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Why small ‘trust groups’ create better ideas than big brainstorms

Heather Wright of Aardman Animations explains the firm’s creative process—and how it finds the right balance between art and money.

Why small ‘trust groups’ create better ideas than big brainstorms
[Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images]

Heather Wright is the executive director of partner content at Aardman Animations, an animation studio based in Bristol in the U.K. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

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Doreen Lorenzo: Tell me about Aardman Animations.

Heather Wright: Aardman creates a wide range of content for the global market —everything from movies and TV series to games and AR/VR apps. Anywhere you can find an animated story or character, that’s where you’ll find us. Some of our biggest brands are global now, but we do a lot of bespoke work with smaller brands, and we’re increasingly doing more with theme parks and anywhere we can add energy, characters, and storytelling.

DL: Were you always interested in film? How did you get into the field?

HW: As a teenager, I used to make films with two friends, so I always had an interest in the industry. When I was at college, I got a temporary summer job at Saatchi & Saatchi, the big agency. I was having such a good time and they said, “Why don’t you stay for a year?” I moved to their TV department a year later, and I just learned everything from the ground up.

DL: How did you pivot towards animation?

HW: I worked in live action for a long time, but animation really came to me because I saw a film called Conversation Pieces, which Aardman had created in the ’80s. That’s when my interest in 3D animation started, and the idea of bringing things to life. I really believed in the craft and the way it connects at a heartfelt level with people. People forget their real worlds and go into a different space if we let them. I loved animation from that point onward.

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Heather Wright [Photo: courtesy Aardman Animations]
DL: What is your definition of design and what role does it play in what you do?

HW: For me, design is absolutely critical. It’s how the character or the world needs to make sense within the story context. If you have a character, such as a detective who can always sniff out trouble, that suggests they may have an exaggerated nose because they can always find the root of the trouble. That connection of what the character looks like, what their personality is, what it actually has to do in the story and some of the challenges they have to overcome, they’re all interconnected.

At Aardman we recently created our first major piece of original content for the theme park market, a 4D immersive experience with brand-new characters for the Efteling theme park in the Netherlands. The cinema will have effects like wind, salt smells, water, and moving seats to enhance the experience. Efteling already has a character called Sandman who is core to their theme park as well as a character brand, which is very much about fables and imagination. We really needed to understand that in order to write a story that would play well to that audience and the brand of Efteling. You want the brand and the piece of content to become synonymous with each other so that you almost can’t separate them.

DL: Has the democratization of design and animation led to an improvement in quality of content?

HW: We’re at a stage where almost anybody can download an animation app on their device or PC. There will always be a market for this level of democratized content. What it has done to higher-end animation is put the pressure on all of us to improve our stories, techniques, and work to tighter deadlines. At Aardman, we’re constantly evolving to find efficient ways of being able to separate and compete through the quality. However, another good thing is that democratization helps uncover new talent. We can spot people, see their potential, and even if the quality of the work isn’t great, you can see whether they’ve got the artistic eye for good stories.

DL: How are technologies like AR/VR going to impact your industry?

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HW: The lines between different types of digital content are increasingly blurry, and what we’ve found is that the most effective teams have people from all these emerging areas pulled together. With our VR stuff, for example, it’s going to be most impactful when it’s a personal experience. The idea of a mass audience in VR isn’t really going to take off, because people still want the social interaction of doing something together, either at a theme park or in a cinema. It’s about creating experiences that are truly family-oriented or group-oriented, yet fully immersive. What you want to be able to do is do things together, not do things alone next to your family and friends.

DL: Animation is magical. How do you maintain that sense of wonder through the creative process, and has your approach changed over time?

HW: Conception of an idea and developing engaging stories and characters is still a very cerebral process. That hasn’t changed at all. But we live in a world that is much more diverse and inclusive. We want to tell stories that have covered those themes, but with animation there’s no point in telling a story that would just as easily work in live action. There has to be a reason for it to be animated. You can have authentic characters that have insight, that speak to universal values and recognizable human issues, but they don’t need to be human. If people can recognize themselves in the characters, then they are always going to connect emotionally. It’s that deep emotional connection in a world that is so beautiful, so different from anything you would expect to see in your everyday life that takes people to a different level.

DL: How do you manage creative teams? How do you let them experiment to keep things fresh and alive?

HW: I encourage people to think conceptually at the beginning of a project about what it’s trying to say. Go bigger than the script, bigger than the idea, revisit it from a fresh perspective and try and buy just a little bit of time, because that’s what your real added value comes from. Although we love the idea of huge brainstorms where people share tons of ideas, we find working in smaller groups encourages an atmosphere of creativity, experimentation, and free-thinking. It’s these smaller “trust groups” that produce the most succinct ideas. No matter how tight a schedule is, it’s okay to go off the road map and get there by a different route as long as you don’t lose your way completely.

DL: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned through your career? What you would have done differently?

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HW: I’ve learned you can’t say yes to everybody all the time. You can’t force any part of the process, and if you do try to force one part, another part suffers. To get the best work you really have to get to a shared vision. It’s as important that the creative vision is really strong, as is the ability to get it out on time and on budget. You can’t prioritize one over the other. They’re always going to be in partnership with each other, and both need to be respected to get that balance right between the art and the money.

I was working with a creative director on a job for a huge bank, and he really wanted to create a musical, all-singing, all-dancing version of Oliver! I knew that this was never going to be achievable for the budget at all, but rather than saying, “You can’t do this,” I forced myself to think: What is another way of creatively looking at the brief, and inspiring people to free themselves up from the constraints they’ve already thought of? In the end, that job ended up being shot in all black-and-white with children dressing up as the characters. That was the first time that rather than trying to push a square peg into a round hole, I tried to find a triangle-shaped peg.

DL: Do you have any words of wisdom you want to share for young women wanting to rise up in their fields?

HW: I would really encourage people not to lose hope, to keep your vision and just keep going forward. There are thousands of knock-backs in the industry, and even the world that have no correlation to being a woman. But to do with being a woman, there are even more. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get to the first step or the second or can’t make a milestone. Just keep going.

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About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is Assistant Dean at the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and Founding Director of the Center for Integrated Design, both at The University of Texas at Austin.

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