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Discovering “Early Man” with Aardman’s Nick Park

Nick Park

Nick ParkTo paraphrase the 1980’s Ghostbusters, when someone asks you, “Do you want to interview Nick Park?” you say “Yes!” After studying Communication Arts at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University) and going on to the National Film and Television School, Mr. Park joined the staff of Aardman Animation Studios in Bristol, where his work included the music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (where he animated the dancing chickens). At Aardman, he contributed the short film “Creature Comforts” to a series called Lip Synch, ultimately winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short for it. He also completed a short he started in school titled “A Grand Day Out,” about a genial inventor and his dog launching a rocket to the moon, introducing the delightful Wallace & Gromit to the pop culture lexicon.

Wallace and Gromit went on to star in a series of shorts (two of which won Mr. Park two more Oscars) and a feature film, while Mr. Park and Aardman founder Peter Lord co-directed Chicken Run in 2000, which went on to become the highest-grossing stop-motion animated feature film of all time. His latest film, Early Man, was released earlier this year, telling the tale of cavemen battling a Bronze Age settlement in a football (soccer) match. We were able to chat with Nick Park over the phone while he was visiting the States, about Early Man and the art of stop-motion animation in general.

ANIMESUPERHERO: I think I see some things in Early Man that I recognize inspirations for, but I wanted to ask you what were the works that were your inspirations or the touchstones for different bits in this movie?

NICK PARK: Well, I think probably to start with, one of the films that actually made me get into animation in the first place as a teenager was Ray Harryhausen’s One Million Years B.C. Especially the opening sequence was very much inspired by that, and it’s a little tribute to Ray Harryhausen. We even named two of the dinosaurs Ray and Harry, who appear in the credits, to show that they weren’t killed by the meteorite. But yeah, that was one of the biggest influences. I remember as a kid, I just dreamed of seeing real dinosaurs, and that was the first time I ever did, on screen. I could not believe my eyes. And I started reading about how to do animation, and that got me hooked, and I made my own dinosaurs as a kid. There are probably other influences littered throughout the film. For example, a big inspiration for the football game was Gladiator. I was trying to recreate a similar kind of raucous atmosphere, with the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd (laughs) and the whole furore of atmosphere, but obviously on a slightly different comedy level. Probably are others as well, actually, which I haven’t got in my memory right now. Are those recognizable to what you were thinking about?

ANIMESUPERHERO: I wasn’t expecting Gladiator, but I did get strong echoes from an 80’s football movie that had Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine, this WWII prison break football match movie. There was something about the stakes there that I was reminded of in the match in Early Man.

NICK PARK: Oh, yes, that was Escape to Victory.

ANIMESUPERHERO: Yeah, that was the one. I think it was just called Victory in some places.

NICK PARK: Yeah, we watched so many sports movies. We kind of watched them all, really. The Bad News Bears, The Longest Yard, Slap ShotLagaan, an Indian movie about a village who played cricket to get the village back, that was quite an influence. All these different sports across the whole board, really. I didn’t realize how many there are. But I think you’re right, Victory was a kind of an influence. The whole football thing was kind of a joke, really, because I just felt I had never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before (laughs). I used to pitch the idea as cavemen and football, it’s Early Man United. We couldn’t use that title for copyright reasons.

Early ManANIMESUPERHERO: Speaking of that final action sequence, I’m constantly bowled over by how ambitious you guys get with those in your films. They are impressively filmed action scenes, period. The fact that they’re being filmed in stop-motion makes it even more impressive. How much or how little did you have to compromise between what you had originally envisioned and what you could achieve when you were on set moving the models around?

NICK PARK: The whole thing was very much a challenge on every front, really. Also, the scary thing was that in stop-motion, it could so easily look really bad and a bit cheap and sort of a little bit tacky, just for being a big action kind of thing, and about humans running around. People are so familiar with football, or soccer, on the TV and how it’s supposed to look, so it’s hard to take much license, but I was also wanting to create a cinematic look as well so it wasn’t just like watching a game on TV with the overhead camera, panning across in wide-shot, and with shots like that give the game away a little bit. I wanted to keep the camera low most of the time and keep it dramatic.

The challenge that we had was cutting the whole thing down short enough so that it remained compelling as a story and also funny, with gags in it at the right times, while also keeping the pace up as well. A friend once said to me, “The problem with sports movies is that there’s too much sports.” (Laughs) I always had that in the back of my head and wanted it to be very character-driven and very story-driven. We were ambitious, as you say, but I didn’t know how good it could look and keep people’s interest. So that’s why I was influenced by Gladiator, which was more of a movie and a drama than about the actual sport itself.

