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An interview with Merlin Crossingham

// Interviews, News

With the deadline for Red Bull’s Canimation competition not too far off, aspiring stop motion student animators could be in with a chance to win themselves a rare mentoring internship at the UK’s prestigious Aardman Animations. We recently chatted to Merlin Crossingham, longtime animator and, at present, Creative Director for “Wallace & Gromit” about Aardman, Canimation and the exciting era ahead for stop-motion.

Merlin Crossingham and Canimation

To start with, can you tell me a bit about your history with Aardman and what sort of background led up to where you are now?

I’ve been at Aardman for nearly seventeen years. I started as an apprentice animator and worked my way up to senior animation ranks, animating on the feature films “Chicken Run” and “Wallace & Gromit: Curse Of The Were-Rabbit” with lots of other commercials and broadcast series in between. On “Were-Rabbit” I started some Second Unit directing for Nick Park just to ease the pressure on him a bit. Up to that point I’d just been trying to be the best animator I could, I hadn’t really considered directing. From then Nick kept asking me to do a bit more “Wallace & Gromit” directing here and there – commercials and idents, things like that – and eventually about two years ago I was asked more officially to take over the creative directorship of “Wallace & Gromit”. So, in a nutshell, that’s what I did!

How were you approached to be part of the Red Bull Canimation competition, and what interested you about it?

I still direct commercials now and again and so I was approached through our commercials department here at Aardman. What I like about the whole concept of the competition is that a big company is actually taking a punt on people’s creativity, which can be a really random thing. I really liked the fact that Red Bull are confident enough in themselves and in creative people out there looking for a way to express themselves. While so many other competitions out there are so tight and have so many limitations put on them, the level of creative freedom in this case is quite unique.

Do you feel that competitions such as this one are valuable experiences for students?

Yes, students but also people who like to do it as a hobby in their spare time, or even creative industry professionals who don’t necessarily do animation but fancy trying their hand at it. For students it’s unusual to have a competition where whoever ends up winning in each section will get to immerse themselves in a real work environment. The association of Red Bull gives studios and companies the confidence to jump on board with that kind of thing, that you know that it will be well supported and the intent behind it is really strong and serious. For us to give a month to someone coming into the studio takes quite a big amount of effort from us, so for a company like Aardman to have confidence in a competition like this is fantastic.

What would you say makes an Aardman internship unique when compared to those of other studios?

As a studio we generally don’t give internships, mainly as it’s very hard to foresee the future. Animation jobs are so long and random as to when they come into production that we don’t have a regular program. This is more mentoring, I’d say – one step beyond the usual work experience of an internship.

Also up for grabs in the competition is a copy of Stop Motion Pro. Is this software that Aardman use?

We do use it in the studio, it’s a studio based software that you can actually buy different levels of, depending on your budget or needs there are different levels of complexity to it. It’s been developed in association with Aardman over the last six or seven years, maybe longer.

Would you say that stop-motion is your preferred type of animation?

As a working professional, yes, I’ve never personally worked in any other field. As a director I’ve had to work with CGI and VFX, but as an animator I’ve never done anything other than stop-motion. But outside of that I don’t have a favourite, as long as it’s well done I like all sorts of animation, and film for that matter.

Given the recent increase of stop motion feature films, do you feel it’s going through something of a revival?

I don’t think it’s had a heyday yet, actually – it’s always been on the up. There have always been feature films in production in recent cinema history. Films like “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” certainly got the ball rolling. At Aardman we’ve done two stop-motion features, we have our third coming out and, as you rightly say, there are more stop-motion feature films in production now than were made in the last couple of years. I was told the statistics the other day and it’s astonishing, there are two in this country, two in America, I think there’s another one in Australia, a couple in Europe. So yeah, it’s doing well – long may it continue!

Are there any upcoming animated movies that you’re particularly interested in seeing?

Well, we have our own “Arthur Christmas” released on Friday, our other film “Pirates!” is out in March. I wasn’t involved with it but I’ve seen little bits of it and it looks amazing. I personally haven’t seen “Tintin” yet and would quite like to. I look forward to all the feature films, really, I have to admit it’s a soft spot for me and I usually go and see all of them.

Are there any examples of recent stop motion films, or shorts or commercials that you’ve found particularly innovative or inspiring? Or any new directors you feel have a promising future?

I really enjoyed the “Meerkat” series, they were done by a former Aardman director called Darren Walsh, who isn’t new but does amazing animation. The Twinings ad out at the moment which is quite retro, almost like an Enya video, I find strangely captivating, even though it’s not a design style I would ordinarily like. What I like in short films and commercials is something that quite often isn’t what I was expecting, slightly off-the-wall but is endearing. I’m looking forward to the BAFTA and Oscar shortlists – last year I was a little disappointed in them but I’m hoping they’ll be better picks this year.

Overall do you get the impression that animation and advertising have a good relationship these days?

I think they’ve always had a good relationship. Animation is something that suits advertising, Aardman has always done commercials and we pride ourselves on the animation production we do for commercial agencies. I think it’s an area in which you can often push creative boundaries and do things in a short form that a production company wouldn’t necessarily have the courage to do in a long form. I think creative agencies are often more willing to try something new and something slightly different for their clients, and animation is a really fantastic way to explore that. I think it’s as strong as ever.

Are there any future or ongoing Wallace & Gromit projects you can talk a bit about, or other stop-motion Aardman projects you’re excited for?

I can’t really elaborate on any specifics that we’re working on, suffice to say that Wallace and Gromit are very busy, and there’s lots to look forward to.

It is quite amazing how distinctly British and of a certain time period “Wallace & Gromit” is, and yet it’s for so long had such universal appeal and marketability and success. Why do you think after all this time they’ve remained so beloved the world over?

Gosh, that’s like the million-dollar question, isn’t it? My gut feeling is, if you like Wallace and Gromit and you connect with them it’s because of something in their relationship, in the way that they operate as man and dog, often referred to as ‘husband and wife’, ‘master’ and ‘mind’ and so on. Everybody finds something different in them and I think that’s their strength. They work on so many different levels, they’re gentle, they have great adventures and they don’t change much. Now that people are comfortable with them, they sort of know what they’re going to get, it’s like an old friend that you feel comfortable with. Apart from anything, when we make “Wallace & Gromit” it has to make us laugh – that’s the core of it, this wholesome, rather cheesey humour. Nick created them over twenty years ago and, while it wasn’t his intention, they’ve sort of become greater than the sum of their parts. I think if you could quantify what’s made them successful you’d bottle it. It’s a bit of a mystery, but it just works!


More information about Canimation can be found here

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