Interview with Peter Lord, Co-Founder of Aardman Animations

“…they developed a short film about a failed superhero called Aardman for which they were paid £15 or £20. They set up a bank account for Aardman and that was the birth of the company…”

Peter Lord and David Sproxton co-founded Aardman Animations in 1972 as a ‘low budget’ project to produce animated motion pictures. After graduating from University they moved to Bristol where they created Morph.

Since then they have gone on to work on music videos for artists including Peter Gabriel, Nina Simone and the Spice Girls.

They are globally recognised for their television and film work including The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave, Chicken Run, Arthur Christmas, Pirates and Shaun the Sheep.

Today Aardman’s portfolio of work includes commercials, branded content and digital work.

Many artists have had to compromise their creativity in the face of commercial success, but not with Aardman. Their work contains a high quality feel that never appears to have been compromised over the years.

Our interview with Peter Lord aims to understand how they have been able to achieve this.

Q: “It has been stated in articles that Aardman Animations started out as a ‘low budget’ project to produce animated motion pictures; initially producing short films and trailers before creating Morph for Take Hart. I started the interview by asking Peter whether he felt during the early years they had to compromise what they set out to do, and in what ways.”

Peter explained that he never saw Aardman Animations as a ‘low budget’ project. It was a hobby which he and David thought they could making a living from.

Peter and David began their animating partnership at school. In 1972 they registered the name Aardman Animations after they developed a short film about a failed superhero called Aardman for which they were paid £15 or £20. They set up a bank account for Aardman and that was the birth of the company.

He never felt they had to compromise what they were doing because they were not following any defined route; effectively they could do what they wanted without any set road map.

During the interview it became clear that also from an artistic viewpoint Peter felt that they have never had to compromise. He did consider this and said that perhaps the only compromise was that as a company they would only spend what they had, this meant (in the early days) that whilst other studios used sophisticated modelling technics, Aardman didn’t.

It is worth considering that perhaps if they had compromised on the modelling technics we wouldn’t have the charm of morph (and others) so that is not a bad compromise!

During the interview Peter carefully crafted a Morph; I felt this was a true reflection of the company – Morph has an innocence and charm, and this feeds through to everything they produce from Morph to Shaun the Sheep. Peter is proud that there is great integrity in what they do and they do more than they need to, and this is reflected in what they produce. He feels that their worst critic is themselves.

This led onto the workforce and how unusual they are as a business with a large permanent workforce where others might have a small workforce with contract workers. Although profit is important it is not the driver, the driver is to deliver an excellent product with excellent people.

Clearly Aardman has managed to retain its values without compromise.

Q: “I talked to Peter about the early days and I asked him what his aims and aspirations were, how financially challenging it was and how he overcame this.”

For me this was a fascinating discussion. Peter explained that he came from a culture where you didn’t have debt. As students they couldn’t borrow money and it is reflective of the early days of the business where they couldn’t afford the sophisticated equipment other studios used. Even today the business is run with minimal debt.

This concept is perhaps hard for people to understand today but as Peter explained if you run out of money, you run out of money and that meant you lived within your means and this applies to Aardman. In the early days the business only spent what money they had.

This was challenging and in 1981 they toyed with the idea of packing it in because it was unclear where the money would be coming from. However, whether it was luck or just being in the right place at the right time the launch of a new TV channel was massive for them. At the time there were three channels; Channel 4 was revolutionary and came just at the right time for them.

Aardman produced TV films for them and this led onto TV commercial work and by the mid-eighties the company was cash rich.

Clearly Morph was the start but he didn’t pay the bills! Channel 4 was the next step up for Aardman.

Q: “In recent years Aardman have worked with DreamWorks and more recently Sony. In this part of the interview I asked Peter to explain the reasons behind the partnerships with DreamWorks and Sony.”

Peter explained that as a partnership they had produced short films for Channel 4 and the BBC as well music videos and commercials. They had a natural ambition to make a full length movie.

To make mainstream movies it made sense to approach the US film distributors and they went to Hollywood to see all the big studios to find a partner. Chicken Run was the first and it was co-funded with DreamWorks Pictures (US) and Pathé (France).

The co-funding projects started a journey to crack the American market but Peter was aware that the British culture was different and he was not sure how this would carry to this market. In total they produced five movies and he feels they made an impact but not as much as they did in the UK. They weren’t the life changing success that perhaps they thought they might be. Certainly in talking to Peter you feel it was a natural progression and despite not fully breaking the US market it was worthwhile.

Shaun the Sheep Movie was produced with a French company called StudioCanal which is perhaps the route they will use going forward. As Peter said that since they started the journey things have changed in the US, every movie needs to be a success and therefore he feels it is less likely they will do a similar venture in the near future but clearly he hasn’t ruled it out if the right project comes up.

Q: “I talked to Peter about how artists often compromise their creativity in the face of big name partnerships (the clash between money and creativity) but Aardman have seemed to be able to navigate through this field with their partnerships. I asked Peter how difficult is it to work with large partners, and in particular hold onto the creativity aspect of Aardman.”

