'Is Aardman running out of clay?' was the worry on every British person's mind not too long after a Daily Telegraph report came out claiming such a horror – fortunately, the fears of a clay drought weren't entirely founded. "It is true that we heard that production was going to cease so we basically just stockpiled," Peter Lord laughs during an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com. "We stockpiled! So wherever you go around the studio, there's piles of modelling clay wherever you look."


As Lord explains, the clay houses Aardman are in touch with are developing vats of clay by the 100 kilos, and while they do need some clay, their heroes' pint-sized appearances mean it's much less than you'd expect. "I mean... how many chickens are there in Dawn of the Nugget? I think it's around 300 or something. So it's not a very, very large number."

The animation studio was co-founded in 1972 by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with little plasticine bundle of joy Morph bouncing into the world in 1977. When you watch the early one-minute Morph shorts, everything Aardman has come to be known for is right there – its universal, charming humour anchored by a character with such vivid humanity it truly feels alive.

In that same year, Aardman created Down and Out for the BBC – its first foray into adult animation, using vox pop recordings and animating them – the Animated Conversations and Conversation Pieces series would lay the groundwork for the iconic Creature Comforts, yet another idea with infinite steam to keep going, as Park agrees: "The joy of Creature Comforts is that it's the sort of thing that can run and run, as we will never run out of people to interview." All of this tinkering with adult animation led Aardman to a most unexpected place: 1980s Yugoslavia.

"We visited a festival in Zagreb, and everything [animated] there was designed for an adult audience," says Lord. "That was an absolute revelation for us. From then on, we knew about this world, and it became part of our worldview."

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This revelation, combined with Channel 4's brief for new programming for new audiences, allowed Aardman to flourish within what Lord describes as an '80s and '90s renaissance of British independent animation.

You might be surprised by the naughtier tone of Aardman's adult animations, especially the likes of Angry Kid and Rex the Runt – Lord certainly is self-aware of the company's perception: "I am smart enough to know that most of our audience sees us within a very delightful, colourful fun box."

Watching both shows back now, they feel perfectly positioned to fit within 2023's adoration of adult animation – but back in the late '80s, examples of this genre were few and far between. When Lord speaks about this time, there's a clear fondness for it, so why haven't they done more of it?

"I am perfectly happy with us doing slightly weird, abrasive stuff – I just think, as a business reality, there's unfortunately not much demand for it," he says. "There's also not much funding for it now either – if we were to make something like Angry Kid again, we'd have to make that very clear to our audiences. We don't want to traumatise families!"

If you've ever tried stop motion, it takes a very long time, and an awful lot of patience. So why does Aardman do it? Because the team absolutely love it. "I mean, we love the collaborative hands-on physical nature of stop motion – why wouldn't we? For us as the makers, it's the greatest joy of it."

Park has at times spoken about how 'giving a character a soul' is the true art of animation, and while he noted it's tricky to explain, he detailed that process. "Direct contact with the figure allows you to put something of yourself and what you see in others into the puppet. Honest, true observations and flawed, well-observed human traits can be expressed through sculpting."

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Park's outlook on animation makes sense when you take a step back and look at his most famous creations, Wallace and Gromit. Much of the world the inventor and his canine apprentice operate in is lifted from Park’s own childhood in Preston. Their house is the old mill house Park's grandmother lived in, with many of their household possessions modelled after items Park would find in both his mother and grandmother's houses throughout the '60s and '70s.

Many of Aardman's characters are remarkably expressive despite their muteness – Morph, Shaun the Sheep, and of course Gromit to name a few. While Morph and Shaun were envisioned from the beginning to be voiceless, Gromit's silence comes from a last-minute improvisation. Originally, Peter Hawkins, known for lending his voice to the Daleks in Doctor Who and Captain Pugwash, was signed up to imbue Gromit with his own bravado. However, when it came to filming A Grand Day Out, Park was unable to access Gromit's mouth – thus, Gromit became Wallace's silent companion instead.

There's also the endeavour of taking a myriad of influences and distilling them into something uniquely Aardman that the company embarks on every time they approach a new project. For The Wrong Trousers, which celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year, Park and co were inspired by the works of William Heath Robinson, Jesús Blasco's The Wombles and Frank Bellamy's Thunderbirds, alongside the surprisingly adult tales of The Lodger and The Ladykillers for the villainous Feathers McGraw. However, almost all of them have one thing in common – they all seem to be creations inhabited with a certain kind of soul, just as Park animates his own characters.

