David Sproxton

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.

His stu­dio is also known for nur­tur­ing tal­ented film­mak­ers such as Nick Park, Steve Box, Peter Peake and Richard Goleszowski among many others.

Aardman’s early days.

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.

Aardman’s new pur­pose built facil­i­ties in Bristol.

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.

Milo rig to the left. To the right, the edge of the scissor-lift with attached monitor.

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!

  1. Aard­man Ani­ma­tion Main website.
  2. Aardman’s Pod­casts Hear it from the horse’s mouth.
  3. Wal­lace and Grom­mit Main website.
  4. YouTube Aardman’s Channel.
  5. IMDb Aard­man on the Movie Database

I make images that move and images that don’t, for ads, pro­mos, film and TV, for kids and grownups and some­times just to amuse myself.

Cre­ator of one­huge­eye. Founder and direc­tor at Lon­don based Stu­dio Tinto. Dad. Cof­fee addict.