The art of Aardman: How the UK animation studio conquered the world through consumer experiences - Licensing.biz
From Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit to Chicken Run and new release, Early Man, Aardman Animations boasts a true global appeal. Head of attractions, Ngaio Harding-Hill talks us through the studio's expanding experiential slate and why the market is now bigger than ever before.

Should the fancy ever take you, the last thing you’ll see before the expanse of Atlantic Ocean opens up ahead of you as you plunge into the frothy brine off the last patch of Cornish coastline, is the laughing face of Shaun the Sheep.

That’s because for the last three years, the popular Aardman Animations character has taken up residence at Cornwall’s Land’s End with his very own visitor attraction, inviting hordes of holidaymakers and 50-year-old ramblers, crunching on their last square of Kendall Mint Cake, to step into the colourful world of Mossy Bottom.

Having opened in 2015, the experience brings visitors into the world of Shaun the Sheep in a human-sized animation set, allowing them to mingle with the characters from the popular series, before entering a traditional exhibition space, documenting the development and subsequent popularity of the Wallace and Gromit breakaway star.

It’s perhaps why the reported number of those plummeting from the cliffs of the site of one of Britain’s most famed signposts in the last three years, is practically at zero. It would seem that, for those making the journey to visit Land’s End and the final few feet of England before the long swim to Nicaragua, have found themselves instead captivated by the cast of Aardman’s popular, quintessentially British animation.

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But while Shaun the Sheep – along with his colleagues Wallace and Gromit, of course – do embody the essence of good old Blighty so well, each are extremely well travelled, taking on the global stage through the continued efforts of Aardman Animations’ live events and experiential team.

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Ngaio Harding-Hill, Aardman Animation's head of attractions and live experiences

Headed up by Ngaio Harding-Hill, the company’s attractions and live experiences division is a perpetually busy place to work, having most recently secured a deal to expand the aforementioned Cornish visitor attraction to encompass the wider world of Aardman, bringing both Wallace and Gromit and the ever-popular, classic Morph into the fold.

Not only this, but the team is concurrently in talks with partners in Korea for the next stage of the Art of Aardman with Wallace and Friends world tour, having already delighted fans in Paris, Frankfurt and Melbourne. On top of this, Harding-Hill is overseeing phase two and three of the studio’s first Swedish Shaun the Sheep attraction.

“The world of attractions and live experiences is really hot at the moment,” Harding-Hill tells Licensing.biz at the company’s headquarters in Bristol. “Attractions have realised that partnering with IP gives them a unique point of difference, so we really are seeing a boom in that area.

“We are seeing an alignment between attractions and IP owners which works very well with our ethos; we are about integrating our IP with these visitor attractions, working hard to take it to another level. This is not just us saying ‘this is our brand and this how you use it’, we have so far seen a really good collaboration within the sector that benefits both sides.”

A prime example of this mind set coming into effect can be drawn from Aardman’s recent collaboration with Skånes Djupark in Sweden.

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“Our first Shaun the Sheep attraction in Sweden was established in 2016,” continues Harding-Hill. “We created a narrative that explained why Shaun was situated in this gorgeous animal park in the Nordics. So instead of recreating Shaun’s world in Southern Sweden, we gave him a reason for being there, and instead of trying to recreate the English countryside in Sweden, we are embracing and celebrating Sweden and making the brand work for them.”

Internationally, Shaun the Sheep is Aardman’s biggest brand. The non-talking nature of the character and the slapstick humour of the animated series lends itself perfectly to a global audience. But Shaun is far from the studio’s only asset.

Let us not forget that Wallace and Gromit has a 30 year history behind it, having first hit screens in 1989 with Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out. Since then, the pair have swept the globe, from Europe to the Far East, not only taking that British charm with them wherever they go (and don’t forget the crackers) but integrating with the culture of the many global destinations they visit, too.

“In China, we saw Gromit celebrate the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Dog, with images of him adorning traditional dress, while in Hong Kong, the entire portfolio is huge, particularly Shaun the Sheep,” explains Harding-Hill.

“The Japanese market for Shaun the Sheep is very, very strong at retail. He is seen as a lifestyle brand in the territory. In fact, retail has always been so strong there that the natural progression for the market was to evolve the Shaun the Sheep experience there, too.”

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It wouldn’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the retail scene has been faced with a number of challenges over these opening few months of the year. Online shopping is continuing to plight brick and mortar stores and more and more, malls and individual retailers are turning to providing consumer experiences in their battle for increased footfall.

“It’s really challenging for retailers at the moment, and I think in terms of live events and offering that experiential component to shopping, they are turning to people like us to try and create events that will get shoppers off line and into their physical stores,” says Harding-Hill.

“That has really boomed in the last couple of years, particularly as tech such as VR and AR continues to be developed. Tech like this is really good for us. I just love the fact that you can create a shared experience through AR that means you don’t have to stay within your own space.

“And when it comes to Aardman, there really is no limit as to what it can achieve in the retail space and attractions sector. I am having conversations about lending it to mall and attraction experiences that range from big 4D rides to smaller in-store booth interactions.”

Since its foundation in 1972, Aardman has strived to be at the forefront of innovation within animation, and while steeped in such a classic reputation for plasticine and stop-motion animation, the studio has constantly turned to tech development in order to deliver the look and feel for which it is so widely recognised.

“From the top down, we have a real appetite for new development,” says Harding-Hill. “As one of the first animation companies to use clay, we have always had to develop a lot of our own tech to make that possible, so things like AR and VR are really good for us, and when it comes to implementing that in the attractions and live consumer experience space, the world really is our oyster.”

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Just how far VR and AR tech will be implemented across Aardman's attraction and experience portfolio remains to be seen, but catching a glimpse of the projects the digital team continues to work on in the company's studio - including ongoing projects with Google's Searchlight and Oculus, it's apparent that this institution of British animation has plenty to deliver to consumers in the coming months and years.

"Story telling and family is at the heart of everything we do at Aardman," continues Harding-Hill. 

The latest cinematic release from Aardman is of course the wider celebrated Early Man, a prehistoric venture that captures this very essence of the studio to a tee.

"We can't wait to see what that in the experience space. It's really exciting because that has got cave men, sports, prehistory and it opens up a whole new range of themes. It will be very interesting to see where that settles once the brand establishes itself."

The suggestion that Early Man lends itself particularly well to the rustic nature of Cornwall and the studio's now long-established presence at its famed landmark, Land's End, produces a knowing smile from the manager of Aardman's attractions and live experiences. It is, after all, firmly on the studio's radar to continue to round-out its Aardman Experiences as they continue to appeal to audiences across the globe.

"Aardman sits in a fantastic position," she elaborates. "Shaun the Sheep works really well with families and fans of the studio, but Aardman also boasts a strong recognition among older audiences. What we have now done with the Land's End experience, by bringing in Wallace and Gromit as well as Morph, we are now looking at taking that experience to a wider global market."

It's fitting, then, that poised at the edge of the UK, Shaun the Sheep, Wallace, Gromit and not to forget, Morph, each stand surveying their new global stage.

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Aardman Animations

It seems the team at Aardman doesn?t believe in taking things easy. Over the past 12 months, not only has it been working very hard to establish Shaun the Sheep around the world, it has also started pre-production of pre-school spin off Timmy, is planning a Wallace & Gromit TV special and has signed up with Cartoon Network and Jamie Oliver for Chop Socky Chooks and Little J respectively.

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