Since its inception by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, Aardman has been at the forefront of stop-motion animation technology, giving the world such beloved hits as Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. The multi-award-winning British studio operates across various mediums—commercials, shorts, television series and feature films, with its characters also extended to consumer products and live experiences—and has expanded into new animation styles. Now employee-owned, Aardman continues to innovate across the animation landscape. Speaking at the TV Kids Summer Festival, Sean Clarke, managing director, outlined the creativity-driven ethos at the heart of the company.
TV KIDS: Everything that comes out of Aardman has some level of newness, inventiveness and innovation. How has the company embraced new technologies, new creators and innovation for so long?
CLARKE: We’ve always been world-renowned for our stop-motion. The studio’s ethos has always been to embrace technology. I’ve been at the studio now for 23 years. Twenty years ago, we launched our first movie, Chicken Run, which was a mammoth task in terms of putting together a crew. In the same year, we did a series called Angry Kid, a live-action/stop-motion mix. It was actually one of the first series on the internet, if you think about the turn of the new millennium. At the heart of everything, it’s still us being storytellers, but we’re always continuing to embrace unique ways to tell stories.
TV KIDS: What environment does Aardman offer creators?
CLARKE: The founders of the studio, David Sproxton and Peter Lord, always had an ethos to create a friendly, open, collaborative environment. That’s been underpinned by the fact that we’re now employee-owned. We are truly a values-based business, where all the value created, whether it’s money or investment, is with employees in mind—or partners, as we call them. It’s very much about creating a culture that allows creativity to thrive and an environment for those ideas to spark. We have a building that encourages people to meet and talk and discuss. We have forums for people to present ideas, for them to be nurtured and hopefully come to fruition.
TV KIDS: Would you give some examples of how an animation style is selected for a particular project? You have a vast toolbox.
CLARKE: The idea comes first. The parameters of working out the technique come into the nature of the idea. During the pandemic, we greenlit our first end-to-end CG series that we’re making here in Bristol, Lloyd of the Flies. It has been done in CG because it’s about a group of insects—there are just so many of them, if we did it in stop-motion, there would be scale issues, and you do see some of the humans’ legs and the props in the house. So, CG was the right technique to bring that to life. There may be another dynamic such as budget. Not so much on the movies—there’s not a lot of difference between a CG movie budget and a stop-motion movie budget. But there may well be a commercial for a third-party client where they have a budget restriction and it makes sense that we look at it in 2D. The only other denominator we could look at is a practical thing of what our pipeline is like. Our stop-motion pipeline, I’m pleased to say, is pretty busy through the end of 2024. There will be some implications there that mean we have to look at other techniques as well. But, first and foremost, it’s how you bring that idea to life.
TV KIDS: Tell us about Aardman’s many diversity initiatives.
CLARKE: Like everybody, we’re very conscious that we need to address it and do more than we have done. Last June, we committed to being a lot more open and transparent in what we’re doing. Morally, it’s the right thing to do with an employee-owned company—to be internally open and transparent about our plans and objectives. And frankly, I wanted us to be publicly transparent because if it’s public, you’re held to account and it’s more meaningful. We’ve done a lot of work on our development slate. We have industry standards that we work to, like the BFI standard. Many financiers now are, rightly so, insisting on a different diversity formula for the stories you tell. The area that we have more work to do on is behind the camera. We established a diversity and inclusion charter that was formulated by a group of people across the studio. I was keen on it not being just the exec board or me saying, This is the charter. For it to have teeth, you’ve got to get the people producing or hiring to embrace it and understand it. It is broken into three areas: ourselves, our stories and our voice. Ourselves is about how we start to be more diverse and inclusive in terms of our workforce. Our stories speaks for itself. And how we use our voice is encouraging other studios to adopt a similar approach. We have the Aardman Academy, where we look to do training courses. As part of every course, we now offer up two bursaries for people who perhaps aren’t in a privileged position to afford it. We have great associations with bodies like Creative Access, which help us find potential candidates from ethnic minority communities to bring them into the workforce. We’ve rolled out various unconscious bias training and other initiatives, and we’ve invested a fair bit of money into trainee roles. For those roles behind the camera, we will do what we can now, but it’s also about what we can do to influence the talent pool going forward.
TV KIDS: The public knows about Aardman’s Oscar-winning movies and hit TV series, but the company does so much more.
CLARKE: We’ve got this world-class talent in the studio that does movies and series and creates stories and characters and worlds. We also do some work-for-hire, where we do commercials for various clients, ranging from the Serta Sheep in the States to DFS commercials for sofas in the U.K. We have a very strong interactive team that uses that toolbox to create stories in VR and augmented reality. With Wallace & Gromit, a 30-year-old brand, we did a new take on it called The Big Fix Up with another party called the Fictioneers, where we did a whole new immersive story in augmented reality. We created an award-winning app, StorySign, with Huawei. We created a character that signs books for deaf children. And two years ago, we did our first 4D film for the Efteling theme park in Holland. In Japan, we have Shaun the Sheep cafés where you can sit in the farmhouse and have a cup of tea. We have a Shaun the Sheep theme park in Australia and Japan. We’ve collaborated with a producer in Australia to create a Shaun the Sheep circus show using these world-renowned acrobats. We’re always looking at different ways of telling new stories and connecting our brands with audiences all over the world.
TV KIDS: Tell us more about employee ownership.
CLARKE: Peter Lord and David Sproxton were starting to look at succession. There are a number of ways you can relinquish ownership. You can sell to a corporate entity or venture capitalists. Frankly, they both felt if they did that, they knew what would happen. The studio would be sliced and diced and everything would be made in a cheaper place. The integrity and everything Aardman stands for would be lost. So they did a lot of research and felt the best way to move forward and future-proof the studio’s independence was to sell it to the employees. David Sproxton has left the studio; he’s now a trustee. I took David’s role and became managing director, and we have an operational board. I report to a group of trustees who are there to check that I’m still running the company in the way the original owners wanted the company to be run. The other accountability I have is to what we call a partner rep group, representing the hundreds of people who work here. They are there to ask questions of how we’re running the company. It’s important to future-proof our independence, which in turn, for me, future-proofs our ability to be authentic and protect our integrity. A group of suited shareholders isn’t asking us to make something in a formulaic way. It allows us to take calculated risks. It allows us to believe in ideas and push the boundaries. In terms of a creative work environment, it’s perfect. And I’d hope to see more studios become employee-owned.
TV KIDS: What opportunities do you see in the next year or two in the animation world?
CLARKE: I think the future looks good. It’s a thriving industry. There has been much change; I expect there to be more. Technology will underpin that. One of the areas we are investing in, both in terms of people and resources, is gaming. We did our first console game a couple of years ago. We believe that those pastimes of gaming and watching series and movies are no longer mutually exclusive. They are starting to overlap. We did a great initiative with Epic Games, where they had a virtual film festival on Fortnite with one of our films. Unreal Engine is now becoming an engine used for animation. It feels like these worlds are starting to blend. The nature of our business is all about partnerships. It’s partly why we announced last year that we’re keen to work with people who share that vision. It’s an exciting time.