Aardman Animations: a company name synonymous with quirky animations and goofy animals. But their history and roots span a much larger area, as you are about to discover. Let me take you back to Ye Olde Britain, where our story begins.
Peter Lord and David Sproxton were childhood friends when they grew up in Bristol, and remained close friends despite their different universities. But when you want to realise your dream of making your own animated film, who better to call on?
The two formed Aardman in the mid-1970s, producing shorts and trailers on a small budget. Their first well-known work was a segment for the television show Vision On, a programme aimed at deaf children, which helped them get their foot in the television door. With television personality Tony Hart they created ‘Morph’, a huge plasticine humanoid, who accompanied him in many programmes as his comic villain.
Aardman also produced music videos in part or whole, for artists such as Nina Simone and Peter Gabriel, television introductions or interludes, and many, many shorts. Whilst not all of these are very well known, they helped introduce Aardman into the complex world of showbiz.
Working on their various projects had gained Aardman recognition, and so in the late 1970’s they embarked on creating several shorts for the BBC, together titled Animated Conversations. Although the BBC initially discarded them, they were still released to critical appreciation.
The conversations were actual scripted conversations which were based on real-life conversations the creators overhead, and figures were animated to accompany them. These conversations tended to be confessional. For example, Down and Out was about a homeless man trying to get into a shelter for the night, or Confessions of a Foyer girl was about… well, the confessions of a foyer girl in a cinema. These were Aardman’s first true shorts, which paved the way for their future projects and successes.
These projects also saw Aardman increase their manpower, hiring several new animators for the next project. This project turned out to be Lip Synch, a project similar to their previous one but which helped them really develop the facial animations of the characters. There were five in total, spread between different animators. One of these animators was named Nick Park, a name synonymous with Aardman.
Park enjoyed his Lip Synch work, and for his next project kept everything the same… except the people. Instead of writing real conversations between people, he took these conversations and animated animals. While this sounds like a bizarre concept, it in fact turned out to be the best thing to happen to Aardman yet.
The original Creature Comforts, released in 1989, was five minutes long and won Aardman their first academy award for best animated short. It depicted several zoo animals being interviewed about their living conditions, showing a range of opinions on zoos and focusing on humour over message.
Creature Comforts was a huge hit for Aardman, leading to a range of adverts and a TV programme based on the same premise but with a wider cast of animals. Two series were made in total, and an American version was briefly aired before being canned for poor ratings.
Between the Academy Award, revenue and high praise for Creature Comforts, Aardman was set for their future to produce whatever project they wanted.
Wallace and Gromit
Bonnie and Clyde; Starsky and Hutch; Frodo and Sam these famous duos were displaced on Christmas Day in 1989 when the short animated film A Grand Day Out was broadcast to the public, introducing the world to Wallace and Gromit. Written and directed by Nick Park, and nominated for the Academy Award that Creature Comforts eventually won, the simplistic yet incredibly intelligent style, featuring only one voice actor and minimal sound design, started something great.
The erratic and dopey inventor Wallace, and his far more intelligent yet silent canine friend Gromit, captured the public’s imagination. The interplay between the audience and the two characters, with Gromit’s simple facial features providing a humorous commentary on Gromit’s eccentricity, or Wallace’s critique of the audience for believing that a dog can communicate, showed Park’s intelligent writing and Aardman’s genius at animation.
A follow-up short, The Wrong Trousers, was produced and released in 1993. Broadening the cast to include the penguin Feathers McGraw, and weaving a more traditional plot than A Grand Day Out, the thirty-minute comedy won the Academy Award that Nick Park stole from himself four years prior.
The Wrong Trousers broadened the reception of the duo, so a follow-up was quickly produced (or as quickly as a stop-motion film could be made!) and released in 1995. A Close Shave, of a similar length and team to the previous films, expanded the scope of the previous shorts by doubling down on cast featuring two quirky humans and two silent dogs. Of course it won another Academy Award, but it also introduced the world to a certain sheep…
Aardman was then quiet on the Wallace and Gromit front for a few years. People wondered if the duo’s outings were over; had Aardman moved on to other projects? Yet this creative silence was both broken and explained when, ten years after the duo’s previous outing, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was released. It was a live-action adventure which had taken Aardman around five years to write, film, produce and fully complete; sporting an acclaimed cast including Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter, and almost tripling the running time of a usual Wallace and Gromit film.
