Behind the Title: Aardman director/designer Gavin Strange

NAME: Gavin Strange

COMPANY: Bristol, England-based Aardman. They also have an office in NYC under the banner Aardman Nathan Love

CAN YOU DESCRIBE HOW YOUR CAREER AT AARDMAN BEGAN?
I can indeed! I started 10 years ago as a freelancer, joining the fledgling Interactive department (or Aardman Online as it was known back then). They needed a digital designer for a six-month project for the UK’s Channel 4.

I was a freelancer in Bristol at the time and I made it my business to be quite vocal on all the online platforms, always updating those platforms and my own website with my latest work — whether that be client work or self-initiated projects. Luckily for me, the creative director of Aardman Online, Dan Efergan, saw my work when he was searching for a designer and got in touch (it was the most exciting email ever, with the subject of “Hello from Aardman!”

The short version of this story is that I got Dan’s email, popped in for a cup of tea and a chat, and 10 years later I’m still here! Ha!

The slightly longer but still truncated version is that after the six-month freelance project was done, the role of senior designer for the online team became open and I gave up the freelance life and, very excitedly, joined the team as an official Aardmanite!

Thing is, I was never shy about sharing with my new colleagues the other work I did. My role in the beginning was primarily digital/graphic design, but in my own time, under the banner of JamFactory (my own artist alter-ego name) I put out all sorts of work that was purely passion projects; films, characters, toys, clothing, art.

Gavin Strange directed this Christmas spot for the luxury brand Fortnum & Mason .

Filmmaking was a huge passion of mine and even at the earliest stages in my career when I first started out (I didn’t go to university so I got my first role as a junior designer when I was 17) I’d always be blending graphic design and film together.

Over those 10 years at Aardman I continued to make films of all kinds and share them with my colleagues. Because of that more opportunities arose to develop my film work within my existing design role. I had the unique advantage of having a lot of brilliant mentors who guided me and helped me with my moving image projects.

Those opportunities continued to grow and happen more frequently. I was doing more and more directing here, finally becoming officially represented by Aardman and added to their roster of directors. It’s a dream come true for me, because, not only do I get to work at the place I’ve admired growing up, but I’ve been mentored and shaped by the very individuals who make this place so special — that’s a real privilege.

What I really love is that my role is so varied — I’m both a director and a senior designer. I float between projects, and I love that variety. Sometimes I’m directing a commercial, sometimes I’m illustrating icons, other times I’m animating motion graphics. To me though, I don’t see a difference — it’s all creating something engaging, beautiful and entertaining — whatever the final format or medium!

So that’s my Aardman story. Ten years in, and I just feel like I’m getting started. I love this place.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE OF DIRECTOR?
Hmm, it’s tricky, as I actually think that most people’s perception of being a director is true: it’s that person’s responsibility to bring the creative vision to life.

Maybe what people don’t know is how flexible the role is, depending on the project. I love smaller projects where I get to board, design and animate, but then I love larger jobs with a whole crew of people. It’s always hands-on, but in many different ways.

Perhaps what would surprise a lot of people is that it’s every directors responsibility to clean the toilets at the end of the day. That’s what Aardman has always told me and, of course, I honor that tradition. I mean, I haven’t actually ever seen anyone else do it, but that’s because everyone else just gets on with it quietly, right? Right!?

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Oh man, can I say everything!? I really, really enjoy the job as a whole — having that creative vision, working with yourself, your colleagues and your clients to bring it to life. Adapting and adjusting to changes and ensuring something great pops out the other end.

I really, genuinely, get a thrill seeing something on screen. I love concentrating on every single frame — it’s a win-win situation. You get to make a lovely image each frame, but when you stitch them together and play them really fast one after another, then you get a lovely movie — how great is that?

In short, I really love the sum total of the job. All those different exciting elements that all come together for the finished piece.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
I pride myself on being an optimist and being a right positive pain in the bum, so I don’t know if there’s any part I don’t enjoy — if anything is tricky I try and see it as a challenge and something that will only improve my skillset.

I know that sounds super annoying doesn’t it? I know that can seem all floaty and idealistic, but I pride myself on being a “realistic’ idealist” — recognizing the reality of a tricky situation, but seeing it through an idealistic lens.

If I’m being honest, then probably that really early stage is my least favorite — when the project is properly kicking off and you’ve got that gap between what the treatment/script/vision says it will be and the huge gulf in between that and the finished thing. That’s also the most exciting too, the not knowing how it will turn out. It’s terrifying and thrilling, in all good measure. It surprises me every single time, but I think that panic is an essential part of any creative process.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
In an alternate world, I’d be a photographer, traveling the world, documenting everything I see, living the nomadic life. But that’s still a creative role, and I still class it as the same job, really. I love my graphic design roots too — print and digital design — but, again, I see it as all the same role really.

So that means, if I didn’t have this job, I’d be roaming the lands, offering to draw/paint/film/make for anyone that wanted it! (Is that a mercenary? Is there such a thing as a visual mercenary? I don’t really have the physique for that I don’t think.)

