British animators Peter Lord and David Sproxton aren’t household names, but the creations of their studio Aardman Animations are. They’re the minds behind Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Morph. Forty-seven years ago, Lord and Sproxton were teenagers mucking around with animation. Their work caught the attention of the BBC, which commissioned them to make short sequences for a children’s program. Now they’re animation rockstars.

Wandering through Wallace and Gromit and Friends: The Magic of Aardman, a new exhibition at ACMI, it’s hard to wipe the smile off your face. On one hand, it’s a look behind the scenes at some very technically impressive design work. The exhibition looks at storyboarding, set design, lighting and the painstaking frame-by-frame animation process. On the other, it’s a catalogue of decades of imagination. Notebooks brim over with sketches and wild concepts. Models range from the disarmingly simple, such as Morph, to the astoundingly elaborate, like the 20-foot pirate ship from Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, to the darkly witty, like the POW-camp inspired chicken coop from Chicken Run.

Then, tucked away in the corner next to clay models of a family of grinning polar bears, an Oscar – one of several won by the studio.

Sproxton shrugs. “We’ve carved a little niche for ourselves, I suppose.”

I meet Sproxton and Lord for breakfast in the cafe upstairs at ACMI. Being British, and with a reputation to uphold, they have porridge and a pot of Earl Grey.

“It was a hobby that organically turned into a career,” says Lord. “We always thought we’d get a sensible job when it stopped working out.”

“I guess it’s like musicians,” says Sproxton. “You pick up a guitar, form a band, and before you know it, you’re The Who.”

“Without the glamour,” Lord adds.

I don’t want to break it to them that that’s not the usual trajectory of most bands, let alone teenagers making clay models in their bedrooms. But their methods seem to work for them. Like the arduous claymation process – where an animator produces about a second of footage in a day – that made them famous, they revel in detail. In the vicarage set from Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, for example, look beneath a leather-bound book about arcane monsters for a hidden copy of a nun pro-wrestling magazine (headline: “Big bad habits!”). Aardman has always had a distinctive voice and sense of humour that sets it apart.

The duo, later joined at Aardaman by kindred spirit Nick Park, started out as fans of animators such as Ray Harryhausen and Terry Gilliam and the physical comedy of Buster Keaton. Wallace and Gromit draws on a traditional, perhaps extinct British quaintness. But apart from this and the technical accomplishment, Aardman’s films are just very, very good.

My own favourite, Creature Comforts, uses audio interviews with ordinary people about very ordinary things, set to animations of animals. It’s about finding humour in the everyday. “I’d like to live somewhere a bit hotter,” says an ape in a zoo enclosure. “I don't like being rained on and being cold. But here I find I'm often rained on, and I'm often cold.”

Lord and Sproxton are pioneers, but their decision to use clay didn’t come out of some revolutionary motivation.

“Laziness, really,” says Sproxton. “It was easy.”

That can’t be right – claymation is an arduous, time-consuming process.

“People who work in other forms of animation can’t believe we say that,” says Lord. “They think what we do is hard. But we find it simple. It’s instinctive. You have this clay in your hands, and the models seem to suggest things to you. We’ve always found it natural.”

The animation market these days is dominated by computer animation. But something like Wallace and Gromit would lose its analogue heart if rendered digitally.

“You could do it, but you wouldn’t,” says Lord. “There’s something about clay. The humanity of it really talks to people.”

The final room of the exhibition is a workshop in which people are invited to create their own clay characters and make a short animation. A sign reminds you to keep it simple (“the best characters always are!”) and people seem to be following the advice. There are as many adults playing as there are kids. I watch as a man lovingly arranges his beret-wearing, penguin-like lump of orange clay against a backdrop of Gromit’s bedroom, and makes a perfunctory animation of him waving at the camera. It’s no Wallace. It’s not even Morph. But it has personality.

Wallace and Gromit and Friends: The Magic of Aardman is on at ACMI until October 29.

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