Wendy Jackson talks with co-founder and award winning director of Aardman Animation Studio.
As an animator, director and co-founder of Aardman Animations, Peter Lord has established himself as one of today's premier talents in stop-motion, or, as the Brits call it, "model" animation. Together with David Sproxton, he established Aardman Animations in 1972, after experimenting with animation in their school years.
Early endeavors produced a The Amazing Adventure of Morph, a clay animation series for children that aired on BBC in the early 1980s. Conversation Pieces, a series of short films commissioned by Britian's Channel Four led to the development of Aardman's unique style, appealing to adults more than children. This eventually led to many commercial jobs for the studio, and the landmark Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel, in collaboration with Stephen Johnson and The Brothers Quay. As the studio grew, additional talents were added, such as Richard Goleszowski, Jeff Newitt, Steve Box and Nick Park, whose 1994 Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit films, A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave have taken home three Oscars and countless festival awards.
Over the years, and in between commercials, Lord directed several short films, including the Oscar-nominated Adam in 1992. Lord's latest short film, Wat's Pig, is Aardman's sixth Oscar nomination, and Lord's second Oscar nomination as a director. We caught up with Peter for an interview during his recent visit to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards. I was struck by his friendly, cordial manner and articulation, qualities not so common in animators, a breed of human which spends countless hours alone creating just seconds of film frame by frame.
Animation World Magazine: Has the financial success of Aardman's short films, commercial work, and all of the related merchandising given you more creative freedom?
Peter Lord: For the financial, yes, we have got that. It enabled us to make Wat's Pig, and Steve Box is directing an 11 minute short called Stage Fright, which is terrific as well, I must say. Aardman funded those by 40%. That's partly about us retaining all the rights to them, character rights and so on. I don't expect, Wat's Pig to make it's money back, or Stage Fright to make it's money back, but we have that luxury. We can do that here, because we get money from the commercials and the merchandising malarkey.
AWM: What has Aardman's involvement been in the licensing and merchandising of the Wallace & Gromit films? Have you been very closely involved with the concepts and designs?
PL: Yes, we have. When it started, we were very shy about it. Didn't want the characters to be exploited. We didn't want the people buying the stuff to be exploited, either. Our circle of model-makers did most of the original models for the merchandise, just because it's so difficult to do well. The same goes for the illustrations. I know that the likes of Disney have these fantastic bibles how to do everything, but we don't quite do that.
AWM: You used a very interesting split-screen technique in Wat's Pig. How did you go about doing that?
PL: As a concept, it was in there right from the start. I think it is interesting as a way with story telling, not just as a technical exercise. I think about Paul Driessen's film, The End of the World in Four Seasons, a similar storytelling approach. There was a time when I thought of doing more of the film in split-screen, not the whole film, but more with split-screen, but that [idea] slowly eroded as I worked on the storyboards. I felt it would become too "tricksy." It was, in a way, an intellectual challenge, but technically, we went about it in the most quaint, old-fashioned way imaginable, with film opticals at the end. Exactly why we didn't composite it electronically, I'm not quite sure. I wish we had, it would have been a lot easier!. It's funny, the way we work, it's like we were in a time warp, really. It's like making a film 20 years ago or something. We didn't assemble two halves of the image until the end, so I didn't really know how things would work out accurately until the end.
