Interview: Aardman Animations’ David Sproxton

Ahead of the release of its latest flick, the festive Arthur Christmas, Fohnhouse caught up with Aardman Animations co-founder David Sproxton to talk origins, influences, and favourite characters.

When would you say you got your big break or your foot in the door, and was it an arduous journey to get to that point?

Probably the work for Channel 4 was the real break, although getting to make the Morph series gave us work (at a very low salary) for a couple of years. The C4 work led to commercials which gave us more financial security.

You met Nick Park at the NFTS, but had you had any formal training yourself prior to setting up Aardman Animations, or are you and Peter Lord self-schooled animators?

We had no formal training at all and Peter, who is very artistic, hadn’t even been to art school. We both have academic degrees. We meet Nick when he asked us to come in to give a “seminar” at the NFTS… We felt like the blind leading the blind!

Would you be able to just outline your respective roles within the company? Do you mainly work as a cinematographer and the other two as animators, and have those roles evolved over time to include or exclude other elements of the production process?

Whilst I used to do a great deal of lighting and photography, I’m afraid I’ve found myself doing more managerial stuff – although the bulk of it is creative rather than admin, I’m pleased to say. I do keep an eye on how we shoot and light stuff and manage the technical group here.
Pete and Nick both direct and help in the development of our feature films.

You mentioned in one of your podcasts on the Aardman website that you and Lord were like a one-man band in a cut-off industry with little pockets of people. Would you say the industry has changed much?

It has changed. There are more people involved and many, many more companies. But many are also still quite small. However, people know more about each other now and what’s going on, and there is a great deal more exchange of information and knowledge than there was when we started. And hundreds more college courses.

Is it harder to get a break today?

It’s much easier to get your work seen (YouTube and the rest) but whether it’s easier to get a break I don’t know. There are many more opportunities out there, but also hoards of people trying to get through the same doors as everyone else. Probably, on balance, if you’ve got talent it’s easier now to find work in the industry at some level than it was when we started.

Did you have any mentors coming up?

We were helped by the BBC producers we worked with on early projects, and a couple of good advertising agency producers when we got into making commercials, but nothing that you would call formal mentoring.

Who did you admire in the industry?

We loved Ivor Wood for the work he did and the way he worked, with a very small team making lovely kids series. On the bigger scale Ray Harryhausen was an influence. Personally, I admired the work of Freddie Young, a director of photography who shot many of David Lean’s films.

Where does your creativity come from/what inspires you?

I guess being brought up in a pretty liberal household, with space to make things was part of it. Otherwise I guess it’s what you are born with and what you make of it. I take inspiration from all sorts of things, but most from seeing how people can come up with all sorts of stuff when pushed, and the ingenuity of man.

Do you have a favourite Aardman character(s) or project?

I still love the film The Wrong Trousers and it’s been great taking those characters into another world of television through the World of Invention. We have a great deal on at the moment and they are all interesting projects in their own ways.

You’ve worked in advertising and the music video world/MTV era – as have many others who have gone on to forge highly successful film careers. For those wanting to work in the industry, would you say that those avenues still create as much exposure for practitioners today?

It’s all good practice, with different demands, budgets and schedules, so it’s good to take those opportunities when they arise. You can never have too much practice, and working with all sorts of different people on different projects teaches you a huge amount.

Are there things in your career that have been instrumental in your success?

It’s a matter of making your own luck, looking out for opportunities, working with others as a team and not being defeated by rejection letters.

With all you’ve achieved, people are inclined to call you the UK’s equivalent of Pixar. Would you agree?

We are a big company within the European context. Have we been as successful as Pixar, almost certainly not. But it’s nice to be compared to that powerhouse of creativity.

Considering your origins and the digital realm you’re now entering, how would you sum up Aardman Animations, and where would you like the company to go?

We continue to build on our success, to create strong characters to drive stories for the big and little screen.

What tips can you offer this generation of filmmakers/industry hopefuls?

Keep practicing, try hard, then try harder and keep going….

Do you have an ethos?

Be fair, be kind and treat others as you would wish to be treated. Somewhere we have a mission statement!

Final question. Is it still as much fun?

Oh, yes, on a good day!