I once met Rutger Hauer. And Syd Mead. I've chatted to Eugene Jarvis, Alexey Pajitnov and Mark Cerny. I spent a week in South Korea with Ian Livingstone. I've pretty much met most of the people that I would have, at one point or another, considered heroes. Last week I met another.
Choosing to back the Bring Back Morph Kickstarter campaign was a no brainer - deciding what level to go in at was trickier. I admit I was tempted by a personalised Morph style model of myself (£1500, oof!) but in the end I went with the pledge that rewarded its backers with a 2 person studio tour. It wasn't cheap, but I wanted to do my part to help ensure Morph would return, and visiting the Aardman Animations studio in Bristol was a very enticing bonus. I just hoped that Peter Lord, CBE would be there on the day of our visit.
He was and he's lovely.
We arrived at the Aardman studio in Bristol just after lunch and there were already one or two others waiting in the foyer (a young lad with his dad; a chap called Matthew, who it turns out is the world's no. 1 Wallace & Gromit fan, with his mum). We were joined by four others, including a couple of animators who had flown over from Amsterdam. Whilst we were marvelling at the models and sets on display in the lobby Peter came down and introduced himself to us all. I shook the hand that had animated War Story and Adam. And Morph.
After a quick trip up the sweeping staircase to drop off our bags we were escorted by Peter (and Katie) down to the studio where Morph was being produced. Alas, photography was not permitted within the darkened walls of the old banana storage unit, just in case we revealed any trade secrets. We were introduced to Merlin, who is directing this new series of shorts.
We learned so much in the short time we were there. Merlin told us all about the shooting process for Morph, which is unique in that one animator will work on an entire episode. Up to three episodes will be in production at any one time and as such there are three identical stages. Each is a perfect reproduction of the artist's desk where Morph and Chas live, with the familiar jar of pens and the famous wooden box (the original of which housed a microscope owned by Aardman co-founder David Sproxton as a boy). We briefly chatted to the animator working on stage 2 that day and got to see, at close hand, the lighting and camera setup (yes, Aardman use Canon DSLRs controlled by Dragonframe). We learned they're blasting through up to six seconds of footage a day, which really is going some in the world of stop motion animation.
We got to see some props and other characters (yes, Nail Brush is making a return!) and saw a complete set of Chas models for a run cycle that was animated using the replacement technique. One of the most interesting stories was that of how Aardman source their plasticine for Morph. The stuff that you buy off the shelf just isn't the right colour apparently so it has to be mixed with other colours in the studio. Plus, it's way too soft these days (and melts under the lights) so they add chalk to it. Aardman then put this in an old bubble gum manufacturing machine to get it thoroughly mixed together. When that machine finally breaks down I guess they'll just have to commission a replacement!
Before we left, Eric and I tried to commit the 15 episode titles to memory (they were conspicuously pinned to the wall). I'm afraid you'll just have to wait to find out.
Next stop was the model making workshop. This hive of activity was home to a small group of craftsmen, beavering away on miniature props for the various productions going on at Aardman. A table proudly displayed many of the famous models and characters from Aardman's history and even though I suspect it had been arranged purely for our benefit it was great to see the Cuprinol man, the blue Amigo Loans guy and dozens of other familiar faces up close.
Our journey continued on to the Morph Memory room. Now this definitely was set up for our benefit, but that doesn't matter because it was great. I could have spent two hours in here looking at old photographs (the walls were covered) and exploring the artefacts. In one corner stood a set of scales, the original set I presume, used to weigh out the plasticine for Morph. There was yellow sticker with an M marking the amount needed for our hero - five and three quarter ounces (as Merlin had previously informed me). Peter spent yet more time telling us stories and answering questions.
We returned to the room where we started for some refreshments. I was slightly nervous about asking Peter to sign my Aardman book of 3D animation. I needn't have worried; remember Matthew? The no. 1 fan I mentioned? He had a pile of books nearly as tall as me.
I chatted to Peter about books whilst he was signing my copy and he asked if I had read Richard Williams' book The Animator's Survival Kit. He then casually mentioned "Of course Richard's working here at the moment. He's officially retired, but he asked if he could come and do some work here." One of the dutch animators overheard this and almost fainted. Richard Williams was next door?! For those of you who don't know who Richard Williams is, let's just say he's quite important in the world of animation.
We were treated to a seat in Aardman's own screening room where we watched a few choice Morph episodes and got a glimpse of the new Shaun The Sheep movie. Our tour had come to its end and I can honestly say that I don't think that Peter Lord, Merlin, Katie and everyone else that we met, could have done any more to make our Kickstarter reward any more enjoyable.
Aardman is a magical place, the walls are adorned with beautiful, whimsical illustrations; every room is filled with miniature treasures; even the elevator warns you to "Mind the doors Gromit!" with the instantly recognisable voice of Peter Sallis. I'm so proud to have been a part of the Bring Back Morph campaign, and I have a sneaking suspicion that we might see another Kickstarter appeal at some point, maybe for a much larger scale project.