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I’ve Worked in Claymation for 20 Years. Here’s What I Use to Make Morph, Gromit, and Shaun the Sheep

Photo: Aardman Animations

Even if you’re not familiar with the name Jim Parkyn, you’re likely familiar with his work. As a senior model-maker at Aardman, he’s responsible for making the clay characters in Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, and Chicken Run, and he has done model-making for ads by Nyton, McDonald’s, and DFS, too. Parkyn, who is hosting an online workshop at Manchester Animation Festival (and who has even taught the royal family how to make clay models), told us about the essential products he has with him at all times

Photo: retailer

You don’t always need expensive tools as a model-maker and sculptor. I make my own sculpting tools, and my friend George Watson makes beautiful wood and bone tools, which means I have a good supply, but I constantly come back to these little sticks. Quality is important, and I have spent longer than I would like to admit finding the perfect cocktail stick — surprisingly, they’re from Waitrose. Length and strength are essential, and ones that don’t splinter if you snap them in half. They are essential when running workshops for sculpting or holding your Plasticine characters together.

For a proper puppet, we would use animation wire and ball-and-socket joints, but for a sculpt (i.e., a static model), these hold stuff together pretty well. A good example is the models from Creature Comforts — we call it head on a stick animation because only the heads really move. There’s a real joy to that simplicity. The industry has definitely gotten more sophisticated with 3-D printing and complicated designs, but the older I get, the more I hark back to a simpler time.

This is the clay we use to make our models; there’s a good chance it’s the clay you used at school, too. It’s been around for ages — the product was originally invented in 1897, although, long story short, the company that originally made it went into liquidation in the 1980s. As well as this clay, we use an American Plasticine as well, which is much brighter in colour. American Plasticine is also more malleable — you can melt it in a saucepan, pour it into moulds, and mould it in liquid form because it’s wax based. I used it when I did a Hubba Bubba advert for the U.S., and in the U.K., Aardman used it on the characters for the government’s Change4Life healthy-eating campaign.

But when I do model-making classes, I use the Newplast. If you take care of it and keep dust and sunlight off it, it will keep for decades. I actually have the models from a show we did in 2000 called Rex the Runt — they’re still in good condition. Clay is so good for the creative process; if you’re struggling to visualise or see a character in your mind, physically making it is really helpful. I always keep some of this clay in my van in a box so wherever I go, I can whip up a model and entertain a crowd. I’ve been known to knock up Morph or Gromit around the campfire for friends.

I use Photoshop on my iPhone a lot, but Procreate is brilliant for visualising my work and creating 2-D animation. It turns your phone into an animation studio. It’s got what’s known as onion skinning, a function that you also have on Stop Motion Pro, which lets you see previous frames of your work as you create. Essentially, it means you can make a character walk, or cycle, or do any other animation, and I use it to create memes and things like that. I create a lot of nonsense that I share with friends or keep to myself. The quality is so good; you’re essentially shooting animation in 4K, provided you have the storage space. And you can upload what you make straight onto YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram. It’s so freeing, just creating something and putting it on the internet within minutes or hours.

When shooting any film, especially if I get to use 4K, I tend to use a portable 2TB external hard drive so I can port a large amount of projects around quickly and easily. I also use cloud storage a lot for shareable projects that I do with various film groups.

Moleskine Sketchbook

I love using my phone as a digital notepad, but there’s nothing quite like being able to just leaf through an old notebook and look back at ideas. I put all my old ones in a storage box. I’ve got piles of them: some half filled, some completely full, some with just one thing that I used on that trip. And there’s something really nice about the quality of this Moleskine one. I love a ribbon in a sketchbook, or a marker place, and I love that these are quite widely available, so I know whatever city I’m in I can pick one up. The quality of the paper is excellent, and I am oddly fond of the rounded edge of the page, too.

My studio is in an old water mill, which is pretty cold. For a long time, it didn’t really have much of a roof. It certainly didn’t have heating at first. So I would just put on a thermal layer, like a jumper, and then sit with this smock on as well — it just keeps the mess off you. It’s got some big pockets on the front, and it’s just a nice, usable, practical bit of clothing. I really like the styling of it. I’ve got several smocks from all over the place, but the Yarmouth ones have got this really nice history — they’ve been making these amazing practical bits of clothing for 150 years. It’s so useful for just carrying crap around in your pockets.

What I like most about this mechanical pencil is that it has a massive fat lead, so you can use it like a real pencil. A lot of mechanical pencils have a 0.5 or maybe 1 millimetre thickness, which means you’re quite limited to the marks you can make. But this is fat; you can scrub it down to get a nice bevel on it and use it like a real pencil, but it’s retractable, too, so you’re more likely to keep hold of it. They’re really tactile, and there’s a weight to them. They’re really lovely to work with.

Photo: retailer

I like a bit of vintage stuff generally, but I think there’s something really just daft and pleasing about these liquorice pipes. I mean, it’s nice liquorice, which helps. But I’ll often sit there in my studio with a little pipe, hanging out doing a bit of writing, and I find quite a lot of comfort in that. I’ve never been one for smoking — my dad’s friends were smokers, and I admit I’ve got a childhood love of the smell of tobacco and the romance of a pipe, but I don’t really fancy all of the mess, really. This is a nice way to scratch that itch. I first got them when I was in Shepton Mallet, in Somerset. I saw them in this posh sweet shop and always pick up a box if I’m in the area. I try and keep a box in my van, but I’m running short on them at the moment.

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What Aardman’s Jim Parkyn Uses to Sculpt Clay Models