Aardman’s Ngaio Harding-Hill on the creative challenges involved in building live events around silent characters

We caught up with Ngaio Harding-Hill – Head of Attractions and Live Experiences at Aardman – to find out more about Shaun the Sheep’s first foray into the circus and explore how she brings iconic silent characters to life on stage.

Be it flying through the world of Wallace & Gromit inside of a giant slipper, riding around a farm in Sweden with Shaun the Sheep or creating Morph at a model making masterclass, Aardman has successfully brought its portfolio to life through a raft of live events in recent years.

Its most recent partnership in the live events space is with Circa – an award-winning contemporary circus group known for their physical performances that blurs the lines between movement, dance, theatre and circus.

We caught up with Ngaio Harding-Hill – Head of Attractions and Live Experiences at Aardman – to find out more about Shaun’s first foray into the circus and explore how she brings iconic silent characters – like Shaun and Gromit – to life on stage.

Ngaio Harding-Hill, Aardman
Hi Ngaio; to kick us off, have you always worked in the live events space?

I came to Aardman through a bit of a fluke actually… It was a temp opportunity back in 1999. I was working as the assistant to one of the founders – David Sproxton – for a few years. When our second son came along I took a break for a few years and had another son, and then I came back in 2008.

At that point, I came back to work for David Sproxton but I moved across to the broadcast development department fairly quickly. While there I started working on the script co-ordinator/development side on series 3, 4 and 4.5 of Shaun the Sheep. This also included several of the one-minute productions that we did, like The Championsheeps series and Mossy Bottom shorts, as well as other projects that were on the development slate at the time.

They are fab; we’ll add one in here! And at that point, were you working with the licensing or live events team at all?
Yes, through that I started working with the Sales and Marketing department, which is the area that I now sit in. I got involved with the development of some stage show concepts that they were working on back in 2013. Then my predecessor left, so I moved across to a development producer role in 2014. It was one of the career moments where the planets aligned – my boys were getting a little bit older and I was at that point where it was the time to really do something with my career.

Also, from an Aardman and a brand point of view, it was a really timely moment for this area of our business. I could see huge opportunities and Sean Clarke, who was heading up the Sales and Marketing department at the time, had an appetite to support the development of this area of the business. And then some brilliant projects came along and it hasn’t really stopped since! It started with just me and now there are two others in the team and a network of external clients as well.

We’ll dive into Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show in a moment, but what other events do you look after for Aardman?
As well as stage shows, we also do quite a lot of exhibition work. One of the first projects I brought in was The Art of Aardman exhibition, which is an international touring exhibition that’s just returned to Europe. It’s currently at the Forum Groningen in the Netherlands until September 2021. It first launched in Paris around the time of the first Shaun the Sheep movie in 2015. It went to Frankfurt, Melbourne, it then went to South Korea, and was in three venues across South Korea as our brands have a strong presence there. And then from Seoul it moved to the Netherlands.

Ngaio Harding-Hill, Aardman
Amazing! Now, the characters you’re known for have a real tactile quality; you can see the thumb-prints with some of them! So what’s the key to taking these tactile 3D creations and translating them into successful live events?

Ultimately, as with any brand partnership, it all comes down to the story and creating a narrative that works for both parties. We spend a lot of time in those early stages – even before we’ve signed a contract – making sure that the partners we’re working with have a similar sense of values when it comes to the story and the right creative fit.

It’s the antithesis of brand-slapping. We don’t have a formula that we roll out and everyone has to follow those rules. It’s about creating a believable reason as to why Shaun the Sheep is at an attraction in Japan or Australia or Sweden… That’s actually the really fun bit! Doing that detailed, focused creative work at the start of a project is what leads to a lot of the success.

The other thing about this area of business is that they tend to be long-term relationships, particularly if it’s an attraction that’s going to be there for 10 to 15 years. You really need to build that on a strong creative foundation.

When putting these live events together, is it a case of looking at pre-existing moments from the Aardman portfolio and thinking ‘that moment would be great as a ride, or a show’ or is your approach more along of the lines of… ‘Here’s the world of, say, Wallace & Gromit, let’s explore a new part of it through a live event’?
The example that best illustrates the first approach opened in 2013, just before I moved into this area, and it’s Wallace & Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. It very much takes you on a journey through the films. From the queue line where there’s posters of the original productions to the actual vehicle that you sit in being a Wallace slipper. Throughout the ride, you’re immersed in scenes from the films. There are animatronics and it really feels like you’re driving through a Wallace & Gromit production.