Peter felt that they had never had to compromise when working with other partners. There is a perception that their movies take time to produce and Peter explained that actually they are slightly quicker than their US counterparts. A similar US movie can take seven years to produce. Chicken Run from inception to completion took five years to complete.

Going back to an earlier comment on being different with a large workforce, they have a large team working on these projects. These films are hand made in Bristol and finished to their own high standards. For this reason although they had the partnerships to get the films out to a wider audience he never felt there was any clash between money and creativity. Although the movies had some impact in the US they were not the life changing success other movies have had.

Q: “We talked about the recent successful Kickstarter Campaign to produce a new series of Morph. I asked Peter to explain the reasons for using Kickstarter to fund a new series of Morph and whether we could we see more campaigns in the future.”

Peter explained that funding projects is never easy. A ten minute short film is unlikely to make any money back, perhaps returning as little as 10% of the budget. Something like the Shaun the Sheep comes with an assumption that it is paid for by the BBC when in reality they pay a proportion of it. The money comes from the merchandise and sales of the rights to the series. Therefore at any one time there is a lot of money wrapped up in projects and therefore it takes time to start something new.

If Shaun the Sheep wasn’t a success then they would be out of pocket, therefore they are slow to start new projects.

They used Kickstarter as an experiment, it was a different model for funding with less risk. Peter explained that during the early discussions the more senior members of the team questioned it and the younger members were more enthused. What they have found was a very attentive community who were prepared to contribute and be involved. They asked them about ideas for episodes and the higher funding backers came into the studies.

It proved to be an interesting model and one they would consider using again. Peter feels Morph was easier to start with as it was something that people knew about, the question is how it would work for a brand new concept (perhaps a failed super hero called Aardman, my suggestion not Peters!!)

Q: “We talked about how from small beginnings the company has grown to a globally recognised company. I asked Peter from his own perspective how difficult is it to balance being a director (and therefore running a global company) with the artistic part of the job which clearly from the Kickstarter campaign he loves.”

Peter sees everything as an adventure and you do get that feel when you speak to him, you feel that although the company is bigger it still retains the ethos from the early days. He also explained that the business is so varied, they employ people to do things that they can’t do and they now have a much bigger range of projects that they work on.

Clearly Peter retains an immense passion for the company and as he said there is a lot happening all around the place run by different teams of people. We touched on some of things happening like students from Bournemouth who are completing an animation course, helping six young film makers to develop their own films, projects with google and the United Nations. Clearly the business is much more than just the famous characters we see and love.

He explained that over time it does become easier because they empower other people to do things. The key for a successful business is to surround yourself with people who are better than you in certain fields whether this is in sales, producers or administrators.

Q: “In the penultimate question we talked about how Aardman via its charity has raised millions for sick children across the UK, and more recently Gromit Unleashed not only raised significant money for charity but also contributed significantly to the economy of Bristol. I asked Peter going back to the early days why did he choose Bristol to start Aardman, and why is Bristol such an important part of Aardman.”

Peter was born in Bristol, and he always felt it was home. David’s girlfriend was in Bristol. Therefore you could argue there was an emotional pull towards Bristol. However, there was also a business contact with the BBC and Take Hart. Although produced in London, it was recorded in Bristol and that was a plus for the business.

On the negative side there was no animation industry in Bristol, they knew of only 3 other people. There was no passing trade and the logical centre was London.

Considering all of this they choose Bristol because it was an interesting place to be. It felt special and unique and it gave them a chance to do something special. That feeling remains, they are not a London studio, they are a bit different, they take time, they are relaxed and importantly they are friendly.

But more than that they feel proud of making Bristol a premier centre for European animation. Being in London he feels would not have been the same.

We touched on charities and Aardman have raised an immense amount of money for the Bristol Children’s Hospital (over £20 million to date). This year sees Shaun the Sheep in London and the money raised from this will go to help hospitals across Britain where the NHS won’t pay for things.

It is a clear that Peter is proud of what he and David have achieved, and continue to do. The charitable side reflects the fact that although profit is important it is not the bee all and end all.

Q: “For my last question I asked Peter whether time makes things easier and what motivates him.”

As we concluded the interview Peter thought about this, he said it does get easier in so far as you are surrounded by a great team so you stop worrying. But film making doesn’t get any easier and continues to be a creative challenge.

So in one way it is easier and his love for the team he works for is clear. He often talks about the highly creative team he has working for him and he is happy that he doesn’t have to know all the projects they are working on. Clearly the motivation is there as much as it was in the early days, and the challenge with film making remains.

Interviewers comment

This is likely to go down as one of my favourite interviews for a number of reasons. One of those is that I grew up with Morph and to meet the creator is something special. But it is more than that, and fundamentally this is what the interviews are about. Peter has what might considered an old fashioned view of money but in doing this the business hasn’t over expanded and isn’t laden with debt. Importantly there haven’t been any compromises.

Aardman will be a lasting legacy in Bristol whether it is the charity side or making the city a place for animators. There is much we can take from Peter and this interview.

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