Feature

On the Creative Floor - Aardman Animations

It has expanded into ever-larger spaces over the years, but the studio is still committed to finding the perfect balance between creative freedom and an intimate energy.

Inside Aardman studios
Inside Aardman studios

We always talk of Aardman as a studio, as a collection of individuals whose only purpose in being gathered together is to be creative. So, by definition, we're diverse, we have hugely varied roles and skills, and we're unified by the intended end result: ideas made real.

To get here, we've grown organically, moving slowly round Bristol like a hermit crab inhabiting ever-larger shells. For years, the principal function of those shells was always filming stop-frame animation; every other function - including creative thought - was crammed into the margins. In the early 90s, we moved down to Bristol's dockland and took over a large warehouse with the picturesque but obsolete function of a banana-ripening plant. It seemed impossibly huge at the time. But, of course, we kept growing until every office space was filled.

Our new building was the solution - although we continue to use its ugly, functional older sister, the Banana Warehouse, to shoot stop-frame animation. We still love her.

Designed by David Mellor of Alec French Architects, the new building is splayed in shape, like an "A" - a practical choice that mirrors the shape of the site. It's three storeys high and clad in timber, with an additional square block at the top of the "A" clad in copper. It was designed to fulfil a huge shopping list of different functions - but, as I mentioned before, creativity is always the ultimate purpose. We simply don't have a creative floor; we have a creative building.

We discussed layouts based on theory, on practicality, on ideology and on the desires (and fears) of the workforce. The first, defining decision was that it should be primarily open-plan. We decided that "departments" need and want to be gathered together with a common purpose, similar deadline demands and problems. In some departments, artists and their production team sit side by side; elsewhere - as in the commercials area - designers, directors and artists occupy a separate area, away from the production team, mentally free from mundane practical constraints (well, in theory, anyway).

But if we are organised in departments, then absolutely crucial to the whole studio project is the need to mix people up. The whole building is designed to encourage casual contact and space to meet, both inside and out. It's absurdly simple, but we deliberately placed the canteen to make sure everyone would pass other areas and other people on their way there.

Openness and visibility are crucial. The central staircase is an ambitious laminated structure that is supported on the upper floors and not actually bolted to the lower ones. As a result, it "breathes" organically under your feet - especially if, like me, you make the extra effort to bounce heavily down it. But, apart from being quite fun, it was deliberately built to command the whole space, and has a small landing where you can stop and talk (and enjoy the bouncing).

Aardman has never been an aesthetically minimalist company. For the first year, the lines of the architecture were cleanly visible, but increasingly surfaces got covered in pictures, vinyl toys and weird awards. I'm sure that certain artists work best in calm clear spaces and, of course, they're very welcome to keep their workspace pristine if they can! My experience of artists' studios is they look like places where work is being done and has been done. I love and value the outward signs of creativity (though not necessarily the large, plush Gromit that somebody planted one day and has never been moved).

On the ground floor, a rare expanse of solid wall (which houses the plant room) has been used as a gallery. Much of our work is 3D, whether it's computer animation or stop-frame, so the wall celebrates drawing to remind everybody that the best ideas will always start out as a drawing or a diagram and to reinforce the belief that drawing is at the heart of good design. In the same spirit, we also hold occasional life-drawing sessions that everyone is welcome to attend.

In the canteen is a wall of thumbprint self-portraits - the project of one of our directors, Luis Cook. Apart from being an eccentric gallery of staff and friends, it's a wonderful visible reminder of the value of the handmade, the intimate and the human. In the reception area just now is an exhibition of Droplets - vinyl toys designed by Gav Strange, one of our digital designers, and customised by local artists from Aardman and beyond.

Overall, we've tried to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the virtues of space, light and freedom and, on the other, intimacy, concentration and energy.

Peter Lord is the co-founder of Aardman Animations.

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