I'm a child of Nick Park and Aardman Animation. From Morph on Hartbeat and Take Hart, Wallace & Gromit and Creature Comforts on Channel 4 (and then all those electricity ads), they were my Disney, my Pixar, and there are blinkers towards those bits of plasticine that embodied British understatement that are as heartfelt to me as anything from Alan Bennett or Mike Leigh. It's the 25th anniversary of the Wallace And Gromit short film, A Close Shave, that really, really wanted to be a feature film – and led the way to the likes of Chicken Run, Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, Early Man and more. And so this week, I got the chance to speak to the Creative Director of Aardman Animation, Merlin Crossingham who worked as a runner on that film, twenty-five years ago, before joining Aardman full-time. A gentle voice, a seemingly unassuming man, I was a little surprised by what I found.
Merlin (I didn't ask about the name, I mean he must get that all the time) told me about the choices he didn't make as well as the ones he did, back in the early nineties. "I studied animation as a degree and got myself into the National School of Film and Television for a post-graduate degree – but at the same time, I was offered an apprenticeship. So I had actually got myself a job as a runner at Aardman in 94, so I worked as a runner on A Close Shave."
Back up a bit here. Every animator has an origin story and we seemed to have skipped a couple of steps. He told me "I didn't really have Aardman on my radar as a place to go, I was more into fine art animation but I accidentally discovered that I could do character animation." Accidentally… okay, well come back to that. "Aardman were crewing up for Chicken Run – I didn't ever go to the National School of Film and Television. I stayed at Aardman and refined my animation skills on Chicken Run and then got invited to pick up some directing because Nick Park was too busy and just started directing Wallace And Gromit more than I was animating and after a while in about 2009, Nick asked me to take on sort of a more official creative director role, looking after everything we do with Wallace across the board whether it's a third-party product, a live event, a roller coaster, a commercial, a short film, TV series you know you name it, I look after all that kind of stuff for Nick, so he can concentrate on his bigger projects like motion pictures, Early Man as an example…" You know, I thought animators were meant to spend excruciating amounts of time on individual frames, not race ahead like it's going out of fashion. Let's back up again. What did he say earlier?
I had to ask. "How do you accidentally discover that you can do character animation?" I mean it's not like you just trip on a branch and find yourself knee-deep in plasticene. Or maybe you do? Merlin told me "I was in my teens, I was an acrobat and a performer and I performed with the Moscow State Circus."
Hang on, what? Is this the origin of Robin, The Boy Wonder? Maybe. "I could always perform and I've always been comfortable as a performer and what I realized was I could take some of that skill and put it into an animated character. So I didn't necessarily have the refined animation skills, I could pose a character, I already had a bit of an experience with comic timing and things just started to gel. Back when I was learning, Disney in 2D was the front runner, Wallace And Gromit were in their very early days and lots of my peers had very clear ambitions to be character animators and I didn't. I was very much more a fine art filmmaker um and so it was quite an epiphany for me to discover the character animation lit more of my creative fires. I took quite a short detour down that avenue and ended up at Aardman as a character animator."
I asked if he missed anything from those days of physical performance. "So that transitioned into me using a lot of those aerial skills I had. I became a climbing instructor and sort of that's how I funded film school, so I used the physicalness as a climber and I still climb today, so that that side of it has stayed with me. And get the performance gratification by filmmaking so it all worked out."
I asked if he found similar stories with other animators, regarding physical expression or if he was a bit of an outlier in that regard. "I think I do stick out a little bit. There is a little trend with some animators, you do find that some animators drive fast motorcycles or do something exciting um to balance the day-to-day actual process of animation but you know that's tarring them all with quite a big brush." I also note from his Twitter profile that he's a private pilot too. Which considering the aeronautical scenes in A Close Shave, seems like this had to all be destiny. A Close Shave also marked the ramping up of Aardman and of Nick Park's role, having to create an almost factory-like process, rather than the hands-on nature of previous films from one auteur.
