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David Sproxton
Reflecting on the early days of learning as they went along
If 1989 were to be remembered for one thing, it would be for the sudden omnipresence of Aardman Animations' films in various film festivals. It was a prolific year for the Bristol, UK-based studio: War Story, Next, Going Equipped, and Adam are but four of the films that came out that year, astonishing festivalgoers all across North America. Two other Aardman films of note came out that year: Creature Comforts, directed by Nick Park, garnered the studio their first Oscar the following year; also, A Grand Day Out (also directed by Park, and also nominated for an Oscar in '90) was screened, introducing the characters of Wallace and Gromit--stars of 1993's The Wrong Trousers and 1995's A Close Shave, both of which also won Oscars.

In some ways, 1989 was nothing new for Aardman. Their works were, for the most part, three-dimensional (stop-motion or puppet); they all showed off incredible attention to character animation and maintaining certain standards of quality; and, of course, they insist on winning awards. Essentially, they were just doing what they were always doing: making excellent films. It just so happened that more people noticed.

Founded in the 1970's by David Sproxton and Peter Lord, the Aardman studio seems to attract some of the best and the brightest in dimensional animation, who go to work on ads and on personal films, each lending their unique talents to Aardman's staggering body of work. This is not to say that all of their work is perfect; however, there is always something inventive or spectacular in their films, and thus far they show no signs of flagging.

I met David Sproxton one evening in late 1993 quite by chance. The Cinémathèque Québécoise in Montreal was hosting two retrospectives: one of Aardman Animations' work, and another focusing solely on Nick Park, ending with the North American premiere of The Wrong Trousers. After Sproxton had finished his preamble about the history of the studio, there was only place left for him to sit in the packed cinema--in the aisle seat next to mine. We spoke briefly during the break in the program, and arranged to meet for this interview over breakfast at his hotel.

What follows is a transcription of the salient portions of that morning. We spoke for about ninety minutes, discussing the studio, Aardman's animators past and present, and pop culture. I found David to be quite personable as we joked about animation schools, British comedians, and breakfast menus until it was time for him to catch his flight to New York (hence the abrupt ending). He has always characterized Aardman as a very busy studio, but has always had the time to stop and answer questions as I was editing this interview. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did putting it together.

Emru Townsend: Where does the name "Aardman Animations" come from?

David Sproxton: We were actually doing cel animation and drawn animation and we were selling little sequences to the BBC for children's programs... and we came up with this character which was like sort of Batman gone wrong. It was like making a superhero, but he was a complete idiot. He did wear his pants outside of his trousers. And he was called Aardman--as in aardvark. And it's one of those ridiculous things... we actually got paid for one of these sequences, we got £25 or something, and we got the cheque and we had to bank it. So we said, "We'd better call it 'Aardman Animations.'" And so we opened this account... and it stuck. A few years ago, we actually thought we'd change the name. We spent about three days trying to think of another name, but we gave up. It gets to the point where everybody just lives with it. It's a pretty stupid name, but it works--people know who we are.

Well, it's an identifiable, straightforward name.

And it's always on the first page of the telephone directory.

Okay, so you say you started in 1976.

Yeah, full-time. Although we were making films before then, when we were at school, at college together. Then we left the college in '76. And being completely unemployable--I mean, neither of us had a degree or any kind of formal training [in media or film, that is. Peter has a degree in English, and David in geography. --Ed.] But we did have this small contract for this kids' show which, well, they asked us to do it, [and we figured] we'd carry on and see what happens. Very slowly, it took off from there. We did small sequences for this children's show, and then we met a producer who was interested in doing a small animation series for adults with another animator, funnily enough--Bill Mather, who is now actually very big as a commercials director--and he came up with the idea of those 'Animated Conversations,' of which Down and Out was the first one we did, which is the one with the tramp in the Salvation Army hostel. So that was the first film of five minutes we had ever made and the first we had ever done using found sound, produced by a big producer called Colin Thomas. There were five films made, Bill Mather made one (Bill Mather is the guy that directed the Super Bowl Budweiser commercial last year, with the beer bottles having a ball game) and a couple of other people made two or three. So, the whole idea was to do that as a pilot, and we'll put that forward to the powers that be at the BBC, and see if they can generate a series.