AWM: If you didn't composite until post-production, how did you sync up the movements so precisely--like the scene in which the two brothers stretch in the same position? PL: There were two of us working on the film at that stage, so, in that case, my partner Sam shot his half first, then I could analyze it and clock it accurately. But, you couldn't see it, you could only guess how the two were going to interact. It's kind of like the animation equivalent of these films where people work with non-existent images, where they're acting to something that isn't there yet. AWM: Did you matte-off the camera while you were filming? PL: No, we filmed full-frame and matted-off the screen only when we were viewing the footage. So, where you're animating is wonderfully perfect, you know, and the other side of the frame is kind of chaotic, with all of the junk, tools, messes and things animating around on the table! [laughing] We should make the "animators at work" version of the film, using those out-takes! AWM: Everybody is talking about computers replacing stop-motion. How do you use computers, and do you foresee computers ever replacing what you do? PL: Our finished material is still shot on film, we think it still gives the best image, and what's really on film remains a mystery until it comes back from the labs the next morning. We use computers for frame-grabbing videos, or, we still call it video, even though it is digital now. Actually, we simultaneously shoot on these computer disks, so we're watching the animation as we go along. We are fairly committed to working that way now with computers, because it's safer. We've been doing it about ten years. I think of all technical innovations, it's the most useful because it transforms the 3-D scene to the 2-D television screen, so it's much easier to keep track of how your puppet's moving.
This [kind of system] is the norm now, the standard, but I haven't always worked that way and I have some misgivings about it. The people we train now, they think to work any other way is just absurd or ridiculous. But I still think there is a virtue in animating what we call "blind." The thing about working with the computer, working reactively, as it were, is that you see what you've done and then you react to it and even correct it. That's what wrong to me. If you work without a computer, you work directly, instinctively. I think of animation as a performance, a live event. It's slow and painful , but even so, it's a live performance just the same
And also answering the question about computers, there is of course CGI. We have a small CGI department now. Just two people at the moment, just doing research and development, poking around, you know. They aren't researching the technique or programming so much, because with all of the [software developers] out there, we don't need to think about that. The task of our team is to come up with some really attractive performance-based stuff working on the computer. So it actually interests me a great deal. What doesn't interest me about animation is the hard work. I mean, I know this art is hard work, generally speaking. But I don't see why you should suffer unnecessarily - I often think that stop-frame animation is a way to suffer unnecessarily, so anything that you can do to ease that pain gets my vote. Really, you know, I'm not into this macho kind of thing when animators say, "Hah! I did a sixteen-hour shot today and it was sweltering hot, the puppet was hanging on tungsten wire the whole time," just to make the impression of how much they suffered. Who cares? All that really matters is the performance on the screen. So in that sense, looking at CGI as a labor-saver, then it gets my vote entirely. I was going to say, if you could do the same performance on CGI as with stop motion....but then why try for that? Isn't that a strange thing to do? If you try to exactly copy clay animation in CG form, that actually seems to be a very sterile exercise because you're just copying. More interesting, surely, is to devise a new language for CG animation.
AWM: What if you could scan your puppet characters into the computer, and have them look exactly the same as they do. . . . If you could animate them in the computer, do you think you would do that? PL: Well, there is something about working with the materials. There is a fundamental difference between working with your hands and your arms and your fingertips, and working on the keyboard. I don't know. . . . For all of us animators at Aardman now, we are trained in this craft, just the like a musician or a painter, it's all hand and head, hand and brain. One of the guys said to me just the other day: "When I animate," he said, "I can do it by sound," I think he was dreaming actually, but he said that when he animates a puppet, it's the sound of the joint moving that he's aware of. This type of experience indicates how instinctive and tactile our art is. You grab the puppet with two hands, and you feel the whole thing move, you feel the twist of the chest away from the hips, the roll of the shoulders. . . . The camera has to move right, the light has to be right, the actor has to do the right thing -- make-up, costume, everything has to be right. Just for one moment in time. That's the way we work. I believe that the humanity in what we're doing, the