We love: Aardman Animation, the pioneers of plasticine

23 May, 2012 5:32pm

Aardman are, quite simply, the UK’s most successful animation studio. Our answer to Pixar, if you will. Few film companies have managed to convey that sense of old-fashioned Britishness, and thanks to their instantly lovable characters and healthy supply of successful short films, the rest of the world has lapped it up.

 

With the success of Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists fresh in our memories, we look back at their achievements, and how the pioneers of plasticine got people playing with clay again.

Based in Bristol and founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972, Aardman’s first big success came with Morph, a simple claymation chap who seemed to do nothing more than get in the way of artist Tony Hart. But Aardman quickly came into their stride in 1989 with the short film Creature Comforts, directed by Nick Park.

The simple five minute short showed a variety of animals being interviewed about their living conditions in a zoo, made in a style of ‘on the street’ vox-pop interviews. Featuring voices of non-actors, there was a real personal feel to the film, and you couldn’t help but fall in love with the characters. Nick Park won his first Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for Creature Comforts at the 1991 Academy Awards, defeating his own Wallace & Gromit’s A Grand Day Out, in the process...

But it was with the creation of Wallace and Gromit that Aardman became a dominant force in animation. In an increasingly computer-animated world, Aardman were praised for their loyalty to plasticine and classic stop-motion techniques. Spanning four short films and a feature, Wallace & Gromit are the faces of Aardman.

 

Way back in 1982, Nick Park began work on A Grand Day Out – a graduation project for The National Film and Television School. In 1985, Park was taken on by Aardman, allowing him to complete work on the film part time while he was still receiving funding from the school. The 22-minute film tells the simple story of Wallace, an eccentric inventor, and his clever dog Gromit. They build a spaceship and spend a bank holiday on the moon to sample the lunar cheese, because we all know the moon is made out of cheese, right? The film was first shown on Christmas Day 1989 and received rave reviews. Audiences liked the simplicity of it all, the fact you could see fingerprints in the clay, and of course the voice of Peter Sallis. Not once is the ‘science’ of it all ever questioned.

In 1993, Nick Park returned with the 30 minute short, The Wrong Trousers, the more ambitious follow-up to A Grand Day Out and the film that shot the plasticine pair and their creator to worldwide fame. With the characters perfected over a few years (the fingerprints aren’t as prominent), The Wrong Trousers provided a bigger scope than their first outing. The addition of a third character, shady penguin Feathers McGraw, and larger sets made for a more involved story compared to the simple debut. The film received a terrific reception both at home and across the pond and won Nick Park his second Academy Award for Short Film.

By the time A Close Shave came along in 1995, Wallace and Gromit were national treasures, and boasted a huge fan base. With their crossover appeal, they were enjoyed by children, parents and grandparents alike. Like all good sequels, the wacky inventor and his pooch’s third outing ups everything, with some superb set-pieces, plenty of action, large-scale sets, a blossoming romance, an evil villain and of course, the adorable Shaun The Sheep, who went on to get his own spin-off series. A Close Shave introduced us to a second human character, Wendolene, and another voice to give Peter Sallis some company. The film premiered on BBC2 on Christmas Eve 1995 while in America, it was shown theatrically before Pocahontas. And of course, like its predecessor, it won yet another Oscar for Nick Park for Best Short Film.

After the success of Wallace and Gromit, Aardman went on to focus on their first feature length film, Chicken Run, released in 2000. A stop-motion parody of The Great Escape, but with chickens. With Mel Gibson providing vocal talent alongside some impressive British personalities, plenty of jokes and some impressive action scenes, Chicken Run proved a huge worldwide success, boasting all the charm of Wallace and Gromit and showing the world that Aardman had plenty more up their sleeves.

But in 2005, Aardman and Nick Park, with a little help from Dreamworks, returned to familiar territory with Wallace and Gromit’s first feature film, The Curse of The Were-Rabbit. Introducing plenty of new characters, some very talented voices in the shape of Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes and, erm, Peter Kay, this was a far cry from the simple days of A Grand Day Out. Despite having to tone down some of the ‘Britishness’, change a few words and deal with a frequent barrage of notes from Dreamworks, much to the annoyance of Park, the film was,a massive success. Nick Park picked up the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, beating Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. So assured of their victory, Nick Park and co-director Steve Box wore matching bow-ties and even had two specially made identical miniature ones for their statues. Arrogant perhaps, but seeing as it was Park’s fourth Oscar, they had every right to be.

 

Aardman flirted with computer animation in 2006 with the release of Flushed Away for the simple reason water would have been too tricky to direct with plasticine models. Despite the critical success, Aardman went back to classic claymation in 2008 with their final Wallace and Gromit short film, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Gaining record viewing figures when shown on Christmas Day 2008, the film was watched by more people than any other programme on the day and had the highest Christmas Day viewing figures for five years.

Even after the success of two more feature films - the computer-animated Arthur Christmas in 2011 and the stop-motion Pirates! earlier this year - Wallace and Gromit remain the proverbial Mickey Mouse to Aardman’s Disney. A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave can go down as perhaps three of the most successful, well-known and much-loved short films in the industry. Cracking job, Gromit!

Rob Young

 

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