Aardman co-founder, David Sproxton discusses working with NFTS Grad Nick Park & their latest film ‘Early Man’


Aardman co-founder, David Sproxton discusses working with NFTS Grad Nick Park & their latest film ‘Early Man’

“We often get asked why are our films so British? – because we are!”

“When I was about 8 years old I saw this diorama at the Science Museum and was fascinated by how much the mood of the scene could be changed just by changing the lighting, the emotional impact that could have” – BAFTA winning producer, and co-founder of Aardman Animations, David Sproxton told an audience of NFTS students how he was first inspired to become a filmmaker.  In conversation with NFTS Head of Producing, Chris Auty, David revealed that he met Peter Lord, fellow co-founder of Aardman, at school.  “We just happened to sit at desks next to one another and got on like a house on fire!”

Together they founded Aardman Animations, one of the biggest success stories of the British Film Industry.  The two of them began with David producing and working as a cinematographer and Peter animating and directing, “It’s always been a very ‘producer-director’ relationship, that’s why the company has worked so well.” David explained.  One of the early pieces of work they did was for children’s TV series Take Hart, for which they developed the character Morph.  At around the same time Nick Park was studying at the NFTS and making his graduation film - Wallace & Gromit’s A Grand Day Out.  Nick saw the work that David and Peter were doing with Morph on TV and asked his NFTS tutors to invite David and Peter in to give him some advice on his graduation film.  They came and were hugely impressed by what he was doing, and David said “We realised he had a very similar sensibility to ours.”

(Still from A Grand Day Out)

In the four formal years Nick had been studying at the NFTS, and a further two more informal years there, Nick had animated about 6 minutes of what would be a 28 minute film.  “We did a deal that if Nick would help us finish one of our projects we’d then help him finish his NFTS graduation film.” David said.  The film, A Grand Day Out, went on to win a BAFTA and was nominated for an Oscar.

With Aardman, Nick then made Creature Comforts, which won an Oscar.  “It leapt off the screen,” David recalled, “when we saw Nick’s animation married with the voice track for the first time, it was magical.”

Off the back of Creature Comforts Nick made some commercials for Heat Electric, making his signature style familiar to the wider public.  David advised the students - “Working in commercials was the best training academy – you have to deliver, you have to hit the brief, you have to produce quality work and you have the budget to bring in the craft skills people.  And doing the commercials allowed us to enable Nick to spend time developing his next film idea.”

Chris Auty asked David how they moved from doing commercials and shorts into features.  David explained “We knew we wanted to tell bigger stories.  Nick’s films Creature Comforts, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave had all won Oscars and the winner of the Short Animation Oscar always got a tour of Disney, and to meet with people there.  But it was actually through a lunch with Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick that we made the connection that got us to the right level to have an idea greenlit.  Henry put us in touch with producer Jake Eberts (Dances With Wolves, A River Runs Through It, The Name of the Rose) and he said he’d help us fund it if we came up with an idea.  So Nick said ‘I’ve got this idea for a Prisoner of War escape story.  With chickens’.  And that was it.  Jake loved the sound of it and he had the status to go in at the right level at the Hollywood studios.  So Jake introduced us to Dreamworks and helped negotiate a deal.”  The resulting film, Chicken Run, went on to be the biggest grossing stop-motion film ever made.


Reflecting on the enduring popularity of Wallace and Gromit, David said “Wallace and Gromit is a sit-com – in most feature films the character learns something, the whole point of Wallace is that he doesn’t learn.  That was tough for the Americans at first!”

Aardman continued their relationship with Dreamworks, making several features together including Flushed Away and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.  “We learnt an awful lot from Dreamworks in the 10 years we worked with them, mostly on the story side.” David said, “They have real depth in the storyboard team – they translate the written word into visuals and put in fantastic gags as they do it.  We learnt the value of having great storyboard artists, or story-team as Dreamworks called them.”


David recalled some advice the head of Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenberg, gave them - “Katzenberg said to us very early on – ‘You will hit a stumbling block of some sort at some point, don’t worry about it, you’ll get through.  Apply yourself, you will sort it out.’ And he was right, there are always stumbling blocks and you do always find a way through if you keep going.”

Discussing the writing process, David said they work closely with script editors.  “In the early days, script editor / writer Bob Baker worked closely with Nick. He would look at Nick’s sketches of say a penguin and a toy train chase for The Wrong Trousers, put them together and say ‘look, you’ve got a heist movie here’ - he’s brilliant at getting the genius of Nick’s ideas into a story.”


David estimated that about two or three years out of the four to five years of a feature process are spent on writing and honing the story, “and often you’re still finessing the writing throughout the animation” he added.  From the script they craft the animatic.  “Once we have the animatic then we forget the script.  Often with animation scripts they are too long, too dense. We’ve learnt that the action expands when it goes from script to storyboard, from storyboard to animatic and from animatic to the studio floor. So the script doesn’t need to be 90 pages long!” David said, “And, of course, animators think visually anyway”.

A lot of the editing and honing of the story happens at animatic stage, David explained - “On Curse of the Were-Rabbit there were around 6,000 storyboard frames in the final animatic, but we drew about 25,000 frames – it gives you an idea of how much you work through the action to get the best result – that is our rehearsal period.   Storyboard artists need to be fast, smart, funny and to be fine with knowing that the bulk of their work isn’t going to make the final cut.” Adding, “With editing, often you take stuff out and it becomes clearer.  But we try to do it in animatic so as not to over-shoot.  Having a story driven editor at the animatic stage is crucial.” 

For their latest film Early Man, which features the voices of Eddie Redmayne, Masie Williams and Tom Hiddleston and credits an incredible 17 NFTS graduates, David told students “Nick’s original idea was what you see in the prologue - ‘How do you stop fighting and channel that into sport?’.  Nick’s not a great football fan – which is great because it means he can make fun of it!  But the writer, Mark Burton, is a big football fan – so it was a great balance.  The puns come from Nick – he loves them!  Early Man was originally going to be called ‘Early Man United’!”

One of the students asked David what it is he thinks that makes clay animation so appealing.  David answered, “Subconsciously I think, because we’ve all played with plasticine it appeals to that instinct that we want our toys to come alive.  And also it appeals to that part of us which feels that with enough patience we could maybe make it ourselves!  In Early Man, it’s mostly silicone, but it has a clay look.  Nick said he wanted it to look hand-crafted.  CG animation is just as hand-made, you just can’t see the thumbprints.”

Asked about how to keep their ideas fresh David said “That’s undoubtedly the hardest challenge.  We keep questioning, try to find a bigger more ambitious story, so that it’s not just a sequel.  To keep asking ‘How can I please an audience again?’”

If you are a budding animator and would like to find out more about our Directing Animation MA, sign up to the upcoming course open day on the 27th April at www.nfts.co.uk/animation - there is also an open day for our new Model Making for Animation Diploma on the 20th March - more info at www.nfts.co.uk/modelmaking