Ngaio Harding-Hill, Aardman
So that approach was very much about recreating beloved pre-existing moments?

Yes, it was a literal adaption. The Blackpool Pleasure Beach team were brilliant and are so experienced in creating immersive attractions, so for our first theme park experience, we were in good hands.

Away from that approach, what happens when you’re creating something new that’s inspired by your TV shows and movies, rather than recreating it live?
When we were looking at the partnership in Sweden for Shaun the Sheep Land, we were committing to the partnership because it’s a beautiful Swedish attraction and we loved the ethos of the place. We didn’t feel comfortable trying to create a corner of the English countryside there, so we had to find a narrative that celebrated the attraction and gave a reason for why the flock was there.

We came up with a lovely story where the myopic farmer has driven the flock across to appear in a county fair in Sweden. They arrived, he parked his caravan, sat in his deckchair and fell asleep, so the flock get out and escape to explore the attraction. Bitzer the dog realises what’s happened and panics! At that point, you’re encouraged to help find the animals by getting on the tractor and going around with your clipboard spotting them all over the park. That’s an example of how we integrate the characters into a living narrative.

Ngaio Harding-Hill, Aardman
It makes total sense – and it’s exciting to create new stories with your characters that exist in the events space, alongside the adventures on TV or on the big screen.

It keeps things interesting in my role too! We try to give each attraction its own narrative. We have a global fanbase and we love the idea of fans going to different countries to check out Shaun the Sheep attractions around the world. We want them to have a really unique experience at every one of them.

One thing that’s interesting with your brands and the live events space is that – with Gromit and Shaun – you have iconic characters that don’t speak… Does that make certain corners of the events world tricky to crack?
The beauty of Shaun the Sheep is that because its non-dialogue and about a dysfunctional family dynamic, it does actually have fewer limits than other brands.

“Aardman has a huge appetite for pushing the boundaries and taking left-field approaches. We – and I – don’t like doing the obvious!”

Wallace & Gromit is dialogue-based and is very English. It has a strong sense of irony and a lot of the nuances relate to the English sense of humour. So Wallace & Gromit works in some territories and doesn’t work in others – Australia, New Zealand, Canada all get it, and interestingly Japan and South Korea have a really strong affinity with Wallace & Gromit too. If you look at America, it’s a real challenge unless you’re on the East or West coast. Its sense of irony just doesn’t seem to resonate as successfully with Middle America.

That’s why Shaun is our biggest brand. It’s in over 170 territories and travels so well. The global themes of the show transcend different cultures and languages.

We’ve spoke about Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit, but you guys have a rich portfolio… Creature Comforts, Morph, Chicken Run – the list goes on! Are you open to exploring live events with those kinds of brands too? I have fingers and toes crossed for a Creature Comforts musical!
Ha! Well we’re definitely interested in those brands. There’s not much that we won’t consider to be honest. And on that, as well as our brands, a big part of Aardman is our commercials business and short-form business. We do masses of character development within those areas that isn’t often immediately recognisable as Aardman, like the Fabula attraction at Efteling, a fairy tale theme park in the Netherlands.

Ngaio Harding-Hill, Aardman

Yes, I checked that out before our chat; this broke new ground for Aardman right?
Yes, it was our first ever 4D film. It’s beautiful and was a really great creative partnership. I like to promote that part of the business because it’s quite different from our branded attractions. It still has all of the intrinsic Aardman values – a depth of creativity, great storytelling, skilful character development – but it’s often overlooked because some only see Aardman as the home of Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, when that’s just the top of the umbrella.

When you’re looking to launch live experiences, what makes for a perfect partner?
There has to be a synergy when it comes to the creative approach and storytelling values. We’re very nimble creatively, and are very unformulaic in the way that we approach relationships. We want to find that mirrored in a partner.

And I imagine you get lots of requests for companies wanting to collaborate with you guys and your brands?
Yes, and we say no to a lot more than we say yes to. We are quite selective. For example, we’ve been exploring opportunities in China for quite a few years now, and the reason it’s taking time is that we’ve been very diligent about finding the right partner. We don’t want to compromise on our core creative values.

“The beauty of Shaun the Sheep is that because its non-dialogue and about a dysfunctional family dynamic, it does actually have fewer limits than other brands.”

