INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Merlin Crossingham, Lead Animator At Aardman Animation

By Marty Mulrooney

merlin

Aardman_Logo_pvThis interview was originally published within the print version of Alternative Magazine Online, going towards my media degree (on my 21st Birthday actually, January 09). Since then, Aardman (who recently celebrated their 20th anniversary!) have kindly given me permission to reproduce the interview in full on Alternative Magazine Online’s  rapidly growing site. I hope you enjoy it!

One thing that Alternative learnt during it’s pursuit of an interview with an Aardman employee, was this: they are always busy. But we persevered, and that is how this interview came to fruition. The fact it is conducted via mobile phone whilst the interviewee is on a train only further drives home our point, but we think the results were worthwhile.

masterbakerThank you for your time. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Aardman Animation?

No problem! I am a senior animator and I also direct depending on the project I am working on.

Excellent. Is it like a film where there is only one director, or do the studio’s projects feature several directors at any one time?

Well, that also depend on the project! So for example on a big feature film you would have two directors, for a television commercial just one director. Again, for something short, such as a half an hour feature, you would have one director.

With regards to my experience, it always depends on what job I am assigned to. It is constantly changing!

Can you give an example for something you were assigned to then?

Certainly. For example on Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death, I was the supervising animator, where now I am directing a series of television commercials featuring Wallace and Gromit.

Ah brilliant. What is that actually for?

It’s for N Power gas and electricity; we create adverts for their campaign for energy efficiency.

wallace Great. So are these type of shorter projects approached differently from the longer Wallace and Gromit features?

Well yes, in some ways, but it is basically the same process. It is always a collaborative process, and is actually treated the same way that any other television commercial would be. It evolves in a similar way.

What is the history of the Aardman Studio?

The studio was founded by two men, called Peter Lord and David Sproxton. Their first work was a superman style character that was handdrawn, and they called him The Hardman, but because of the Britolian accent making hard sound like “aard” they thought it would be funny if he was called The Aardman.

Ah right, so that is how the studio got it’s name!

Indeed, that’s how the name came, and then their commercial success started with Morph on a programme called VisionOn for children. Then, Morph became more famous on Tony Hart’s art programme…

SmArt!

Yes that’s one, although he was also in a much earlier one called Take Hart with Tony Hart that was popular in the 1970’s. Morph was a great success due to that programme.

gromit So the studio actually started with traditional animation, rather than the stop-motion it is known for now?

Yes, I mean it was only by chance that stop-motion was one of the first things they did. Stop-motion very quickly became their staple almost, what with Morph being stop-motion as well. It went on from there really!

There were several films that were popular in the mid-to-late 90s, such as Nightmare Before Christmas, that used stop motion, but with models instead of the clay etc used at Aardman. Is it a stylistic choice to stay with the older methods, rather than a reliance on quicker methods or computers?

Erm… yes! It is definitely an artistic choice, even being able to see the thumb prints etc on the characters really lends a traditional feel. The only real difference between what we do, and something like Nightmare Before Christmas that you mentioned before, is the plasticine. The technique is identical. It is now very much a house-style, a recognised style, that plasticine effect. I mean look. On Chicken Run we spent quite a lot of time moving the thumb prints off.

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© Aardman Animations Ltd 2008

That must have taken forever!

Well afterward, in hindsight after the film was released, we sort of realised that actually, that was the thing that people really connected with and really liked.

It constantly reminds people that it is handmade.

That’s right. Again, in the Wallace and Gromit films, the Curse of the Were-Rabbit in particular, Nick Park was very consciously asking us not to worry about this kind of thing too much. It all adds to the end product.

Alternative agrees. How much have computers, and their evolution since the Aardman studio began, played into the animation produced? Are more recent films, such as Chicken Run and the new Wallace and Gromit becoming reliant on GCI, or are viewers still seeing predominantly hand-crafted scenes?

Well, we do use computers nowadays an awful lot in any production, for things such as special effects work. Our first approach is always what is best for the film.

The next step is simply asking ourselves can we do it ‘in-camera’, where we do it traditionally on a set in front of a camera. And then, if you can, is it always a sensible thing to do?

How do you mean that, when you say sensible?

Well sometimes you can do something ‘in-camera’, but it would cost you five times as much as if you did it in post-production. Again, we are constantly asking ourselves these kinds of questions, and the answer is always: what is best for the film?

