One of the most distinctive and recognizable studios in the world is Aardman Animations, whose charming and uproariously funny (mostly stop-animation) films, including Chicken Run, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and the Wallace and Gromit movies have delighted audiences and critics for decades. The new history A Grand Success! The People and Characters Who Created Aardman (out now from Abrams Press) finds founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton telling their own story, and it’s a detailed and delightful one.
Aardman is an Academy Awards mainstay – they’ve been nominated for ten, and won four times- and in this exclusive excerpt, Lord and Sproxton recall the company’s first big Oscar win.
The big day finally dawned and, for the Aardman contingent, seemed to go on forever. They had been booked into the historic Roosevelt Hotel, slap bang on Hollywood Boulevard; appropriately so, as it had been the venue for the first-ever Academy Awards back in 1929, becoming a favourite destination for a host of Hollywood stars since, including Monroe, Gable, Chaplin and Shirley Temple among others. After lunch, it was time to take out the tuxedos, don the dress shirts and tie the bow ties – activities the Aardman team did about as often as they played croquet.
Spike and Mike [the durable animation festival], never given to understatement, had made sure their four-car convoy to the awards ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium would stand out – and that it most certainly did. Dismissing the conventional option of stately black limousines, they had hired four striking classic cars from the 1950s, including a pink Cadillac and a beautiful white ’58 Chevy convertible, which was chosen to carry the Aardman team. The wild cheers from the crowds lining the streets as they passed by confirmed this as a terrific publicity stunt.
They arrived, stepped out onto the red carpet and immediately walked into a seething mass of humanity – camera bulbs flashing, fans yelling and shouting, photographers screaming at them to look their way. It turned out they were following hard on the heels of Michael Douglas and his retinue, so there was an even more heightened sense of hysterical excitement in the air. Peter, David and Nick walked through it all, feeling distinctly dazed by the noise and confusion. The flashbulbs kept popping at them all the way to the door of the Shrine.
Inside, they had a quick drink before splitting up – Peter and David to the balcony; Nick to his seat in the stalls with his girlfriend. His seat was quite far forward and right on the aisle; had he been a regular Academy Award-goer, he might have known enough to have taken that placement as a good omen. Instead, he surveyed the people around him and felt uneasy, fretting about the fact that he might actually have to go on stage and speak to them all.
It’s a fair bet that Nick Park was perhaps the shyest person in the Shrine stalls that evening, sitting among such stars as Michael Douglas, Sophia Loren, Dustin Hoffman and Robert de Niro. As the awards got underway, he began to worry about remembering who to thank if one of his two films turned out to be the winner.
The evening drew on, and suddenly Chevy Chase was on stage, along with Martin Short, to present the animation award. They were joined – in cartoon form – by Woody Woodpecker, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his first appearance on film (in Knock Knock). It was Woody who read out the result: “And the winner is . . . Creature Comforts. Nick Park!”
On the aisle in the sixth row, Nick rose from his seat and made his way to the podium. Smiling shyly and nervously, he said, holding his Oscar statuette: “Umm … I’d like to thank Aardman Animations in Bristol, England. That’s Peter Lord and David Sproxton, and all the team in Bristol. Also Channel 4 TV. And, er, thanks to Spike and Mike for bring- ing me here.”
His speech had lasted just fourteen seconds. And, with that, he walked off to face more photographers backstage, with flashbulbs popping and reporters (mostly British ones, for this was decidedly a British success) shouting ques- tions at him.
Afterwards, he returned to his seat to find an unknown ‘seat filler’ had replaced him while he was on stage (usual protocol, in case the cameras happened to locate an empty seat in the auditorium). The seat filler swiftly gave way to Nick and his statuette, however, and he was left to enjoy the amazing sensation of the moment in peace.
The Academy Award for Creature Comforts was a phenomenal success for Aardman. Peter Lord says: ‘We were delighted that Nick made a film in the ‘Aardman tradition’, but the credit is entirely his. Creature Comforts was sort of spectacular in its simplicity. He had a great idea and he put it together beautifully, choosing the best bits of dialogue and adding some unforgettable sight gags. It was technically simple, in that the camera was always locked off and the characters moved very little.
But those characters proved to be totally irresistible to an audience, especially the Brazilian jaguar, who is an absolute showstopper. It simply worked on people on a level we had never seen before. It got shown a lot at film festivals, and it always took the prize. Everyone was astonished by it.
“And that’s because Nick has always had this extraordinary instinct for comedy. Now some people are very funny, some stand-ups are really funny. But there aren’t many animators like that. The word is overused, but Nick is a true genius when it comes to comedy. But the fact that Nick was nominated for two Academy Awards – that really was extraordinary. And A Grand Day Out got similar reactions. There was obviously a magic to it that you don’t see until it’s finished. Everyone could see the Wallace and Gromit pairing was full of good ideas and great gags, but that they should come together quite so well and be so irresistible was still a surprise. So, seeing that no one could resist Nick’s work and because we had seen it succeeding wherever it was shown, sweeping the board, we weren’t that surprised to find our- selves going to the Academy Awards – even though the whole thing turned out to be like a fantasy dream.”
Peter acknowledges the irony in the fact that Nick was Academy Award-nominated for a film that took him several years of hard slog to complete, whereas the film that won the award only took him a few months.
“Yes,” he says. “Not a bad irony, though.”
Adapted excerpt from the new book “A Grand Success!” by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with an introduction by Nick Park, published by Abrams Press; © 2019 Aardman Animations Ltd.