We are in 1994 and I am 12 years old. A classmate at school hands me a used VHS tape and says “you have to watch this, I recorded it on Channel 4 the other night”. That’s all the recommendation algorithm was in the 90s – a friend enthusiastically stuffing an unmarked tape into your backpack. So I obeyed his instructions, went home, and for the next 124 minutes, I was mesmerized by my TV.
What he had recorded on Channel 4 and enthusiastically offered to me was the incredible “AKIRA”. A 1988 manga masterpiece written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s an epic tale of biker gangs, telekinetic test subjects, and corrupt dystopian governments in a post World War III world. As a 12 year old whose entertainment had only come in the form of Saturday morning cartoons, it was mind blowing. I had never seen anything like it; the kinetic action, intricate plot, visceral violence, intricate animation and stunning visuals. To this day, 28 years later, it’s still my all-time favorite creation, it stuck with me so much.
It started a love affair with animation that shines bright today, which makes it even more special considering that I proudly work in the animation industry here at Aardman – something I don’t could have ever imagined in 1994!
I grew up watching everything Aardman did, like so many people it was a family event to sit down and watch the latest Wallace & Gromit adventure on BBC 1 over Christmas. I fell in love with his designs and when I moved to Bristol in 2006 I asked my friend to show me Aardman HQ, I just had to go see it for myself. It was pouring rain that day and we were soaked, but I remember feeling proud to live in the same city as the people who brought Shaun, Morph, Gromit and the gang to life. When I joined the company two years later in 2008, I had to pinch myself, I couldn’t believe it (and very happy to see that 14 years later that feeling hasn’t changed). Being able to work among these talented humans here at Aardman who breathe life into fictional characters has never lost its charm – it amplifies it year after year and continues to inspire me in my own animation work.
Going back to the mid-90s, this introduction to AKIRA didn’t mean I would become an animation snob, though far from it, I welcome all animation in my eyes. It was the same in ’94 too – because The Lion King would have been released the same year (and I vividly remember seeing it in theaters, twice). I would enthusiastically consume Disney classics like Aladdin & Jungle Book, stop-frame masterpieces like Nightmare Before Christmas and Wallace & Gromit, and CG creations like Toy Story and Shrek.
My upbringing in the moving image wasn’t limited to movies growing up, as a kid obsessed with video games, I fell in love with the incredibly detailed pixel art animation of games like Metal Slug and Guilty Gear. . The fluidity and expression of these tiny figures was so magical and special.
See is the thing. Animation has been and continues to be, for me, a total escape. Anything is possible and that’s the appeal. There are endless opportunities to tell your story, multiplied by the countless ways to use the medium. 2D, 3D, 4D, Cel Action, Stop Frame, Pixelation or all at once. It’s such an exciting space, you can feel the designer energy in the things we consume.
And the support is for the creators – every iota of the framework you see had to be conceptualized, built, and created. What a fantastic opportunity; to have every pixel, every mm of film like yours to manipulate as you see fit. It also means that creating something animated is incredibly difficult, as you have to control every element and make it work for you. It’s also part of the charm too, it becomes almost mythical by taming the beast of animation to make it something coherent, clear and with character.
Fast forward today and I feel like we are in a golden age of animation. So many unique teams, studios, and individuals using animation to tell bold, beautiful, and diverse stories and experiences. This outlet for incredible animation can be found in many places – from the striking shade of Kratos in the hit video game God Of War to The Line’s nastiest anime bike commercial “IZZO”. An incredible animation is all around us and I am here for it! I am very excited for the future.
Since 1994, I never thought anything could come close to the masterpiece that is AKIRA. I held that belief for a very long time because this work touched me on such a special level, at a very formative time in my life. I stuck with that until Into The Spider-verse almost, almost took the top spot, but AKIRA was still safe, even the friendly neighborhood Spiderman couldn’t knock him off his pedestal… (oh and Bluey’s parenting perfection gave him a damn good run for his money too!). Still, it was always safe…that was until Arcane arrived. Then, like that, like in 1994, I was so in love with what I was going through. The characters, the design, the animation, the action, the story, the music, the whole thing about Arcane blew me away and I felt like that wide-eyed 12-year-old again.
That’s why I love animation so much, in this industry we all have the potential to create things that have a profound impact on other human beings, sparking new emotions and feelings one frame at a time. How special is it! ?
Gav Strange is a director and designer at Aardman. His creative output ranges from title sequences for OFFF Festival and Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, to channel identifiers for BBC Two and Christmas films for Fortnum & Mason. More recently, he directed the award-winning film ‘Turtle Journey’ for Greenpeace, a moving and impactful short film about the fate of the oceans.