Will Becher at Animex

As Lead Animator at Aardman, Will Becher was a popular speaker at the recent Animex festival at Teesside University. Aardman is of course the home of Wallace and Gromit and more recently The Pirates! And Will brought expertise and know how and a very amiable presence to the international festival of animation and computer games.

“Consisting of a unique blend of talks, workshops, networking events, exhibitions and screenings, Animex promotes an ethos of collaboration and sharing, bringing the world of computer games and animation…” To Teesside University and Middlesbrough.

AJ Garrett and myself caught up with Will just before he was about to address a morning lecture at Animex. Tracy Hyman took the photos. And the puppet character is indeed from Aardman.

Q: Could you please tell us a little about your background, Will?

Will: I started out animating at home as a hobby, just on the kitchen table with a video camera, bits of plasticine and lego. And really from there I just fell in love with it and carried on doing it. And then when I was a teenager I started visiting companies and finding out what the industry was like. I got my first work with Aardman on Chicken Run, as a model maker.

Q: So it is like your dream job then?

W: Yes absolutely. Hobby turned into a career, which is great.

Q: And shows it can be done.

W: Yes it can. I would say it is competitive, it is an industry but if you are dedicated to it then you should go somewhere. People that work hard tend to get on really well.

Q: When I grew up animation was very different. Both in the way it was produced and the companies involved. It was Disney and big American companies but this is something based in Britain.

W: Yes Aardman has a very long tradition of stop motion. I grew up watching Morph and then Wallace and Gromit when they came out so they really inspired me. We are still doing exactly the same process now, Aardman has diversified so there’s more CG and more Flash and that kind of thing but the core of the business is still to create really convincing character performance and through puppets.

Q: Which is obviously a big tradition in this country going back through the 60s and Gerry Anderson, Thunderbirds etc Supermarionation.

W: Yes, absolutely.

Q: What is the most difficult thing to animate in Stop Motion?

W: Well, it is always quite hard to do things that are in the air because we are always fighting with gravity. So whenever anything is going on in mid air that is fiddly because we have to do something with wires, try and hide them and paint them out afterwards.

The other thing I find quite tricky is making a character walk because it is such a natural, human thing. So when you watch a walk that isn’t quite right it’s kind of immediately obvious. So walking is a bit tricky sometimes. Trying to make this character move in the most natural way. Because we have to be in control of it and they don’t always want to go where you want them to go when you are moving them frame by frame.

I guess the other thing is that we just do so much with the eyes and the eye brows, so we spend a lot of time doing very minute movements with the eyes and the brows to get the most expression so that’s an Aardman specialism I suppose.

Q: When animating do you take inspiration from cell animation and live action as well as the world of stop motion?

W: It’s everything really. The project’s very much led by the director, so if its Nick Park, he’s got a very specific idea of what he wants and how he wants the character to be. On the Pirates we were dealing with brand new characters, hadn’t been seen before so there was more scope to look at reference and different things. We looked at live action actors that had a similar personality and we tried to work out what that was and how it was portrayed. So we do look across different mediums.

Q: What are these geysers made out of because it isn’t plasticine is it?

W: No, we still retain plasticine for the key area, above the eyes. But the rest of the face and mouth is all printed in a 3D printer so it is hard resin that’s painted. Then inside every puppet is a skeleton which is made of metal and that allows us to pose it. It holds its position. So, that is the core ingredient of every puppet that we have except for Morph who is just plasticine. Then on top of this metal skeleton we have lots of different materials, we have got foam latex for the legs and silicon for the shoes and silicon in the hands and we have got some metal for the belt. So it is really a mixture of different things and the eyes are made of plastic but they have got tiny holes in the middle so we can manipulate them and move them around. It is a bit of everything.

Q: What projects are you working on at the moment?

W: Well I have just finished a couple of commercials and we have got one coming up next with Wallace and Gromit. That I guess will come out in the next couple of months. It takes about a month to shoot the ad. And then we’ve got a new series of Shaun The Sheep coming out in a couple of weeks time. So we will be working on all of those. There are some feature films in development but they are a very early stage. Too early to say really.

Q: : What are you going to be speaking about at Animex?

W: I have brought some of the puppets with me and will be showing some of the behind the scenes pictures and footgate from the Pirates film and then I’m going to try and explain how I animate the faces so I’ve got the Pirate Captain on stage with a webcam on his face so I can demonstrate how I swap things over and do things. So hopefully it is going to inspire people to understand the process.

Q: It is exciting that Animex happens isn’t it?

W: Yes, its great. There are some great speakers from all around the world which is brilliant.

Q: Good exchange of ideas between speakers as well as with students?

W: Yes, that’s right.

Q: So you could be inspiring your competition in a couple of years time.

W: Possibly yes. Its true. But it is something that has been going for a long time. It seems to be still going strong so I’m happy the more people that get interested the better.

Q: They might want to work for Aardman.

W: Exactly yes.

Will Becher