of interesting because you want the idea to be driven by somebody’s passion, now that could be a writer, it could be a director, it could be a designer, you’ll always need to pair them each of those up with somebody, a director, a designer, whatever and the big question for us, specially on the feature film side is is there someone to drive the project with passion and who do they need team up with and what’s the chemistry between them […]
Shaun of the Sheep is based on Nick [Park] and taken on by Golly [Richard Goleszowski] who’s worked with him for many, many years and he said “Actually I know how I can turn this into a series idea” and then he brought on writers, to help write the 80 episodes we’ve now made, and Timmy Time is a little bit the same, and most of our strongest ideas come from, people inside the company and the staff, people we work with a great deal.
There’s a show called Chops Socky Chooks, which is on air at the moment on [Cartoon Network] I think, which came out of one of the animators in Chicken Run, a guy called Serge Delfino, he’s a good animator actually and he came up with this ridiculous kind of Kung-Fu chickens spoof some years ago and it took about 4 or 5 years to get it developed. He then directed it.
I would put my hand up and say that probably most of our people aren’t the greatest storytellers, they do often come up with good situations and they come up with some good character designs and characterisation but they may not have the story to structure it, so we get people in to help them.
Do you think that the amount of technology that’s available to anyone today, and it’s becoming more accessible, is hindering or helping the quality of the animation that is being produced these days?
I think it’s it’s clear that the technology is helping in many ways, but now that the WOW! factor is no longer the draw for an audience,the stories have to be even stronger. If you look at Pixar and Toy Story 3, I mean they probably use better technology than Toy Story 1 and 2 but the characters are basically the same, they just build stronger and stronger stories […] they can be more ambitious certainly but on the other hand look at Avatar, the technology is getting a bit in the way there, well, there are some beautiful scenes in it, but it’s like “Hey! Look what I can do” rather than “I will engage in a story”, so I think it is always a balancing act and we know It cannot just depend on technology allowing us to do eye-watering things.
Actually, in a Pixar film, to an extent there is a danger that “Look how great the scene looks!” as opposed to what the scene tells us about the story, because the model makers and designers love putting stuff in and it can certainly get in the way of animation. […] And it’s always been the case, to an extent, I mean we now have an unbelievable powerful toolbox at our disposal, you can do anything and there’s no excuse for not getting it right, budgets and time aside.
I think it is like anything, you can go from a manual brace and bit to a Black and Decker electric drill, you can do an awful more with it but you can actually wreak havoc [laughs] at the same time.
But I’m sure that if the great animators that Dick [Richard Williams] was talking about had all the technology that we have now they would be doing some extraordinary stuff with it.
To dip a little in that area, because Dick pretty much comes out of hand craft and he’s still doing that. For him and his generation is a little bit deeper than that, is like a language, is the way you think.
Yes! and I think that probably hasn’t changed, you still have got to have great ideas well expressed. Most of our guys still draw an awful lot (they love figure drawing) and, again,it is how you use those skills, you know, the classic CG idea of ” keep the camera kind of floating” “Nooo! it’s a film!” you know, keep it static, the observer watches from the screen rather than dancing around all the time. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Talking about balancing acts, how does Aardman manage to appeal both adults and young audiences, are you targeting both at the same time, or one more than the other?
If we enjoy the idea and the film we’re pretty confident that audience will. Nick has a great natural ability for pleasing all age groups. Fundamentally they’re quite simple, they are silly.
And there’s an absurdity in there, you know for example in a Curse of the Were-rabbit, Nick… what does he call it? “the first vegetarian horror movie” and certainly with the feature films (we did do test screens with Dreamworks, but with the film half finished the test screenings are rather deceptive. we are very rigorous with the way we make the film, particularly at the story-reel stage. we do attack quite vigorously the story-reel to get it to play as well as it can. […] In the average story reel there’s probably about 6000 drawings and we did about 25000 drawings over all during the making of the Were-rabbit film, which meant that, every scene was re-drawn several times in order to get it funnier or more dramatic. […]
You can put a film in front of kids to test their reaction, but it is quite hard to put a story reel in front of kids, they simply don’t quite understand what they are looking at. And it’s something Dreamworks used to do, the film would be half to two thirds complete, so some of it would be drawn and cut into a story reel and kids would come out “I didn’t understand it” you know, with the last act as scribbly drawings.
Does that apply for TV as well?
On the children’s TV stuff we actually do test stuff with kids, we’ll go to a school, just to sort of see how they react, mostly to the characters, which ones are their favourites, which ones they don’t like. Just to get a sense of how are they going to react to this thing, because it needs to be commercially successful, but generally… and actually Pirates! is kind of interesting because Pirates! is quite dialogue led, a lot of the comedy is in the dialogue and kind of adult. Not adult in a kind of sophisticated way but you wouldn’t expect a 6 or 7 year old necessarily to be concentrating on the dialogue and to get the comedy out of it, where as a 14—15 year old probably would.
So broadly we make it for yourselves, really… And it depends on the budget as well.
Our stuff tends to have a 5 year cycle (on the feature films) but 3 and a half years of that is development and then you roll into production, and production lasts 18 months generally, but the bulk of the time is in development, writing and designing.
And you’re writing up to the last minute, you’re always changing stuff.
Now that you’ve tried both the stop-motion and the digital routes for making a film… Do you think computers really make life easier or is it merely a different technique with a different set of problems?
Different set of problems! [laughs] yeah, um… is funny, the stop-frame works out kind of cheaper, because the CGI and Hollywood route is ridiculously expensive for all sorts of complex. Rational and irrational reasons. And they’re different processes, stop-frame is much more like a live action process, you know, you shoot, it’s in the can, it’s done, whereas CG you do the animation, you then may light and render it it, it’s a process that rolls on and it’s harder to lock it down I think.
