Trends: A look at the advertising business in 2016 and what's in store for 2017

We interviewed Aardman Executive Producer and Head of Partner Content, Heather Wright on the advertising trends of the last 12 months and what the industry might look like in 2017…


1) What were some of the biggest trends, whether from a creative, technological or production standpoint, that made an impact on animation in 2016 and why?

Trend 1 – Investment in Virtual Reality. Technologically 2016 was the year that Virtual Reality took its first significant steps in animated storytelling. Animation is uniquely suited to VR as you can control precisely the interaction between the viewer and the subject they’re looking at. The movement of the headset can trigger a precise action in the animated character bringing an immediacy and intimacy to interaction. Aardman have now delivered 2 big VR projects for Google and the BBC and we have others in the pipeline. The Google project ‘Google Spotlight Stories ‘Special Delivery’ used the bespoke Google ATAP SDK and required a lot of joint collaboration on the technical development although the driver for this was always to achieve better creative results.

The BBC Connected Studios project ‘We Wait’ was an experimentation in immersive news and using VR to create a strong emotional connection between viewer and subject. Exploring the Syrian migration crisis as a group of families attempt to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe the subject matter was intrinsically engaging. This mainly used the Unity pipeline but again the driver for us was getting the emotional impact of the story.

Trend 2 – Return to Stop Motion.  The drive for authentic and honest communications between brands and consumers signalled a big return to stop frame animation this year. The hand crafted look and feel of the animation speaks exactly to this agenda. Even though people have been creating ‘mock motion’ (cgi which looks like stop motion) for some years now, there seems to be a renewed desire for the real thing. I can understand this because even though you can create ‘anything’ in a computer, (and we do too!) there’s something about the discipline and natural limitations of handmade puppets and sets and capturing the performances in camera that just feels real, like this ad we created for Myer, the high end Australian Department Store.

And, what I call stuff moving around animation – ie real found objects moved frame by frame – crossed over with pixilation can generate the same feeling as is evident in the ‘Beardimation’ spot we did for Braun.  This trend is also seen in work from outside Aardman is demonstrated in this spot for Tripl Stitched from Jack Cunningham at Nexus.  It perfectly marries the idea and the execution and is a beautifully photographed and very contemporary take on stop frame animation. The simplicity of the shapes and limited colour palette work perfectly for the product.


Trend 3 – Longer and Shorter Short Form. Television advertising is clearly still alive and kicking but with clients experimenting more in reaching audiences online there has been a growth of campaigns with a main film which could be anywhere from 60” to 2 ½ minutes long or more, with multiple gifs or shorter versions used to ‘sprinkle’ across social media driving traffic to the main film. The ‘main film’ may still be on television but it will definitely be on YouTube as well and it’s just as likely to sit solely on YouTube. Freed up from the constraints of the 30” spot agencies and clients looked to tell longer stories, engaging audiences more deeply with multiple strands making up a larger narrative across multiple platforms. These ‘longer’ short films often don’t command the production budgets of the big television marketing messages which means that the style of animation has to be more graphic and stylised to be workable financially. As always in a crisis, necessity is the mother of invention and this year has seen a lot of really great creative campaigns as a result of this trend.

Animation is also great for explaining difficult or complex messages and this piece for Promescent demonstrates perfectly the use of a longer form combined with the perfect use of the online platform. Warning – this piece is for grown-ups!

2) What trends from 2015 faded this year?

With the desire to create even more content for the same or even lower budgets, the trend for full fantasy 3D cgi worlds which almost look like clips from Pixar feature films faded somewhat.

Similarly, now people have got more used to the idea that technology can bring a photo real, if anthropomorphised’ cgi animal into our human world, the novelty seems to have slowed up and we are seeing less of these. These kinds of trends often follow feature films and there are less films like ‘Stuart Little’ or ‘Cats & Dogs’ which spawned a rash of talking animal in commercials over the past few years.

The SSE campaign from the end of 2015 with the Orangutan was a high creative point in this trend but we are definitely seeing less of these boards.  And also the wonderful Sainsbury’s ‘Mog’ campaign from last Christmas (although Mog of course was inspired by a much loved book).

3) What trends had the most significant impact on Aardman’s creation of partner content? Please explain.

The most significant changes to our Partner Content portfolio in the past year have come from clients outside of traditional advertising. With organisations as arts and culture organisations, museums, visitor attractions, all needing to have a presence online there is an increased demand for story led video and interactive content. Even the tech companies and the world of gaming are reaching out to us more often primarily for our storytelling but also for the way we grow sticky online communities.

This content can be as simple as a short animated film for a charity or cause such as the one we have just made for Alzheimer’s Research UK ‘Share the Orange’, or it can be wholly or have an interactive element, like ‘Dead Lonely’ which we created for RAPT to help showcase their interactive tech, or it can be a major mass participation project – entertainment with an educational twist like the project about the history of Hampton Court Palace for the Historic Royal Palaces which won the 2016 Museums + Heritage Award for Best Educational Initiative.

