Aardman Animations Co-Founders Talk 'Early Man,' 'Shaun the Sheep' and Their Swashbuckling Near-Miss (Q&A)

David Sproxton and Peter Lord Aardman Animation H 2016
Charlie Gray

Animation pioneers, David Sproxton and Peter Lord reflect on 40 years of stop-motion creativity and discuss the perils of teaching Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne to talk like cavemen.

When it comes to British cultural icons, perhaps only a martini-loving spy and a musical foursome from the '60s can claim to be more adored than those made by Aardman Animations.

For 40 years — it celebrated its anniversary this year — the studio has been crafting, often by hand and out of clay, some of the world’s most widely loved stop-motion characters ever, starting with Morph, who first landed on TV in 1977, moving to Wallace & Gromit, the cheese-loving duo who earned creator Nick Park several Oscars, and then to the big-eyed farmyard favorite Shaun the Sheep.

After a short absence from the big screen, Aardman has returned with a welcome bang; a sequel recently confirmed for last year’s Shaun the Sheep the Movie and Park now back in the director’s chair after more than a decade for the animated prehistoric adventure Early Man (both on offer at AFM via StudioCanal) which boasts the voice talents of Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston.

In a breezy, colorful building in the British city of Bristol bursting at the seams with mementos big and small (a gigantic Shaun greets visitors at the entrance), is Aardman’s central base; a creative hub where its advertising team work on 10 commercials at a time, and a licensing department approves everything from Wallace & Gromit toast racks to Shaun the Sheep slippers (although don’t even try getting any smoking or alcohol-related merchandise through). The features are shot in a studio across town.

From their top floor office, brimming with an entire museum’s worth of toys, collectibles, posters and more, Aardman co-founders David Sproxton and Peter Lord (playing with a Morph model as he speaks) discuss their early, humble ambitions, almost making a blockbuster and being the respected misfits in the animation world.

Forty years ago, when you first started dabbling in animation, did you ever foresee where you’d get to?

DAVID SPROXTON There wasn’t really an industry, and we didn’t know much about it to be honest. Animation as we knew it was kids’ stuff, mostly American imports. But there was this small slot on TV, a buffer between BBC kids TV and the news. We thought that’s the height of our ambitions. In the 70s, it was a very tiny world.

So you never envisaged making a film?

PETER LORD You wouldn’t have dreamed of making a film. Aside from British films like Animal Farm and Yellow Submarine, only Disney made feature films, as far as we were aware. And it was all drawn animation. That’s the way the world seemed to be. We didn’t dream of making a feature film for a long time. We actually had a meeting with Disney when they were the only game in town, as they were at pains to point out to us.

SPROXTON We pitched a pirate film to them and they were all, "No, no, no there’s nothing in pirates." Five years later, out came Pirates of the Caribbean.

LORD: And then, with CG, in rapid order, everybody got in on the act. Pixar driving it, and then Blue Sky and Fox. Everyone started doing animated features, and we were in the middle of it plowing our own furrow.

How have attitudes to stop-motion animation, which you’re most famous for, changed along the way?

LORD We’ve always been different from the mainstream. It’s funny to think that before CG came along, ours was the only way to put 3D-animated images on the screen. And there wasn’t much demand for it. We were slightly apart for that reason and now we’re apart for a different reason, because we continue to do it when the rest of the world has all gone to CG.

SPROXTON Although it’s coming back. This film [Swiss Oscar submission by Claude Barras] My Life as a Courgette, which is really lovely. It’s quite a naïve-looking film but quite a sophisticated story. And that is kind of a delight to see.

LORD: We have no doubts about what we do because we do it really well and we love it. I’m realistic to know that in the corridors of Hollywood we’re obviously regarded as small scale – good, classy, but small-scale because no stop-motion film has ever made as much money as any of the big CG films.

But you almost had a major franchise with 2012’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits. It made $123 million. Was that not enough for Sony to work from the other books in the Pirates series?

LORD It’s maddening because it was quite close actually. Sony had a magic figure in their mind as what it needed to do internationally. It got close, but not quite close enough. I was all fired up for doing more. It was such fun to do! We actually have a poster for Pirates in an Adventure with Cowboys. That would have been just great.

SPROXTON With Pirates, which is incredibly British, they thought it was going to be a Shrek and set these incredibly high expectations. And then, my god, it’s a failure, you’ve only done $120 million! That’s the Hollywood machine. If it hasn’t done half a billion dollars by the end of its run worldwide, you’ve failed.

You’re now working with StudioCanal on both Early Man and Shaun the Sheep. Are they a better, more local, fit for you?