Well, in those days--and that was about '77, something like that, '77, '78--animation, particularly at the BBC, was absolutely relegated to children's television. There just was no [planning] for animation at all. It wasn't a documentary, it wasn't light entertainment, it wasn't sports--and nobody knew how to handle it. And the reason that this producer got the thing off the ground in the first place, is that he was in a unit called the General Programmes Unit, which was based in Bristol, oddly enough--or, fortunately enough for us. And it was a unit which was kind of experimental. They did all sorts of wacky ideas. They did a bit of documentary, some was a bit of drama--and any kind of idea which didn't neatly fit into any category, it was okay, GPU could handle it. And of course they came up with ideas as well. It was quite interesting. Some of them never really flew, but they did come up with some wacky documentaries and that sort of thing... We got the money for the series as--instead of a production budget, a graphics requisition. It was animation. In those days, if you said you said you needed animation for a title sequence or something, you went to the Graphics department. So anything to do with animation came out basically through Graphics, because they had a rostrum camera there, and nobody did any puppet work anyway, so if it was animation it went through Graphics. I think we had about a £35 contract for writers--that was basically editing the soundtracks. The rest of the money was effectively made up of ordering paper. I mean, the way we were shooting model work--and the way it was billed, it was billed as if we were ordering two dozen pencils and a pile of paper and a load of crayons. It was just a Graphics requisition. It wasn't a programme budget at all. We also claimed our own rostrum time--all the others were done as regular cel animation, and they were shot by rostrum cameramen, and we said we were going to do our own stuff. "Oh, in that case you can claim the money that we would have given this guy and that guy." It was really bizarre.

Then we went back to making children's films using a character which we had developed in these small sequences we were making, and we did 26 five-minute episodes based on him.

That was Morph?

That's Morph, yeah. That was quite good fun; it was quite hard work, but it was quite good fun and really, that's where we trained ourselves in terms of comic timing and getting a story down into short length. Learning what you could do in five minutes. That's really where Peter learned his skills, in terms of body language and expression. Because they're perfect little characters. Very, very simple.

About how tall was Morph?

He's about that big [holds his finger above the table].

About four inches.

Yeah, he's really quite small. Pure clay, no armatures, nothing. So it's very, very quick to animate. I mean, he would animate probably about thirty seconds a day. And we had about twelve, thirteen days per five-minute episode, so you cranked through it. So it wasn't that sophisticated at all, but I think in terms of expressions and some of the relationships we had with the characters, it was our training ground. We were still absolutely poverty-stricken doing that [both laugh] because again the budget was based on a loan, I guess, marketing receipts, merchandising--which never happened. And I think even ten years after we finished the series, which was... that's right, I think it went on the air in 1980, and in 1990 we still owed the BBC £10 000.

Wow.

Anyway, after we did that, Channel 4 was just kind of on the drawing board...

When did Channel 4 start?

It must have been '81, '82...

It had a profound effect on British TV because their mandate was satisfying minority interests. Now, everybody's in a minority, they've all got some crazy interest, whether it's watching frogs or collecting car tires or something. And they had a very imaginative comptroller, Jeremy Isaacs, who was actually an ex-BBC producer, who had done some very fine work, particularly in documentaries. Because he himself was a producer, and he had done some historical series in particular, as well as quite a heavyweight semi-political series, he knew what it was like to have a kind of a germ of an idea and to see it manifest, he knew how to actually produce the thing. And he understood programme makers and filmmakers, but also he was very imaginative. He said, "Right, the mandate is to do stuff that isn't being done on TV. We must go for it. We will commission all sorts." He commissioned some very good plays from very good playwrights, some slightly wacky documentary-type stuff. He set up an animation commissioning editor, and we were lucky to meet him in the year prior to the station going on air--in fact, at the Cambridge Animation Festival. And he said, "You've told me about this stuff, and I'd like to see some of your work." So we sent him the small amount of work we had, which was basically Down and Out and some kids' stuff. And he called us up to the London office and we sat in front of his commissioning editor. We'd also sent some ideas which were really kind of half-baked, and we were kind of fencing around these scripts which weren't really worked out.