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© Aardman Animations Ltd 2008

Are some things always easier with computers then?

We have tried to have water effects and other things using different types of resins, but its usually easier and better looking in these cases to just use a computer.

Ah right then! So in the latest Wallace and Gromit film, where there is a thunder-storm, with lots of rain and storm effects, are we right then to say that this is all computer generated?

(Laughs) No! It is not all computer generated!

It isn’t?!

No! What we do in a case like that is that we have the set dressed to look wet, and where the rain drops hit on the floor, we use little resin…butterflies, if you like, well that’s how I would describe them! This then looks like splashes, and the rain on top is a CG element. Obviously, this is done with high precision to compliment the set.

So it will all fit in with the overall look?

That’s right, it is actually a hybrid of the two.

What other animation studios does Aardman take notice of?

To be honest, we take notice of anyone who makes anything good really! Some studios consistently put out good work, like Pixar, and other studios, arguably like Aardman, have some work which is really good, and others that aren’t always a smash hit.

So you know, Blue Sky Studios who did Ice-Age, even Dreamworks who we have worked with in the past, our old partners…

On Chicken Run…

Yes, both on Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit they financed for us. They’re a great studio. And Kung Fu Panda I saw recently… that’s an amazing animated film! I also think we see ourselves at Aardman as film-makers, so we will look at the whole film industry, all the entertaining films that are coming out, we won’t just limit what we notice to animation for our influences.

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© Aardman Animations Ltd 2008

In 2006, Studio Ghibli, an animation company based in Japan, did an exhibition of Aardman Animation. How did that feel?

Well Mr Hayao Miyazaki, who is the principle creative director of Studio Ghibli, he had been a long time fan of Aardman. In fact, we had been a long time fan of his work as well! It was his Studio Ghibli Museum in Japan that he set up where the exhibition took place. It is principally of course for their own work, but they do have another section set aside for other-

At this point, the phone cuts dead. Alternative, worried that the interview will be cut short, quickly re-dials…

Hello again. Sorry about that, we’re not sure why the phones cut off?

It’s okay, I think the train went through a tunnel which could explain it!

Ah! So, you were saying about Studio Ghibli having a space set aside in their museum to exhibit other people’s work…

Lets see…ah yes! The exhibition that was on before us was Pixar. I think before that it may have actually been Star Wars, or something like that. So they do have a lot of visiting exhibitions that they must find relative, in the visiting space. Japan is quite a big market now… they seem to really like Wallace and Gromit.

It’s strange the things that seem to travel over there…

I know! I guess a lot of their stuff is coming over here and influencing us as well, so it makes sense in that regard.

The studio has had many famous actors voice its character, such as Helena Bonham Carter in Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Do you ever have celebrities contacting the studio as fans, or does the studio usually contact the actors?

It’s nearly always us approaching the actors. This is because we usually go through a casting process like almost any other production, so for example with Helena Bonham Carter, we ended up with her after quite a lengthy casting period, in which other stars were also considered. So yes, it is very much a process you would find in other productions.

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© Aardman Animations Ltd 2008

Do the voice actors ever visit the studio to see the animation process? Or is it very much kept as a separate process?

Well, we record all of the voices well in advance of the animation…

To give the animators something to work with?

Sure. I mean they do often pop by to put it in context for themselves. They will drop in to see what is going on and have a little giggle.

Is the relationship with the BBC important to Aardman?

I think historically it has been very important because the BBC were the people who commissioned The Wrong Trousers and Close Shave, which were two of the films that really pushed Aardman into the big time and allowed us to make the step into feature film-making. I think it was really nice this year that the BBC helped commission the Loaf and Death film and put it on primetime BBC. They have been a really big part of the studio’s history.

What awards has the studio received over the years?

(Laughs) Ohh… I think, for different projects, just about every single one there is going! From Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, erm… through to bespoke animation festivals, Palme d’Or’s… and everything in between! So, we have been very lucky with our success.

We talked before about other studios. Does Aardman ever feel threatened by other studios, such as the very popular Pixar studio in America?

Because they use computers?

Well, it could be said Aardman attracts a niche market, although the latest Wallace and Gromit that aired on Christmas Day in the UK is said to have had the highest ratings for many years, so that market is certainly not declining!

