We have a lot to thank Plasticine for. Not only has it been responsible for keeping generations of energetic children very quiet for long periods of time, but it has also played a significant role in shaping (ahem) the development and success of an Oscar-winning international business.
Back in the 1970s, when most adults were having a job trying to guess what the Plasticine blob their child had created was actually meant to resemble, two infinitely more enterprising grown-ups were busy putting the soft stuff to very good use. From a studio in Bristol, under the name of Aardman Animations, two school chums turned animating partners, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, had moulded the first of many recognisable Plasticine characters that would emerge from Aardman over the next 30 years.
Long before Wallace and his trusty canine companion found global fame, nippers throughout the UK were being introduced to another Plasticine man that would go on to earn legendary status. In 1977, appearing in Vision On, a character called Morph made his screen debut. Soon embraced by TV audiences, Morph helped catapult Aardman into stardom and it wasn’t long before the company’s talent was in high demand, and not just from TV producers.
\"Our success with Morph and our other projects led to ad agencies starting to call us to make commercials,\" explained Heather Wright, head of production at Aardman, who took time out of her busy schedule last month to shoot the breeze with Adline about the firm’s commercial activities.
The first commercial the firm produced was for Enterprise Computers in 1983. However, it was a series of ads that came a few years later for the Electricity Board that ensured Aardman would have a long-standing association with the advertising industry. In 1989, three years after being discovered by the founding partners, a young animator by the name of Nick Park delivered a TV short called Creature Comforts. Its immense success led to Aardman being commissioned to produce a series of commercials for the Electricity Board, featuring popular characters from the show.
\"Our advertising business grew out of our expertise with stop motion and particularly Plasticene animation, so all of our early commercials work was in this style,\" Wright remarked.
Today, Aardman produces between fifty and sixty commercials a year. The ads, which can take anything between two and twenty weeks to produce, have also evolved with an array of different animation techniques and styles being employed.
\"Over the years the company has developed to be able to offer animation in all techniques and nowadays around 60 per cent of our work is in CGI, 30 per cent is stop motion and we have a growing business in 2D, which accounted for about 10 per cent last year,\" Wright stated.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a company of Aardman’s stature could wait for the phone to ring, rather than pitching against rival production companies, but it’s not quite that straight forward, as Wright revealed: \"Even the way a project starts is varied. Sometimes an ad agency will ask for our house reel. Then if they like a particular director they will ask for his or her specific reel. Or if they are looking for a specific style they will ask us to send relevant work to them. If they like what they see they will send us a script of the proposed ad and a brief about the characters. If they know us well they often don’t bother to ask to see styles, they just send the script over. Then there will be a meeting between us and the ad agency to discuss styles and they will then go back to present the idea to the client. If they like our work, a budget is worked out and we are given the go ahead and the deal is signed. However, often we are one of several production companies pitching for a job.\"
So what are ad agencies looking for from Aardman? Are there specific techniques, such as stop motion, which are in high demand? \"When an advertising agency calls us nowadays they usually have an idea that they want us to help realise in the most appropriate way, so in the main they are not prescriptive about the technique and very often we end up using a mixture of techniques including elements of live action. What advertising agencies want is great design and directors who can understand the idea and communicate it effectively in the most innovative way possible.\"
As a result, Aardman invests heavily to ensure that it has the best directors at its disposal; every six months, the firm takes on representation for three or four new directors for a six-month period as part of its \"Incubator Unit\" philosophy. Each director is then given as much exposure to the advertising community as possible. \"We spend a lot of time actively scouting for talent,\" Wright enthused. \"We’ve currently got The Brothers Mcleod, Kealan O’Rourke & Martin Rhys Davies, who all have very different styles. We’re also actively expanding our main director pool with people who are experienced and have something very different to our current offering. We’ve recently taken on BustyKelp, a small collective in Bath headed up by Paul Smith.\"
Aardman’s short films and TV shows have also proved \"integral\" to Wright’s commercials team, having inspired advertising ideas and highlighted the true depth of the talent that resides at the BS1 address. Such is the set-up at the firm, that directors and crews get to work on both the commercials and shorts rather than being restricted to one department. As Wright revealed, it’s an arrangement that encourages creativity and talent to blossom. \"(Shorts) are a fantastic opportunity for an individual director to develop his or her career and can lead to work in other areas such as broadcast or features. It’s also highly motivating for the crew to be working on something which has at its heart to entertain rather than to sell.\"
Aardman is also working on two new feature films. Flushed Away, the firm’s first CG film, is due for release in November, while the John Cleese and Kirk DeMicco- penned comedy, Crood Awakenings, is in development. The pictures are the third and fourth releases of a five-picture deal with Dreamworks that has already produced Chicken Run and award winning Wallace & Gromit The Curse of the Were-rabbit. In a revelation that is sure to have commercial production companies shielding the eyes of their best employees, Wright said: Regular brainstormings are held to try and develop the germ of an idea and see if it has the potential to become something bigger. Our commercials people are often asked to contribute to these sessions. There are opportunities for commercials people to work on features (and broadcast TV projects) at all levels from storyboarding, animating to directing. Steve Box (co-director of Wallace & Gromit Curse of the Were-rabbit) and Sam Fell (co-director of Flushed Away) are both ex-commercials people.
\"Similarly, people who have worked on a feature quite often like to come back to commercials. The production culture is quite different. I often compare features to a first class ocean going liner which goes at a steady but high speed through thick and thin and it will take an awful lot to change its direction, whereas commercials are more like formula 1 power boats; every one a prototype, every one in a race against time, every one a high performing mini miracle in its own way.\"
Regardless of the vessel, Aardman continues to arrive at its destination, be it Hollywood or ‘TV Land’, with an end product that encapsulates the enthusiasm and charm that has helped make the company such a rousing success.