Siggraph: 'Wallace & Gromit' Studio Aardman Animations Reveals Tricks Behind Films

The session included the making of their current release, 'Shaun the Sheep Movie,' as well as the classic Peter Gabriel music video for "Sledgehammer."

A look at the past three decades of Aardman Animations’ inventive stop-motion animation — which includes the iconic Wallace & Gromit films as well as Shaun the Sheep Movie — dazzled more than 1,000 fans at the annual Siggraph high-tech CG conference, which started Sunday at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The studio's co-founder David Sproxton and cinematographer Dave Alex Riddett received enthusiastic cheers as they started the session, with Sproxton emphasizing how they were inspired to specialize in the century old art form of stop motion by its pioneer, the late Ray Harryhausen. With them were clay puppets of Wallace, Gromit and Shaun.

During their talk, they demonstrated that the center of their successful formula is solid storytelling, combined with inventive approaches to their art. Along the way, they shared a large collection of still pictures, rare behind-the-scenes footage, as well as film clips.

Sproxton also described how the early team met and started to work with the studio's Nick Park when Park was a student at the National Film School and in the early stages of a project titled A Grand Day Out, which would introduce the world to his iconic Wallace & Gromit characters.

This was shot on 35mm film equipment and during the session, the filmmakers showed some original, as well as restored, footage of Aardman shorts, including A Grand Day Out, all of which were recently restored by AMPAS' Academy Film Archive with Aardman.

"With the digital restoration, I was able to get a lot more detail out of the original negative," Riddett, also getting a laugh when he pointed out the shape of the Shaun character in one clip while commenting that this was "the sheep of things to come."

The pair showed some early commercial work, along with the classic Peter Gabriel "Sledgehammer" music video, with sequences including Park's stop-motion dancing chickens. 

They also showed a bit of Creature Comforts, the short that earned the studio its first of four Oscars. Said Sproxton: "[An] Oscar gets you publicity, and that gets you more work. We were getting busy and needed more space." This led to one of several moves that the company made in Bristol, and Sproxton showing a photo of he and Aardman co-founder Peter Lord signing a lease for a new studio.

Next came clips and behind-the-scenes footage from The Wrong Trousers. Riddett admitted that they considered motion control for the short's complicated train chase sequence, "but we went back to basics and put the camera on some dolly tracks on a 20-ft. set. We had no rig-removal system (this was before they had access to sufficient digital tools), so we had to keep the rigs out of frame." The next short, A Close Shave, was Aardman's first with rig removal, but this was used in just seven shots due the cost.

Both shorts received Academy Awards. "Three Oscars means Hollywood starts to take an interest in you, and we did a deal with Dreamworks Animation," Sproxton related, noting that at this next step, they started their first feature, Chicken Run — and again moved to a still larger studio.

Next came Aardman's second feature, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which delivered the studio its fourth Oscar; and nominated Wallace & Gromit short A Matter of Loaf and Death, which was the studio's first to be shot with a digital camera (a Canon EOS). Said Riddett: "Because they were so small and lightweight, we built the sets around the cameras."

Before concluding, the speakers showed behind-the-scenes images from Shaun the Sheep Movie, which was released by Lionsgate this week in the U.S.

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