No, our market is not declining and yes ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’ had the highest viewing figures for one single programme for five years on the BBC. I am not sure what held the record before that, I think it was something like the Only
Fools and Horses Special or something like that. Wallace and Gromit are still popular.

They are not as popular worldwide as something like a Pixar of Dreamworks
creation, but then again we are very conscious that we make films that are British films. British films don’t always travel terribly well. As long as we don’t make a loss on our films we are happy, and it must be said that our big film releases have made healthy profits.

Has the studio ever been tempted to make a Wallace and Gromit TV series?

There was a spin-off show for the Shaun the Sheep character. Well, Shaun the Sheep is having another series, series 2. There is also a spin-off of a spin-off planned for pre-schoolers called Timmy Time, featuring the character Timmy from Shaun the Sheep.

We have also made Chop Socky Chooks which was a television show for Cartoon Network, about Kung-Fu Chickens. So, we are dabbling in that area, but I don’t think it’s something where we are going to be making big television series, in the style of Wallace and Gromit at the moment.

Well then, do you feel that the spaced out release of the Wallace and Gromit films allows the level of quality to be kept high? It is also such a long process to create each film.

Well yes, the reason they are released so far apart, is because they take such a long time to make!

How much footage do you get a day?

Well on average, on Loaf and Death, each animator may have gotten an average of five seconds a week.

Wow!

(Laughs) Yeah! And we had 18 animators, so it took us 9 months to film.

That’s amazing! That’s probably what makes it all so impressive to watch, knowing the time and effort that goes into it.

The animators all have to work really hard and with great precision to achieve the end result. It takes a long time but in the end, it pays off.

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© Aardman Animations Ltd 2008

Could you tell us some more about the latest Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death?

It was a passion of Nick’s, for a half an hour film that he really wanted to make. We really do feel it is one of the best films we have made so far. It was a fantastic experience all the way through and we really felt comfortable with the characters and the story we wanted to tell. Wallace and Gromit start their own Bakery, but somebody is going around murdering all the Bakers in town! It was a very funny premise, that makes for a classic Wallace and Gromit story.

Will Wallace ever find true love, or does a lot of the humour depend on his failed attempts to find a partner?

Well, he probably never will, just because it’s funny! It adds a lot to the humour and I think as long as this is the case it will remain this way because it so clever, and allows us to try plenty of different story ideas.

Is another Wallace and Gromit film in the pipeline?

At the moment there are no plans for them to feature in another film but that may change. It usually does!

If it does change, will new character Fluffles be a reoccurring character? She is last seen living with Wallace and Gromit at the end of the latest film driving off into the sunset!

I really don’t know how to answer that! It really depends on the story, and how far away the story is. Will it even be a continuation of the same story? There are so many question marks. I think we will just have to wait and see!

Was the fan reaction positive to Fluffles?

There was a moment in the new film where it looks as if Gromit is coming to save Wallace, and it is then revealed to be Fluffles. That was quite a nice little moment in the film. She has been received positively, and after having started out as quite a weak character at the start of the film, she turned out to be very strong. I think people like that in a character.

Again, whether she stays or not really depends on what we need from the next story. That will decide for us whether Fluffles becomes a permanent resident of the Wallace and Gromit world or not.

What is next for the studio?

We have a mix of many different things coming up in the future! We continue to make a lot of television commercials for the UK market and also the German market.

We have two feature films being made at the moment, one is a stop motion film, called Pirates, directed by Peter Lord. Another film waiting for a green-light is called Arthur Christmas, which is going to be a CGI Christmas special. But they will take a couple of years each to make, so they won’t be on any screen for at least a couple of years.

We also do have a strong development slate of other feature films in development. Our Broadcast department is working on a lot of children’s television work…so the studio is quite busy at the moment!

So even when the public can’t see anything happening, there is always something going on!

That’s right, and it’s the nature of animation being so slow. But it means we are very busy and then everyone is sort of wondering what Aardman might be doing… we’re busy! And then we release something , and people go ‘Oh we haven’t seen anything for years!’ and it is usually because we have been making it!

Thank you for your time!

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Special thanks to Aardman Animation, Merlin Crossingham and the delightful Natalie Martin, Aardman’s Marketing and Publicity Officer.

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