‘Early Man’ Director Nick Park On Realizing Longtime Vision For Caveman Sports Comedy

A four-time Oscar winner best known for the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion series, Nick Park has an abiding affection for his own iconic creations, often contemplating what the next chapter might be, when it comes to the eccentric inventor and his anthropomorphic dog. At the same time, Park is an artist of diverse interests, who knows when it’s time to turn the page. Winning Best Animated Feature with 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit—which saw the pair digging into a curious mystery involving garden sabotage—Park saw the opportunity to try something new with his next feature, Early Man, introducing a whole new group of characters and a compelling prehistoric world, which stemmed from an idea he’d contemplated for years.

Set at the dawn of time, Aardman Animations’ latest follows Dug, a prehistoric man who unites with his tribe to combat a threat from Lord Nooth, the leader of a Bronze Age city encroaching on his own. Facing the obliteration of life as he knows it, Dug and his comrades challenge Bronze Age dwellers to a soccer match for the ages, with the land they inhabit at stake. “I’m always looking for ideas that seem a little different, and a little bit quirky. I’ve always loved the idea of doing a caveman movie—I felt it lends itself to the clay, the earthy textures, using all the real hair, fabric and fur fabric,” the director explains. A longtime fan of the oeuvre of stop-motion and visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, Park found Early Man to be the perfect homage, while recognizing that the film couldn’t be just any “caveman adventure.”

Charmed by the notion of a “prehistoric underdog sports movie”—something he’d never seen before on the big screen—Park would push himself in the creation of a very demanding, very particular world, which featured lava, volcanoes, prehistoric scenes and more. “I think in a way, I could make Wallace and Gromit films till the cows come home. I love working with characters that I know, but it’s great to get away from terraced houses, and wallpaper, and domestic scenes,” he reflects. “I guess now, with digital technology, we can use that to expand the world.

As a stop-motion pioneer, what has it been like to see such a resurgence of the form in recent years, from studios including Laika and Fox Searchlight?

You know, I remember years ago, with Toy Story and the advent of all these new CG films, which I’m a big fan of. I’m a big fan of Pixar, and the work of other studios, like DreamWorks. But we used to think, how long have we got left, in this technique? This kind of Stone Age technique. And now, it’s interesting. Not only has there been a revival of stop-motion for some reason, but there’s always quite a few being shot at any time. Now, in a way, with our own work, it works to a good effect for us in that we stand out. But at the same, the revival or flourishing of stop-motion is, I think, surprising for all of us, with Wes Anderson and Laika and Tim Burton. We all share a lot of the animators—they move around from one feature to another.

To what do you attribute this new energy circulating around the form?

In a way, I can’t really judge other techniques because I’m impressed by what’s going on in the CG world. I always feel amazed and intimidated. I can only speak personally, but it’s the medium that I’ve grown up with. We do it in different ways at Aardman now, with CG and stop motion and 2D, but I think it’s just what I’m used to, and I’ve always felt it’s my medium. That’s where I can be funny and expressive. I always look at the way that Gromit was born, for example, out of a piece of clay, and it’s the technique that helped imbue a sense of feeling and soul into him. Or, it’s the fact that I was there, animating him as a student, in A Grand Day Out. He was going to have a mouth, and be expressive in other ways, with a voice, but I found I could only animate his eyebrow up and down—and that’s where I found his soul, if you like. That came about because of the technique, and a lot of the humor, for me, comes out of that. I guess there’s a certain charm in the technique. It can look very bad, but it can look very good if you do it well.

What went into visualizing your world for Early Man, crafting your characters and creating a strong juxtaposition between the environments of the Stone and Bronze Age?

Working with my colleagues, [including] Dave Alex Riddett, the DP, we were very keen to keep it photographic, and keep it to real materials. In the end, we just didn’t have the studio space. Our studio is the size of a couple of football pitches—it’s a big warehouse near Bristol—but we still didn’t have the studio space, so we would have to create the sets to a certain degree, and then do green screen, and put digital backgrounds in later, skies and volcanoes and things.But we tried to keep as much real as we could. Even when volcanoes were erupting, we actually did have real footage of explosions that we supered in. The cavemen themselves, and the characters, we tried to keep all that as real puppets, just to keep that quality. But when we were in the football stadium, you have a cast of thousands. Where we went for close-ups, they were real puppets, but then when they were wide shots, we’d replicate the puppets in CG. So, there was a mixture all the time, really.Even on the football pitch, it was just so big that the animators couldn’t even reach characters at the back of the pitch. So, we’d sometimes have to put CG replicas in.

Were all your characters created with plasticine?

It was rather a mixture. I like to use plasticine as much as possible because they get handled so much, and there’s so much repair work that needs doing all the time. In the Bronze world, there’s a lot of armor, and helmets, and shields and things, so they would be made of fiberglass or resin. They’d all have metal armatures inside, but their faces and hands would often be mostly plasticine. With the cavemen, the originals of everything would all be plasticine, but then we’d make molds and be able to cast them in different materials. The cavemen had to do so much running around that they would get trashed easily, so we made their legs out of latex or silicone. Sometimes, depending on what they had to do, they were plasticine—but their faces were always plasticine.

