By James Calver
In many British households, the works of Aardman hold a special place in people’s hearts. Whether that be those who were brought up on the original Wallace & Gromit short films, those who watch Chicken Run every year at Christmas, or those only just discovering the studio now through Shaun the Sheep, Aardman have an undeniable Britishness about their work that has seen them become ingrained in our culture.
While they had seen success with their early stop-motion work, even picking up an Oscar for Creature Comforts, it wasn’t until the friendly and malleable faces of Wallace & Gromit first appeared on our screens that the nation truly started to fall in love with stop-motion animation. All three of the short films from that era possessed a handcrafted nature that endeared them to many, but also allowed for the crafting of some of the most iconic characters in British animation. Outside of the titular pair, there was Feathers McGraw, Shaun the Sheep, and a cooker that wants to ski.
However, over the past couple of decades, the influences of Aardman have become more apparent in the landscape of animation, partly down to their own success. To this day, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit remains the only stop-motion film to snatch the Best Animated Feature Academy® award from the clutches of Pixar or Disney. On top of this, 8 out of the 10 stop-motion features and shorts that Aardman have released have garnered nominations from the Academy®, with only Chicken Run and Early Man not receiving nods (the latter of which could be up for an award next year).
During this time, other filmmakers and studios have moved into the world of stop-motion animation to tell their own stories. Laika Studios was set-up in Oregon, U.S.A, as America’s answer to Aardman, focusing solely on the production of stop-motion features. To date, they’ve released four titles, all of which have been successful. Their first title, Coraline, was by far their most popular with the general public, but their most recent title, Kubo and the Two Strings, has been hailed as one of the pinnacles of modern animation.
Modern auteur Wes Anderson has also adopted the technique in various ways throughout his career, drip-feeding elements into his films since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, before going on to make two stop-motion animated features: Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs (calling on the talents of UK studios, animators and puppet-makers). These two features manage to perfectly encapsulate Anderson’s unique visual style through the hand-sculpted nature of stop-motion.
The influence of Aardman on both the works of Laika and Wes Anderson stem even further than simply establishing stop-motion animation as a viable format of storytelling. Tristan Oliver, the trusted Director of Photography for many years at Aardman, went on to photograph films for both Laika and Anderson, as well as lending his talents to the hand-painted marvel Loving Vincent. But it was at Aardman that Oliver was able to hone his craft, and establish how to visualise an epic story filmed on a minute scale.
Beyond the studios and the auteurs, there have also been several other stop-motion films made over the past few years that have pushed the platform in different directions, while maintaining that handcrafted charm. Looking at the last few years, there a several key examples of this. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kauffman’s Anomalisa could be seen as the first stop-motion feature focused at an adult audience. There was the French film Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette), directed by Claude Barras, which while it was still aimed at younger audiences, also dealt with deeply emotional topics through wonderfully colourful visuals and storytelling. Finally, while not being made with traditional stop-motion animation, The Lego Movie took the stop-motion style to an international audience, adopting various techniques to give the Lego world a visual aesthetic distinctive from the real world.
When you look at the exponential increase in the number of stop-motion films over the last few decades, it’s clear that cinema audiences have not lost their hunger for the works of Aardman, Laika and all the other filmmakers who are looking at this format as a possible option for telling their story. While we may not get to see Wallace & Gromit pair up on screen again, we can rest assured that the charm and wonder of Aardman will continue to be produced for years to come.
Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Early Man, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Shaun the Sheep: The Movie, are all part of Anim18’s Young At Heart strand, while Isle of Dogs is included as part of our Connections strand. Find out more about how you can take part here. Also watch out for special Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit Scratch n Sniff screenings in partnership with Aardman.
James has worked for the Independent Cinema Office since July 2017 after spending two years at the Kino-Teatr in St. Leonards-on-Sea as its Programming Manager. He completed his BA in Digital Film the year beforehand, during which he was responsible for setting up the University’s first Film Society and establishing the first University of Brighton Student Film Festival; a model which is still running today. Like many others, his love for British animation stemmed from the early Aardman films, such as A Grand Day Out and A Close Shave.