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Wallace & Gromit’s Creative Director, Merlin Crossingham, on how he keeps the pair in and out if trouble.
Thank you so much for making time, Merlin. Very good of you. The first question is to do with your name; you must get it all the time… Your parents just thought: “Let’s go right out there… Merlin!”
Actually, I got off lightly… My dad had a list of names, Merlin being the most conservative really. We’re talking Frank Zappa influences: Fabian, Valentine… Allirog, which is gorilla backwards. I think there was Refrigerator…
Oh my God! Refrigerator? Well… You didn’t just get off lightly, you came out strong. Refrigerator. That would have been…
It’s like a wrestler name, isn’t it?
People would’ve joked, “What a cool name…”
Luckily, my mother had a bit more sense. I’m quite pleased with Merlin.
I’m glad I asked! Moving on, then: am I right in saying you started off as an animator with Aardman?
Actually, way before that, I was a runner; the making-the-tea-and-sweeping-the-floor job.
When did that come about?
When I was still an animation student, I got a job as a runner for about four months. I bunked off college for a bit because the contract went into my third year. I thought it was for good cause… Aardman was still quite small then but scaling up before Chicken Run. They just knew they didn’t have enough people across all departments.
I imagine being a runner at Aardman would be eye-opening back then?
It was like an animation apprenticeship! I got into the National School of Film and Television at the same time to do a postgrad, but I deferred my place. I never went; I’ve just been at Aardman ever since. I became an animator and I was one of the lucky few who got promoted very fast. I was a senior animator on Chicken Run and it all went from there really.
When you say an “animator on Chicken Run”… This is proper stop motion; plasticine models on an armature… You did that; thumbprints on the plasticine?
Wow. Then would it be right to say patience is one of your gifts?
I actually think you only need patience when your mind is idle! And with that kind of work, there’s so much to keep track of. When you’re animating every single element of a body – well, let’s just look at a hand. How many joints have the animators got to control? Then do all the expressions on the face… You’ve got to know where you are, you’ve got to know where you’re going. And you’ve got to have the whole shot clear in your head.
And in my incredibly limited experience of stop motion, you only get one go at it, right?
Right. And because of that, you concentrate really, really hard… Animators often need reminding that it’s lunchtime, or time to go home because they’re just so focussed. So I guess you do need patience but not because it’s slow.
Sounds trance-like… I guess it’s like driving a car. You drive – you focus – you have no memory of the journey. The people in the car, though, “Are we nearly there yet? Are we nearly there yet? Are we nearly there yet?”
Precisely. As a spectator sport, it’s not the most exciting process. It’s probably up there with watching paint dry…
Makes sense. So if patience is one quality that you have and partly need, what would be the definitive quality? What makes you tick, Merlin?
Being creatively challenged. That’s what makes things interesting. If something is easy, everybody would do it. Not just in the animation, but moving into directing and creative directing as well. Each time the challenge got harder, I enjoyed it a little more.
I’m curious about that. Presumably the higher up the chain you get, the more creative freedom you experience?
Well, yes, that’s true. As a runner I didn’t have much say! With character animation, the animators essentially are the performers. You’re the person putting the performance of the character on the screen. I haven’t animated for many years but looking back, I think I was a good animator.
You didn’t know that at the time?
No, I didn’t; not really. I was a performer, and my method of performance happened to be via animation. And that performance mostly came from my understanding with the director… So when I’m working as an animator, or directing with an animator, I never talk about animation. It’s always about the performance, or the film, or the shots… What’s the sequence about? What’s the feeling? Because animation is purely the vehicle to get the comedy moment or the dramatic moment up onto the screen.
So now, you’re no longer down in the plasticine… You’re now Creative Director of Wallace & Gromit. What is it you do, day to day?
Wallace & Gromit are busy! They have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies. My role is to keep Wallace & Gromit on the straight and narrow, and out of trouble. Or keep them in trouble, I suppose, depending on which way you look at it.
Keep them in trouble, I like!
So I work with writers to make sure that everything feels as you would expect Wallace & Gromit to feel, and look the way they should look. In some cases, that means stepping up and actually getting hands-on with the directing. I also work with directors – just mentoring them to make sure they get the DNA of Wallace & Gromit that Nick Park seeded all those years ago.
And presumably, you help steer ideas when it comes to licensing?
Yes, I want to make sure everything we do feels cohesive, it must never feel like a badge slap. We must have the humour and quality. This isn’t for us to say – but other people have said – Wallace & Gromit have become national treasures… Do you know that?
I do know that – and I agree, actually! Our national treasures are Wallace, Gromit and Julie Walters. There’s a couple of “also rans”, but they’re the main three…
Julie Walters! Yes! Well, this means that a lot of our fans have a sense of ownership. If we get stuff wrong, boy, do they tell us.
And what is it you look to do with licensing these national treasures?
