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4 July 2014updated 03 Aug 2021 9:17am

Morph reborn: how everyone’s favourite plasticine man became a model for the digital age

The last time Aardman's little clay man Morph went on any new adventures was almost two decades ago. Why is he now returning with another series?

By Anoosh Chakelian

Morph is falling asleep while I speak to his creator, the Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord. Lord stretches the little clay man’s arms into a luxurious, spread-eagled pose and moulds his mouth into a cavernous yawn as I ask about the renaissance of a character who hasn’t been on any new adventures since 1997.

And no wonder Morph is exhausted. He and 149 clones have been working flat-out (sometimes literally) for five months to produce 15 original one-minute episodes of the cult TV classic that debuted in 1977, with the little terracotta man scampering around the artist Tony Hart’s worktop.

The director of the 2014 series Merlin Crossingham – who is Nick Park’s right-hand man as creative director of Wallace & Gromit – tells me they can only film about six to eight seconds of footage a day, so painstaking is the clay animation process. And there’s no time for retakes. “The pace of it is problematic,” he tells me. “You have to think a lot on your feet. Telling a one-minute story is really hard.”

I visit the Aardman studio a few days after production for the series has finished. There are larger-than-life Shaun the Sheep heads on the watercoolers and glass cabinets filled with tehcnicolour porcelain Gromits – a few days after production of the new series has finished. The animators have gone home, the studios are empty, and the founders of Aardman – Morph’s parents – Lord and David Sproxton, look tired but satisfied.

Morph’s history has not been without tragedy. In October 2005 a fire destroyed a warehouse used by Aardman in Bristol and the original Morph models were lost. The Guardian published an obituary that week by Tony Hart, which ended with the epitaph “Morph, born 1977, melted away 2005”. It seemed as though we’d heard the character’s final words of gobbledygook.

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To fund the comeback of the 14cm-high clay figure, who is now 37 but “certainly hasn’t settled down”, Lord launched a campaign on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. It raised over £110,000 from 2,654 backers from around the world.

And that’s not the only way Morph has escaped the Eighties and embraced the tech age. The new episodes will be shown on his YouTube channel, he now has his own Twitter account (where he posts “Morphies”), and during his new escapades he encounters a smartphone and a digital camera: quite the step-up from his pet nailbrush.

“Up until now, it’s been commissioned by the BBC,” Crossingham reflects on Morph’s new YouTube launch. “But he’s a little bit anarchic and it kind of suits the fact that he’s gone out there and braved the internet, and as a studio we have as well – it’s quite a big departure for us too.”

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Still, traditionalists needn’t worry – Morph’s world remains an artist’s desk and neither his character nor his appearance has changed. “He’s a very rich character,” Lord proudly asserts. “There’s a private life to Morph. He’s complicated, flawed. In truth, he’s always evolving, but the essence of him is the same. And there is a great simplicity to it.”

Crossingham adds: “People enjoy his cheeky, inquisitive innocence. He’s there to cause trouble. It’s just silly. He can be brutal. It’s sophisticated schoolboy humour – if that exists.”

“We weren’t always conscious that he was a universal character,” recalls co-creator Sproxton. “But he’s a Charlie Chaplin-type figure. You can just plonk him into any scenario… It’s timeless, he doesn’t age. It’s a bit absurd and there’s a magic element to him in a recognisable human world.”

Each one-minute episode of the new series of Morph took animators eight to ten days, and they film six to eight seconds a day.
Photo: Copyright Aardman Animations

However, although his creators insist that Morph is timeless and never changes, they do admit that in the hands of different animators over the years, he takes on different mannerisms and quirks depending on who’s animating him.

“People always told me, back in the old days when it was me doing all the animation, ‘oh, he walks just like you, he moves just like you’” recalls Lord. “Because animators tend to do self-portraits. When Nick Park animated Morph, I always thought, ‘oh, it looks just like Nick’. It’s literally the way you walk, I guess you copy that, and physically the way you react. You naturally tend to do something that’s in your range of performance.”

Crossingham adds: “Animators have strengths and weaknesses, and you cast animators like you would cast an actor. And when you know your animators, you can tell who’s done what and some are better at flat-out slapstick comedy and some are better at emotional stuff. It’s fascinating to see how they work.

“Because he’s hand-sculpted, everybody has ways of doing it. Even though we have master sculpts that define the look, by Peter Lord, the creator, everybody has a slight difference in the way they sculpt. Even though the majority of people probably couldn’t tell the difference, when you’re working with these artists day-in, day-out, and having been an animator myself, you get such a critical eye for these things. Part of my job is to give them guidance if they are going off-sculpt or off-model.”

Many senior creatives at Aardman started out work animating Morph episodes, and it is described as a “rite of passage”, by Crossingham, who worked on Morph upon arriving at Aardman. For him, going back to moulding Morphs after so many years was like “riding a bicycle”.

If there is an action that the animators can’t quite achieve on-screen, the filmmakers often film each other doing the action they want to try and bring across on screen. “It might just be the timing of a double-take or something that you can’t quite pinpoint, and then the animators will take that and kind of amplify the reality,” Crossingham says.

Why are Morph’s confident that this kind of entertainment will still work? Mulling over modern children’s television, Sproxton replies: There is an awful lot of animation that’s CGI. Some of it’s good, some of it’s awful. I think with Morph, because he sits in a real world, and you can see the thumbprints, it’s a very tangible thing. It’s that tangible nature, where you can see the craftsmanship, and think ‘ooh he could be in our kitchen’ – that immediacy resonates. I think what’s happened with the CGI, you think, ‘I can’t get into that world’. TV just got very slick in that animation space, and Morph isn’t that slick. It’s back to basics and I think people appreciate that.”

Morph is returning with his mischievous best friend Chas, and their tempestuous but loving brotherly relationship is still intact. Morph first carved Chas out of white clay when he was attempting to chisel a statue of himself, and their prankish similarities are what cause such mayhem and joy in their lives. It’s this companionship that makes the programme so appealing to all generations, say their creators.

“I’ve never thought of this before but both Peter [Lord] and I are younger brothers,” muses Sproxton. They met at school and began animating together when they were students. “It’s that sibling rivalry thing that is a classic rivalry. A double act is good, but it’s the sibling rivalry, the jealousies that work so well here. It’s relationships like this between characters that really resonate with the audience.”

“With me and Dave, Morph was like our first-born,” chuckles Lord. “And that counts for a lot.”

Lord tugs at Morph’s skinny clay arm to place the hand over the mouth to stifle a yawn. Coming back to our screens after nearly two decades away has been the little man’s biggest adventure.