Aardman is known for being one of the best and most-loved creators in the world. The studio introduced us to unforgettable characters like Wallace, Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, and they truly put the art of stop-motion animation on the map.
And now one Walsall animator is being hailed as the next big thing after his latest movie, At-issue, debuted on Sky.
Drew Roper, 28, from Walsall owns Yamination Studios. During his career so far, he has worked on Tim Burton animated film Frankenweenie and a movie based on one of Roald Dahl's tales, Fantastic Mr Fox, starring the voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep.
After working his way up from tea-making bin emptier to producer of his own Sky project, the future looks super bright for the 'Yaminator'. But the key to his success is something very simple, Drew tells Weekend – the ability to make a good cuppa.
We give him a call at his Birmingham-based studio to find out about his journey from art class to being tipped as the next Aardman.
"Aardman pioneered the industry. It's a lovely company, and a great bunch of people. It's so flattering to be compared to them," he says happily. Growing up, Drew had his sights firmly set on another animator. "As cliché as it sounds, all I've ever wanted to do in my life is Disney! I grew up in Walsall Wood and my dad was a plumber and my mum was looking after us kids. The background of hard work, hard graft and construction was built into me from a young age. All my family, brothers, uncles and so forth are tradesman. What I'm doing now is very similar – you build houses and things, just on a smaller scale. I'm just putting a more artistic twist on a classic, working-class concept really.
"I was good at drawing as a kid and enjoyed it, so I kept at it. All the tutors and teachers I've ever had pushed me to do more with it. When I was at sixth form, I decided to do art at university. My teachers looked at me like 'are you serious?'"
Drew was deadly serious, and after completing an art foundation course at Sutton Coldfield College (now Birmingham Metropolitan College), he truly fell in love with animation. "I can't believe it's taken me so long to realise what it was that Disney did!" he says. The hard work was about to begin, but Drew was ready to meet it head-on.
"I went to university in Southampton and studied animation for three years to get my degree. I met and worked with some lovely people there, and we had some great guest lecturers. I'd take them out for a beer and try and learn the ins-and-outs of the industry. Now I go to universities and I'm that person! And I say to those students 'why haven't you bought me a beer?'" Drew laughs, but it's these little moments that set him up for the success he's now enjoying.
"You do all of your learning after uni. It gives you the basics of what you want to do, but if you want to really achieve, you just have to get off your backside and do it. I was always told by my grandad never to give up on what I wanted to do. Even if it's a lost cause, if you still believe in it, you should never give up. That's my motto with the studio really. It is tough, but you have to keep going and believing in the bigger picture.
"That's where it all started for me. I took a guest lecturer out for a beer, it turned into a few more beers and then he said 'Drew, do you want to come and work on this feature film I'm working on?' and that was it! I was part of the wrap and pack team on The Fantastic Mr Fox. After they'd finished shooting, I was there to take down the sets, props and stages. That was my bit of luck, I got my foot in the door with the right person and then I was a crew member!"
But that wasn't all it took. After the movie finished, it was tricky to get work. Drew managed to secure an animation residency at the Lighthouse in Wolverhampton, earning him studio space to work on his own projects.
"I worked on promotional films for brands like fashion label LUKE. But I still wanted to get more industry experience, so when I was asked to go and work on Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, I jumped at the chance."
Drew put his studio on hold and went back to basics. "It's stood me in good stead really, because I realised how important every single job was in the industry. I was hired to take stuff out of storage, set up Tim Burton's office and that kind of thing. I didn't get to meet him though, I was one day off seeing him!
"Everyone commented how nice he was. You find that the people who have worked their way up in an industry are really conscientious to everyone on set no matter how big or small their job role. I have my own studio now, it's a two-and-a-half thousand square foot space, and when we get the guys in I always make the teas! One, I make a good cuppa – I was trained to do it – but on the other hand, I want to inspire and lead and make people happy."
After Frankenweenie, Drew went for a number of jobs but was unsuccessful: "I learned the importance of taking the bins out, making tea and ensuring there was enough sugar in the sugar pot. After animators have spent all day leaning over a set, and all they want is a cup of tea and they can't have one, it's a disaster, trust me! So I went for a job to do that. . . didn't get it. I thought 'oh God, I didn't get that?' I kept applying for assistant animator jobs, junior model maker jobs and didn't get them either."
Back in Wolverhampton, Drew shared the work he did for LUKE at festivals, winning him some awards. "That was quite nice," he says simply. "The kudos was great and I really wanted to get myself out there, and it allowed me to do that. I moved in the Custard Factory in Birmingham and set up Yamination Studios."
Again, Drew did work experience to grow his skill set. "I worked on Shaun the Sheep with Aardman making models on work experience, which was great. I was the first person to do work experience on series three and the only work experience person to get invited to the wrap party! I actually made an impression, and so as much as I didn't get back on it, straight away I went for an arts fund from Sky Academy and I got £30,000 to work on my own project!
"That's when it took off. It was so massive, I got told on the phone and was so emotional – it's like your dreams are coming true! That was back in 2012, I was only 24 and had been running my own studio, doing everything myself. That money allowed me to speak to the right people and get people in to work with me, so we began to grow organically."
Yamination's film At-issue debuted on Sky Arts last month. It follows Bartholomew Yogart – a 30-something puppet – as he chases his dreams. Though it took three years and more than 100 people to create, the 2D, stop-motion and CGI film is only eight-and-a-half minutes long.
"I didn't get credited on all of the feature films I'd worked on before, but they set me in such good stead. When we started to make At-issue, we held off because we ran out of funding. We have £30,000 but we needed at least a quarter of a million to get what we wanted done."
Drew got networking, sharing his work with other businesses. He was hired to work on a Super Bowl advert for Coca Cola, with a London company outsourcing their work to Yamination as they had so much great space in Birmingham. Not only did it give the Yamination team the opportunity to work on something of that magnitude, but it also brought in new work. They worked on a Cravendale advertisement, Barry the Biscuit Boy, building sets. Each new bit of work helped towards the funding of the At-issue project.
"It took three years to finish this film, and a lot happened in that time. We grew without me realising it. It's been a lovely whirlwind of a trip! We've had some great responses from people, and we've just got to build on this now. It's been a good start to the year, I just hope we can do some more cool work in the coming months."
By Kirsty Bosley