Peter Lord, CBE and David Sproxton, CBE
Doctor of Laws
Wednesday 14 July 2010 - Orator: Professor David Clarke
What was a fairly ordinary moment in the life of a secondary school was a seminal point in the history of the creative arts. Peter Lord, who had been born in Bristol (where his family roots lay in Knowle, Clifton and Westbury-on-Trym) was starting at Woking Boys Grammar School following his family’s return to the UK after 3 years in Australia. The boys in the class had been arranged alphabetically but the only spare space for him was next to David Sproxton. Thus were two creative geniuses thrown together at 12 years old. They made their first film while they were still at school, working on the kitchen table, experimenting with drawn animation (fifth rate according to Peter) puppets, cut-outs and chalk drawings and eventually with plasticine. They co-wrote their stories with David specialising in camera (using a Bolex cine), while Peter concentrated on animation. Though they do not claim to be originators of the use of animated plasticine models, they have taken the medium’s ability to morph and create living characters to a sublime level.
But before Morph, and all the other characters we now know so well, there was university, Durham for David, studying Geography, and York for Peter, studying English Literature. Their professional partnership was becoming established even while they studied separately, as they met up in the summer. While others might have earned pin money from odd jobs, they could make £600 for a summer of work on a series of 45 second pieces for the children’s television programme ‘Vision On’. They describe some of their early work as terrible, but such a judgement is no doubt relative as it was still sufficiently good to be commissioned - and continued - by the BBC.
BBC Bristol was the place where the programmes were recorded and when, on graduating, David and Peter decided to pursue film-making full-time, the two Woking boys made their permanent home in Bristol. They each came with their ‘significant other’, both former pupils of Woking Girls Grammar School! And it is a pleasure to welcome Pete’s wife Karen and David’s partner Sue with us this morning.
Two events started David and Peter out on the road to success. Peter describes them as lucky breaks but it was no doubt recognition of talent when the ‘Vision On’ producer called to ask if they would work on a new programme – ‘Take Hart’. Their first professional creation was the plasticine character Morph who was very much a comic foil for Tony Hart. Such was the success of that character that it later had its own BBC series ‘The Amazing Adventures of Morph’ in the then much valued ‘Magic Roundabout’ slot at the end of children’s television and before the news. Their second lucky break was being offered space in a Clifton studio – no more kitchen tables – but for the next seven years their partnership in Aardman Animations was very much a ‘hand to mouth’ existence. It was during this period that their short animated films, the first being ‘Down and Out’, employed the ground-breaking technique of using recorded conversations of real people as the basis for the script – a technique later developed in the Oscar winning ‘Creature Comforts’.
In the early 1980’s Peter and David were invited by a young student at the National Film and Television School, who had been inspired by seeing Morph on television, to lecture and lead a workshop. Thus it was that they met Nick Park, the student who had invited them and who was already working on his own student film, ‘A Grand Day Out’. Nick’s talent was recognised by David and Peter who could also see that ‘A Grand Day Out’ would, at the then current rate of progress, take the best part of a life time to complete. So Nick Park (already an honorary graduate of this University) joined Peter and David; Wallace and Gromit were born and the three of them together have taken Aardman Animations to the highest level of artistic creativity.
In the last 30 years or so, Aardman Animations has produced an exceptionally large number of critically acclaimed works and collected on the way a string of very prestigious awards including four Oscars, two Academy awards and nine BAFTAs (not to mention additional nominations) and the world has taken to its heart the many characters they have created not least Morph, Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and the many animal characterisations in Creature Comforts. But the Aardman team’s critically acclaimed work is far wider than these well known figures. Their rock video, ‘Sledgehammer’, for Peter Gabriel’s number one single in 1986, collected almost every award that year while their five minute films, ‘LipSynch’, on Channel 4 in 1989, which included Peter Lord’s ‘War Story’, was a major step in exploring animation based on true characters and real voices. In 1996, Peter Lord’s Oscar-nominated short film ‘Wat’s Pig’ was shown on the same channel. The last decade has seen Aardman’s full length feature films which many of us have enjoyed more than once. ‘Chicken Run’ was the first and was directed by both Peter Lord and Nick Park, with David and Peter as co-producers; they took a similar role in Wallace and Gromit’s first feature film ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ and their first computer-generated film ‘Flushed Away’.
