Aardman has entertained viewers for decades, with its animated characters like Morph and Wallace and Gromit becoming household names. More recently, it has moved from claymation to 3D, with series such as Lloyd of the Flies which follows the adventures of a humble bluebottle called Lloyd, his little sister PB and his best friend Abacus.
It's this series which forms the basis of Adventures of ArachnoFly. Based on a comic read by Lloyd and his friends, the mini-episodes riff on superhero tropes and offer creator Matt Walker a new way to tell stories and dash through rapid-fire jokes.
"Adventures of ArachnoFly is deliberately much looser and sillier than Lloyd of the Flies," Matt tells Creative Boom. "The nature of the series meant I didn't need to worry about a coherent plot or resolution to the story – or character arcs, internal logic, or any level of realism."
Matt treated the series as if viewers were dipping into a random issue of the ArachnoFly comic, but with the twist that each strip is being told and interpreted by Lloyd, Abacus and PB. Even doodles are drawn onto the page, interacting with the ArachnoFly action.
"It's very meta – the characters know they are in a comic – but it is a comic that exists in the fictional world of Lloyd of the Flies, so it still needed to fit within the restrictions of Lloyd's world," Matt explains. "Anything goes, but only as far as Lloyd himself could read about or imagine, although we did take a few liberties."
The series was also influenced by the Lloyd of the Flies voice cast, including Tom Rosenthal, Alex Lawther and Lauren Patel, who all appear in Adventures of ArachnoFly. "ArachnoFly is an exaggerated Lloyd, and Pea-Bean is just PB," says Matt, "But Bird-Bee is an evil cackling villain, the opposite of Abacus, so Bird-Bee became quite a sweet evil cackling villain."
As for the decision to go for a 2D animation approach, this was inspired not only by the flat nature of comic book illustrations. "2D was the natural fit for a series based on the comic, but also necessary as we needed to make it much more quickly and with a smaller budget than Lloyd of the Flies."
He adds: "The genesis of the series was that Aardman wanted more content to help build the audience for Lloyd of the Flies and suggested a digital-first series for YouTube because that's where the potential fans hang out these days. Initially, I was thinking about how to repurpose existing content from the series but quite quickly came up with the idea of an ArachnoFly spin-off instead."
According to Matt, a lot of credit for the look of the series should go to Davide Mastronardo, who was a designer and background artist on Lloyd of the Flies. "He and Grace Hamilton (Art Director on Lloyd of the Flies) created the comic book covers used in that series.
"At the end of production on Lloyd of the Flies, he had drawn an image of Lloyd dressed as ArachnoFly for me and Jane Davies (Co-Director on Lloyd of the Flies), and at the beginning of production on Adventures of ArachnoFly, I showed him that image again and said to I wanted the series to look like that. He also did the brilliant comic covers for every episode."
Adventures of ArachnoFly uses a lot of half-tone textures as a nod to how old-fashioned comic books were printed. This approach also helped to establish a sense of scale. "At insect scale, the dots that makeup printed images would look huge! Not that the ArachnoFly comics are printed like that. I've no idea how the comics in Lloyd's world are printed. Printing presses made out of potato or something!"
The animation style was a further compromise between the world of the series and the practicalities required to turn it around. "Jane created all the characters in Animate, and the animation had to be very limited out of necessity, just pose to pose with very few in-betweens," Matt reveals.
"Jane Davies (who directed Adventures of ArachnoFly) did a great job of making that work – each shot almost functions like a static comic book panel that happens to be animated. The editor, Dom Pitt, also added a lot of funny touches, like the animated transitions and playing around with the sound and picture. We embraced our limitations: what the series lacks in polish, we made up for with playfulness."
Part of what makes Adventures of ArachnoFly so amusing is the self-awareness of the script. There are knowing gags that play on the comic strip format, so it's no surprise to hear that Matt grew up reading them and still does.
"Adventures of ArachnoFly is very much an affectionate parody of mainstream superhero comics – the complicated continuities, endless crossovers, the deaths and rebirths, the self-serious silliness, etc.," he says. "It comes from a place of love, though. I wanted it to be meta but not snarky.
"When writing the series, it was a lot of fun playing around with comic book tropes and the format itself – it's a mix of everything. ArachnoFly has an ArchnoLab, where he does ArachnoScience, and Bird-Bee has a lair. One episode is called Death of ArachnoFly because every good superhero has a 'Death of…' storyline. The episode 'Double Bumper Special' plays on the Annual format and has a letters page. One episode has a misprint.
"I really wanted the series to be like an animated comic in a literal sense and use the comic book format as a tool for the comedy. Most useful was having a "Next Time…" caption at the end of every episode, as that was a handy way to not bother with a proper ending and to just cut to a loosely related gag before the credits."
The first two episodes of Adventures of ArachnoFly are out now, and eagle-eyed viewers will notice that other Aardman shows and animation styles make brief cameos. Could this be something we see more of in future episodes?
"A little bit," Matt teases. "Sort of. I was wary of going too far with how we translated ArachnoFly into animation as I want it to stay true to Lloyd's world – it's still meant to be a comic that Lloyd is reading, after all. Including Shaun the Sheep was one of the liberties we allowed ourselves. We put it in because it made us laugh and is not too far beyond the realm of Lloyd's logic.
"I've always got my Lloyd-logic cap on – I can imagine ArachnoFly in CG, but Lloyd is CG, so a CG ArachnoFly will probably have to be a 'live-action' stage production taking place in Lloyd's world. I'd like to do that episode."