Aardman co-founder Peter Lord grabbed a ball of clay before his conversation last week at the FMX International Conference on Animation, Effects, VR, Games and Transmedia in Stuttgart, Germany, and slowly molded a puppet of Morph, Aardman’s first creation, while discussing 40 years of stop-motion glory at its animation studio in Bristol, England.
From “Wallace & Gromit” to “Creature Comforts” to “Shaun the Sheep,” Aardman will be firmly dedicated to the hand-crafted technique of stop-motion as long as audiences continue to embrace it. For Lord, who co-founded Aardman with school chum David Sproxton before adding animator-director Nick Park to the creative team, it’s all about the comedy of manners and empathy.
Here are Lord’s five rules for stop-motion animation:
1. Never forget the importance of Ray Harryhausen.
When Lord was ten years old, he saw “Jason and the Argonauts” and was so amazed at the brilliance of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen that he never stops thinking about his legacy. “He was like the whole industry back in the past,” Lord said. “He worked on live-action films where there was a monster or a creature or a dinosaur — the same basic technology as ‘King Kong’: puppets animated, and, then, as cleverly as possible, integrated with live-action. He built the puppets, he animated the puppets, he choreographed the action. And I was lucky enough to be at his 90th birthday party, which was in London. Peter Jackson was the host, and on video they had Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron. They all said the same thing: ‘We owe our career to Ray Harryhausen, who really kept the torch burning in the dark.'”
2. “Early Man” was inspired by Harryhausen’s “One Million Years B.C.”
Park’s latest feature, to be released in 2018, is a prehistoric comedy about a clan of cavemen trying to survive the Bronze Age. Dug (Eddie Redmayne), the leader, bumps up against Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). It was partly inspired by “One Million Years B.C.,” co-directed by Harryhausen and starring Raquel Welch. “It’s a ludicrous movie but Nick enjoyed it as a kid,” Lord said. “And this has a lovely cast of characters, but when you see them lined up, your first impression is: ‘What a bunch of idiots.’ They all have that crazy look of Wallace, each one crazier than the next. The great thing about Nick is he just goes by his instincts, and this made him laugh a lot. He’s got books full of these cavemen all hitting each other over the head with clubs. So my job is not to advise him but just to give him room for what he does best, which is comedy.”
3. Never take the English out of Aardman.
Despite partnering with DreamWorks (“Chicken Run,” the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”) and Sony (“Pirates: Band of Misfits,”which Lord directed), Aardman has resisted Americanizing their stories. “We care about what we make and present a world that is benign,” Lord said. “But because it’s English, there’s a certain lack of sentiment. In the case of ‘Shaun the Sheep,’ that’s a lovely, funny series. There’s an edge to ‘Shaun.’ Noticeably, the farmer is like a father figure to the sheep and he’s kind of a terrible father. But in the feature film, the father does reveal some inner emotional depth. And he does have love and sends out for his flock, but throughout each episode, he keeps it pretty well hidden. And that group of people living together, that strange family — the farmer and that troublesome bunch of kids, the sheep, and the sort of mother in the dog — they have conflicts and friction between them all the time.”
4. It takes a different mind-set to make features.
Lord admitted that it was difficult making the transition from shorts to features, particularly when it came to Wallace & Gromit. “With Wallace & Gromit, we made three films: ‘A Grand Day Out’ [Oscar-nominated], ‘The Wrong Trousers’ [Oscar winner], and ‘A Close Shave’ [Oscar winner]. And across those three films we had quite deliberately become more efficient,” Lord said. “But if you come as we did from the world of short films, then you kind of do everything yourself with your mates.
“But when you get into a feature film, in practice you need a team to do the storyboards. And that’s a big thing for a director to understand and accept and get used to,” Lord said. “And, of course, that philosophy of the story team is that everyone knows better than the director. So the dynamic and the shape and the flow of a 90-minute story is very difficult to achieve. And you’ve got three or four main characters that need to be resolved, and you need to resolve all the other characters as well. You need something pleasing but not predictable.”
5. There will always be more Wallace & Gromit.
While Park is hard at work on “Early Man,” Lord teased more Wallace & Gromit. “All I know is that Nick never forgets Wallace & Gromit,” Lord said. “If he’s not drawing cavemen, he’s drawing Wallace & Gromit. I actually assume that he will do another one, but probably not a feature. I think he found the feature was too much. I think he likes the half-hour format. There is an idea, which he will get around to eventually.”