process, all comes through in the final film. Whereas with CG, of course, this is not the case at all. You can just get each piece right separately and in isolation. One guy works on the performance, about a month later someone sorts out the lighting, then the camerawork. AWM: I've spoken to a number of stop-motion animators have recently made the switch to computer animation, and I'm sensing a lot of their frustration They're saying, "I can't touch it," it's not what they're used to. PL: Well, now we've still got sort of a hangover from the old days, lots of people re-training their hands and their brains and bringing old ideas to a new medium. What I'm expecting is to have kids coming out of college who have just done this [computer animation] forever, and for whom it's the only way of animating, for them it's natural. When those people start coming through with new ideas, then I think we'll see something, and I assume it will get very exciting. If I saw such a person, I would employ them at Aardman because I'm not interested in us being that behind, like practicing an ancient medieval craft! David Sproxton and I are the two founders of the company, and, at 43, we're virtually the oldest members in the studio. But even though everyone else is younger than us, we're still much more inclined to experiment than they are. There's an incredible tradition in a lot of people. I'd like to experiment with CGI, but we haven't much. I guess the first thing you do, is to do as they did in James And The Giant Peach, those things that you can't do , like water and environs, smoke and stuff. . . . .you might do that as a first delicate step towards CGI. AWM: You have a lot of effects in a lot of Aardman films, and I often wonder how they were created. Do you use computers in post production to take out wires, or to add effects, or are you "too pure?" PL: No, we're pure, but not too pure. For the nice commercial work, we go to post production and take out all the rigs and tidy up, and occasionally we do have completely CGI parts as well. But, for the films, we are very pure. A Close Shave was done in the very old fashioned tradition. There were a few shots where we used post production to take out rigs, but otherwise, everyone went to enormous lengths to do it for real. AWM: I sense that. When I see a drop of water or a bead of sweat in a Nick Park film, I just know that it's hand-blown glass from Milan or something. PL: Yeah, you're right. I'm still amazed at the ingenuity of people. And it comes from this desire to get the performance right, in front of camera, all at once, and by instinct. But I have a feeling that we'll use much more electronic post production with the feature film that we're working on now. Editor's Note:
Since the taping of this interview, Aardman has announced that the feature film they are working on is called Chicken Run. the film will be a stop-motion animated comedy feature about two chickens, Rocky and Ginger, and their attempt at a "prisoner of war" type escape from a farm in the 1950s. The screenplay was written by Jack Rosenthal, and based on a story which has been in development by Peter Lord and Nick Park since 1995. The film will be co-directed by Lord and Park, and executive produced by partner and financier Jake Eberts (James and the Giant Peach.) of Allied Filmmakers. Chicken Run will be produced by Aardman in their Bristol, England-based studio, with pre-production set to begin in September 1997. Aardman is currently in the process of talking to several U.S. studios about distribution for the film, which we can expect to be released towards the end of 1998.
AWM: What can you tell us about the feature?
PL: Not much! It's a shame really, but that's how it is when you're in development. Nick [Park] and I wrote the story at great length and the screenplay is now being written by a guy named Jack Rosenthal. He's bringing our story to life with brilliant dialog. We're designing and building some of the characters now, and when the story's written, we can push ahead with that kind of stuff. It's just full of technical challenges, which kind of interests me. We are planning an 18 month shoot, which should start next March. AWM: What kind of audience are you designing this film for? PL: I'm told you must never say "family audience." It's a dirty word, the `F' word, you know. Regardless, that's the kind of film it will be, appealing to a wide range of people. Like on TV, where they make these charts of the viewing profile flat between the age of 20 and the age of 80, Wallace and Gromit do it. Everybody watches it and enjoys it. That's the goal. It's not easy. I suppose inexorably it will tend to be marketed as if for children. AWM: Why did you choose to go at it independently with so many offers from all the studios? PL: Well, our big kick is independence. That's what we're after. Not that I think the studios want to crush us at all, but it's just that we've got different agendas. For example, the film will be extremely English in sensibility. Now if that's arrogant, that's no different than the normal American arrogance, assuming the rest of the world wants to watch their culture. But I think that even the most general American audience will actually enjoy it because it will be a great story. AWM: Are all of your resources going to go into