Wallace and Gromit
Wallace and Gromit. Aardman Animations

It's creative challenges like these that drive the company's love of stop motion animation – Aardman has staked claim to having created both the smallest stop motion ever, a commercial for Nokia called Dot, and the biggest stop motion ever, Gulp also for Nokia: "The camera was on a cliff looking down at the beach, but then that wasn't big enough so we put the camera on top of a cherry picker crane on top of the cliff."

However, that's not to say they're CG-averse – there are the likes of Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas of course, experiments in full CG. Lord noted that the studio’s workflow shifted quite a bit due to the more hands-off nature of CG: "It gets to a similar place, but it doesn't have the warmth, you know? The warmth of human company, of interaction, working and collaborating."

You may be surprised to know that even in Aardman's fully stop motion endeavours, there's some sneaky CG you'd probably never spot. "In Dawn of the Nugget, there's a lot of CG, it's almost entirely in the background. There's a lot of it, but it disguises itself." What's clear is that no one at Aardman sees CG as a threat, but instead as a collaborative tool to help accentuate their stop motion efforts further. It has allowed them, if anything, to expand their fingerprint-indented clay worlds even further.

"There's nothing that we hate more in stop motion than extras," Lord says. "If we have 50 chickens walking around casually, that's like a month's work! So we're disinclined to do that."

The company has worked with the likes of Dreamworks, StudioCanal and Sony in the past to release its films, but this marks the first time it's ever partnered with a streamer – how's it going? "Maybe of all the people we've worked with, they've embraced most simply and clearly the fact that we're a British company making British animated films," Lord mentions.

Bunty (Imelda Staunton), Mac (Lynn Ferguson), Rocky (Zachary Levi), Molly (Bella Ramsey), Ginger (Thandiwe Newton), Fowler (David Bradley), and Babs (Jane Horrocks) in Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget. Netflix

When you look at the last few years of animation, Pinocchio, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, Wolfwalker, The Sea Beast – many of the notable ones come from streamers, while theatrical animation appears to be wobbling a little, even at a juggernaut like Disney.

Although Aardman is grateful for Dawn of the Nugget's theatrical release, they seem to echo this idea of streamers as a safe haven for animation, as Lord explains: "That's the terrifying thing about the theatrical model, you get this little window and if it doesn't take off instantly in the first weekend, in a weird way it almost disappears immediately, which is heartbreaking. But with the streamers, you know it's there, and it doesn't need to find its audience in the first week."

It's clear the partnership affords Aardman not just security, but also a chance to widen their ambition – their partnership together to support and train up to 1,000 emerging animators and UK-wide talent is something woefully missed given the lack of funding not just for developing creatives, but especially developing animators today.

We've barely scratched the surface of Aardman – to truly chronicle all of its magnificent efforts would likely take as long as it does to make five minutes of Chicken Run 2. But what does Aardman's legacy mean to Peter Lord and Nick Park? For Lord, he reflects on the very first days of Aardman. "I can remember being 23 when we started out, and you stand there with a vision, I wouldn't even say a dream… to be able to keep going, to have a bit of money at the end of the week, that was the ambition."

For Park, whose own life, memories and childhood are so wrapped up in all of his work, Wallace and Gromit especially, it’s a very close-to-home memory that he cherishes most. "The statue of Wallace and Gromit in my hometown, Preston. That is such a treat."

The pair of them are resolute on one simple truth – they're absolutely bowled over to this day by the fact that not only do people around the world know Aardman, but they hold their characters very near and dear to their heart. "There are so many [moments], it's incredible that after all this time it hasn't run out of steam, but it hasn't yet!" Park exclaims.

Lord takes a moment to reflect, leaning back in his chair – looking around the room at the various Aardman paraphernalia upon the walls. "To build this small, cosy animation empire, I suppose you could call it, to create characters that people love and remember, and will always remember, that's pretty amazing. That is pretty amazing."

Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is now streaming on Netflix. Sign up for Netflix from £4.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.

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