A British Empire of Animation

Production House Aardman Has Become a Force in Worlds of Film, Advertising and New Media by Sticking to Its U.K. Quirkiness

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Talk about British understatement.

Aardman Animations holds meetings in parking-lot trailers while wailing seagulls circle overhead. A picture in its boardroom proudly commemorates a visit from the queen, as if that quaint ceremony were the highlight of the company's 30 years in business. And the founders still do their own ironing.
Aardman staffers (from l.) Heather Wright, David Sproxton, Miles Bullough and Helen Neno at the company's headquarters in a banana-ripening warehouse 90 minutes outside of London. The studio keeps its collection of Academy Awards housed in an Ikea cabinet in a cramped kitchen.
Aardman staffers (from l.) Heather Wright, David Sproxton, Miles Bullough and Helen Neno at the company's headquarters in a banana-ripening warehouse 90 minutes outside of London. The studio keeps its collection of Academy Awards housed in an Ikea cabinet in a cramped kitchen. Credit: Caroline Irby

Yet Aardman, the creative force behind such blockbusters as "Wallace and Gromit" and "Chicken Run," is a major global player not just in theaters but on the small screen, with TV programming, commercial production -- and now web and mobile film. The privately held company doesn't release sales, but it has a growing portfolio of cross-platform content and a successful licensing arm. At its Bristol headquarters in a banana-ripening warehouse about 90 minutes outside London, a collection of Academy Awards is housed in an Ikea cabinet at the back of a cramped staff canteen.

Even the company's reasoning for creating commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola Co., Pepperidge Farm and Skittles, smacks of humility. "We thought we'd be in and out of fashion, so we took as many advertising opportunities as we could," said co-founder David Sproxton. "To our surprise and delight, that market continues to call us. It was lucrative, and we learned a huge amount because we were being challenged all the time."

Excitable schoolboys
This modest venture with immodest success grew out of a schoolboy friendship between Peter Lord and Mr. Sproxton, who bonded at age 12 over the joys of quirky animation. By 17, they had sold their first film to the BBC. The company was officially founded in 1976, but the office still has the feel of a classroom where excitable schoolboys delight in dodgy experiments without a thought for the "real" world outside.

Aardman (named after the duo's original animated character, a cross between an aardvark and a man) has never shied from commercial opportunities. Its first success was Morph, a clay character that appeared on children's TV in the late '70s and '80s.

"Creature Comforts," an animated short film created in 1989 by the company's third employee, Nick Park, won Aardman its first Oscar and opened the door to ad work. "All our senior people have done commercials," Mr. Lord said. "It's a harder business now -- it used to be a lot more maverick." It is the comforting cushion of commercials, plus the low overhead of its headquarters, that has afforded Aardman the time to develop ideas rather than chase cash flow.

"The company looks to commercials as a melting pot for new ideas, people and kit," said Heather Wright, head of commercials at Aardman. The company -- which handles about 60 projects a year -- has all its own equipment. This allows the four divisions to experiment with all forms of animation -- traditional clay, CGI, and 2-D and 3-D media.

Digital strides
"The CGI side is set to take a massive technological leap, and the drive is to get the quality as high as we can. We need to create our own way of doing it to give us the quality edge we need," Ms. Wright said.

"Commercials feed the fire of talent, and we encourage people to cross over between the divisions to keep things fresh," she added. "Clients come to us asking, 'Can we have a bit of that Aardman magic?' It's a sensibility and humor that everyone here is touched by."

The commercials division is naturally expanding into branded content and online work. Ms. Wright's team is creating a series of five films for Texaco promoting road safety, which will be shown in gas stations around the U.K. and handed out on DVD.

With online budgets growing, a separate web division is planned to meet the increased demand for internet work and virals. Aardman has created and designed a kids' site called WebbliWorld that is backed by sponsors including Penguin Books and the World Wildlife Fund, with financial-services group HSBC lining up to support the WebbliBank section of the site.

One buck
"The Angry Kid," a web-only animated short-film series about a sociopath, has generated 28 million downloads since its 2000 debut. The income of $1 a download is shared between Atom Films and Aardman.

Aardman's store of content is also being exploited through mobile. It has struck deals for classic as well as original content with Verizon and Sprint in the U.S. and in Europe with Orange, a division of the world's largest telecom company, France Telecom.

When Miles Bullough joined as head of broadcast development four-and-a-half years ago, the department felt like its function was to "fill in the gaps between feature films." Broadcast has since expanded beyond "Creature Comforts" to make naughty "Shaun the Sheep" into a hit show across 60 countries (it's on the Disney Channel in the U.S.). It also produces "Purple and Brown" fillers for Nickelodeon around the world and is creating "Chop Socky Chooks," a series about kung-fu chickens that will air on Cartoon Network in the U.S. and the U.K.

'Funny everywhere'
Wallace, Gromit and Shaun are the biggest players in Aardman's global licensing empire, run by licensing manager Helen Neno.

"It's very international," Mr. Bullough said. "Animation is very visual -- it doesn't rely heavily on dialogue, and you can always time a joke to perfection. Physical comedy is funny everywhere. There is a strong British sense of place in 'Wallace and Gromit' or 'Shaun the Sheep,' but they are not culturally specific."

That "Britishness" is integral to the Aardman product, and the owners believe it is an asset. "I hope to stick to British film," Mr. Lord said. "'Creature Comforts' and 'Wallace and Gromit' are our heartland. I don't want to turn our back on that, but at the same time, we are always trying to push boundaries. 'The Office' is also British, and I don't mind going in that direction.

"The world is dominated by U.S. popular culture, so there's no creative point in our entering that arena, although there may be a business case. We have to make British movies and try to sell them to the world."

Movie deal
To this end, Aardman has recently done a deal with Sony Pictures and is on course to make a movie every 18 months. "If we can keep the production stream going," Mr. Lord said, "we can build up our talented team of animators, model makers, technical people, development and storyboard artists. You don't find them sloshing around here like you do in L.A."

It is hard to imagine Mr. Lord and Mr. Sproxton in Los Angeles. There is no hype or showiness at Aardman, where the focus is on doing the work, not playing the game. "Nothing would persuade me to work out there," Mr. Lord said.

Mr. Sproxton is similarly low-key and even does his own ironing. "I don't have those pretensions," he said. "It's nice to be comfortably off, but I don't want cars and jets."

In addition to "Chicken Run" (2000) and "Wallace and Gromit," Aardman's hits include "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (2005), which took $63 million at the U.S. box office and won the fictional duo their third Academy Award, this time for best animated feature film. "Flushed Away" (2006), a story about a rat set in the sewers of London, was perhaps too British for the U.S. but did well in Europe.
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