the feature? PL: No. A lot of artists, as you can imagine. But, there are some people whose best interests do not lie in the feature. Six years ago, Aardman was a company of about 15 people doing a mixture of short films and commercials together. And now we've grown to be whatever we are now, about 50 people . The way I see it, in a year's time we'll have an enormous crew on the feature, and a small group of 15 or so dedicated to doing a mixture of short films and commercials. That seems to be the way it's going to go. What that means in the long term intrigues me. This small group of people, in turn, may just grow out to be a different company. AWM: How many people do you evidently expect to have working on the feature? PL: I think about 120 or something like that. I can tell you that seeing what Henry Selick did has been terribly helpful and educational for us. Your animators are your performers, and you have to keep them performing as best as possible. So the plan is to have twice the number of units as we have animators so that we'll always be leapfrogging ourselves. . . .while one team is working on Scene 1, the crew is setting up for Scene 2. So they're not waiting around, that kills animators. I know that you get snarled, where the hapless animator waits around all day while people, agonize over what they did yesterday, check the rushes, think about it, get off the set and tinker around. . . then the animator's not shooting until four in the afternoon. This frequently happens, and if we can avoid that, we hope to be madly, madly efficient. AWM: Speaking of Selick, do you expect to be staffing up from the recent close of his Twitching Images studio? PL: No, not really. We have this training program, which works really, really, well. It's fascinating. A year ago we said, "Yikes! We don't have enough animators!" And we work with and know a lot of the animators in Britain, and all their strengths and weaknesses. But we still needed more. We observed that the people coming out of college haven't animated enough, because colleges don't teach the craft skills to anyone at all. There's lots of talk of theory, and they may be happy to be making their own films, but they never hand them anything to animate. Now that's okay, I like brilliant young directors, but, I also want brilliant young animators. But when you look at the kids, you find, to your horror, that in their whole career, they've only animated about ten minutes of film! So, we started this training scheme with the local University of the West of England, right in Bristol. The simple premise was that everyone will be animating every day. We got these handy computer systems, and set up little cubicles. We give each of them a simple puppet , and for four months they animated every day. They would also do some life drawing and some life modeling, because I still think that observation of the human figure is really important. Our teacher is a guy called Lloyd Price. We took on five students to start, and there are five more now. I think that four of those ten will be key animators.
AWM: Are they all British?
PL: They'll all British.
AWM: So are you open to people from elsewhere in the world to apply?
PL: Yes, we are. It's going to run next year as well, but it won't be quite as intensive. This was just so intensive from our point of view. It's been handed over to the university, now, but we will still participate. It won't be the same, however, it won't be quite as focused. We can't afford all that training time. We hope we've trained the university as much as we trained the students.
AWM: Besides Lloyd Price, are you or any of the others on the Aardman staff doing any teaching?
PL: Yes, both me and Nick. We've done "Master Classes," as they say. When the students came back to the studio, they did a commercial project that wasn't very hands-on but I was overseeing it, looking in on them as often as I could to jolly them along. And the students had input from me, Nick Park and Steve Box, who was the other key animator on A Close Shave and a couple of others. We had lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky kids really who had the best training, certainly in Britain.
AWM: There are so many people who want so desperately to get involved in stop-motion, while there are fewer and fewer opportunities out there. What advice would you have for young, aspiring stop-motion animators?
PL: It's an interesting question, because I do feel, and fear, that in the States, stop-motion is dying out to CGI. For a young person, which is more important--storytelling or craft? I do believe that if someone comes along who directs well, and can tell a good story, then I personally will forgive them any inadequate animation, as a viewer, and as a potential employer of directors. So, if a young person in college wants to make a name for themselves, I would say get a great idea, a great story, and tell that. I'm not saying forget about technique , but I'd rather see flair and energy and humor (well, it doesn't have to have humor, even.) There are so few really good films, that a good story with a good punch line just communicates so well, and makes the audience wild. So, my advice to young animators? Tell a good story, for heaven's sake.
Wendy Jackson (email@example.com) is Associate Editor for Animation World Magazine.