Aardman Animations’ founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton, the multi-award-winning animators behind Wallace and Gromit, talk to Director about coping with recession and funding the return of Morph through Kickstarter
Walk into the reception of Aardman’s headquarters in Bristol and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into another world. A life-size figure of the loveable animated character Wallace – complete with familiar goofy smile, green woolly jumper, and oversized ears – is relaxing in a chair, probably waiting for his trusty sidekick Gromit, who appears to be off gallivanting elsewhere. He’s joined instead by an array of rabbits and sheep, and a giant terracotta version of the cheeky-faced figure Morph, standing with arms outstretched to welcome visitors.
These much-loved characters, which continue to resonate with audiences worldwide, were created at Aardman – the animation company co-founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972. The business has been the flag-bearer for Britain’s animation industry and grown to a turnover of £22.3m and 200 employees since its inception. Today, there are five strands to the company – feature films, television series, advertising, digital, and licensing and rights. It’s had 10 Oscar nominations (including four wins) on its roll of honour, in addition to several Baftas and a host of high-profile clients, including Cadbury’s, RBS and HarperCollins.
It is, Sproxton reflects, a far cry from their early beginnings in a shed in Clifton. “We didn’t really set up as a business and neither of us were businessmen,” he recalls. “We came to Bristol in 1976 and it was a hobby really. We’d had an amazing opportunity to showcase our work on a children’s TV show called Vision On a few years earlier and we managed to keep our foot in the door at the BBC. We got a contract to make The Amazing Adventures of Morph, which ran from 1980 to 1981, and made very little money out of it, but we got the character on television.”
The real turning point for Aardman was the launch of Channel 4 in 1982. “They had a brief to use independent production companies,” says Lord, “and one of the things they wanted to do was commission animation. We sent them some test pieces we had done for the BBC and they called us back and asked for 10 animated shorts. It was a huge stepping stone for us.”
Following the success of their Animated Conversations, the pair were inundated with requests from advertisers. “It was a great way to build the backbone of the company,” says Sproxton. “Over the years the commercial side has allowed us to invest back into the business and train our staff, as well as provide money for props, kit and space.” Indeed, Aardman now generates £5m of revenue from commercials every year.
The company’s stellar reputation was enhanced further in 1985 when the duo joined up with animator Nick Park – creator of Wallace and Gromit, who went on to direct the Oscar-winning 1993 short film The Wrong Trousers, with Lord and Sproxton as executive producers, and was also behind its Oscar-winning Creature Comforts shorts. He continues to help the duo head the firm today and, says Lord, has been crucial to the enduring success. “We were very lucky to bump into Nick all those years ago. He has a creative, artistic instinct, which is superb.”
But, despite dominating the animation market in the UK for decades, and attaining international recognition, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. A fire at a storage building in October 2005 destroyed many of the company’s treasured sets and models – though the box office success of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, developed with US studio DreamWorks and released in the same month, went a little way to easing the pain.
The commercial side of the business was truly hit, however, by the onset of recession in 2008, meaning Aardman had to focus on other income streams. “We do quite a lot of commercial work for the US, and when the global recession hit most businesses would only spend money in their own backyard,” says Sproxton. “In relative terms we’re quite expensive for American advertisers – the exchange rate, travel, and time frame – and we don’t get a huge amount of commercial work out of Europe because the advertising industry is very different there.” In response, though, Aardman looked to target different sectors including education, healthcare and finance. “We’ve done a big campaign about helping kids to save with RBS, by creating an online savings game. We’ve focused on sectors that have a need to put out propaganda and that’s helped.”
This summer has seen the return of Morph, the little figure made out of modelling clay who first captured the hearts of children in the 1970s and 1980s on BBC show Take Hart. Aardman spent five months creating 15 new episodes, to be aired initially via YouTube – the first of which was released in July. “Morph works best in one-to two-minute pieces with lots of slapstick gags,” smiles Sproxton. “With the rise of online and YouTube it was the perfect opportunity to reinvent him.
“The kids’ television space is very competitive, so two or three years ago we decided to stop trying to come up with new ideas and focus on our strong brand characters. We looked at what people love and what has been successful, and Morph is one of them.” If premiering a new series via YouTube is a sign of the times, the way Aardman raised the cash needed to produce it is also very much of-the-moment, as they sought investment via online crowdfunding platform Kickstarter last year. “The response was great,” says Sproxton. “The target was £70,000 and we got £110,000 in four or five days.”