It varies hugely. From working with the Sales an Marketing team on the latest T-shirt designs, merchandise or lunch boxes or whatever, through to more prestigious things like hot air balloons or coins for the Royal Mint… It goes all the way through to commercial partnerships with DFS and the like that we’ve had over the years for television. Wallace & Gromit earn their keep!
So when you’re considering projects, then, what key ingredients are you looking for? How do you know something should be green-lit?
Certainly, on larger projects, there’s more clarity because they are Wallace & Gromit adventures. But if we’re talking about third-party partnerships, then we have a brand team and a brand manager with an admin. We also have a brand rep who’s out in the marketplace…
There’s a whole team scouting and scanning…
Right. It’s very much a case of looking at what’s out there. Looking, and listening at what our fans and what our core audience base like and understand. Also, we like to challenge them and push them a little bit. It’s not always about pandering to fans. It’s about taking some creative risks occasionally to stay fresh. You’ve got to roll with those punches.
Why bother taking the punches? Why not just badge slap?
I think you stagnate! I work with the brand team… They go out into the market, they go to all the trade shows like Brand Licensing Europe; all of those kinds of things for really big partnerships, and all the way down to the smaller partnerships we have. The core question is: can Wallace & Gromit be represented well, with a bit of humour, in this partnership? Is this the kind of thing that Wallace & Gromit fit well with? It’s the base question, really.
You mentioned DFS. Those TV ads really seem to nail it. I’m often working away when I hear the Wallace & Gromit theme. I feel I have to look up! When I do: there they are: funny, familiar, cosy… My question is, how scientific is the execution? And how much of it is gut instinct?
It’s mostly gut instinct. With that case in point, it’s us working very closely with the DFS agency, which was krow in that case. They’re very experienced creators of advertising and marketing… DFS has a very clear message to communicate to sell their furnishings. Let’s be honest, that’s the primary reason for the whole exercise. And partnering with Wallace & Gromit as a third-party IP has been very successful for them.
Why is that, do you think? Why does it work?
Because Wallace & Gromit’s core brand values, which are coziness and familiarity; a kind of British quality; friendship ties in with nice, warm cups of tea on the sofa. It actually happens in Wallace & Gromit world… It’s not a leap to believe they’d have a nice DFS sofa, for example.
It dovetails. And because that partnership has a nice cohesive beginning, it’s much easier to write a script which shares the message the client requires. Also, it’s comfortable and meets all of the brand requirements we have with Wallace & Gromit. Before we embark upon a relationship, we each set out those ground rules – both as individuals and as brand entities…
“Wallace & Gromit have red lines; things they can and can’t do. Equally, so do our partners…”
You share and discuss your parameters?
Exactly. Wallace & Gromit have a certain set of requirements that we need to satisfy; we have red lines… Things they can and can’t do. Equally, so does a partner like DFS. As long as those are clear and we, the agency, and the client are all signed up to that, everything is much more straightforward… Especially because Wallace & Gromit are an established IP if you like.
And presumably that stops it feeling like you’re selling out?
Actually, we do get lots of people disappointed that Wallace & Gromit are doing commercials. They say, “Oh, Wallace & Gromit sold out.” The reality is that we’ve always made commercials with Wallace & Gromit, right back from the very beginning. The very earliest things that Nick did were some channel idents for BBC Two. Then we did lots of commercials in Japan…
Right. I thought adverts were part of the make up…
When Wallace & Gromit were unknown in Japan, the way to get known there was to do commercials. So we did commercials with them around the time of the launch of The Wrong Trousers. That was for a brand called Gilco Pucchin Puddings. But Aardman is fiercely independent. We don’t have billion-dollar backers, we’re not owned by a big corporation. Aardman has always, at the heart of its ecosystem, made television commercials. That includes with our characters like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep and things like that.
Creature Comforts just came to mind: the short film was very quickly followed by adverts… When is that? Mid ’80s?
Late ’80s, early ’90s, that would be. That’s a good case in point. It’s not that they had to earn their money, it’s the fact that the studio wouldn’t ever have made the half-hour specials that people love without those kind of things. And as long as you tread carefully, and you’re confident and everyone is clear about what they’re doing, in terms of the partnerships, then it’s good. Actually, it’s great for us, to give us a presence. Take Wallace & Gromit films, as an example… The last special that Nick made came out in 2009 or ’10 or something like that. It’s a fair chunk of time ago.
You’re saying that without the licensing, the brand’s far less visible?
Yes. To bridge those gaps, licensing is great for us… To have a presence out there without Wallace & Gromit in a full animated form. They’ve been on stamps, they’re on a 50p coin… You can go and ride their rollercoaster in Blackpool; all sorts of other things…
And in terms of a license or a brand, is there anything you’d really like to look at that you’ve not yet broached?
Good question. For Wallace & Gromit we’ve got The Big Fix Up going on at the moment. It’s a UK Research Institute-funded research project looking at storytelling using emerging technology. That’s out at the moment, it’s free on Android and iOS. It uses comic strips, live-action, Wallace & Gromit in CG animation, and Augmented Reality, all presented through an app on a mobile device.
