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Blackwell's Britain: From Morph to Minecraft

Bristol and Bath has evolved to become known as more than just the home of Aardman’s animations, with today’s creative enterprises making the most of innovations in technology and strategic local partnerships. Lewis Blackwell takes a look at the evolution within the region of its creative content output in recent years.

There are hot shops and designers a-plenty in Bristol, while just 11 minutes down the tracks in Bath most of the exciting niche titles in publishing have come out of the now-troubled offices of Future. And then of course there’s the BBC wildlife unit and Aardman Animation – colossi bestriding their worlds, undisputed leaders whose talents remain undiminished if a little weighed down by the vast quantity of acclaim and awards garlanding them. But when you look for the output that best encapsulates the area’s creative energy today and its future prospects, there is a case for looking elsewhere. Think digital and think different. For example, think Yogscast. How is it that two guys uploading a bunch of homemade videos celebrating their passion for computer games such as World of Warcraft and Minecraft become the first in the UK to reach a billion YouTube views? Now they have nearly seven million subscribers on their main channel and clock up some 26 milliom views a month. It clearly works very well but exists outside the creative nature, reputation and performance of previous media paradigms. Since founding Yogscast in 2008, Simon Lane and Lewis Brindley have moved their rapidly growing business from Reading to Bristol, but its character seems authentically unchanged and they carry on doing what they love, making videos about playing the games they like playing. It gets to be quite imaginative, quite silly… quite like an alternative reality. And it is arguably more creative than anything happening in mainstream media: it is forging new relationships, new marketing opportunities, new levels of loyalty. Like it or not, those eyeballs say that it works, and the multi-billion dollar games market know that Yogscast is a medium that matters. All of this could make the ‘founding father’ status of Aardman Animation look thoroughly historic. But while the animation business set up Peter Lord and David Sproxton has been in Bristol since the 1970s, and it is 25 years since Wallace and Gromit first amused us, the studio is far from resting on its stacked laurels. It employs 120 people full-time, and takes on many more during the heat of major productions (up to 600 when there were two movies on the go). It has moved with remarkable success from its hand-crafted roots into CGI. And yet, for all that scale, it is a sign of the company’s agility that it used Kickstarter to draw on its fans to fund the making of new Morph animations – we can now look forward to seeing a new online series of the little clay man venerable and influential Watershed, for many years a venerable and influential Watershed, for many years a home for the cultural and creative life of the city. Clare Reddington directs the Pervasive project, running a team of eight producers whose job is a delightful one – to spot and incubate creative talent. “We bring them in, give them a place to start and other support. We carefully curate the mix, so we don’t want them to all be, say, app developers. We want to make connections and help them progress,” she says. Currently there are 148 ‘residents’ using 45 desks, and a lot of the work is at the forefront of where creative meets technology, so robotics for example. Anybody out there need a blanket with embedded communication? The future’s here and it is warming. This determination to make a go of self-started creative ideas is where Play Nicely began. This digital hot shop partners with other creative organisations (including Aardman, BBC and Channel 4) as well as servicing an impressive roster of clients such as Disney, Warner, Nike and Peugeot. Founder Ollie Lindsay came to Bristol in 2005 with a degree in graphic design and “determination not to be employed” but to do his own work and partner with like-minded freelancers. He’s still in that frame of mind, but is now part of a four-person team and an extensive roster of freelance talents, with a stellar portfolio to show for it. “Sometimes we work on our own, sometimes we work together or partner with others. It’s quite fluid,” he says. The output is mostly in digital media, particularly delivering augmented reality experiences that give knock-out apps or websites. Lindsay says: “we struggle to recruit the right kind of people here, but that’s because we have a very particular open-minded, diverse approach, very specific to us”. There’s no particular attachment to Bristol for business reasons (clients are mostly somewhere else, often London) but the lifestyle and workstyle does appeal. “We can have a studio twice the size of what we might get in London, for less.” For all that Bristol creative enterprises seem very outward-focused and able to win business from Zurich to Aberdeen, by way of Hollywood, it’s often the case that some of the most appealing creative work comes out of small projects hatched locally. That can be the return of Morph, or it can be something as quirky as the work Taxi Studio did for Devon-based ‘drinks pioneer’ Kate Hudknott. There is the sense of the brand strategist, designer and illustrator all having a lot of fun in getting an outstanding solution together for the young drinks business, built around the proposition of ‘tying tastes together’. Out of this just might come an offer that goes on to national and international recognition. That proposition of linking things intricately together, so that the sum is greater than the parts, is a metaphor for what happens in the creative industry everywhere but particularly what the Bristol region has excelled at in recent years. From world-famous creative brands, to disruptive digital upstarts, the area’s creative leadership is already of international stature. The question is whether that can spin into a broader and deeper next generation – and you wouldn’t bet against it. It will take a wealth of initiatives, a great pool of talent, no little private capital and a sprinkling of public assistance in various forms. Right now, the resources seem in place.This piece was originally published in the 11 June edition of The Drum magazine as part of Blackwell's Britain series, exploring the creative sector of some of the UK's largest cities and regions. A copy of the magazine and the accompanying supplement can be purchased through The Drum store.This feature was supported by the IPA and Creative Skillset.

Bristol, Aardman, Great Britain, E3, Advertising, Design, Digital Transformation, Modern Marketing