Aardman: Breaking the digital mould

Aardman: Breaking the digital mould
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

October 14th 2013 at 10:45AM

Aardman Animation is famous the world over for its films, characters and Plasticine worlds. But as Develop discovers, the Bristol studio is also home to a furiously productive and wildly creative game development team

[This feature was published in the October 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]

Think of Aardman, and it’s likely you’ll imagine stop-frame animated characters. Be it Wallace and Gromit, the Creature Comforts commercials or even the influential music video for Peter Gabriel’s single ‘Sledgehammer’, the projects that have made Aardman an icon of the creative industries are wonderlands built in Plasticine.

Or, for the youth of today, Aardman has become a master of computer-generated realms, with its CG films enjoying vast success and many awards.

But Aardman is also a game developer, by way of its Digital team, which today enjoys a generous share of the company’s sprawling Bristol facility.

Wallace and Gromit in Aardman's reception

Founded in 2007, Aardman Digital has added a string to the bow of an outfit that today also produces some 75 commercials year. A prolific producer of games for mobile and web, as well as a creator of numerous websites, Aardman Digital is positioned at the very forefront of what the wider organisation has now been doing for over forty years; namely entertaining.

The Digital team itself is relatively small, with around 15 internal staff, but they are supported by an ample quantity of freelance talent. But just who are the people behind Aardman Digital, and what defines the work they do?

FROM CLAY ACORNS

Initially conceived to create websites – and before that newsletters – for Aardman IPs and its legion of fans, the Digital team’s early history saw it occupy just a few desks, surrounded by the giant departments working in clay and pixels.

“From that seed of a department, Aardman Digital grew,” explains the team’s assistant creative director Jake Manion. “I think, because of our name, we started attracting better and better people quite quickly. We’re lucky to be able to do that. We felt that, because we had all these people, we really were punching above our weight as what was then a relatively small team within the company.”

As a result, unrelated companies started to catching on to what Digital were doing, and began enquiring about help with IP from outside Aardman’s doors.

Shaun the Sheep in his very own 3D game

“So as well as doing our own work, which was going really well, we started to do external work, much like our commercial team does,” continues Manion. “It was then that we found ourselves working on quite a large range of different digital projects, but generally with a focus on entertainment.”

Since, the staff at Digital have made an array of games for high profile clients including the BBC and Cartoon Network, while producing own IP like the Home Sheep Home series, while involving themselves in unusual projects like the Tate’s movie, The Itch of the Golden Nit, where children used Aardman Digital crafted web-based development tools to create an entire film, relatively free of adult influence.

It would be easy to assume that those projects have come in on the back Aardman’s name alone. After all, with a forty-year heritage defined by huge and well-regarded IPs, it must help with securing client work. Or so you’d think.

A FOOT IN THE DOOR

“We really do have to prove ourselves,” insists Aardman Digital technical lead Mark Burvill of the idea that the logo on his business card could secure he and his colleagues work.

“Aardman’s reputation can get our foot in the door, for sure, and we probably do find it easy to talk to whoever we want out there, but actually converting that into work is never easy. We still have to prove ourselves in the way everybody else does.”

“It’s not the case that being Aardman means there’s no effort to find work,” adds Manion. “Like anybody we do loose pitches to other companies. It’s not like we’re the only team out there doing these kinds of projects.”

But the Aardman name does bring something else to the table. In reality, it’s a pressure, but a positive one that encourages the team, and helps attract both sparkling talent and some of the industry’s sharpest freelancers, which the core team rely on.

Shaun the Sheep in a web game

“It is pretty powerful to have Aardman’s heritage in the back of your mind all of the time,” explains Lorna Probert, head of Digital production. “Just walking out the office you see all these icons. From where I’m sat now I can see the top of the Top Bun Windmill and things Lorna Probert of Aardman Digitallike that. That is really powerful, to think of the millions of people that have seen that. And in a meeting room here there’s some Oscars looking out at us. It’s a motivating factor, and helps make everybody here feel like they are part of something special, and that they can contribute to that and have their own part in it.”

That heritage is hugely alluring, and several of the Digital staff Develop spent time with pointed to how working in a stones throw of the desks where Wallace, Gromit and Shaun’s adventures are concocted does much to push the team.

“We have a name to maintain, and we can’t let that crack,” explains Manion. “Aardman has a very good reputation, so we can’t do anything below standard, or we will get pointed out.”