The story’s told over a couple of weeks. We don’t shy away from challenging ourselves. That was intended to be a live event where you would go into the centre of a city and you’d see this giant robot and things that Wallace has made careering over buildings… Because of COVID, we had to park that. That’ll be launched later this year instead. It’s using massively advanced technology to try and tell a story.
So Augmented Reality… And Virtual Reality?
That’s the kind of thing we’re interested in. VR has been hot and cold, hot and cold… Who knows where that’ll go? But because Wallace is an inventor, it fits really well into his world and his story when we dip our toes into these new and exciting ways of representing.
Augmented Reality as well, from a brand perspective, in terms of partnering with third-parties, is a very interesting arena. That’s something the brand team is always looking for opportunities for. The main trouble at the moment is it does require quite significant investment to get it to the point where it’s a satisfying experience.
Which is the top priority…
Yes, a satisfying experience is the number one thing. It’s all well and good trying something new, but if it’s flaky and not a good experience, then that’s no good. We’re treading that line very carefully with The Big Fix Up. It works very well on the most-advanced, new mobile devices. It can be loaded onto devices that are slightly older and the experience isn’t bad. With a really old device – well, let’s just say it’s a little wobbly! That’s just a balance you have to make.
I hear that. You have no control over that, but have to take some responsibility… Let’s talk about your creative process. How is it that you generate ideas? How do you go from no idea to steering national treasures?
It can be quite daunting sometimes, having a blank sheet of paper. So having a framework and a brief really helps. Sometimes it’s deliberately thinking things over… Sometimes, things just come to me. If I’m cycling home or whatever, I’m like, “Argh, I’ve got to make a stop, write it down.”
Actually, when you have to do it all the time, you get used to working an idea. It’s very useful to bounce ideas off colleagues and to make the process a collaborative thing, but that kind of meeting can go off in all sorts of directions with amazing, “Yes, that’s brilliant, that’s brilliant” moments.
And if you’ve done that? Had a thought, jotted it down, bounced it around? What’s next?
Then it’s often a case of identifying which one of those ideas to pluck and work. Actually having ideas isn’t necessarily the hard part… It’s identifying which idea is the good one and the one that feels right. It’s a bit of, “Oh, well, we know we need to do this, this and this…” So there might be an idea that fits for logical reasons, or there might be some brand parameters that mean you can’t do some.
I can only imagine…
Being family-oriented automatically throws out some very funny ideas. You whittle it down and get practiced at working an idea. For me it’s very familiar territory. It’s very, very rare that one idea falls out of your head onto the page and it’s perfect. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever happened. I think that’s one of the things: with Wallace & Gromit, the end product should always be funny, satisfying… Everything you’d expect.
But the process behind it – not so much?
No, the journey to get there is not smooth and it’s not easy. I wouldn’t ever wish to imply it was. That’s what I like – coming back to what I said earlier… It’s a challenge, it’s difficult and that’s what makes it fun.
“It’s a challenge, it’s difficult and that’s what makes it fun.”
We need to start wrapping this up, Merlin, but it’s been terrific fun. And not difficult! Something you mentioned earlier on I wanted to follow up though… You mentioned the Wallace & Gromit red lines earlier… Can we talk about those? They absolutely can’t do sex and drugs and rock and roll, presumably? Well, maybe rock and roll.
Right… Some rules are set in stone; some are more to do with context. It’s very well and good having rules, but rules are meant to be broken, aren’t they? So, our brand team has a style guide; all the formal things. They help when you’re sharing with multiple partners… You just need a framework that you can refer to; a point of agreement to start with. Some of them are just really boring day-to-day requirements.
Others are around character. And actually, when it’s around character, it’s a bit more woolly. That’s where I come in as Creative Director to make those calls… If it can’t be written down in a rule, then it needs to be a judgment call about what’s good for the brand. That, in a nutshell is what I do. I look after rules which can’t be written down and navigate from a creative point of view.
Brilliant. Well, look, that’s more or less where we started the conversation, so let’s wrap it up there – one last question: What’s the quirkiest thing you’ve done for Wallace & Gromit?
Oh, so many quirky, wonderful things happen… Hard to say one! You know what, though? I’ve been on the TV show Blue Peter a couple of times over the years; three or four times… It was a massive life goal of mine to be on Blue Peter. So I’ve done that!
Huhhhhhhh! You have a badge?!
Oh, yes, I’ve got several! One for every time I’ve been on the show. I don’t have a gold though… Nick Park has a gold Blue Peter badge. I think Peter Lord has a silver one. I’m a bit envious of that…
And what do you have to do to get a gold Blue Peter badge?
You have to invent Wallace & Gromit.
Or Julie Walters! Listen, Merlin, this has been a genuine pleasure; thank you so much! What an insight; thank you.
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