I have yet to even entertain the concept of “boiling fur” when my taxi pulls into the car park outside a large, three-storey building clad in sustainable blonde wood on an industrial estate just north of the Avon in Bristol. Later, when I leave, it will be impossible to imagine fur that isn’t boiling, despite having been assured by someone who knows about these things that “a bit of boiling on the fur is fine”.
Welcome to the alternative universe of Aardman Animations. Passing four employees, possibly model makers, storyboarders or “full-stack” web developers, smoking staunchly by the bike racks in a light drizzle, I enter the anonymous dream factory that gave life to Rex the Runt, Rocky the Rhode Island Red and Shaun the Sheep, using only Plasticine, string and patience.
I’m greeted in the lobby by a huge poster of the seventh and latest big-screen event, the prehistoric fable Early Man, featuring goofy Stone Age protagonist Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), his porcine pet Hognob, Bronze Age Girl Power exponent Goona (Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) and rotund villain Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston affecting an ’Allo ’Allo! “Fronch” accent).
As someone whose relationship with Aardman’s stop-motion handicraft dates back to BBC children’s favourite Morph in 1977, I’m not here for a tour, but a pilgrimage.
The smell of the place is a heady blend of resin, silicone, hairspray and, in the gents, team sport. Football kit hangs on hooks above muddied boots, indicative of the esprit-de-corps work-hard-play-hard ethos.
Later, the aroma of roast beef baps and coleslaw will waft from the canteen. Like many fans of my vintage, I feel I have an emotional stake in this wizardly wonderland.
It’s an honour to meet founding fathers Peter Lord (64), who resembles a lovably scatty Open University lecturer, and David Sproxton (63), who could be the bassist of a recently re-formed pub rock band. It’s not long before I discover that Early Man’s animation director is called Merlin.
The production of Early Man began to take shape as far back as 2011, but the shoot itself started in May last year and wrapped in October, involving 33 animators and 37 sets. The longest shot took eight weeks to shoot; it lasts 40 seconds on screen.
Senior model maker Andrew “Bloxy” Bloxham is quick to bust the central myth of the time-honoured Aardman stop-motion process: that the puppets are made from Plasticine, the versatile modelling putty patented in 1899. Though the figures are sculpted in Plasticine, they are then cast as moulds and filled with a pliable silicone compound that looks like Plasticine but can be bent and shaped without it “boiling” (animation shorthand for “showing up fingermarks”).
Plasticine is still used for what Bloxy calls the “expressive stuff” – the brow, the lips – “because it’s very important for emotion.”
Dug’s hair is also solid, like mine when I was a teenage Goth. “We battle with hair all the time,” Bloxy laments. “Fur has traditionally been a no-no. If you look at the original 1933 King Kong, the fur’s going all over the shop!” On Wallace and Gromit vehicle The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the animators were “combing the fur after every single frame”.
When, at the turn of the century, Aardman moved beyond TV and short films to feature films with Chicken Run, everything changed. The staff went from 30 people to 200. The crew on Early Man totalled around 140 full-time staff and 20 freelances.
Their six theatrically released feature films so far have grossed around $970 million between them, produced alongside long-running TV properties like Shaun the Sheep for CBBC and the Kickstarter-funded Brand New Morph for YouTube. Chicken Run cost $45 million to make but grossed $224.8 million, making it the most successful stop-motion film of all time.
The first three features were co-produced with DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California, a relationship that soured after Flushed Away in 2006, Aardman’s first all-CGI venture. Its watery setting in a sewer would have been problematic for stop-motion so a digital solution was sought.
Despite a wry script and a high-calibre voice cast (Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen), it failed to meet profit projections and was regarded as a rare misstep. In short, it flushed away the hands-on charm of the Aardman brand. After what The New York Times described as a “creative tussle”, the partnership was dissolved. (A two-picture alliance with Sony followed, since superseded by a more simpatico deal with Euro-powerhouse StudioCanal.)
Reluctant to sour the mood as Lord and Sproxton hymn the tactile, artisanal roots of their endeavours (“The base technique is the same as it was when we created Morph”), I nevertheless have to ask if they view Flushed Away as an aberration.
They pall somewhat. Sproxton likens the experience of working with DreamWorks as “a bit like going and living in somebody else’s house for a year. Where do they keep the sugar? Or the hand towels? They don’t tell you! It wasn’t film-making as we know it.”
Lord reluctantly admits, “Bits of it slightly ran away. There was a test screening and we had these little slugs [right) in there and everybody loved the slugs so Jeffrey [Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation CEO] said, ‘More slugs!’ So out of nowhere, it was, where did all those slugs come from?”
Away from the tabletop industry of the workshops are the sound stages, whose floors start at waist height and which hum with cooling systems. “If the air conditioning goes down on a hot day, Plasticine starts to droop,” asserts animator Robert Symanowski.
He plays me an “animatic” on a monitor (a sequence animated from storyboard images like a flick-book, from which he works), and some “live action tests” of director Nick Park acting out reactions, at which point you understand why Aardman characters are all basically him, with that toothy letterbox mouth and the wide eyes.
“A Nick Park film is a Nick Park film!” proclaims Symanowski. I sit down with Park, the genial, 59-year-old public face of Aardman, voice of Hognob, puppyish presence on the Aardman YouTube channel and the chap in the oversized, colourful bow-ties for each of Aardman’s four best-animated film Oscars. (Of the first, which looked like it was made from a giant, green Quality Street wrapper, he later commented, “I didn’t realise how big it looked.”)
“Prehistory seemed a very natural choice for Aardman,” says Park. “With our love of clay and fingerprints, and the fact that we don’t apologise for that. I like the olden days where fur boiled. It’s real textures and fabrics.”
There must be easier ways to make a living. “But it’s like a calling. I started making films on a kitchen table in the attic when I was 11 years old. There is pressure, of course. You keep thinking this might not last. We’ve got to make this one really funny, really good, and better than before. But we’re still driven by instinct – if it makes us laugh, it goes in.”
Do you mind being the public face of Aardman? “We’ve built an enormous cake and I’m part of the icing. I don’t mind, I like a bit of amateur acting, but you spend so long in dark places, to come out into the light and meet real people is hard.”
After Aardman broke from DreamWorks it took back control of its fortunes and now its staff-friendly, bapserving HQ projects a cautious future with one foot firmly in the past. Garden-shed inventor Wallace himself would be proud of the studio’s fool-proof, analogue production grid that is hung on a series of massive, hinged, wall-mounted screens, like the ones you get in tile warehouses.
As if almost in parody of the company’s free-range ethos, a combination of rubber bands and coloured drawing pins let everybody know where they’re working on a day-to-day basis, as they painstakingly roll into pre-production on Shaun the Sheep Movie 2 for 2020.
“It can’t go wrong, it can’t crash, it can’t break,” my tour guide proudly claims of the system. “Things can fall off, but you can pick them up and put them back on again.
Early Man is released in cinemas across the UK on Friday 26th January