I would opine to say that we probably, on average, have better stop-frame animators that can give you very good performances on the feature side than you tend to get in feature CGI, just because these guys have only got one go at it. So it’s a linear process, so in their head they’ve got to know what they’re doing (it’s like a very slow motion performance) we were doing some CGI animation tests the other day and the stuff is not bad, [but] there’s a slightly “missingness” in what you see in the first go around. There’s something that’s not quite there which needs putting in before the action could be signed off.
I guess is a bit like the difference between a theatre actor and a film actor. Theatre actors need to know the whole piece, act in a continuum, fully understand the character, whereas film actors act in small sections, often out of order, they can have many goes at getting right, so there isn’t that need to really get under the skin of the character. The stop-motion / CGI comparison is a bit like that. […]
And I think because of the physicality, like actors working against blue / green screen: it is very difficult to kind of “fight air”, you know, react to the monster that is not there, or to a marker on a stick, as with the blue screen, but you stick them in a real set and they’ve got actors to work against, they know what the job is. And I think is a bit the same with stop-frame, the characters are in the set, you know, they can kind of know what they’re doing.
And certainly, we cross train our guys, we take the stop-frame animators and put them in CG and they do make fantastic animators, because they know their craft very well and they know exactly what they want the character to do and you can teach them the CGI buttons very very quickly, they have an open mind and they make very good CGI animators from that point of view.
I suppose you don’t get the same if you do it the other way around.
Is hard! We’ve done a bit of that and some of them do, but generally it is a harder fix because of that linear approach the stop-frame guys have, they kind of see it in their head, they see the complete stop-motion performance that they’ve got to do.
Of all of your achievements what are you most proud of?
Well, surviving as a company is a key achievement! Forget profits, just stay in business and hold on tight… but having said that, there was a moment, which I recall, when we screened The Wrong Trousers at the Venice Film Festival, we premiered it as a short and it was coupled up with a feature film […] we were the support act to this guy’s big break through into films, and we thought it was kind of interesting. So The Wrong Trousers played first, as the warm up act basically, and it got a standing ovation! Bloody hell! Sitting in this theatre are a bunch of hard nose film journalists, hacks, buyers, so about as tough as it gets in the film world and they all stood up and gave it a standing ovation […]
That was pretty outstanding, because this being a premier, you don’t know how it’s going to play, you know, but they absolutely loved it, and sadly this guy’s feature played and about 40 minutes in, two thirds of the audience had left! [chuckles] oh no!… but that was a hell of a moment, actually.
And I think the first Oscar was pretty amazing as well.
You mentioned earlier that you’re always thinking ahead, about what’s going to happen next. Do you know what’s going to happen next?
Well, you know, in this multimedia, sort of multi platform world… In Hollywood at the moment they’re strangling themselves trying to get costs down. Somebody said to me the other day “Pixar are trying to get their cost down below 110 million dollars” And you’d think “Well, certainly they should… It’s very hard!” And a lot of that is in the development area, well, the development process is not that expensive but it starts to crank up if you’re running with 4 or 5 ideas with 40 or 30 people. So trying to decide which ideas go ahead is critical to keeping those costs down.
DVD sales have pretty much collapsed, television, the back catalogue sales have collapsed, studios are finding it really difficult at the moment because they have this massive overhead basically.
And you know this digital thing that we’re doing, the digital department, which is all the online stuff, websites and commercials… that’s hard to make money from at the moment. We’re doing this thing for the Tate Modern, we’re doing Wallance & Gromit’s world of inventions, there’s a big website around that, the Science people, the BBC, so that’s more strings to our bow, it all helps, but it’s a weird landscape out there at the moment.
There’s quite a lot of controversy raging at the moment about digital downloads and piracy, do you think that’s impacted you?
Well… I asked this to somebody at Annecy a guy who’s from Armenia and he said “Although your works have never been on television in Armenia, everybody knows Wallace and Gromit, we’ve been watching Russian pirated copies”. So whole swathes of population are watching stuff without paying for it […] as far as China.
It is a worry, we’ve just done a deal in China that will hopefully help stop that a bit but it’s funny, we have a culture of “Well, that content’s free, wahey! I can take it, I can use it…, I can have it for free!” you know?…it’s tough.
I think part of it is that DVD prices have been far too high, and that’s where the studios are in trouble, if they were only 5 or 10 dollars a pop they’d probably sell millions more and there wouldn’t be a piracy problem anymore, to be honest.
Are you pursuing the 3D TV route with your upcoming projects?
Well, both our features are going 3D, the CGI ones are very straight forward, Pirates! is a little bit more complicated but it’s not too bad, we cracked the process, we’re sort of waiting for our first 3D commercial to come in, but again,if it’s CG, technically is not too difficult. The important thing to understand about 3D is how you use it for the best effect in the drama or the comedy, but for commercials it hat aspect not so crucial, it will be used in a bit more of a sensational Way.
We have had discussions on this here at Aardman. Itis a tool people can use but be careful how you use it, don’t over do it and bear in mind what is it that you’re trying to put across with the depth thing and how can you make it comfortable for the audience.
The future of Aardman, has there been any talks about a Theme Park?
We are doing, not a theme park, but there’s a talk about doing something at Blackpool, one of the rides, it should be quite a good fun, not a full-on theme park though. There was one of those ridiculous pub conversations “wahey! let’s have a theme park!” [laughs] but I think in this country you just don’t have the foot fall for it, to justify the leg work or rather the investment, well, no… not yet, anyway.
Thanks very much for your time!
Great to see you both!