Developer Spotlight : Mark Burvill

This month, we spoke to Technical Director Mark Burvill about a typical day in Aardman’s Interactive team, new tech and his advice on starting out in the industry.

1. How did you start out in the industry and what is your role at Aardman?

I started messing around with making websites in the late 90s, and worked in a couple of different web agencies in Brighton during the so-called “dotcom boom” of the early 00’s. I actually started out more focused on the graphic design side, but then I discovered Flash and taught myself to code and to make simple web games. I then spent about 7 years freelancing doing just that, and always trying to tread the line between design and animation on one hand, and coding on the other. Then as games and applications got more and more complex, I realised it was silly to keep doing everything myself, and wound up gravitating towards just doing the coding side. My first freelance job for Aardman’s Interactive department was a Flash game called “Deadly Dash” for Children’s BBC in 2009, then they kept asking me back for more and more work and I suddenly found myself not really working for anyone else anymore! In 2012, I got the job of Technical Director and officially went permanent at Aards. These days I find myself dipping in and out of pretty much all of our interactive projects, and looking after our team of developers, all of whom constantly blow me away with their cleverness and ability to make different technologies do amazing things that they weren’t really designed to be able to do. The nature of the tech we’re working with has changed so much since I started at Aardman, with the explosion of mobiles and tablets, the accessibility of modern casual games, the maturing of the indie game landscape, and now virtual and augmented reality as well. We’re always having to learn new things and new ways of working but that’s what keeps it fun.

2. To date, what has been your biggest professional achievement?

One of the first things I worked on for Aardman was a suite of Mr. Tumble games for CBeebies that were specifically designed for kids with special needs such as limited movement or cognitive ability. I think hearing some of the feedback from parents afterwards where their child was able to play a game and interact with a favourite character for the very first time was pretty moving and really made me stop and think. We make so many different things that it’s easy to forget the positive impact that some of it can have on someone’s life. That stuff’s more important than big shiny awards (although they’re nice too…).

3. Name three people who inspire you:

My wife for being a successful female in a male-dominated industry, my son for his charity baking and my daughter for her ability to successfully affix unicorn horns onto our cat.

4. Tell us what a typical day at the studio is like for you?

The day usually starts with a couple of stand-up meetings on whatever projects are going on or about to kick off. Then the day usually flies past in a blur of frowning at code, writing tech specs, planning pitches, seeing how many mobile phones I can balance on top of each other, and having meetings about dogs on skateboards.

5. What do you like most about working at Aardman?

Definitely the people and the general air of child-like creativity everywhere. There’s this great sense of bonkers ideas flying around every corner.

6. What new trends/technologies do you feel have had the most impact on the interactive industry lately?

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are the big ones for me at the moment and they are something that I find 50% amazing and exciting, and 50% terrifying. It might be a while longer before they truly cross over into a wider market like smart phones did, but as the hardware gets cheaper and less clunky, the pace will start to pick up. It’s almost impossible to imagine where it’s going to take us in the next ten years.

Shaun the Sheep Movie Barn VR (Aardman Animations)

7. What’s your desk like – messy or tidy?

It’s very high up because I’m tall and have a weird chair. It’s also usually covered in cables and mobile phones.

8. What are your goals for the year ahead?

Well, we have some really interesting projects at various stages of planning at the moment, many of which would really take us into cool new places, so I hope that those all come off and are as awesome as I think they will be.

9. How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Hoooo-boy… well I live a way outside Bristol so spend quite a lot of time travelling to and from work on a bike or a train, plus my wife and I have two young kids who keep us very busy so the work/life balance is really hard to get right. I do play bass and sing in a local “dads” pub band which keeps me off the streets. We do “Born to be Wild” and everything.

10. What has been your all-time favourite project that you’ve been involved with?

We’ve done a lot of projects that get kids using their creativity, and these are always the most fun for me. The best was probably the Tate Movie Project, which I only built a relatively small part of, but it was a deeply mad and unhinged project. We made an interactive film studio online where kids could submit story ideas, drawings and sound effects, then we mashed everything together into a film. Literally everything in it was drawn by kids, even down to every plank of wood in a pirate ship being a different kid’s drawing. The resulting film was called “The Itch of the Golden Nit” and is THE most insane and psychedelic thing I’ve ever seen. Sadly, I don’t think it’s available to watch anywhere anymore which is a shame because more people need to see it. Hunt a DVD down if you can!

11. What’s your best advice for people wanting to get into the games/interactive industry today?

Well on the one hand it’s easier than it’s ever been because there are so many approachable game engines, tutorials, game jams, online communities etc etc to get you started, but by the same token, the shear breadth of technologies, languages and skills means that it can be bewildering to know where to start. I would say try not to get too obsessed by all the things there are to learn, but to start with a great idea and learn only what’s necessary to make it happen. And your idea can be as mad as you like, but try and keep it to a manageable size so you can actually finish it. Just get making stuff, then make more stuff and don’t ever stop making stuff. Eventually someone will notice your amazing stuff.

Purple & Brown (Aardman Animations/Rich Webber)


12. Who is your favourite Aardman character and why?

Probably Purple out of Purple and Brown because he’s tall and blissfully happy in his own naivety like me.

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