Secretarial: A job to get animated about
I Work For... ALISON COOK IS PA TO NICK PARK AND PETER LORD, MAKERS OF WALLACE AND GROMIT
Wednesday 10 November 1999
Three and a half years ago I was happily working in the BBC's Resources Department. The only thing I lacked was a sense of being involved in something creative within an environment allowing substantial personal freedom. My friend spotted this job and encouraged me to apply for it. As soon as I arrived I was hooked - team happiness was obviously very important, and I was promised there would be lots of parties.
I had my second interview with Nick, and I don't think he knew what to ask me. I had already seen him on TV accepting his Oscar for A Close Shave, and had been struck by how sweet and boyish he was. He really is rather like one of his creations, although he would probably deny it. Like Gromit, he doesn't say much yet he's always watching and knows what he wants. Just as I was leaving he said, "But you do like Wallace and Gromit, don't you?" It was my first inkling that they were alive to him.
I think that part of the fun of animation is being able to put yourself into the characters and then take them further than you could go yourself. Actually, everyone here believes that Wallace and Gromit exist, as do many others. People love seeing the figures, and are always surprised that they look the same in the flesh.
When Nick lost them in a New York taxi there was wide-scale panic and he was distraught. Fortunately, after putting up "missing" posters, he was reunited with them. It was almost as if Wallace and Gromit had deliberately got lost in order to enjoy a ride around the city.
When I joined the company it occupied a small studio in a old banana warehouse and I worked in the creative room with the animators and their storyboards. Then part of the company moved to a huge place in order to make our feature film, an animated adventure comedy called Chicken Run, about a group of chickens making a bid for freedom. The film is very pressured for Nick and Peter, and it is frustrating that we can only meet for just an hour each week. Yet it was with this period in mind that I was brought in early to learn how to deal with things on their behalf before they became absorbed in the filming.
There are over 150 people working on the feature film, with almost 30 separate film units each headed by an animator and curtained off within a massive studio. You have to be a certain kind of person to be an animator, not exactly obsessive but able to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time. On a good day you will shoot two and a half seconds. It would soon drive me mad, but animators have enormous patience.
When I started, I was rather perturbed to find Peter, arms outstretched, repeatedly running up and down behind me. No one had explained that it's usual to mime the actions of characters before shooting. I first met him the day of a royal visit to the studio and was introduced as "your new PA" minutes before the Queen came up to shake his hand.
Neither of them had ever had a PA before, so I took him and Nick out to lunch separately to get an idea of how we'd like to work together. Nick told me he needed someone to field his calls and remind him of what he needed to do, whereas Peter's needs, as the owner of the company, were slightly different. I don't think he quite knew what my role was so I spelt it out, saying "I am here to support you and to make things easier."
He nodded and confirmed his belief in the importance of looking after people within a company. It's a consideration which suits me fine because I'm quite maternal by nature, and nurturing is a PA's role. I spent the first couple of weeks wading through fan mail and getting to know the company. Then I took over organising the travel arrangements, and from then on we made it up as we went along.
I have been to events where everyone has made a big fuss of Nick as a three-times Oscar-winning star, but he doesn't seem to realise it, describing himself as "just an animator". I was very touched when, knowing how keen I was on Mel Gibson, he brought back a napkin he'd asked the star to sign for me during a dinner. On returning from the Lord Mayor's dinner last week he came back talking about his excitement at having met Patrick Moore.
Pete is very much the grown-up of the two, charming and a family man. Yet neither man takes himself particularly seriously - when animating they are like two schoolboys working on a project together, looking serious at one moment and giggling the next. Every year we have several fancy- dress parties, and their outfits are always fantastic - Pete's Elvis was particularly good, as was Nick's devil.
They may be my bosses, but they treat me like an equal and never lose their tempers. They are also constantly grateful. When I told Pete I was doing this interview he said, "But it should be called `I Work With'."
Arriving at Aardman Animations felt like coming home, and, having waited so long for it to happen, I wouldn't dream of leaving.
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