In 1976, David Sproxton and Peter Lord founded Aardman Animations, the Bristol, England animation house best known for the Wallace & Gromit characters featured in the 2005 film Curse of the Were-Rabbit. While the Oscar-winning filmmakers have made stop-motion animation the studio's staple, this month marks the debut of their first all-CGI film. Starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet, Flushed Away, produced with DreamWorks Animation SKG, tells the tale of an uptown rat that gets flushed down a London toilet. Their shop has produced U.S. spots for clients such as Serta, Wrigley and Pepperidge Farm. Q: Why produce Flushed Away in CGI?
Lord: Because it was so ambitious. It had all this water, a huge underground city we were going to build and it became clear you couldn't do that [in stop motion].
How did you retain the stop-motion traits that make Aardman's work so recognizable?
Sproxton: The character design is very much in the Aardman vein. Even the texturing has a clay-like feel. Also, they animated in a less extreme way than you would normally see in a CGI film—less squash and stretch, and more concentration on facial expressions. The rigging of the characters was more akin to stop frame, although the facial rigs were very complicated to allow us the flexible approach we are used to.
When the Curse of the Were-Rabbit was released, there was a raging fire at Aardman. Was it difficult to recover from that?
Lord: It was just storage, so it didn't affect work at all. But most of the stuff that went up in smoke is irreplaceable. ... We have an exhibition in Tokyo at the moment and in the exhibition there's a model plane from Chicken Run, but it's the first sketch that was made by the model makers. ... It's quite strong, but the finished thing was 10-feet wide, a fabulous model. It's such a waste … a pile of ash when it could have at least been something stolen and sold on eBay.
Aardman's characters have quirky personalities. Which one was the most difficult sell?
Sproxton: It's difficult to say. They tend to sit in the context of a story ... and once people see them in action, concerns over look or design can rapidly evaporate. Having said that, selling a film about rats in the drains wasn't a piece of cake.
How has the partnership with DreamWorks helped Aardman's work evolve?
Sproxton: DreamWorks has a huge amount of talent and experience within the animated feature-film field that we have been able to tap into. We've been in the relationship for 10 years and have learned a great deal about the creation and production of animated features, and with Flushed Away a huge amount about what it takes to produce a CGI feature. However, the most important thing ... is getting a great idea and writing a script which is engaging and captivating.
What do you think the future holds for stop-motion animation?
Sproxton: It's still a wonderful technique to use. Painting in oils has not been usurped by acrylics, [which is] a bit like CGI and stop frame, although CGI is now much more accessible than it used to be and is clearly having a strong influence. We are shooting two big TV series in stop frame and everyone is delighted with the results. Stop frame is also great fun to do at all sorts of levels because it necessitates so many skills, so all sorts of people can get engaged in it. I don't think it will ever go away, although the number of practitioners doing it on a big scale may diminish.
What's next from Aardman?
Sproxton: We're working on a number of feature ideas and quite a few TV projects. At the moment, the animators are working on an American version of [British TV series] Creature Comforts for CBS. Turning American voices into character-full talking animals is quite a challenge.
How will it be adapted?
Sproxton: There is a slightly different take for the U.S.—slightly less irony and a little more pace. The concept is the same, but we are adjusting the creative slightly in line with what might play better to an American audience.
What excites you most about filmmaking?
Lord: It seems like there's more options and opportunities now to make films. ... The scripts we've been seeing and the ideas that come to us from outside are more interesting, slightly quirky, funky things. Not quite so mainstream, which is fun.
How does the studio's feature work influence its advertising work and vice versa?
Sproxton: It works both ways. Agencies see stuff we do for TV and films and want something similar, and of course we produce many ideas and characters for TV ads which can influence how we might do something for TV. Generally the flow—in terms of production value—is the agencies picking up on stuff they have seen that we have done.
What's the smartest business decision you've ever made?
Sproxton: Deciding to make TV commercials in the early 1980s. This allowed us to learn our craft with some of the best creatives in the business and made us money that we reinvested into the company. Secondly, [buying our] building and land surrounding it when it was cheap and unwanted a few years ago.
Probably allowing some deal point to slip through. Always go for a gross deal.