What kinds of challenges do you run into, working with the materials of your choice?

I think that’s what makes us slightly different to, say, Wes Anderson, or Laika or Tim Burton films, is that they work with puppets. It’s the same stop-motion technique. But [while] we often use the same armatures or skeletons inside the characters, we often cover them in clay. That’s the difference. I like the clay because it has an elasticity to it, and a softness, so you’re not just moving the puppet. You’re often remolding, resculpting within the shot to change the form of the face or the mouth, to make the technique a little quicker.

What’s very time-consuming is lip sync. We have this technique where each character will have a set of premade mouths, because the mouths take so long to resculpt. Each animator will have a set that’s already premade of between 12 and 20 mouths, all with different syllables and mouth shapes. So, the animator can quickly take out the mouth, and plug in a new one, and it saves an awful lot of resculpting time. They’re still made of clay, so it doesn’t feel too regimented or robotic; the animator can still tweak them and make it organic.

On your films, which revolve around clay, how do you achieve certain practical effects like fire, fruit exploding in someone’s face, or arrows flying through the air?

We’ve always tried to keep things real, on set—things actually shot in front of camera as opposed to an after effect. But some things are kind of difficult, like fog or flames. In Grand Day Out, the first Wallace and Gromit, I think I had baking foil for flames. I don’t think we quite do that anymore, but when somebody pours water out of a teapot or some vessel, we still use cling film—[the food wrap] you put on sandwiches. You just stretch a bit of that, and it looks like a spout of water, and you can color it with a marker. You just replace that, or tweak it every frame, and it looks like it’s flowing—and with the right sound effect on it, it’s convincing water. You can just manipulate it in front of the camera, and it’s nice, that technique. It sort of feels right. We could just do a CG effect after, but we try to keep as much in camera as we can.

We rely on digital more to help the speed of things. For example, there’s a lot of characters running around and leaping in the air. In the old days, when a character left the ground, we would have to suspend them on fishing line or wires, hoping that the camera couldn’t see. And if there was a reflection off the wire, we’d have to paint it out with a Sharpie, or paint it afterwards. But now, we don’t bother because it slows the animator down so much. We have a great big rig behind the character that the animator can just manipulate, and it saves a lot of time—and then we just paint it out afterwards. But it means the character is still there, real, on the set.

With Early Man, how did you grapple with the challenge of a full-on football sequence, and all the choreographed movement that would entail?

That was something that was very new, and a big challenge to all of us, really. There’s a game near the beginning of the film when Dug goes into the Bronze world in the first act, and I really wanted it to feel like a slightly cartoon Gladiator, with the sense of [scale], and the, “Oh my gosh, what am I involved in?” As Dug gets taken in and he’s mistaken as a player on the pitch, there’s the roar of the crowd. I remembered seeing Gladiator the first time, with that sense of being in the stadium.

The challenge on the final football game was, while it’s challenges on all sides, how to make it dramatic and convincing as football. But also, we’re so used to seeing it on the TV. How do you make it cinematic? We couldn’t use those usual top shots that you get, the morphogeography when you’re watching, so you know which way your side is kicking. We wanted to get down more on the pitch, but also, there’s a lot of story to tell during the match. Telling story, but also making it funny, was like juggling all these things at the same time. Once we got the story right, then we thought, “Aye, it’s not funny!” [Laughs] So, we went back and recut it, and took a load of stuff out. But the thing with animation is you can’t afford to shoot more than you use too much, so we were doing it with storyboards the whole time.

How did you approach your film’s highly visual prologue, which shows an asteroid hitting the planet, and the dinosaurs going extinct?

I wanted it to have some kind of big, epic opening, and I’m very much a fan of Ray Harryhausen. You know, the two dinosaurs were named Ray and Harry, as a tribute to Ray Harryhausen. One Million Years B.C. was one of my favorite films as a kid. That’s the film that got me into animation, actually—well, one of those films did. Yeah, it was mega, really. It starts with a volcano: We did that CG, but it was real flames, and then we pulled back and it became a set, with two dinosaurs fighting, and then all these people fighting. It was just a practical thing of getting the camera down past everything without hitting anything. It was all computer-controlled camera, and you had to plot the course of it. Because we didn’t have enough puppets either, we would do one pass, and then redress all the puppets and do another pass, so that it seems like we have more puppets. But we wanted to keep it real, again. At the same time, there’s this volcano going off and exploding, and streams of lava, and meteors, balls of rock flying out of the volcano. That one shot, pulling back through the cavemen all fighting, took about two weeks to shoot.

Having accomplished so much in animation, what is driving you in your career now? What do you hope to do, going forward?

I’ve been just relaxing a bit since shooting this, and trying to figure that out, actually. I’m consulting on Aardman’s next two big stop-motion projects, which are [Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie]—there’s aliens involved, and sheep in space—and Chicken Run 2 as well, which isn’t yet shooting. I’m involved in those on the script side and helping out where I can, but for me, I’m just wondering what to do next. I feel like there’s more to do with Wallace and Gromit, and I’m writing a couple of scripts right now. Even as we speak, I’m on the computer.

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