Aardman Animation is a uniquely British institution with some serious entertainment acumen. As well as being an oscar-nominated film studio, it's also home to some of the most creative individuals on the planet. Look no further than our interview with Gavin Strange for proof.
When the name Aardman comes to mind though, it's the characters that shine brightest. And alongside the hapless cheese-eating duo of Wallace and Gromit, a certain flock of chickens are the characters that many of us have the fondest affinity for.
With Chicken Run 2 in the works for Netflix, we caught up with director and designer Darren Dubicki to see how animation has changed since the first film. Darren talks us through how better CGI, AI, and the advanced processing power provided by Novatech is helping the Aardman team create richer worlds and tell bigger and better stories.
A lot has changed in the last 20 years, but the fundamentals remain unchanged when it comes to stop-motion.
"Stop-motion is still our crafted filmmaking process," Darren explains. "But technology has allowed us to grow exponentially, and allowed these worlds and stories to get even bigger."
Complicated CGI set extensions, for example, can be used to expand the world where the stop-motion action is happening. This has been used in the Aardman studio for some time to replace traditional painted backdrops.
In practice, this means first crafting a physical set and then taking various spatial information from that set using 3D scanners and photogrammetry. This allows the team to then create a virtual extension of that set within the computer. As Darren puts it, this means Aardman can "push the boundaries of how far we want this world to go."
As a company and as a brand, Aardman has always been heavily entrenched in the world of putting detail into their characters and their worlds. But they are also always thinking ahead about how to push the story further.
"The story comes from character, and the environments come from character," Darren says. "So, if we create incredible characters, we can then create incredible environments that are based around the character."
Darren sees this flexibility going even further in the near future.
"You have this little stop-motion world that you work in and surrounding this world is something very high tech that allows you to change the scenery at the press of a button."
"A character that's been on set might be animated during the day. Then, a director of photography might hit a button and all of a sudden, you have a night-time scene. It feels like we're getting to a point where there's another level of flexibility and range for filmmaking, which is really exciting."
Today's impressive computing power means that the CGI team can create set extensions using everything from matte paints, to more complex computer graphics depending on the style that they're trying to achieve.
"It's really quite amazing to watch it happen, especially when you're focused somewhere in a story and then all of a sudden there's a 3D set being made before your eyes," Darren says. "It's quite an incredible world."
It also makes collaboration much easier than in Aardman's earlier years.
"Whether you're working on a script, or storyboarding further down the line, someone has an idea of what the world needs to look like. You can then have lots of options thrown back your way, which could feed back into the story."
"Everyone is more aware of what everyone else is doing now and how it impacts people on either side of their process. Now you can really collaborate with people at every stage of the process. I love to be able to see everyone thinking along the same lines, instead of you just doing your bit and then moving on to the next bit. It makes everyone feel like they're all part of the bigger creative journey."
Darren's background was in illustration but over the years he's gradually moved on from traditional illustration. Back in the days of the original Chicken Run, he became part of the art department and used 3D software to help design sets even back then, which he found helped him to "create worlds" for himself.
For Aardman, story is still everything. This is an approach Darren has also found himself applying to his work in VR in recent years.
He feels that VR is now the best way to help directors visualise a world and let them feel as if they are actually moving around and interacting with it in real-time.
"VR allows me to instantly paint a sculpture in 3D and export it into other 3D packages. It's an efficient tool for getting 3D ideas out really quickly."
Whereas in the past, Darren would spend ages just trying to get something to a certain point and then move on to the next stage, VR opened the creative floodgates.
"In VR I'm totally removing all of that time needed because I'm just concepting away in this virtual space in wonderful programs like Tilt Brush."
It's just one of many exciting storytelling avenues that modern technology allows Darren and Aardman to experiment with the boundaries of entertainment. This is something reinforced by a recent We Wait project they created for the BBC on the migrant crisis, which was a bit of a prototype for the team.
"We were asked to delve into this world and try telling a story in a fully immersive experience which is something that hasn't really been done that much," Darren explains. "It was quite a hard-hitting area to talk about and it had quite a limited budget."
"We created the stylised characters that we know would be able to animate within this world. And even though they were really primitive characters, we had incredible writers writing this story and it's not just a story that plays out passively; you look around this world and affect characters."
The idea was to make you think and feel at the same time, which is surely the high watermark that all modern entertainment should be aiming for. Darren felt initially that it was "just pushing the technology for the sake of it," but was overwhelmed by the project's reception and realised that actually, there is a lot of mileage in using VR for telling evocative stories.
We've been telling each other stories for thousands of years and will carry on doing so for thousands more. All that's changed is the delivery mechanism. And for Aardman and Darren, that means keeping up with the latest and greatest in tech.
Thankfully, Novatech is on hand to ensure they turn in premium chicken pies time and time again.
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