But yeah…it was a challenge in stop-motion. I feel at heart I’m a clay man myself. I wanted to keep it real in stop-motion with real figures and real puppets. So we did that as much as we could, but the stadium was just so big that the time it would take the animators to get around to the other side of the set to move things and move characters…quite often we kept the foreground people stop-motion, but then replicated them digitally if they were in the distance. Or the crowd of thousands in the stadium were digital. But we mostly made all the figures in puppets and replicated them. Getting the right style so it was kind of seamless. We didn’t really have the budget to do detailed CGI, so the rule was that if the characters were out-of-focus, they became digital, and that seemed to work. It seemed to make them more seamless.

ANIMESUPERHERO: One interesting thing Don Hahn brings up in his book on animation was that in principle, animation is a medium where you can continue to tweak and adjust and change the movie as long as the money and your production schedule holds out, as opposed to live-action where once principal photography is done, doing re-shoots is a very expensive proposition. And his big asterisk there is he says, “Except for stop-motion.”

NICK PARK: Right. (Laughs)

Early ManANIMESUPERHERO: Obviously, you’ve got models in front of a camera, and just redoing animation isn’t as feasible. My question to you is how do adapt to the limitations to what stop-motion allows you to do that makes it unique among animation media?

NICK PARK: It’s interesting hearing that, because in some ways I feel like as an animator, I’m more of a filmmaker in a way and I tend to treat it that way. We don’t have the freedom to do seven takes of everything, but you can edit stuff. So as shots are coming in, I’m with the editor and we’re trying stuff out, often not quite how it was planned. So I might ask the animator to do a slightly different edit point and keep the shot running another second or something. That happens all the time, and it gives us a slight flexibility to get away with re-editing things in a completely different order than they were planned, so there’s quite a bit of flexibility in the edit room. And we’re finding out things because sometimes a shot doesn’t turn out quite out the way you planned and you might want to cut into a tight shot. Or a shot goes wrong halfway through and rather than reshoot half of it, you maybe say, “Well let’s cut to another shot here,” or cover the rest of it in closeup. The ideas are sort of flexible and changing. We were improvising slightly as we were going. I’m sure other techniques have that flexibility. I think you are dependent on performance as it happens in front of the camera, and things always come out slightly differently than you’d planned. You think you fancy maybe a tight shot or a close-up or someone kicks a ball, and maybe the bit right after kicking the ball didn’t quite work so you go to a close-up of the ball-kick or something like that.

ANIMESUPERHERO: That’s an interesting mix of retakes during principal photography and redrawing or re-rendering in traditional animation, I guess.

NICK PARK: Yes, and actually, this is maybe a big difference between 2-D or CG animation is that the story reel is a very different animal to the finished thing in stop-motion, because drawings have this efficiency. You can tell a story in very quick beats and you put in only the basic beats into the story reel. I guess in 2-D that gets developed into the final animation, but with us, it’s a very different thing. What you find is that what worked in a second and a half or two seconds doesn’t work in puppet animation because the eye is too distracted or it’s more to take in, so maybe the animation wouldn’t work at that speed. You’re finding things out as you go all the time in stop-motion, and working with material that you’ve got. And some things, every animator has a different approach or style or a different amount of confidence and so some will be great at going for really dynamic animation, others may be a little held back. Sometimes you have to speed-up an animator’s shot or a section of it. So we still play around with stuff quite a bit.

ANIMESUPERHERO: I’ve written in a couple of reviews of your movies that Aardman never gets the recognition that it deserves among the American public, and I will fully lay the blame on that on my countrymen.

NICK PARK: (Laughs)

Wallace and GromitANIMESUPERHERO: Is this something that Aardman discusses or has discussed in the past? How do you view that on your side of things?

NICK PARK: I guess I take an opposite view, really, in that I feel very lucky in the way our work has gone down over the years, with Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run and the Oscars that we’ve received. I guess in the animation community, we’ve always been very warmly received. I’ve always seen it that probably our stuff has got this quirkier or off-the-beaten track sort of style about it that is maybe difficult to market. I don’t know. I guess I’ve always felt, “Well, maybe that goes with the territory.” But I’m really heartwarmed by how many people I meet coming up to me saying, “Oh, I grew up with Wallace & Gromit.” I don’t know how much that reflects the bigger market out there, but I’m happy to have the love of a few than the success among the many. It’s interesting that you say that (laughs).

ANIMESUPERHERO: Can you talk about anything that you’re working on right now?

NICK PARK: Yeah, well, I’m sort of been a bit off the radar since Early Man, just taking a break, but I’m still doodling and writing on new ideas. I’ve got Wallace & Gromit ideas that I’d love to come around to, soon-ish. But I’m also helping out…I’m not directing, but I’m helping out on Shaun the Sheep 2, which is in the middle of filming at the moment, and Chicken Run 2, which is still in development in the moment, which is exciting. But those are the next two big ones in the pipeline.

AnimeSuperhero would like to thank Nick Park for taking the time to talk with us. Early Man is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, as are Chicken Run and the collected Wallace & Gromit shorts and features.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay