It is looking like a good year ahead for the Bristol-based animation powerhouse Aardman. The company, formed back in 1976, had a notable 2007 after ending its relationship with DreamWorks and signing a first-look deal with Sony Pictures. Now the company behind Wallace and Gromit, Flushed Away and Chicken Run is likely to have at least two feature projects greenlit this year.
In October 2007, Aardman pitched its current development slate to Sony. "They (Sony) responded very positively and would like to reach a point of going into production as fast as possible," says Sarah Smith, creative director at Aardman Features. "It is potentially going to be an enormously busy year for us."
One title being fast-tracked is Pirates!, based on the books by Gideon Defoe, which Aardman co-founder Peter Lord is likely to direct.
Intriguingly, the company is not just going down the stop-frame route for which it is famous. It is also moving ahead with a CG feature, Operation Rudolph, scripted by Borat co-writer Peter Baynham. A director will be announced shortly, and Aardman could partner with another facility to make the film. "For us to recruit 400-500 people into Bristol is a massive, impossible undertaking," Smith notes.
Both Pirates! and Operation Rudolph should start production this year. The idea is to deliver one film in time for Christmas 2010 and another for Christmas 2011. A third film, The Cat Burglars, may also be greenlit by Sony during 2008.
Why use CG animation' "There are some projects that creatively call for it. We want to be free to follow projects and directors and visions rather than be slavish to one technique," Smith says. She adds that making stop-frame animation requires specialist talent - and that to pursue several stop-frame movies at once would stretch that talent too thin. "We wanted the studio (Sony) to have a range of possibilities and projects ... we want to be open to all techniques."
It is still early days in the relationship, but the signs are promising that Sony might want to take more chances than DreamWorks did.
"They are so supportive and embracing of Aardman's British identity. They absolutely see it as our selling proposition rather than as a problem. They have responded very positively to a wide range of projects that show a more eclectic range than the work Aardman has done before," says Smith.
Meanwhile, Nick Park - who is currently working on a Wallace and Gromit project for TV - is plotting a stop-frame feature with new characters.
"The speed at which we're developing and have got a slate together is unprecedented within the company," says Smith, as Aardman rushes ahead with visual development, script work and casting. In the past, the company has tended to make one new feature every four or five years. Now it may begin to make a film a year. "Not even Pixar can do that," Smith says. "It's an enormous challenge."
Other UK companies with Hollywood backers have been looking nervously across the Atlantic, wondering when the writers' strike is going to end and whether the weak dollar will discourage investment in European projects. Aardman, Smith says, should not be affected by any of this. "We're in the happy position that, because we are animation, none of what is going on currently affects our projects."