Aardman worked with Dreamworks on the film, with Nick Parks helming the project as usual, criticised at the time the company’s insistence to ‘Americanise’ some parts of the film, such as removing the vegetable ‘marrow’ or changing Wallace’s Car. The film cost $30 million to make, proving a huge gamble for Aardman, yet it ultimately paid off with a box office take of nearly $200 million and hugely positive reviews all around.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was a huge success for Aardman, yet for various reasons Dreamworks refused to work with them further and so they were on their own to find a new project. This project was a return to roots for Aardman, as on Christmas Day 2008 the BBC aired A Matter of Loaf and Death, a Wallace and Gromit short themed around, obviously, baking. With a smaller scale than the feature film, Aardman enjoyed the freedom of creativity that the BBC afforded them. Whilst generally regarded as the worst Wallace and Gromit, it was still hugely popular and should only be considered inferior due to the merits of the initial shorts.
From their previous successes, Aardman had the world at their feet for the man and his dog, and so they moved on to… nothing. Well, strictly speaking not ‘nothing’, yet no real shorts or films. They had a few minor projects, such as a jubilee-themed project and a prom night, but Aardman has so far declined to produce anything new on the Wallace and Gromit front. Perhaps this is due to their transition to a few franchise, or the failing health of Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace, or maybe they’ve simply been working on another feature length epic.
Shaun the Sheep
Remember the sheep I mentioned? Everyone else did. His bumbling innocence proved popular with audiences, and so in 2007 CBBC began airing Shaun the Sheep, a children’s comedy about Shaun’s antics around his farm. It was very successful, and is still being created now. A notable absence from the creation team was Nick Park, who released the directorial role in favour of a production credit and other projects.
So it was only natural that Aardman would follow the Wallace and Gromit progression that had served them so well in the past and in early 2015 they released a film adaptation. Shaun the Sheep Movie was aimed at a younger audience to Wallace and Gromit but was still hugely financially successful, quadrupling the budget at the box office. Recent announcements by Studiocanal suggest that this is just the first of many Shaun the Sheep films, although the team has stopped being as focused on a single franchise as they were in the Wallace and Gromit days.
Unfortunately a tour of Aardman like this, looking at their franchises, misses some pretty important things. One of these is Chicken Run, their first feature-film, which precedes The Curse of the Were-Rabbit by five years. The plot, an affectionate homage to The Great Escape, follows a group of chickens living on a farm waiting to be turned into pies, and their escape attempt helmed by new rooster ‘Rocky’, voiced by Mel Gibson. The film did well at the box office and is still a greatly beloved film, among both children and adults.
Their third film, released in 2006, didn’t do as well. The story of a high-class rat who gets brought into the world of sewage rats, Flushed Away was still liked and made a profit, but with Aardman’s fantastic track record this feature fell flat. Especially criticised was the relative absence of humour and the all-CGI production, a departure in style for the company.
None of Aardman’s feature films were as appealing to fans after this. Both Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! were largely ignored by the media and fans, although they both brought in fair amounts at the box office and were well-reviewed.
Aardman didn’t just work on films, however, they: produced television series for companies and channels such as Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network; made several shorts although none really found much success; made a few music videos including one for Justin Bieber; and made plenty of television adverts for companies from PG Tips to Nokia.
Aardman Animations has always been a busy company, and it’s fair to say their successes (Wallace and Gromit being the main one) have always been matched by their under-the-carpet projects that went completely ignored. Whilst their global successes have made them household names, even their smaller projects have become adored by the British public as a cultural milestone; Bristol frequently dot the streets with statues of Gromit painted by local companies, for example. Wherever they go from here, many of us are very excited.
By Tom Bedford