So, what’s the secret behind the enduring appeal of Aardman’s products – characters that hold an undoubted place in the hearts of the British public? The pair believe it comes down to how well a character resonates with people. “It’s extremely difficult coming up with characters and the best ones are those who have a bit of bite to them – they’re not bland,” says Lord. “We’ve had the luxury with Morph and Wallace and Gromit of being able to evolve them over the years and discover what’s good about them.”
Another of the company’s best-loved characters is Shaun the Sheep, who first appeared in the 1995 Wallace and Gromit film A Close Shave for about six minutes, but rose to his own fame – helped in part by a Spice Girl being spotted wearing a Shaun the Sheep backpack. “We have taken Shaun to 170 countries worldwide – he’s a huge international brand now – and we’ve got his film, Shaun the Sheep, coming out in February 2015.” Why is he successful? “The storytelling is bloody good and the animation is ambitious,” says Lord. “We have excellent animators who don’t just make the characters move, they make them live.”
Creative culture at Aardman Animations
The duo’s roles within the business, says Lord, are different. “I spend the bulk of my time developing feature-film projects. Part of my job is purely creative, such as working with writers, and part of it is more of a producer’s role, which means selling the idea to a studio,” he explains. “I don’t get involved in the business side of things at all – I am very happy to leave that to others.”
Sproxton, meanwhile, helps to drive the technical infrastructure of Aardman. “It’s about what tools we need to do what we do. On the craft side I do a lot of camera and editorial work. I’m not a great story originator but I’m quite a good editor and know how to make a story work.”
So what is the day-to-day culture inside the business like? “It’s very collaborative,” says Sproxton. “We try to be as open as we can and we don’t have a big hierarchy – no shareholders and no board. Pete and I are shareholders, and Nick has shares in Wallace and Gromit Ltd, which is a subsidiary, but there aren’t any shareholders expecting a quarterly dividend – and that means we operate in a very different way.”
When asked about leadership style, Lord says he’s good at empowering his staff. “We have a great senior management team and I am very happy to trust them and give them the responsibility to take big decisions. I also try to lead by example, and that means getting involved.” Sproxton says his own leadership approach is relaxed: “Probably a bit too much from some people’s point of view. I’m not on top of people the whole time, and I’m encouraging and try to be empowering, too. I’ll intervene where I need to, but I let people get on with things.”
Unsurprisingly, Aardman doesn’t have a problem, says Sproxton, when it comes to attracting talent. “Pulling people in isn’t the problem – it’s about creating exciting opportunities so that they’ll stay. The top talent wants to work on the most interesting projects, but these tend to be shorter term. If we were based in London we’d have access to a much more mobile talent base, particularly in the computer-generated imagery area. A lot of our talent is freelance. And the best talent is out there – it’s just a matter of generating the work to keep them excited.”
So what’s next for Aardman? “We’re working on a number of feature films,” says Lord. “There’s lots of Shaun the Sheep activity and we have more TV episodes on the plate, including a half-hour television special coming up. We’re also planning another charity trail with Shaun, very similar to the one we did with Gromit last summer, where we placed huge sculptures around Bristol.”
The company has also been working on a campaign with ad agency Johnny Fearless to promote the Imperial War Museum’s First World War Galleries, which commemorate the centenary of the start of the conflict. Aardman has created a 90-second film, Flight of the Stories, which depicts the personal tales and letters written by those who never left the fields of northern France during the war. “We want to do more on the First World War,” says Sproxton. “We are hoping to do a national project, with funding from the Arts Council – it would look at the whole period so would stretch out to 2018.”
In Sproxton’s view, the key to enduring success is maintaining belief. “You’re going to take hits, so you need to be resilient enough to get through those times when things don’t work. And don’t expect to make loads of money out of it. We don’t make vast amounts – we clear our debts and service our loan on the building. We make money but not massive sums. If you can make money, that’s fantastic but my advice is to go into business thinking you can make a living, not become a millionaire.”
And crucially, adds Lord, it’s down to the fact that the duo care about the same things. “David and I have very different skills, but when it comes to the important things in business we feel the same way – and that’s the joy of it.”