Madam Chancellor, it may be possible to disentangle Peter Lord and David Sproxton’s individual contributions to the success of Aardman Animations, but it is their creative partnership, sustained over 40 years, that really stands out. Certainly their different but complimentary contributions are reflected in the contrast between David’s title of Executive Chair, for his role is more frequently the Producer while Peter, after a little hesitation, offered the term ‘Creative Director’ to describe his position in Aardman. Peter is in the throes of directing a new film ‘Pirates’ – and when one receives an email from Peter that begins ‘Gazooks’ you can tell, as David stressed to me, that the characterisations we now love grow through the creator living and acting out the vision. Animators are known primarily through their characters. They largely remain invisible and not interested in the limelight. David Sproxton, Peter Lord and Nick Park are three very different people but they share the same values; they work as a team and outside the Hollywood domination of their business. Humour is at the heart of their creativity. It is genuine comic genius - but there is also the use of highly specialised skills and their work sparkles with humanity and spontaneity. Aardman as a business now has more than 400 people on its books and a new centre in the heart of the city at Gas Ferry Road; but its impact on the city and region goes far wider. David and Peter have built a studio based on craft skills and expert teams. Developing talent is at the heart of Aardman’s success and both David and Peter have been willing to allow talented young directors to take their ideas forward. David commented that such young creative employees are mavericks and can be difficult to manage – but perhaps that is the price to be paid for the best. The comment was made to me that animators never really grow up; they remain genuinely excited and committed to storytelling, character and performance. Maybe that is why Aardman have largely eschewed moving to the world of computer generation. They remain committed to their hand-crafted characters and the incredibly time-consuming work of animation shot by shot, creating but a few seconds of film from a day’s hard labour. But in their characters there is something of the essence of live performance and the human touch that computer generation can never give. As Peter commented, ‘You never know exactly where you will finish’. Peter Lord and David Sproxton have undoubtedly created the Rolls Royce of the animation industry, giving to the world the British sense of humour and characters that are quite different to those created across the Atlantic.
David and Peter are proud of the sense of community they have created within their organisation here in Bristol. Aardman remains a private company and their success enables them to invest in their own new ideas. But they have not only created community, they are part of it. Both David and Peter are, and remain, firmly rooted in the life and culture of this city. David has been on the Board of Bristol Old Vic Theatre Trust and the Board of the UK Film Council and now chairs the Encounters Festival, Bristol’s celebration of short film, while Peter is on the board of the Tobacco Factory Theatre. Both have eschewed the opportunity to move out of the city, for David still lives in Montpelier and Peter’s life remains firmly rooted in the Westbury Park community. I recall him presenting to a packed hall in the Westbury Park festival one year, where he mused that the name Aardman arose simply because that was the term adopted for the first bank account that he and David opened when they began to work together. It was the name of their first animated character, long since forgotten but still seen walking through a door on their website today. While using his own name never did Walt Disney any harm, it is perhaps appropriate that their comic and artistic achievements should sit behind the name (in itself a private joke) of a character created on their kitchen table so long ago.
Madam Chancellor, Peter Lord and David Sproxton have nurtured Aardman Animations to become a major, world-class film studio and developed animation from small slots on children’s television to an art form which not only sets the standards, winning Oscar and BAFTA awards, but which is glorious entertainment enjoyed by people of all ages. I present to you, Peter Lord, CBE and David Sproxton, CBE, Animators, Cinematographers, Directors, and Producers, giving the world innovative, entertaining, brilliantly characterised artistic and commercial work, and co-founders and directors of a company that now stands as a mark of all that is best about creative Bristol, as respectively eminently worthy of the degrees of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.