How the cofounder helped shepherd Aardman into one of the top stop-motion studios
When David Sproxton started Aardman with Peter Lord in 1972, they had already been collaborating on animation at school. Soon, their stop-motion Plasticine sensation Morph would be instantly recognisable around the world.
Since then, Aardman, with Sproxton taking on the role of executive chairman and producer on the studio’s releases – including Chicken Run, The Curse Of The Were-rabbit, Arthur Christmas, The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Shaun The Sheep Movie, has become one of the premiere stop-motion outfits, while also dabbling in CG animation.
Aardman’s most recent release was Nick Park’s Early Man. Sequels to Shaun The Sheep Movie and Chicken Run are currently underway, which, says Sproxton, points to a new resurgence of stop-motion animation.
“I think more stop-frame films have been made now, in one particular year, than have almost ever been made in any other time in the history of cinema. It has had this curious revival with Laika, ourselves, Wes Anderson and a lot of independent filmmakers.”
Sproxton credits a few technological advancements with this mini-revival. Although stop-motion can still be a particularly laborious frame-by-frame process, it no longer needs to be done on film. Digital SLR cameras and dedicated stop-motion software aid greatly in shot production. “Practically, it’s a lot easier to do it now with computers,” Sproxton says. “There was a real cost of entry when it was film. And I think audiences have been keen to go back to the handcrafted feel, something they maybe even think they could do at home themselves.”
That doesn’t mean Aardman ignores the power of CG in their stop-motion films. Quite the contrary, as they learnt on Early Man. “We thought maybe about half the shots would need some form of CG enhancement,” says Sproxton. “But I think just about every shot has some kind of compositing element, whether that’s blue screen or adding in background plates and skies.”
Early Man also employed digital effects to add in crowds, lava flows and explosions.
Other Aardman projects have also employed 3D printing, while the process of storyboarding at the studio has also largely moved onto tablets instead of paper.
“Digital is a fantastic toolbox,” notes Sproxton. “Putting in digital skies can really change a mood, for example. I mean, we had hand-painted skies in Chicken Run. It was pretty much all done in-camera.
“It probably makes you plan better, but you sometimes can get quite locked in.
“Now we kind of budget on every shot having some kind of digital effect.
“There’ll be an order of magnitude, but we plan for every shot there being something, and we may save money by actually letting us plan for that.”
01 A final shot from Early Man incorporating stop-motion puppets and VFX elements for the lava and background
02 An animator readies stop-motion puppets for filming during production on Early Man
03 A scene from Aardman’s Early Man, directed by Nick Park
04 Behind the scenes of the filming process on the Shaun the Sheep TV series
05 Morph was one of the first characters that Aardman co-founders David Sproxton and Peter Lord devised
06 Shaun the Sheep has been made into both a TV series and feature film projects
I think audiences have been keen to go back to the handcrafted feel, something they maybe even think they could do at home themselves