Emru Townsend: Well, when did you actually find your feet, as it were?
David Sproxton: Well, gradually what happened was, I guess really a couple of years later, as you have more confidence doing commercials, because commercials are always pushing you to do things which you've never done before. In a way that's a good thing about them--and because we were outside London, we didn't have all the other facilities and services at our disposal. You'd say, well, look, if you're doing this, do that, and these guys do this, and this is what you do. And also at that stage we didn't have a full-time producer. And this is a big mistake. As I say, it was our very early days, actually at the time we couldn't afford one until we'd gotten on to commercials, and very quickly after about three or four months, we were, oh my God, we've got to have a producer to sort this stuff out. And actually we got one who was extremely good, who had worked at Dick Williams' studio, [where they] did cel animation work. So she understood animation, she understood agencies, she understood how we worked. And it clicked very, very quickly. She was very, very good. So I guess about a year or so later, you've built up this kind of confidence. And you've also built up technique, and also a network of suppliers, modelmakers, special effects sort of people, designers... because again, previously we hadn't really been able to afford to use many outside people. I mean now, you take it for granted: you just dial them up and then they come.
So essentially up until this point it was still just you and Peter Lord.
Yeah. And then we took on Richard Golesowski, who did those Rex the Runt films. And really, his strength in a way is as a designer. He's got some great ideas, I mean in a way, he's very strong on graphics, and graphic-type cartoons. He came on board, and helped us on quite a few commercials. In fact, he's just left, he's been with us about ten years, now he's kind of gone freelance... he'll be back, we're calling him back, we're still great mates.
So what happened... that's right, we got into doing commercials... and work just poured in. It's quite extraordinary--we never really advertised for work. In those days, we just couldn't handle the work. And we moved premises, and then we found Nick [Park]. And we had--that's right, we moved premises because we needed bigger premises and a bigger studio. And at the same time, we formed a liaison with a TV writer/producer in Bristol. He was a pretty weird character. He was actually quite a good writer, but an awful producer and a terrible director. And he saw the strength of the work we were doing. And also two or three other people: David Anderson was one, and two designers, and somebody else... and he put up an idea to Channel 4, which was five films based on the nuclear threat, as perceived in various ways. He'd actually written them all. One was like, a discussion between the wives of two American ex-presidents, about the power of their husbands and the nuclear thing. Another one was called Dreamless Sleep, which was about a couple in a cottage, and their anxieties about the nuclear threat. It's never articulated in words, it's just an atmospheric piece which was done by David Anderson who did Door and Deadsy.
Were Deadsy and Door done by Aardman? I've forgotten.
No, they were done by David. He was working with us for quite a while, and then he left and joined another company in London. But one of the main guys who used to help him back at Bristol, we've used him a great deal. They're both very good pieces, written by Russell Hoban.
So out of this little series of anti-nuclear films came Babylon, which is quite a long piece, I think it's thirteen or fifteen minutes or something. It's quite long.
We were astounded by Babylon.
It's a fairly major number. It's very funny, because it isn't a film that we would have made ourselves. Again, it was great to work on, because it was a big piece, it was very atmospheric. It's very funny, Pete and I have ambivalent feelings about it, mainly because emotionally, it became a bit of a trauma, because of this other guy, this writer... who actually ended up ripping everybody off. It's funny because he's actually quite a good writer, but he just couldn't produce.
That's too bad, because technically speaking Babylon is a fantastic piece of work.
Yes, that's right, well, we did all the production on it, in fact it took us about eighteen months to make. And this is the kind of thing that in a way it can be grating. This guy, he was the writer, in the entire time he only came to the studio twice. So we more or less had a sort of free hand. Pete storyboarded it, and we got on with it, and we realized we needed more animators, which is when we found Nick and said, look, come and help us on Babylon, get out of the film school, we'll pay you, bring all your sets and models for Grand Day Out that you need, and when we finish Babylon we'll get to work on Grand Day Out. Which is more or less what happened, I think it was probably about a year after he'd joined us that he actually got to work on Grand Day Out and finish it off. He actually finished it off quite rapidly. He got a fair bit of help.
You mentioned before that he had worked for five years on his own, and he was on sort of a shoestring.
