Aardman Animations was founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972. With a permanent staff of 130 and teams of up to 300 people for feature film projects, the studio has now become a production centre with target-specific divisions: TV specials, digital production (apps, games), content design (clips, special events), merchandising/licensing and feature films. As for the U.S.-based LAIKA studio, it mainly produces features combining stop-motion puppet work and CGI. Since LAIKA’s second film, ParaNorman, it has focused on 3D (or rapid) prototyping to enhance the creation of detachable elements applicable to characters.
Lord, Aardman, Morph, Wallace, Gromit, Park, animation, stop-motion, Shaun, LAIKA, Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls, prototyping, 3D
Along with David Sproxton, Peter Lord founded the stop-motion animation studio known as Aardman Animations, based in England. For this year’s conference, Peter Lord travelled back in time to evoke this highly-unique studio’s past, as well as its present ambitions.
The name Aardman is not at all the name of a studio founder but rather that of a super-hero character imagined and designed by Peter when he was 15. The "aard" prefix itself derives from an African anteater, the aardvark (Cape ocrycteropus). This traditionally-animated film about an "Aardman" was eventually sold to TV, and from that point on Peter perfected the sector.
In 1972 he chose clay as the medium for his animation technique. As he readily admits: "There was no specific idea at the start, just that we’d seen a film made this way and we liked it. We were not actually noticed for our innovation but rather because, at the time, we were the only ones using this type of frame-based animation."
In 1976 Peter created a second character, known as Morph, staging him as the star of a short film of the same name. The studio was working from Bristol, "not exactly Britain’s top animation hub", Peter Lord adds; it had only five staff members, including its two founders. In 1984 Nick Park was hired on, a turning point for Aardman. Its 1989 Creature Comforts short film was purchased by Channel 4, streamlining the way for this studio to grow to be one of the world’s most important.
Today Aardman Animations has a permanent staff of 130 with additional teams of up to 300 people for feature film work. Aardman has now become a production centre with a number of special-focus divisions. The first one deals with TV series. In Peter’s words: "We’ve always tried to avoid having to do 'assembly-line' series – something that we’ve regularly been asked to do – since we wanted to dedicate all our efforts to our pet projects. This was further grounded in the fact that making a claymation TV series is not only complex but quite costly." One of the most striking examples is Shaun the Sheep, a series of over 100 episodes, sold throughout 170 countries. A feature film version of it is to be released in cinemas on 1st April 2015.
The studio’s second division, called Aardman Digital, deals with offline and online digital productions. "At first, this only began as a sideline. Now the production of online games, apps and other websites has become a very significant avenue for our studio," as he says. Here a team of about fifteen artists concentrate on developing merchandise for Aardman properties but they also take in outside work. "Right now this is our most profitable division; it has huge potential."
The third position is held by what Aardman terms Partner Content. This is where Aardman employees produce music video clips, TV adverts or event-centric films such as "the shortest stop-motion movie" entitled A Tiny Scale, shot with a Nokia N8 camera, or others like the Tate Movie Project commissioned by the Tate Gallery.
As for their Marketing and Licensing unit, Peter Lord tends to find this rather "boring but essential". To prove his point he notes the 342 million downloads of games based on Shaun the Sheep or the many events involving a prime property such as Wallace and Gromit: "What’s toughest is safeguarding the integrity of our IP."
Finally, the last operational division of Aardman Animations covers all feature film work. Shaun the Sheep will be their sixth full-length movie since 1996.
Conscious of the need to preserve the studio’s originality and its level of quality and precision, Peter says he prefers the word spontaneity to that of perfection. "Our characters such as Wallace and Gromit are so well-loved of the public that we definitely must maintain a top level of production while honouring those things which are the heart and soul of our profession."
LAIKA is a studio that’s fully focused on making stop-motion animation: feature films, advertising and short films. It’s located on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon and employs around forty people, with peaks of up to 400 according to production needs.
Moongirl was the first CGI film made by LAIKA, in 2005. However it was not until 2009, with the release of Coraline, the stop-motion feature directed by Henri Selick based on a story by Neil Gaiman, that the company established its reputation. "We produced 28 copies of the Coraline character", says Mark Shapiro, marketing director at LAIKA. "It took 4 months to make each of the puppets. No fewer than 6,300 mobile and detachable parts were needed to provide a wide range of facial expressions for this character."
Overall, each animator produced between 2 and 7 seconds of animation per week! To honour the precious work of the artists, LAIKA decided to adapt its marketing strategy to showcase their day-to-day work and reality via filmed interviews of numerous staff members, on equal footing with the director.
The film ParaNorman was released in 2012, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. Whereas Coraline focused more on manual construction of character/puppet elements, ParaNorman is the very first stop-motion film to work with 3D rapid prototyping to craft the characters’ faces. To keep up with the artistic requirements of the directors and the poses of the heroes, over 31,000 different facial parts (mainly upper and lower facial portions) were created, starting with Maya-constructed 3D models. There were four 3D printers running throughout the production time, over a total of 572 days. To point to a single example, Norman has nearly 8,000 faces composed of different elements, resulting in approximately 1.5 million potentially different facial expressions!
The Boxtrolls is now LAIKA’s third foray into feature film-making, adapted from Alain Snow’s bestseller: Here Be Monsters! In similar manner to ParaNorman, the studio used 3D prototyping to construct the characters and their inherent elements (arms, legs, facial portions) from models created within Maya. The film also mixes stop-motion live footage with computer-generated images, even though the latter were not systematically included: "The Boxtrolls have eyes that shine in the dark. At the beginning, we thought we’d add them during the digital postproduction phase. But in the end, the ploy that was supposed to save time actually turned out to be difficult to implement," explains Mark Shapiro. Finally the pairs of eyes of each Boxtroll were doubled-in, depending on whether it was for a night or a day context.
A further difficulty involved the Boxtrolls’ 'bodies': "As their name suggests, the Boxtrolls’ torsos are composed of a box or crate from which only the head and limbs emerge. However, each character has a different shape and therefore, a different sized box. This vastly impacts the animation, mainly concerning articulations or joints."
Proceeding as for the previous feature, the film was shot using Canon 5D Mark II cameras and Canon lenses. Mark Shapiro explains: "For the motion control systems that operate automatic camera moves, we continued with in-house and Kuper systems for close-up stereoscopic shots." On average, the animators were able to finalise one or two seconds of animation per week. The Boxtrolls will be released on big screens in autumn 2014.
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Translated by Sheila Adrian
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