At Plymouth College of Art our staff pride themselves on nurturing industry connections and creating opportunities for our students to meet real-world role models. Back in February, we were excited to host Jim Parkyn, Senior Model Maker and Aardman Ambassador, as he visited the college to give an exclusive clay modelling and character articulation workshop to our BA (Hons) Animation and BA (Hons) Game Arts students. We caught up with the master model maker to talk about the future of moving image and top tips for anyone just starting out.
Hi Jim! Welcome back to Plymouth College of Art, what have you and the students been up to lately?
Over the last year, Plymouth College of Art was one of the first groups of students to come along to the Aardman Academy studios, where we open the doors and let people learn the basics of model making to idea development. Working in this very analogue, cut-out way, we develop core stories into visual forms.
It’s so nice to show the students behind the scenes, and due to the great relationship we have with the brilliant tutors at Plymouth College of Art, we’ve managed to keep in touch with some students through social media too. It’s always brilliant to see their work and they like to pick my brain for problems with sets or puppets. I always like to follow up and keep hammering home the basics of puppet making.
Talk us through your workshop...
I like to walk the students through a typical studio structure to highlight the different roles you can have within games and animation. I also like to go through some very basic plasticine models with wire arming. It’s quite similar to shooting live-action, but instead of having one major star, you’ve got 20 Shaun the Sheeps!
But it’s not all about playing with plasticine, it’s vital to have an understanding of the industry pipeline. There are people with engineering backgrounds, CGI artists, Hollywood lighting experts, coming in to light our funny little dolls - all these things crossover. Even if you find yourself not actually making, but being a floor manager or project coordinator - it’s all immensely important.
At Aardman, your clients range from Greenpeace and Alzheimers UK to ITV and Cadburys - what do you think the industry is looking for in creatives today?
We’re always looking for something new. It’s about standing out, making something both visually and conceptually different. It’s about being adaptable and innovative. Whether on a budget or working on something extravagant, somebody working with Lego or action figures in their bedroom can suddenly find themselves in the head offices of YouTube, Netflix or the BBC. The birth of apps and social media has created a whole extra world, full of people bright and sparkly enough to cut through the noise.
Aardman also works with Namco now, creating award-winning games, apps, websites and even 4D theme park rides! Yet we still hark back to craft. Whether it’s digital, live-action or stop motion, it’s really all about good storytelling. Whatever tells the story in the most effective way is what works. I have a long career in stop motion, but I’m just a storyteller at heart.
You mention gaming, app design and interactive media; where do you think these moving image disciplines intersect and overlap?
There is definitely a real crossover, many of our traditional animators work between animation and games. I struggle with the term ‘3D animation’ because that’s CG (computer-generated) animation to me. Stop motion is what I call 3D animation because what could be more 3D than a physical object? I’m still stoically fighting that!
The 3D world of animation is always trying to create gravity; give things weight, everything floating around and looking superhuman - whereas with stop motion, we’re trying to fight gravity. It pulls on the puppets, sets fall over, gravity takes effect. The convergence of stop motion and digital is an interesting concept. I was under the impression that 10 years ago, stop motion only had a few years left, but now Aardman, Netflix, Guillermo del Toro, filmmakers all over the world use stop motion production. I like to remind students it's an open world for stop motion animators, and that’s exciting!
"Whether it’s digital, live-action or stop motion, it’s really all about good storytelling. Whatever tells the story in the most effective way is what works. I have a long career in stop motion, but I’m just a storyteller at heart."
- Jim Parkyn, Senior Model Maker & Aardman Ambassador
Who would suit a career in Animation & Games?
Previously this industry was seen as a stinky boys bedroom. Now, it’s all about tenacity and resilience, learning it’s alright to fail and keep failing. Animations and gaming can take you into so many different areas. Within Aardman, a lot of the main roles from heads of model making to marketing, most of those areas are female-led now. There’s a 60/40 split female bias now, which as someone who’s been in the industry for a long time, is really encouraging! There’s a lot of female students making waves, so it’s no longer a stinky boys party - which has only got to be a good thing.
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives who want to work in your field?
If you have that passion for storytelling or you just want to push funny dolls around, it’s about the craft and practice and having a platform to broadcast from. I’m a really big advocate of using social media to show your work, I’m a terrible practitioner of doing that, but having an online portfolio is really helpful. It also opens you up to having conversations with people in the industries, you can make contacts, post your work and maybe someone will see a spark and get you in the studio.
Live events and festivals are also a great way to network. When I was studying, me and some fellow students saved up cash and took ourselves to LA for the World Animation Fest and became show-runners for a week. We met people from Aardman, but also Cartoon Network, Phil Roman of Roman Films who commissioned The Simpsons and Henry Sellick from Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach!
Thanks Jim, any final words for our students?
Having places like Plymouth College of Art inviting industry people in to talk to students is brilliant and immensely important. I would have killed for that as a student, to not be lost in academia. Ask questions and make the most of it!
People I have met at colleges and festivals have even secured work experience with me, or they’ve gone on to open their own studios and have employed me, so it really works.