Studio Profile: Aardman Digital
You might expect Aardman’s headquarters to be more in keeping with the quaint British idiom of its animations – some sort of cobblestone-and-thatch structure, maybe, cluttered with eccentric machines and questionable taxidermy, topped with a giant tea-cosy. Instead, its offices are rather more dazzling – the sheer glass frontage gives way to a long, multi-level hall of wood and metal, which towers and tapers away. It’s like an Imperial Star Destroyer made out of negative space, and full of the most wonderful toys. A life-size Wallace and Gromit sit watching a showreel of Aardman’s recent efforts in the lobby. Not far behind, Morph poses by a cabinet full of hand-painted vinyl figurines, holding a sign encouraging members of staff to make a donation to charity. Shaun The Sheep flanks the stairs, while Wallace’s sinister nemesis, the penguin, can be spotted lurking in a corner, wielding some sort of remote control.
These are just some the icons which have solidified Aardman’s reputation as Britain’s most brilliant animation studio, and assured it a place of reverence in the memories of many a childhood, not least our own. But we are here for quite another reason. Although famed for its films (most recently, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!), TV shows and commercials, Aardman has bolstered these efforts with a canny digital strategy, building Web communities and games to promote its products elsewhere. With the launch of puzzle game Home Sheep Home 2 back in November, the company’s Aardman Digital development arm passed a watershed: for the first time, it had released a game not as a piece of complementary publicity but as a saleable product in its own right.
This is almost certainly just the beginning. Aardman Digital already has its own internally developed unique IP under way, and an assured success for HSH2 will pave the way to ever greater resources and more substantial projects. With the colossal weight of Aardman’s much-adored brands behind it, not to mention its excess of creative talent, the company is likely to soon become as significant a name in gaming as it is already in films and TV. And it has the calibre of backers to match: Home Sheep Home 2 is published on mobile by Chillingo, a company which has already seen no little success with Angry Birds and Cut The Rope.
Aardman was founded in 1972; its Digital wing in 2007. A wall of staff photographs shows the company’s rapid growth from tiny animation studio to multimedia behemoth, comprised of five well-defined but closely cooperating departments. We ask Digital’s creative director Dan Efergan to break it down for us.
“There are the broadcast guys making stuff for TV,” he says, “there are the film people, the rights people, who deal with everything from fluffy toys to boardgames and licensing stuff, and the commercials department which creates TV ads and branded content for people. Although everyone knows us from the feature films, and Wallace & Gromit and all that large-scale stuff, the backbone of the company has been the commercials. It started as an animation house for making commercials and still makes between 50 and 80 commercials a year. And that’s what keeps Aardman happy and excitable.”
While the commercials department is a purely work-for-hire animation house, Aardman has no shortage of people developing its own valuable IP within the broadcast and film departments. “We in the Digital department are a weird amalgamation of the two,” Efergan says. “We started out as a service to the rest of Aardman, but quickly became much like a digital agency. Like the commercials department, people come to us and say: ‘We trust that you can make great animation; we hope you can make great digital stuff’. And we’ve proved ourselves through doing that.”
The Digital department is a small, but evidently busy, team of people. It has eight to ten projects running at any one time, a mixture of large and small, product and service, social platform and game – and everything in between. Currently, it does a great deal of work for the BBC, establishing child-friendly Internet hubs for CBeebies, educational games for Bitesize and making tie-in Web games for the likes of wildlife presenter Steve Backshall.
“Something Special is a project we launched recently for special-needs children,” says digital producer Jemma Kamara, describing another BBC-funded project. “It’s a suite of games and interactive content that can be modified for their needs and input devices.”
Creative director Dan Efergan and digital producer Jemma Kamara helm Aardman Digital’s team, which employs in the region of 25 developers, animators and community managers
“It’s a very interesting project,” Efergan says. “It does very little, but in a multitude of ways. You can bring the viewing all the way back down to black-and-white, or single line, and you can switch the animation on and off.”
“We had a story where this teacher had rigged up a Webcam and projected the suite on to the ceiling,” Kamara continues. “The kids that couldn’t hold their own body weight up could lie on the ground and still play the games.”
While there’s no intention to cease work for external companies, the phenomenal success of the original Home Sheep Home, a free Web game, has earned Aardman Digital the right to originate game ideas. Though conceived as a tie-in to promote a new series of Shaun The Sheep airing on CBBC, it was no mere bit of marketing fluff. It was a short-play puzzle game with a rare degree of wit, smarts and craft to match the allure of its brand – and all made in the space of three weeks. To date, it’s had in excess of 100 million plays – a figure that continues to rise as it launches in other languages.
“With Home Sheep Home 2,” Efergan says, “we’re getting to a place where we are trusted internally, and we have a good enough team that we can build our own content. We’ve done bits and pieces before, but this feels like the first real product we’ve created where the whole of Aardman has got behind it. It feels like it’s come from the core of Aardman, not just a peripheral thing. From the beginning everyone – the creator of the [Shaun The Sheep] TV show to the heads of the department – have wanted to make this, and wanted to make it to the same level of quality as we make all our other stuff.”