“And that also helps with what our freelancers give us, because in working for Aardman they are getting to deliver something that is above and beyond what they normally get to do,” interjects Burvill. “So whether it’s us or our freelancers, we all give a lot of love to what we do. The product that comes out the end always has to have that Aardman quality and humour, and that feel that has made the company what it is.”

FUNNY BUSINESS

That Aardman quality is famously evident throughout the company’s output, but the humour Burvill highlights is a more abstract concept. Nonetheless it is a vital ingredient in what defines the Digital department, and key to attracting the right kind of client work.

“There is a real character to this place, and it’s quite hard to put a finger on it,” suggests Probert, before a long pause.

“In fact, it’s really hard to put a finger on it. Perhaps it’s to do with our priorities. More than anywhere I’ve ever worked, creativity is the priority here. Obviously we need to make money, but that seems to come further down the priority list. Everybody is focused on making the very best, really beautiful, funny thing that they can.”

The result is that the team have produced an abundance of projects that, be they own IP or not, have character in ample supply, and as such, a fortuitous circle has formed, where potential clients looking for that Aardman touch come to Digital with, often, just the kind of work the team love to tackle.

Another screen from a Shaun the Sheep game

“I’m sure if you ask any digital studio they’d like to make lots more of their own stuff, and we’re no different really,” admits Probert. “We would love to do more, but it’s about finding a balance between that stuff and the bread and butter client work.”

The team does have sizeable internal projects that they describe as ‘bubbling away in various stages’, but the fact remains that client work for broadcasters, galleries, museums and more pays the bills while the developers concoct their dream projects.

“Fortunately it’s really interesting stuff we get to do for clients, perhaps because of our heritage, and we learn so much from it and have gained so many skills that we’d love to apply to our own brands and to developing new brands,” continues Probert.

“That’s something that we’d love to do more off, but that’s not to say we’d want to move on from the other stuff we do; it’s just about getting the balance right.”

The client work Aardman undertakes may be a necessity for the studio, but as bread and butter goes, it makes for a fairly tasty dish.

CLOSE TO HOME

And the Aardman Digital staff’s luck doesn’t end with the fact that their reputation for characterful work attracts rewarding client work, for they also have an enviable resource so close to home they barely need to leave their desks.

“I feel very lucky that we have all that stuff on our doorstep, because we do use it,” says Burvill of the huge resource provided by other Aardman departments.

“And sometimes we use it a lot,” he adds. “For example, we use the sound guys here to do the sound of our games, and we’re increasingly doing more with the CG teams because the technology available for the games we’re making means we can.

“We’re reaching the point with stuff like Unity where we can actually use the models those guys are creating in our web games, so we’re starting to see that quite a bit now. It’s a really blessed position to be in, because we are up against small studios about the size of Aardman Digital, but they don’t have what we do in the same building.”

Morph - in several moulds - from the iconic British TV series Take Hart

Getting to that point, however, has taken several years. When Aardman Digital was founded it was the wider company’s young upstart, competing for the attention of the vast, established teams toiling on films and adverts.

“We’ve spent a lot of time educating and exciting people internally about the potential of Digital, and I think we really are now entrenched in everybody’s thinking, and are part of what Aardman is as one company,” confirms Probert.

“We do work with lots of the other Aardman departments and today we don’t feel in anyway like an isolated team.”

But at the same time, insist the Digital staff, they remain autonomous if they feel so inclined, and can operate as a free agent, making the games they do in the way they want. It just so happens that, for example, if they are working on a game for one of Aardman’s own brands, or handling the digital element of an IP that the commercial team is also supporting, they have unrivalled access to assets, talent and specialist staff involved in said project. Quite simply, they’ve balanced integration and autonomy with grace, and look set to reap the benefits for years to come.

The animals are at it again

“We can be very independent if we want,” concludes Burvill. “If we’re working for an external client, we can do that completely autonomously. But equally we can be as integrated as we need to be.”

It’s a situation that all of Aardman Digital’s staff say they feel lucky to be in, and it’s a hugely attractive idea to developers looking for work. Fortunately, as the team continues to grow, it appears opportunities to work with the cultural giant that is Aardman will increasingly be available to games talent, both freelance and permanent.

For now, the Digital staff must return to their desks, to create more of the games that have made them one of the UK’s most distinct developers, and so it is that they leave Develop, walk past those towering
set-pieces from Aardman’s past, and return to the daily grind of building fun.

www.aardman.com/digital