Sean Clarke, the managing director of Aardman, discussed the studio’s commitment to innovation and nurturing talent and opportunities for growth at the TV Kids Summer Festival this morning.
Clarke has been with the acclaimed British studio for more than two decades, becoming managing director in 2019. Aardman’s utilization of new technology has been critical to its success over the years. “The heart of everything is still us being storytellers, but we’re always looking to embrace different and unique ways to tell stories,” he said in conversation with TV Kids’ Anna Carugati.
Read excerpts from the session below and watch the video in full here.
“The founders of the studio, David Sproxton and Peter Lord, always had an ethos about trying to create a friendly-family, open, collaborative environment, and that’s been underpinned by the fact we’re now employee-owned,” Clarke continued. “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 really about creating an environment for those ideas to spark. We have a building that encourages people to meet and talk and discuss. We have a lot of forums for people to present ideas, for them to be nurtured and hopefully come to fruition.”
Aardman is best known for stop-motion animation but recently greenlit its first end-to-end CG series, Lloyd of the Flies. “There are so many insects, if we did it in stop-motion, there would be scale issues, so it was the right technique to bring that to life.”
The idea always comes first, but other factors come into play when choosing an animation technique, Clarke noted, including the budget. “The only other denominator we could look at is a practical thing of, Wha is our pipe like? Our stop-motion pipeline, I’m pleased to say, is pretty busy through the end of 2024, and 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.”
Carugati asked Clarke about Aardman’s diversity initiatives. “We’re very conscious that we need to address it and do more than we have done. Last June, we made a commitment to be a lot more open and transparent about 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 a lot of industry standards that we work to, like the BFI standard, and a lot of financiers now are insisting on a different diversity formula for the stories you tell. Like a lot of people, 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 me or the exec board saying, this is the charter. For it to have teeth, you’ve got to get the people that are producing or hiring to embrace it. We’re now rolling it out. The charter 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 themselves. And how we use our voice is encouraging other studios to adopt a similar approach.”
Diversity initiatives are also being implemented at the Aardman Academy. “We now offer up as part of every course two bursaries for people that perhaps aren’t in a privileged position to afford the course. We have great associations with bodies like Creative Access, which help us find potential candidates from ethnic minority communities to help us 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. We’re making some inroads, and I’m happy to publish where we are on those every six months. We see it morally as the right thing to do, and frankly, it’s what our audience expects if we’re a global company.”
Beyond Aardman’s TV and movie slate, the studio also works on commercials and has been experimenting with VR and augmented reality. “With Wallace and Gromit, a 30-year-old brand, we did a whole new take on it with another party called Fictioneers, where we did an 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 second-biggest theme park in Europe.”
The studio is looking at other brand extensions for its key properties. “Our marketing team is always looking at taking our brands, like Shaun the Sheep, into different ways of telling stories. In Japan, we have a number of Shaun the Sheep cafés. We have a Shaun the Sheep theme park in Australia and Japan. We recently 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 as well as different ways of connecting our brands with audiences all over the world.”
Clarke then talked about Aardman’s journey to becoming employee-owned. “Peter Lord and David Sproxton were starting to look at succession and where the studio went. Clearly, 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. Everything Aardman stands for would be lost. So they did a lot of research and felt the best way to move forward would be to future-proof the studio’s independence and sell the studio to the employees. That’s what happened. The majority shareholding in the studio is now owned by 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 into a group of trustees that are there really to check that constitutionally I’m still running the company in the way the original owners wanted the company to be run. And alongside that, the other accountability I have is to what we call a partner rep group, which is a group of people that represent the hundreds of people that 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. There isn’t a group of suited shareholders 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.”
Clarke is optimistic about Aardman’s prospects in the years ahead. “It’s a thriving industry. There has been much change. I expect there to be more change. Technology will underpin that.”
Gaming is a key area of opportunity, he added. “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; they’re starting to bind together. We did a great initiative with Epic Games, where on Fortnite, they had a virtual film festival 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.”