The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 21
A Grand Day Out
Martin Shann Aardman Animations' chief 'boffin' meets the Editor Gray Levett and Gillian Greenwood.
Introduction by Gillian Greenwood | Photographs by Nat Sale
The taxi is taking us on a roundabout route from Bristol Temple Meads Station to the Aardman building in Gasferry Road, Bristol, originally the site of a banana warehouse. Bristol was a lively trading port for sugar, tobacco and rum in the eighteenth century and continued to operate as a port throughout the next two hundred years.
Aardman Animations is the spiritual home of two of Britain's most beloved characters, Wallace and Gromit. Aardman picked up an Oscar® earlier this year for the Best Animated Feature - Wallace & Gromit - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Commenting on this outstanding award, Nick Park said: "(We) are just overjoyed and feel very privileged to have won this Oscar…This is a great day for Aardman."
We are on our way to meet Martin Shann, Aardman's chief 'boffin', and behind us fittingly is a magnificent backcloth, the Clifton Suspension Bridge in all its glory, gracefully spanning Avon Gorge and an eloquent symbol of the city of Bristol. Brunel designed the Bridge in 1829 to cross the Gorge although it was not completed until 1864, five years after his death. If the late eighteenth and nineteenth century was an age that gave rise to geniuses in the field of invention and engineering in Britain, then Isambard Kingdom Brunel is one of its greatest.
Meeting Martin Shann in situ, it is not difficult to visualise the timeline of the earlier centuries of British inventors, engineers and scientists extended to encompass one of the most brilliant 'boffins' of today. For Martin has both extraordinary vision and the innovative imagination needed to create and utilise photographic digital systems which themselves have technically accelerated and advanced the technology behind clay animation. From 1996 until December 2005, Martin was Head of Production Technology for Aardman, and is now their Media Methologist, their Research and Discovery Peripatetic Image Scientist.
From the plaque in Aardman's reception which was 'Unveiled by Her Majesty The Queen on the Occasion of Her Visit to Aardman Animations on 19th July 1996' to the Trophy Cabinet in Aardman's excellent refectory, unveiled by The Prince of Wales in July 2001, it cannot be disputed that Aardman and Aardman's plasticine figures, by creating such a delightful and magical world, have been more popular and more successful than anyone could have ever dreamed. Aardman have simultaneously become a world-wide phenonomen and a major player in the world of animation. Aardman are currently contracted to Dreamworks® to make five animated pictures in total. The trophies are legion, the accolades unstinting. As well as for Wallace & Gromit - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Aardman has so far won Oscars® for Creature Comforts, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave. Their Trophy Cabinet also contains a plethora of Baftas® and other awards.
Aardman Animations is an exciting, lively workplace, with impressive state-of-the art hardware. We walk from studio to studio, green screens still in place after a 'shoot'. Aardman were working on a Kinder Pingui advert, which was at post-production stage during our visit. Some of the tiny penguin clay figures used for the shoot with their wonderfully expressive countenances were still on set.
On a display table and nearby is an assortment of colourful characters and figures created by Aardman, including one of the Hovis ducks, the Cuprinol figure, Ginger in The Chicken Run, Frank the Tortoise in Creature Comforts, a tray of mouths, Wallace's distinguished teeth, and finally, where it all began for the British public - a very plasticine Morph, a six-inch high terracotta persona with the ability to 'morph' into innumerable forms, brought into being by the multi-talented Dave Sproxton and Peter Lord, who founded Aardman Animations. Although clay animation began a few short years after the invention of plasticine in 1897, and the first film to use clay animated sculptures was A Sculptor's Welsh Rarebit Nightmare in 1908, clay animation remained in principle little-used as a medium until the nineteen-eighties when it began to turn into the large-scale phenomenon that it is today. Aardman have a pivotal place in this development.
Martin Shann has had a full and varied life and career. Born towards the end of the second-world war, he attended Birmingham College of Art and Design and upon leaving art college joined London Arts Laboratory, touring Europe with a "Fringe" theatre group. During the nineteen-seventies he worked for Audio Ltd. manufacturers of radio microphones for film and television and as the Production Manager JDC Ltd., a start-up company providing film equipment for feature and television productions. In 1983, he became Head of Development for Oxford Scientific Films, makers of natural history documentary films and television commercials. As Head of Design, he designed and built overhead camera gantry systems and periscope lenses as well as time-lapse equipment.
During the late nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties he continued working on projects to develop time-lapse photographic equipment, which has been used by cameramen the world over but especially by the BBC Natural History Unit.
Martin Shann has been interviewed exclusively for Nikon Owner magazine by Michael Bright and Gillian Greenwood.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I can't remember a time when I wasn't! My mother had a folding camera, and there were always photographs around the house. She was a great hiker, so there were many photographs of the Yorkshire Dales and various Pyrenees trips that she had made. She also encouraged me and I was allowed to use the camera; before I was ten I had already been taking pictures with real film in the camera, and by the time I was twelve, I was actually developing black-and-white prints myself. I was fascinated when my mother told us of the old days when prints would be developed by putting them out in the sun, which you then were able to 'fix' when they got dark enough. In the period following World War II there were quite a lot of bring-and-buy sales in our village, where we could pick up photographic printing frames for just pennies. So my early work was contact printing in black-and-white using printing frames under a light bulb. That was my introduction to photography. It all took place at home in the kitchen or the bathroom until I managed to take over the traditional cupboard under the stairs.
When did you start to take photography more seriously?
It started when I went to Secondary School; although there wasn't actually a Photography Club at school, there was a darkroom up in an attic that we could use. It was a solitary occupation, but there was an enlarger there, which I taught myself to use. I had my mother's old camera at that stage - an Ensign, two-and-a-quarter square.
How did you progress from there?
At that time, the cameras had fixed lenses, so there was no macro-capability or anything similar, and I mostly shot landscapes. My family had always been interested in natural history, through walking and looking at wildlife in the countryside, so I had become very interested too, and I used to observe nature and write essays about nature. I also liked the chemistry side of photography. I remember making my own emulsion using silver nitrate and gelatine, and actually pouring emulsion onto chilled glass plates that I had kept in the fridge - putting them onto the 78rpm wind-up record player, spinning them around and pouring the emulsion onto the middle of them, which was quite a technical challenge. I made my own enlarger too, initially out of shoeboxes and cardboard. We were not affluent, so basically everything was homemade and that extended to photography too.
Did you study photography formally?
I didn't study photography at art college, although later at The Open University I studied optics and electronic imaging which included photography. At that, earlier, stage I was beginning to rebel against everything except the fine art side of things, such as sculpture. I ended up leaving art college and eventually gravitated to London, I got involved in the nineteen-sixties' alternative culture and the 'Arts Laboratory Movement' - a fusion of technical, theatre, video and so on, together with traditional film, painting and drama. This was a very formative period of my life, and eventually led on to theatre and then film. I became involved in an experimental fringe sort of theatre, as a performer-technician, and toured Europe.