“The way the film is made is almost as important as the finished film.” This has always been the driving ethos for York alumnus David Lord, why else would he persist with such incredibly time consuming and seemingly old fashioned techniques when the computer could do all the work?
He is one of the visionaries behind Aardman Animations, which he co-founded with friend David Sproxton in 1972. The company has progressed from humble beginnings: they originally produced opening titles and sequences for children’s television programmes, always using the traditional stop motion animation style and clay models. Gradually moving up the ladder, Aardman went onto produce a number of short films as well as Morph, the famous 80’s clay man.
Joined by a number of brilliant animators throughout the 1980’s, including Nick Park, 1989 was a huge year for Aadrman with TV series Creature Comforts proving popular, going onto win an academy award for best animated short in 1990. But of course it was Wallace and Gromit, the short films chronicling the adventures of the hapless inventor and his cynical canine companion which debuted in the same year that Aardman is famous for.
From then on Aardman moved into film. First partnered with Dreamworks and later Sony, Aardman produced a number of successful feature films beginning such as Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit the Curse of the Weir Rabbit.
The company moved into computer generated animation for the first time with Flushed Away in 2006, yet it is the traditional stop motion animation that Lord remains most attached to. “I’m personally attached to the way we animate, it’s rather quaint, it’s a hundred years old, going back to the start of animation. There’s something I love about it, it’s deep in the human psyche.”
In comparison to increasingly realistic computer generated productions, it could be said that the stop motion techniques favoured by Aardman are perhaps outdated, however Lord is adamant that it isn’t realism that draws people to traditional animated films. “We like to sell the idea of our animation being handmade; I often call it puppet animation as it’s a similar thing. Take a good puppet show or production such as Warhorse, you know it’s a puppet, you know it’s not real, you can see the operator, but the joy is the excitement, that you can see it’s not real but believe it, it’s a very satisfying illusion.”
Although he accepts that traditional techniques will always be a niche medium he is confident that there will always be an interest in them, “there will always be a place for it, like there is a place for vinyl and live acoustic music, I think people will always respond to the intimacy of the handmade thing”.
He also believes that the realism and ubiquity of CGI techniques may be starting to lose their effect on audiences. “CGI is utterly brilliant, but unfortunately its impact to surprise has gone, we’ve seen cities destroyed millions of times before, it’s getting kind of boring, we’ve seen it all before”.
When asked about where the distinctive features of Aardman characters originated from, the large distinctive grin, segmented teeth and large centrally positioned eyes Lord is quick to assign full responsibility to Nick Park.“We’d been working for 15 years when Nick Park joined us as a student. We pioneered talking plasticine heads, but he came along with his style which involves the eyes in the middle of the head and the ridiculously long mouths. For the past 35 years since he joined us we’ve been trying to get away from that, but in the end we’ve always come back, because it just works so well.”
Lord studied English at the University of York, graduating in 1976, by this time he had already founded Aardman and was well immersed within animation. “I had a great time here, I loved it. However I’m aware how different the world is now, even on a basic level, I didn’t pay for an education, also there really wasn’t a sense of urgency over a career, which is astonishing , I just came with a sense of cheery optimism that something would turn up.”
His advice for those interested in embarking on a potential career in animation is quite simple, to work hard to be the best and also to get their work seen. “The most important thing is largely not where you come from, but what you can show; your big calling card is what you can do.” A seminal moment in Lord’s career was meeting Ivor Wood, the animator behind The Magic Roundabout, what he learnt from that meeting was that “there are no secrets, there’s nothing he does that we (as teenagers) couldn’t do”, it was meetings with people like these that made Lord and Sproxton realise that their dream was possible and attainable.
These meetings also had the added advantage for Lord and Sproxton of being able to advertise their work to influential people in the industry. At a time when there were only a handful of television channels it was a real struggle to get his work seen, he is the first to admit that he was lucky “in the right place at the right time.”
Today in contrast there are a multitude of different ways for young designers to get their work seen to a wider audience, primarily through the internet and social media. Lord is generally positive about this development, although with some caveats. “I think that it’s a good thing, on You Tube you see some astonishingly sophisticated stuff which is incredibly funny. The thing is though that we haven’t actually picked up an animator we’ve found online, partly because there is so much to see it does your head in.” It’s difficult to ascertain whether the rise of social media has made it easier to break into the industry, or just created more background noise making it more difficult to get noticed, one thing Lord is adamant of though is that “the best people will always come to the top.”
One thing that Aardman has been vociferous over is the tax situation in the UK and the perceived lack of help that the creative industries have received from the UK government. Last year Aardman campaigned for and received tax breaks from the UK government which it claimed were vital to keep the industry alive in the UK. “It’s just common sense as we were trying to compete with countries with extravagant tax advantages, until the recent tax break it was 30% cheaper to make an animated film in Ireland and 40% in Canada, we need to compete on a level playing field. It’s a great investment,” he says “we have some great people in our creative industries, and that’s something we can really celebrate and make money out of.” However he is keen to point out that government support should not be indiscriminate and that support should be allocated rigorously, not indiscriminately, “there have been some absolutely awful British films,” he muses.
Aardman’s transition from the small screen to the big screen was not without its challenges. Lord admits that the transfer from a small scale to a “mass production” operation was a huge change. “We came from a background like Morph with was just one person making it, and then we’d move to 100 or 300 people making a film. It was done on a realistic commercial scale that was a huge psychological challenge.
“When going into the world of, let’s face it, ‘family entertainment’ you don’t have to compromise but you have to choose carefully what you do and to operate within certain constraints, your job though is to push those constraints as well. Wallace and Gromit and Pirates (which Lord himself directed) challenged the mainstream, they did stuff you don’t usually see in family movies, and as a result they didn’t make nearly as much money as they could have,” although with Aardman’s films grossing between $120 million and $220 million at the box office, they clearly weren’t a complete disaster!
“Frankly making English films is challenging the studio system, every time we talked to an American studio and told them we’d be using an English cast we’d see their faces fall, they’d always ask us if they’d include a few American stars. British culture and especially comedy is a hard sell in America, you have a few exceptions like Harry Potter and James Bond but comedy is a really hard sell because we have a very different sense of humour.”However, despite the occasionally bumpy ride Lord isn’t going to transform his whole ethos just to suit the whims of American studios, “We’ll continue to be bold.” he says. For a company in which the process is as important as the finished article, and who have never deviated from their core beliefs, this confidence and commitment to their artistic vision is truly heartening.