And then Jeremy Isaacs suddenly put his head 'round the door, and said "I don't know what you guys are talking about, but I've seen that film Down and Out. We'd like ten of those for our first week's transmission." Which was actually about eight months away. And we said, "What?", you know, "Forget it. No way can we do ten." He said, "Okay. How many can you do? Can you do five?" We said, "Yeah, okay. We'll do five." "Okay, five now, and five of something else later."

So that was more or less that. I mean, it took a couple of months to complete the contract and stuff. But we had this contract to produce five five-minute films, and suddenly with what were reasonable budgets. We were actually about six months late in delivery, because we actually had no idea how long it would take to make. Again, it was still just the two of us. Now we use modelmakers for sets and props and stuff, but we had done so little--you know, children's series stuff is much more factory-like, you have three sets, and you can churn through it. Well, here we were, doing all this lip-sync work, more sophisticated camera work, different types of sets, and no idea, really, how--well, we [figured we] should be able to shoot each one in four to five weeks. Some of them took a fair bit longer than that. So we were late. And the commissioning editor was actually good. He said, "Don't worry. I like what I'm seeing, this stuff is going to be okay. What we'll do is we'll put them out in our first anniversary week." Which from our point of view was brilliant, because they got very, very good scheduling and they ran it out across a week, Monday through Friday at 9:00 at night, which actually was kind of perfect.

And then we got these offers for commercials, based on the work we'd done for Channel 4. And we thought the commercials would be very, very short-lived, because, you know, it's very fashionable. A look comes, a look goes, well, we'll get six months' work out of this, and we'll make a bit of a killing in six months, and then we'll be back to doing stuff for TV. And much to our surprise--I guess we were just very lucky and hit that mid-'80s period where the economies were really on a roll, and advertising was very exciting, lots of crazy ideas were being done, and they were all looking for new ideas. And particularly in England, where advertising isn't quite as direct as here or in the States, it's always been quirky. I mean, that's the last thing you'd do in a British commercial, show the product.

And there were some very bright people at that time. And it's changed a lot, but we were just very lucky to be in on that kind of vanguard. It was weird, because we never ever thought we'd get into it, it's a bit like getting your first mortgage. You know, if you're self-employed, you're trying to borrow money, and it's like, sorry, all the doors get closed in your face. And once you get into it, once you've done your first commercial--nobody wants to be the first one to say, can you do it, can you shoot, can you do this stuff, nobody really wants to risk you until you find somebody that says, "Well, yeah, of course they can. We'll be there." The agents will be there to hold your hand.

I remember one of the first commercials we did--I don't think it was in the screening--it was for a computer, the Enterprise 64 computer, and it showed a lot of old computers... like museum exhibits. And we'd budgeted the thing, and we were, my God, this is absolutely crazy. The amount of money we've got to do this thirty-second spot, you know, it's kind of untold wealth.

We just burnt through it all. And the agency producer was very good. He said, "Well, it's a pretty good budget, but don't worry, if you want, I'll put up a contingency. Things can go wrong." And it did go over budget. I mean, I know was thinking, "So that's where the money goes." We shot a lot of live-action stuff, and it was the first time we shot on 35mm, and everything gets more expensive, and the modelmaking was--they were very, very picky about models, and models had to be remade, and... It was a real baptism by fire. We found ourselves working with two of the--we didn't realize it at the time--with two of the trickiest creatives in advertising in London--one of them's now a director at a very creative production company. And we thought every creative team was going to be like this, we were like, oh my God, this going to be absolute Purgatory working on these spots. But we kind of realized that these two were particularly stubborn. They were actually very good, if you stuck with them they did some fantastic work. But they put you through the mill. And I remember when we were shooting this live-action stuff, just waking up at about seven in the morning, just waking up, "Oh, my God!" in terror. It was very scary, because again, we really didn't know quite what we were doing. But we really were learning at an incredibly fast rate.

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