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Interview with Aiden Whittam, Animator and Set Maker on "Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)"

Bristol-based stop motion artisan Aiden Whittam, after recently graduating from the University of the West of Bristol, England, where he earned a Bachelors Degree in Animation, has hit the ground running in the industry, embarking on a few very exciting projects, one of which was Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) – the music video for the band Spark’s hit song – on which he worked as both an animator and a set-maker.

Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) – regarding which we published our first in a series of posts about the project last week, featuring our interview with the film’s director, Joseph Wallace – is nothing short of a treasure of the stop motion medium, having successively received a wealth of accolades and praises, perhaps the crown jewel of which coming from Sparks themselves, who hailed the video as, “Perhaps Sparks’ best video ever.”

Seated among his accrued stop motion work, Aiden has worked at Aardman on Nick Park’s upcoming caveman stop motion film, Early Man, where he was an assistant animator, as well as having worked at John Wright Model Making as a model maker.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Aiden about his work on the project, where we dug in deep on the subjects of his collaboration on the project with Edith Piaf director, Joseph Wallace, while also discussing his creative use of cardboard in crafting the sets, as well as the lessons he learned from meeting the challenge of working under the incredibly quick schedule of a 6-week-turnaround (which is practically warp-speed in working on a stop motion project of considerable length for the medium), as well as his stop motion inspirations. You can read the full interview below.

A.H. Uriah: The two primary jobs you had on Edith Piaf were of wearing both the hats of “animator” and of “set maker/dresser/designer.” Let’s talk about the latter first. From the behind-the-scenes video, it looks like you were working with some architectural references of places – buildings and streets – in and around Paris. First of all, how did this research contribute to your work in designing the elements and essences of Paris that Joseph was interested in exploring in the music video? From there, how did you go about designing the sets? (I understand you worked with quite a bit of cardboard over the course of the project.)

Aiden Whittam: Joseph had spent a good amount of time collecting imagery and sketching out ideas before I began work on the project. This meant that when I arrived, there were already many nice bits of imagery all around the studio that really helped me understand what Joseph wanted. We would begin each set piece by collecting together imagery of Parisian style buildings and architectural details that Joseph liked for the particular set piece, then he would sketch down some ideas and designs for me to begin working with. I would have plenty of imagery at hand so that I could pick up on little architectural details to work into the sets, so I could really capture that Parisian feel that Joseph wanted.

Every bit of set was pretty much made from cardboard, it is such a great material to work with, and allowed us to easily make the many sets that you see in the video. I always like being able to use basic materials to create wonderful things, and I think Joseph’s style allowed us to use the natural look and textures of the materials to its advantage.

A.H.: For both your work on the animation and the set design, I imagine the specificity of Joseph’s vision provided a very particular framework within which you had to work – from the movement of the characters to crafting the stylized Paris cityscape. Can you speak a little to the effect of working with Joseph on a project, and also how you found your own creative footing and voice while still working within his vision?

AW: Working with Joseph was a really good experience. The project was rather detailed and complicated, but Joseph was so clear in his vision that I feel that very early on we all just ‘got it’ and that gave a good energy to the project. Joseph’s style is lovely but very different to my own, so I was a little apprehensive about things at first. But it was actually very refreshing to work differently, as it pushed me into areas that I might not normally venture into within my own work. With such a small crew, I was dealing with many different things, from set building, to camera, lighting, animation and so on, so it was nice to do a bit of everything, it made the end product very satisfying.

A.H.: What, if any, were some challenges that you faced on this project, how did you overcome and remedy these challenges, and what did they teach you?

AW: The project was very quick, with it all taking about six weeks to complete, it was quite tough to get everything done. It would have been nice to have much longer, but the time restraints certainly stopped me from being too meticulous about things!

We also had an excellent motion control camera rig, which allowed us to pull off some really nice camera moves. I’d never really worked with something like that before so it was a bit tricky to figure out, and it also made the animation even harder to do but the end results are definitely worth it. Working with more technical stuff like this is definitely something I now want to look into more within my own projects.

A.H.: I would love to hear your outlook on how you have seen yourself evolve as an artist over the years - you’re obviously a very talented and creative individual. Was stop motion an industry that’s interested you ever since your childhood or did you only develop a passion for it in your adult years? Were there any artists, films, or pieces of art that you feel have particularly helped to shape your artistry and style as an animator and an all-around creative individual?

AW: I’ve been fascinated with stop motion for as long as I can remember. I’ve also been doing it for as long as I can remember too. It may seem rather cliché but I really remember being inspired by stuff from Aardman. Their simple style just made the medium seem so accessible to me, where all I needed was a lump of clay and a camera to make a film. Now, I really love the style and look of 1950’s drawn animation. I can certainly see hints of it creeping more and more into my characters.

My last major piece of work was a film highlighting the tiresome process of how a stop motion puppet comes together, which concludes with a weird and slightly ridiculous love story. I always seem to gravitate towards comedy in my work, with often some weird and troubled characters. I doubt I’ll ever make something too serious, there wouldn’t be as much fun in it then!

Aiden Whittam animating the puppet iterations of the Mael brothers on Edith Piaf

If you’re interesting in seeing more of Aiden’s excellent work, you can do so by visiting his YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Vimeo.

For further resources concerning Edith Piaf and the amazing work that went into producing the music video, you can go read our interview with Joseph Wallace – the director and auteur of the video – here, and you can also go watch this in-depth making-of video about the project, published by Joseph on his Vimeo and which primarily follows Joseph giving the Mael brothers, Russell and Ron, a tour around the stop motion studio, while also incorporating footage and pictures of the making-of process.

You can go watch Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) here.

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