Speaking on shared creative values, let’s move onto a partnership that looks like an unusual one, but a perfect one! You’ve teamed with the renowned contemporary circus company, Circa, on a production called Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show. They do quite physical, boundary-pushing productions, so what lead you guys to team up?
Firstly, Aardman has a huge appetite for pushing the boundaries and taking left-field approaches. We – and I – don’t like doing the obvious!

We’ve done a few Shaun stage shows over the last few years, and they’ve been great creative projects, but being a non-dialogue show, it is a challenge. As an example, most Shaun shows have no dialogue and feature performers in masks, which immediately creates quite a challenge when it comes to connecting and communicating with an audience and our target age group.

This challenge led us into the world of circus performance because physically it’s much easier to build in the humour and the slapstick physicality of Shaun the Sheep. This is one of the key reasons why Circa appealed. The thrills and spills of Circa’s performances are staggeringly, breath-takingly exciting and they offer a level of sophistication that allows us to appeal to a broader age range.

Was it important that you partnered with a contemporary circus rather than a traditional one? There’s no clown cars or custard pies in sight!
Absolutely, we didn’t want that clown-style of circus. We wanted something that had a more anarchic, bonkers element to it! It ties in with the spirit of Shaun the Sheep. The more we talked, the more they felt like the right partner. And it’s mutually beneficial – they hadn’t worked with branded partners before and for us, it’s our first ever circus show.

It was around two years ago that I first met with Circa’s Shaun Comerford, the Executive Director of the show. We’ve been talking regularly since then and there hasn’t been a moment of doubt since then that they’re a perfect partner.

The show sounds amazing – we’ve spoken to Circa’s Yaron Lifschitz about the development of the production, but from your side, how did you find what sounds like quite a unique creation process?
It was such a bonkers way of working. It was the reverse of the way we would normally work on a production or a stage show. Usually we start with an outline, then develop a script and then work out the performance. This flipped everything on its head… It was all about workshops and performance at first, and the end result was a story and a script.

The show debuts at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre in Queensland, Australia. Will those in the UK get a chance to see it eventually?
That’s certainly the plan!

Can’t wait! I also wanted to talk a bit about rollercoasters. How closely do you work with the design teams on these kinds of things, and do any of your brands lend themselves to white-knuckle experiences?
If you look at Wallace & Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic at Blackpool Pleasure Beach – we call that a “pink-knuckle” ride! With rollercoasters, we’re starting with hardware and brand approval does come into that. So thinking about our work with Village Roadshow at Paradise Country in Australia on the Shaun the Sheep attraction there, right at the beginning we aligned our thinking and then their design team took charge. They sent us sketches of ideas and asked what we thought, and the whole process was really successful.

Ngaio Harding-Hill, Aardman
The lucky thing for us is that because our brands have been around for a long time, people that we partner with have done their homework before the work even really starts! I’ve never had an experience where a partner is really off – even working in China where there’s not such depth of awareness of our IP. Sometimes a partner might ask if Shaun can speak, but that’s a red line we have to insist on!

As well as the stories and the characters, the craft behind Aardman’s animations is something that really resonates with fans. I know you’ve had touring exhibitions, but have you ever been tempted to open a studio tour that allows people to get up close and personal with the creative teams?
That kind of content has always been a big part of our DVD releases, because there’s a huge appetite for that. For a long time, we’ve been formulating an idea around an Aardman studio experience. There’s been paths we’ve been down and it’s still one we’re travelling. We’ve already woven it into a lot of our exhibitions and attractions, with model making areas and animation units, but we do have an ambition for an Aardman studio experience.

Amazing! We’ll keep an eye out for that in the future! My final question – and I have to bring it up! – Covid has obviously had a huge effect on the live events space, how has it been for you?
This area of business is about bringing masses of people together to have a fantastic, shared experience, so Covid is pretty much the worst thing that could have happened to this industry. It’s been really tough but our partners have been amazing. It’s all about staying resilient, holding your breath and by 2022 hopefully everyone will be in a healthier position.

Lots of our partnerships are long term anyway, so we’ve been supporting them as much as we can with assets and online support. We want to help them engage with their audiences digitally. It’s the nature of the world at the moment. We’ve also responded by creating digital versions of our modelmaking and team-building workshops.

Well I can’t see a more exciting to return to live events than with your Shaun the Sheep’s Circus Show with Circa. A huge thanks Ngaio for taking time out for this – I look forward to catching up again soon.

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