SPROXTON Yeah, absolutely. We also did Chicken Run with Pathe, so it started with them in a sense all those years ago. We always knew there was a more European interest in what we were doing. If you can find someone with the clout and the risk taking and the money, it’s going to be a happier marriage for us than trying to understand Middle America. We do know our European audience.

And with Shaun the Sheep you now do have a successful franchise, and one that travels amazingly well without dubbing. Was this a conscious decision from the start?

SPROXTON: There’s a little bit of that. Shaun was a silent player in A Close Shave. We always thought: can you do it without dialog? It’s a damn site easier to do it with. But it’s great, because it makes it entirely visual

LORD: It amazes me, because people don’t realize there isn’t any dialog until afterwards. It’s amazing how well it plays.

Was Early Man Nick Park’s idea or did you entice him back to the director’s chair?

LORD It was his. He’s been working on it for yonks. As is often the case, I think it started with a little drawing of cavemen. There’s something about caveman, they’re famously stupid brutes. Ours, of course, are lovely kind genial brutes, but they are kind of foolish, which greatly appeals to Nick. He has such a fabulous instinct for comedy — visual comedy that when people appear on the screen you start laughing. This new tribe of cavemen is exactly the same thing.

How are Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston’s caveman impressions?

LORD We did play around with them, going "ugg" and "grunt" and not using any adverbs or pronouns. But it proved quite difficult to write comedy like that!

StudioCanal seems to think it has legs to become another franchise.

SPROXTON. It’s a great cast of characters. It’s a family, fundamentally. So it’s about what other stories can you tell around that setup. It’s a bit like Shaun the Sheep. Despite the fact it's set on a farm in rural England, it translates very well.

You’ve done two films in CG. Now you’re very much back with stop-motion, have you parked this for the time being?

LORD It’s in our vision. There area a couple of scripts. But what we don’t want to do is build an entire CG studio here. One is enough to worry about. So we’d be looking for a partnership with someone else.

SPROXTON It’s a little like staying in someone else’s house for more than four months. You’ve got to learn where the towels are. There’s a learning curve to understand the pipeline. I never really understood the Dreamworks pipeline and I certainly didn’t understand the Sony one. They’re just configured in a different way. There will be a pipeline available at some point, I’m sure. It’s just finding the right one and something that’s not too distant. We’d prefer to do it in Europe or the UK.

How many films could you feasibly do at the same time?

SPROXTON We did Pirates and Arthur Christmas at the same time. One’s stop-frame, one’s CG. That worked. But anything more than that, just in terms of our capability, is pretty hard work. It’s interesting when you look at the bigger studios, I think both Pixar and Dreamworks both scaled back their output over the past few years. They realized the amount of clout you’ve got to give it creatively — everything gets diluted so you really need to focus. A feature film for us is a big deal.

LORD The ambition is to finish Early Man and gently feather in the Shaun the Sheep sequel.

How might Brexit affect you? There’s been lots of talk about the movement of skilled workers around Europe.

SPROXTON I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about this for a long time, because the U.K.’s skill set, particularly in the VX industry, was clocked about a decade ago. With the tax break, it was clear that there was going to be a lot of big shows coming in, but the training in the U.K. wasn’t there. And that’s still the case. When we did the VX for Pirates, we went to Germany, France and Spain and recruited from there. And in animation, particularly France and Germany produce excellent artists. Hopefully those doors will stay open.

In the U.K. you’re also renowned for your commercials. How big is that side of the business?

SPROXTON It’s one of the mainstays of the company. And looking back, the reason we managed to get the first Wallace & Gromit shorts up is that we could fund Nick Park and the development process from the profits we made from commercials. It’s also a fantastic training ground.

LORD With feature film, it’s a bloody great pyramid with just a director at the top — it doesn’t give people very many opportunities. But in commercials, many, many different directors get to express themselves and hopefully make short films as well, and practice their art.

Last year, you took a majority stake in New York-based agency Nathan Love. Was this to give yourselves a toe in the U.S. market?

SPROXTON About half our advertising work used to be in the States. And post 9/11 it all got quite introverted, and especially when it went to CG. Less big campaigns, and agencies didn’t want to travel. You know, do more for less. So we thought the only thing to do was get a toehold and have a little production outfit out there.

LORD It started with just a desire to win a portion of the market that we were losing, but as it turns out, it’s a very significant creative force so we see lots of potential for the future.

Over the years, you’ve made some of the U.K.’s most iconic commercials, mostly the stop-motion ones. Are there any out there that people might not realize are Aardman?

LORD Probably quite a lot of the CG stuff. We’re doing an online thing at the moment about premature ejaculation. It’s a very lovely look, but quite a difficult message to put across!

Please tell me that’s not stop-motion…

LORD Ha! No!