Alzheimers Research UK ‘Share the Orange’
RAPT ‘Dead Lonely’
Historic Royal Palaces ‘Royals, Rascals & Us’

Sometimes these kinds of clients come to us with an outline idea or concept but more often or not they will come to us with a brief. And very often these briefs contain complex or difficult messages which animation is uniquely suited to. So our job is not only to come up with the scripts or interactive solutions, but also to advise on strategy to build and maintain communities and equally importantly to think about distribution and marketing required to be seen amongst the constant buzz online. Internally this growth in multi-platform projects requires people from our interactive and animation teams to work closely together and having people from different disciplines rub up against each other more often leads to unexpected creative results.

Increasingly these projects use bespoke characters and stories that we create for them but there is still a strong role for the Aardman characters in many of these projects and some of our most successful long relationships start in one area of the company and end up in many.

Virtual Reality has also had a huge impact with the formation of a VR Group within Partner Content who in turn sit on the BAFTA industry advisory panel on VR. We have had to devote much more time to R&D learning about the new storytelling grammar alongside some significant tech development. As storytellers, we like to have control of the way the story is told to an audience. We like to dictate the order of the shots and pace of the edit, the close-ups which give emotional punch, the staging and scale of shots but with VR a lot of these familiar tools are taken away. As far as the tech itself goes, we will leave the development of that to the big tech companies and focus our energies on integrating plug-ins and workarounds to improve the creative at our end. Naturally we will always go where the audience is rather than developing for a specific platform. We have quite a large number of huge brains around that seem endlessly adaptable to different technical challenges.

See VR examples above.

4) Aardman aside, what were some of the standout uses of animation in 2016, whether in commercials, film, etc.?

As mentioned before, there has been some fantastic animation work coming out of difficult financial times recently.
Strong, high concept, original, illustrative looks are everywhere. This is one of my favourites; Coca Cola’s Man & Dog spot from Todd Mueller and Kylie Matulick at Psyop brilliantly captures the dogs-eye view of the world and finds a way of visualising smells in a really creative way. I kind of want to follow those smells too!

And in the area of longer shorter form, I also like Morton Salt ‘Neighbors’ from the ever talented Marc Craste at StudioAKA, revisits a familiar theme in that people don’t know what their pets are up to when they’re not looking but the character animation performances are absolutely delightful and the look is a fresh 3D take on what would have been done traditionally in 2D. This one will be popular with dog lovers everywhere!

And this one; Nautilus ‘France A. Cordova’ from Colin Hesterly at Not to Scale is a beautiful piece of 2D with a very strong clean graphic look in a limited colour palette that perfectly marries the idea of science and the artistic representation of that in an inspirational way.

The high concept stylised cgi campaign created for the BBC Rio Olympics by Passion Pictures is one of my favourites. The interplay between the animal and human characters captures our primal instincts to fight and to win yet conveyed in a beautifully elegant framework.

5) Where do you see animation headed in 2017? What are some of the looming trends in the New Year?

Trend 1: Growth of Virtual Reality. VR enters a make or break phase as the big tech companies vie to develop the best devices and create enough content to build audience share. Will storytelling in VR develop enough to keep people coming back once the novelty of the tech is less? There are a good few more years to go before we know the answer to this one but I think it has a great future potentially especially for short form series content. Series form rather than features because it’s eminently snackable/bingeable on your own. For me features will remain the big shared experience event that people enjoy. We will keep a close eye on research as to how it can potentially affect the development of young children’s brains but there’s no doubt that fully immersive experiences such as these are a full on WOW!

Trend 2 – Entertainment & Marketing Collaborations. As the worlds of entertainment and marketing continue to grow ever closer this is one area that is ripe for growth. With brands looking for ways to leverage new audiences and entertainment companies hungry for the media buying power of the big brands, this is a key trend.. And it’s not only about animation or even film or tv, it’s also about events, attractions and the role of interactivity in pulling audiences more deeply into meaningful communities around a show or an idea…. without necessarily differentiating between something which entertains and something which sells. It also plays into the world of the mega agency groups who offer clients project based projects shopping for relevant talent within the group agencies and starting to reach directly into content creators. And it’s happening already. We’re actively creating partnerships between agencies/brands and broadcasters (inc online) with ourselves as content creators. Collaboration – it’s the way forward. Longer Short Form.

Trend 3 – Strong, high concept, stylised 3D. This will continue to be developed as budgets remain tight and expectations are high. Plus there are some amazingly talented young artists coming through especially from the French animation colleges like Supinfocom and Gobbelins. These guys do already get snapped up by the big studios but the sheer originality of their talent isn’t coming out in feature films yet in the way that it most certainly is in commercials. Those features people should watch out. There is some serious creativity going outside their walls!

Add clips to the playlist by clicking the stars