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
This profession chose me. I’m just kidding, that’s ridiculous, I just always wanted to say that.

I think, like most folks, I fell into it in a series of natural choices. Art, design, graphics and games always stole my attention as a kid, and I just followed the natural path into that, which turned into my career. I’m lucky enough that I didn’t feel the need to single out any one passion, and kept them all bubbling along even as I made my career choices as designer to director. I still did and still do indulge my passion for all types of mediums in my own time.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I’m not sure. I wasn’t particularly driven or focused as a kid. I knew I loved design and art, but I didn’t know of the many, many different roles out there that existed. I like that though, I see that as a positive, and also as an achievable way to progress through a career path. I speak to a lot of students and young professionals and I think it can be so overwhelming to plot a big ‘X’ on a career map and then feel all confused about how to get there. I’m an advocate of taking it one step at a time, and make more manageable advances forward — as things always get in the way and change anyway.

I love the idea of a meandering, surprising path. Who knows where it will lead!? I think as long as your aim is to make great work, then you’ll surprise yourself where you end up.

WHAT WAS IT ABOUT DIRECTING THAT ATTRACTED YOU?
I’ve always obsessed over films, and obsessed over the creation of them. I’ll watch a behind-the-scenes on any film or bit of moving image. I just love the fact that the role is to bring something to life — it’s to oversee and create something from nothing, ensuring every frame is right. The way it makes you feel, the way it looks, the way it sounds.

It’s just such an exciting role. There’s a lot of unknowns too, on every project. I think that’s where the good stuff lies. Trusting in the process and moving forwards, embracing it.

HOW DOES DIRECTING FOR ANIMATION DIFFER FROM DIRECTING FOR LIVE ACTION — OR DOES IT?
Technically it’s different — with animation your choices are pretty much made all up front, with the storyboards and animatic as your guides, and then they’re brought to life with animation. Whereas, for me, the excitement in live action is not really knowing what you’ll get until there’s a lens on it. And even then, it can come together in a totally new way in the edit.

I don’t try to differentiate myself as an “animation director” or “live-action” director. They’re just different tools for the job. Whatever tells the best story and connects with audiences!

HOW DO YOU PICK THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH ON A PARTICULAR PROJECT?
Their skillset is paramount, but equally as important is their passion and their kindness. There are so many great people out there, but I think it’s so important to work with people who are great and kind. Too many people get a free pass for being brilliant and feel that celebration of their work means it’s okay to mistreat others. It’s not okay… ever. I’m lucky that Aardman is a place full of excited, passionate and engaged folk who are a pleasure to work with, because you can tell they love what they do.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
I’ve been lucky enough to work on a real variety of projects recently. I directed an ident for the rebrand of BBC2, a celebratory Christmas spot for the luxury brand Fortnum & Mason and an autobiographical motion graphics short film about Maya Angelou for BBC Radio 4.

Maya Angelou short film for BBC Radio 4

I love the variety of them; just those three projects alone were so different. The BBC2 ident was live-action in-camera effects with a great crew of people, whereas the Maya Angelou film was just me on design, direction and animation. I love hopping between projects of all types and sizes!

I’m working on development of a stop-frame short at the moment, which is all I can say for now, but just the process alone going from idea to a scribble in a notebook to a script is so exciting. Who knows what 2019 holds!?

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Oh man, that’s a tough one! A few years back I co-directed a title sequence for a creative festival called OFFF, which happens every year in Barcelona. I worked with Aardman legend Merlin Crossingham to bring this thing to life, and it’s a proper celebration of what we both love — it ended up being what we lovingly refer to as our “stop-frame live-action motion-graphics rap-video title-sequence.” It really was all those things.

That was really special as not only did we have a great crew, I got to work with one of my favorite rappers, P.O.S., who kindly provided the beats and the raps for the film.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
– My iPhone. It’s my music player, Internet checker, email giver, tweet maker, picture capturer.
– My Leica M6 35mm camera. It’s my absolute pride and joy. I love the images it makes.
– My Screens. At work I have a 27-inch iMac and then two 25-inch monitors on either side. I just love screens. If I could have more, I would!

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I genuinely love what I do, so I rarely feel like I “need to get away from it all.” But I do enjoy life outside of work. I’m a drummer and that really helps with any and all stress really. Even just practicing on a practice pad is cathartic, but nothing compares to smashing away on a real kit.

I like to run, and I sometimes do a street dance class, which is both great fun and excruciatingly frustrating because I’m not very good.

I’m a big gamer, even though I don’t have much time for it anymore. A blast on the PS4 is a treat. In fact, after this I’m going to have a little session on God of War before bedtime.

I love hanging with my family. My wife Jane, our young son Sullivan and our dog Peggy. Just hanging out, being a dad and being a husband is the best for de-stressing. Unless Sullivan gets up at 3am, then I change my answer back to the PS4.

I’m kidding, I love my family, I wouldn’t be anything or be anywhere without them.


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