Well, it's very interesting. The UK National Film School is a bit like the [National] Film Board here. Once they say "go", there's no real deadline to meet. You've got a production budget, you know you can complete the film on that budget, I mean he didn't have any salary. He had his educational grant, which lasted three years, and then he was signing on, or whatever you call it--on the dole, on social security, for two years. It was kind of weird, he had all this money in his production account, and he had no income because he couldn't use it for living on. So for another two years, he survived like that, and then we got him out and basically he finished it after joining us after two years... and did all the moon stuff, and some of the interiors of the spaceship. The bulk of the film he finished in about nine months. Because we could give him modelmakers, I mean I did some of the stuff there, on the lights and camera, gave him advice on getting the storyboard finished. Because there were whole chunks of story which we just said, forget that, you just don't need it, it's irrelevant. This thing's going to go on forever if you put all this in. In a way the important thing for him was to get it finished. It's got its weaknesses, without a doubt, but I think the characters came over very strongly, and from his point of view, it was... Well, it was quite an achievement, actually, it was quite an achievement. But it showed his tenacity, and his ability to kind of keep going and to put the thing together...
And also, in a way he kind of matured. Obviously, working with us on things like Babylon and commercials, he got more in tune with a more efficient way of working.
It shows in The Wrong Trousers, the difference of just a few years of experience.
And he's learnt a lot on that film. I mean, that had a full crew, the core crew was about a dozen people, two DOPs [directors of photography], a camera assistant, a full-time production manager, Steve Box (he was the key animator), an editor, and a bundle of modelmakers. Nick only had to direct it and animate it--he didn't have to make everything. He didn't have to make his own models. So that steamed ahead quite rapidly. And also, I guess, coming back to kind of the Aardman philosophy of making the thing look good, with the lighting and the set design, and the stuff that he had learned from the way we work on commercials. Also, we had a good writer, which was something that we realized we had to do, and in fact we'd been having seminars at work with writers about how you go about writing stories, and structuring plots and that sort of stuff. Which very often in animation doesn't really happen. It seems to be--it's not that it's precious, it's just a kind of blind spot. Every other form of filmmaking, you know, you might be a writer, and you might write it. You may even direct it. But you wouldn't write it, edit it, and do the soundtrack. You would get other people in. In animation, it's kind of weird. There's a tendency for the one person to do absolutely everything. And the bit that often lets them down is the lack of skill at the writing end.
Well, animation is in many ways about total control over everything. You have absolute control over every frame. Actually, that's what impresses me about Aardman's output, and what impressed me about A Grand Day Out was... as an example, in the rocket, Gromit is building a house of cards, and Wallace causes it to fall down. All Gromit does is, he looks up and raises his eyebrows. And it's this incredibly tiny--how large is the model for Gromit?
That model is very small, Gromit's about this big [four inches], and Wallace is about this big [ten inches]. The penguin is that big [three inches], the penguin's very small.
So a little three-inch model of Gromit is sitting there, and all he had to move was the eyebrows, which would be about a fifth of an inch at most. And it's just incredible subtlety of movement. That's always impressed me. The same with Loves Me... Loves Me Not. That was an incredible film, we were floored after watching that.
Jeff [Newitt] is an incredible animator. In many ways, he's probably the strongest animator we've got, because he's such a perfectionist. [Jeff Newitt left Aardman in 1994 to run his own studio --Ed.]
What work has he done before?
He did some film work, and he started working on commercials with us, as a freelancer. He did a series of adverts for a wood preserver, which featured a man made out of wood. He's actually half life-sized, he's like three feet tall, and had a lot of metalwork in. So Jeff did a bundle of those, we did a lot of Lego commercials together, which were also technically quite challenging.
This is the standard, old-fashioned block Lego, or the newer, with gears and so on?
This was pretty much the old stuff, not Lego Technics, but again, they featured figures. Everything was made out of Lego.
And what he has--he has an enormous amount of patience, above everything else--but, he is a perfectionist. And in Loves Me... Loves Me Not, the model was about this big [gestures, about a foot], body made out of latex foam, the head was made of clay. We still don't know how he got such fine movements. In certain scenes he just moves so slowly, and so smoothly, and we have video systems, we have digital framestores, which help you see the frame you've just taken, [and plan] the frame you're about to take but...
Yeah, and there was some matting at some points...
Yes, and also there was a lot of optical work. Mainly because in sequences where the guy's jumping up and down, there are rods sticking out of him. So...