"When I joined it the production of A Close Shave, it was already in full swing. But it was evident that it was all new, and the step up as a studio to being more efficient and being more dynamic in the way that it problem solved. In terms of having a crew rather than just a couple of people like Nick, Steve Box and a much more intimate crew than was on The Wrong Trousers. A Close Shave was the first step towards more of a larger studio working environment. And for a feature film like Chicken Run which required when we got to full speed about thirty animators and I think A Close Shave, it was six or seven so it's quite a massive leap to go from the size of A Close Shave which is a half-hour production to a full-on Dreamworks-funded feature film."
I asked how that change affected him as an animator. "The step-up is it's not just twice, it's huge. It is a big jump but it happened over about three years so there's a lot of time to practice and get better and hone your skills. But I was young and I was just hungry for it, and as a crew we generally all were young and no one at Aardman had done this before so we were all finding our feet and having a great adventure in animated film." He also talked about how what most impressed him about that time working on A Close Shave was "just how good everyone was" and that it inspired him to be better.
I asked him if, twenty-five years later he was still able to capture that energy. "I think it's essential, especially in the type of animated film production like stop motion. I think it's very hard to do if you don't have a passion for it or it becomes it's too hard to keep motivated. The actual process of stop-motion animation is fairly dull and pretty brutal, physically and mentally and I think if you don't have a passion that's driving it someplace within, you're not going to survive a big project like a feature film."
Now that he's Creative Director, his "Big Brother" eye as he put it, has a wider gaze over everything else, but is similar in scope to the eye he had as a young animator when all he had to worry about was two or three seconds. How is that as a segue to the reason I got this interview? But Merlin sees the same attention to detail in the people he works with, and the projects he oversees – including the Close Shave collectables being issued for the anniversary with The Vine Lab. He holds the actual master copies of versions of the characters from that movie in his office and no one else is getting them, so it wasn't as easy to get the figurines made in socially distanced times, but he expressed his utter delight for the versions that The Vine Lab have created – limited to 1995 pieces each (25 years since do you see?) and available through Kickstarter. Merlin was grateful that animation was less affected than other broadcast industries by the coronavirus, but of course, there are issues with clay animation. The different units of filming are kept separate with social distancing, and they have been able to carry on almost as normal through the shutdown.
He also talked about the difficulties in letting go of some control in his work – though surrounding himself with exceptional talent is usually the best way. He did point out that making the switch from his own voice tracks when a voiceover artist is hired, is a harder one. I do note that he does the voice of Chas in the Morph TV series.
We also got a chance to talk about what is probably my favourite Aardman work, well away from the Wallaces, Shauns and Chickens… Creature Comforts. The short animation that took real-life vox pop conversations and animated them with animals, transforming the aspects of life that people talked, about in an allegorical way. Creature Comforts beat the also-nominated Wrong Trousers to the Oscar that year, though as Merlin points out, everyone thinks it was the other way around. Merlin directed the follow-up TV series and sees Creature Comforts as just as much a piece of artifice as the scripted animation, "we write very leading questions and there is a LOT of editing", all designed to control much more of the films than might be obvious. But also noted that there was a very slight "grittiness", or natural feel that A Close Shave and Chicken Run were able to learn from, in terms of voiceover and character portrayal on-screen.
He also sees in Creature Comforts, that which divides British and American comedy, in that in the UK we like to laugh at ourselves where Americans prefer to laugh at other people. Which is why American comedians tend to be wackier "laugh at me" types – but there is a section of the American audience that gets fascinated at British comedy for its differences, that Creature Comforts slots into that appeal, in that the audience sees themselves in the characters – and believes that the US version of Creature Comforts wasn't as successful with a wider audience for that reason.
There is also a discernible sadness in Merlin's voice, that while the scope and acceptability for animation is much wider, the opportunities provided by the likes of Channel 4 in the mid-nineties, with the Lip Synch strand that Creature Comforts was a part of, there is less funded experimentation in animation now. It happens, of course, but comes from different directions. But with the new Morph TV series hitting Sky TV now, more Wallace and Gromit stories, including an Augmented Reality film coming for devices, there does seem a lot of scope. The Close Shave figurine Kickstarter from The Vine Lab is running right now for a couple more weeks.