Q&A with the master of clay, Jim Parkyn

Q&A with the master of clay, Jim Parkyn

It’s no secret that HUE are huge fans of stop motion animation so you can imagine how excited we were when we got the chance to have a chat with character designer, model maker, sculptor and stop motion animator, Jim Parkyn!

Jim has worked for many years with Aardman Animations creating classic claymation characters such as Morph, Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit, and runs free “Community Clay Time” model-making classes on Instagram, sharing his knowledge, passion and warm company with anyone who wants to play with clay.

Jim spared some time to speak with us and answer some questions about his amazing career, new projects and “sanding chicken bums”.

Hi Jim, thanks for talking to us today. Could you share a little bit about yourself and your work for our readers?

I’m a senior model maker at Aardman Animations but I’m also a freelance model maker. I’ve got a 20 odd year career working in stop motion, making puppets, and now I’ve diversified into live events and teaching at the Aardman Academy and doing Community Clay Time.

What first inspired you to get into model making?

I didn’t have masses of Plasticine in my life, we were very much LEGO® and Meccano® kids, that was a real joy, but I’ve always been artistic. I’ve always been drawing or painting or, when I got the opportunity to, I’d make models as well.

It kind of all led through to a BTEC National Diploma in Product Design back in the early 90s. I was really quite excited by the prospect of designing toys but, at the same time, there was a guy teaching video or film classes and, for an hour every week or two, he’d allow us to come in and explore the cameras and just have a play, which was great, and it introduced me to animation.

When did you start working for Aardman?

It was January 2nd 2000 on Chicken Run. I’d been working in Wales on various productions and there was just this big push towards the end of Chicken Run for the final four or five months of building and finishing Chicken Run.

I joined the press mould department making all the plasticine elements of chickens – beaks and cheeks and wings – and sanding chicken bums. They are made out of silicone so you have to take all the seams off them, so sanding chicken bums and different elements, and then I eventually got onto sculpting the chicks at the end. I’ve been with Aardman, on and off, ever since really. 

Do Aardman still use clay as the final puppet material in any of their films?

Absolutely, it’s still quite a large part of what we do. We’ve always combined clay with other elements that have that clay look, so we can use silicone, foam latex and solid resins.

Even back in the day with Wallace and Gromit, from Wrong Trousers onwards, things got a bit more technical. Did you know his tank top is actually bolted together? It’s a two part resin piece that clamps over the armature so you don’t destroy all of that knitting sculpting, so we’re always making stuff look like clay that isn’t clay.

The Pigs are still made of clay, things like Purple and Brown, a lot of our commercials and we’re still making Morph, 44 years on, so it’s very much at the heart of what we do.

So is Morph always clay?

Yep absolutely, still pretty much the same. Just last year was the release of the Sky series, which are 10 minute episodes, so it’s a bit longer, it’s normally a 1 minute format. We have actually made press moulds for Morph this time and a very simple wire armature goes inside but, previously, the last 42 years, every single one is hand sculpted for each series.

We get through an awful lot of them, as many as 16 MPMs (Morphs per minute of animation). It’s a lot of sculpting, we do roughly one an hour. So, you spend a week making Chas’s and Morphs and Delilahs and get ready for the animators to take them away and animate them. 

Wow, that’s amazing! I never knew you would have to make so many Morphs for one episode! 

It really is absolutely crazy! It’s just really tough on him because he hasn’t got an armature and if you want to do anything like walking then it’s very easy to destroy them, and keeping them clean is really hard, so you’ve got to either shave off the dirt from your fingers or the other bits of clay that you’re using or it just ends up in a horrible mess.

If you can imagine, Shaun the Sheep’s head is only about 3 or 4 centimetres from the bottom of his nose to the top of his hair and his eyes are about 7 or 8mm across. When you put that on an iMax screen you’ve got the horror of seeing something that small several stories high all of a sudden, for a close up of the face, so you can see every bit of fluff moving around, and whatever gets picked up along the way. It’s a nightmare! Why would anybody do it really? 

There’s a lovely quality of clay for animation because it can be anything. Is that the attraction of Morph?  

There’s something quite nice about the fact that he lives in our universe and that’s quite charming as well. So, the fact that he interacts in our world, he can be in your mug or pop out of a pot of paint. In fact, if I just turn you around, I’m not sure if this will pick up but, can you see? I’ve got a mini Morph set and Delilah just there.

This is a little bit of a cut down version but it kind of gives you an idea about the scale, and that is the nice thing. You can use things like mugs and cotton reels, a nail brush for a dog, stuff like that. So it’s quite attainable in theory, that anybody can do this at home and that’s what I think is really my lightbulb moment, that anybody could have a go and make their own Morphs on the kitchen table. 

How can people get involved with community claytime?

It’s normally 3pm on a Wednesday. This week will be aardvark making, last week was horses, the week before we did pink fairy armadillos, which are the best things in the world! At the end of the make we draw from the goldfish bowl of suggestions and we’ll see what’s happening on the next one. It’s completely random, I absolutely play the game and don’t look. 

We did Freddie Mercury, so that was quite interesting. I didn’t have time to practice it, so I had to do it live on the show and hope that it came out all right and, unfortunately, it didn’t look well, but it did look like Freddie Mercury – so that was a relief – but my goodness, I felt the pressure doing it!

Are you more comfortable making models of animals than people?

Oh absolutely! I’m a real naturalist, I’ve got a real passion for learning, I’ve got stacks of books about weird, obscure bits of palaeontology and nature writing and I adore that. Generally, I’m one step ahead of the game with animal knowledge so I can play a little bit fast and loose or stylise it.

Sometimes I go quite naturalistic, we’ll have a more realistic make and other times it is quite nice just to push it and make it cartoony. I decide on the day often now.

I used to make a test model beforehand but I found the first one often has the real genesis of the idea and when you’re trying to recreate it and it loses a little bit of the magic. Now I tend to do it straight away live and what happens, happens, and that is quite joyous actually.

Some people don’t make at all, they like to watch or have it in the background, they find it quite calming, they will just sit in and have a listen and a bit of a watch and that’s quite a humbling thing that people want to do that, just watch someone making.


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