Still, it doesn't detract from it.
No. The animation was really quite fantastic.
Most of our row, actually, was made up of budding animators and filmmakers, from Concordia University. We were talking about it yesterday, and we were just... floored. I mean, we couldn't believe how graceful he is.
Yeah, that's right. In a way, Loves Me... Loves Me Not doesn't show the sort of real cinematic approach he takes. His storyboards for commercials are very dynamic. I love working with him. He says basically it's got to be a challenge. It doesn't matter what it is, it could be wrestling in mud. [Such as] this wooden man. Physically, it's quite a difficult thing to do. The character's big, it's quite cumbersome... it's actually difficult to animate. And what his challenge is, is to make this great lump of fiberglass come to life. And he does it. It's quite fantastic. He sees a lot of films, and he really kind of analyses what's going on. He's probably more articulate about all this--I think Nick has a lot of it as well, but Jeff's much more articulate and much more of the world. Nick's a little bit otherworldly, and Jeff's much more...
Like Nick, he'll go and see all these mystery movies, and he loves all that. The thriller with the tension, the way which the story is set out, and kept you on the edge of your seat. He'll rip it apart if it isn't any good, he isn't shy, he'll analyze it to death. But he really does study the stuff. And he's a very good craftsman, he used to make a lot of his own models, he's a very good modelmaker as well.
When he was at college, he made a couple of films... It's very interesting, actually, because when he was at college--you've probably seen this yourself. A lot of student films never get finished, particularly if they're animated.
I know that from first-hand experience.
There was a time, I think it was in the mid to late 80's, when... you know, Star Wars had been and gone, and everybody was into special effects. We were seeing student films, and this guy was saying, "Yep, I'm gonna do Star Wars." And you think, "You're crazy!" I think it was done on 16mm, maybe it was done on Super8. He was planning on doing this thing using some incredible optical work, and we said, "No." You know, you don't need to be able to do that, because if you really need to do that in a film, you go to these guys down the road, because they've got an optical bench, and they'll get it absolutely spot on, and you don't have to be concerned about getting the exposures right. What you'd have to do is come up with the ideas.
And we saw a ton of student films like, "Well, actually, um, I started doing Ben Hur in clay, but after four years I'd only made the stadium," sort of thing. And Jeff--it was quite amazing. Because every film he started in college, he finished. He did two or three drawn animation films, some of them very simple. Most of them had black endings. A very funny film was called Jump. It's very cartoony. Two guys in an aeroplane, and the engines cut out. It's all about are they going to bail out, are they not going to bail out. They bail out, and they get tangled up in each others' parachutes.
Wait a minute, I think I've seen that.
You may have seen that. It's been out for some time, I think Terry Thoren had it.
Right. And they...
They hit the ground, and they're dead. Splat!
[laughs] Yeah, big red blot.
That's right, there is no happy ending. It's quite shocking, really.
And we thought, this is quite extraordinary, because he's finished every one of these. And he did a kind of pop promo to a rock and roll number, which was in model work, and it was quite gothic. And he finished that, and we thought, there's a lot of work in this... and he's done this in his final year, which was no mean achievement. We talked, and [he said] "Basically, I just didn't do anything but make this film." Everybody else was having a high old time every evening, and he just put the hours in. And it was singularly the most impressive thing about him at that point. This guy has got an incredible degree of commitment. He can just push himself and just do it. And they were all quite viewable films. They weren't boring, they were normally quite short, but they were complete.
He then worked for an outfit in London doing a children's animation series, which he then left, and we sort of found him again. And he's done absolute wonders. He really is an extraordinary guy. And when he's made films, he's like, "Okay, that's that, done that, I've got to move on. Don't want to see it again. I don't want to go to the festivals." I dragged him to the ICA in London, the ICA had a thing on animation a bit like the thing here, but it was all British, and we wanted to just give a little talk. And it was the most scary thing he'd ever done. It was brilliant, because he is so enthusiastic, and it just went over very well. We showed two or three of his pieces, and explained how he did them. It was great in a way to get him... not into the public eye, but for him to get that feedback. Because in a way, he's kind of introverted. As I say, he doesn't really go and see his screenings, he'll just, "If you're going to watch it, go and watch it, I'll go see a movie." [laughs]