Cave-mation: Nick Park goes paleo with stop-motion animated 'Early Man'

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Little did a stop-frame animation student at the National Film and Television School in England know that his graduation project called A Grand Day Out would launch him into international stardom, and make a hapless, cheese-loving inventor and his genius dog cultural icons. “I do have to pinch myself when I see Wallace and Gromit on TV every holiday in the U.K.,” admits Nick Park, who has won four Academy Awards, become a creative cornerstone at Aardman Animations, and received a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). “I remember 20 or 30 years ago with the rise of CGI, and fantastic films from Pixar and DreamWorks, we wondered, ‘How long do we have to be using this old technique?’ Now, it helps us to stand out against the other films.”

Stop-frame techniques have not changed over the years for the principal animation.

“With Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit, we shot them on good old stop-frame film cameras, but now we shoot digitally. It offers a big safety net. If something goes wrong in the middle of a three-day shot it doesn’t all get trashed.” Stop-frame and CGI work well together. “We have for a long time been using digital effects, like any movie does, whether it’s things that you can’t do with clay, such as lava, smoke and fire.”

CGI was useful in expanding the prehistoric landscapes featured in Park’s new Early Man, where a community of cave dwellers challenge Bronze Age villagers to a soccer match in an effort to win back their homeland. “We shot as much as we could in the studio but didn’t have the space, so we would often shoot against green screen and put in the backgrounds afterwards.”

Early Man involved 40 camera crews each utilizing a Canon EOS-1D X simultaneously to shoot 35 to 40 sets with a team of 35 animators in order to produce five seconds to a minute worth of footage a week. “This is when good organization comes in. Clay animation and stop-frame is a cottage industry. We had to industrialize but keep it feeling crafted in a loving way.”

A practical issue is how much of the character can be made of clay, as it adds to the animation time. “Even though the heads of the characters are made of clay, we have a system where you can unplug every mouth. Every character has a set of 20 mouths made of clay, so the animator can still manipulate them.” The technique helped to keep the style consistent for the characters and film. “It also makes the animation quicker to do, because nothing takes longer than the lip sync.”

For the first time, Park decided to be the sole director on a feature film project. “We took our model from DreamWorks and Disney, which had the two-handed technique because of the amount of work. I learned a lot working with Peter Lord on Chicken Run and Steve Box on Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But I just wanted to be on the helm this time and see what that was like.”

During a pitch session, the concept was described as Gladiator meets Dodgeball. “Or it’s Braveheart with balls,” laughs Park when reminded of the cinematic comparison. “Like a lot of these ideas they start with a simple sketch or a doodle. I was doodling the typical caveman with a club hitting a rock. It made me think of a sport, like baseball. Then I wondered, ‘What if Stone Age people invented soccer? What if you have a bunch of idiotic but loveable cavemen who are clumsy have to learn a different game and not fight?’ The whole thing that we call football [in the U.K.] is so tribal.”

The prologue that depicts an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs provided an opportunity to honor a childhood hero. “I’m a big fan of Ray Harryhausen and when I was 11 years old One Million Years B.C. was my favorite film. I had never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before, so I got excited about making one. We have a couple of dinosaurs in the opening scene called Ray and Harry.”

Character design is an area where Park likes to keep a hands-on approach. “Even when we’re writing, I’ll be drawing and doodling the characters. I will sometimes mock up a character roughly in clay but have a whole team of people who make the stuff properly. I’ll maybe tweak the nose or something about them.” Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) was the most difficult to create. “The cavemen and cavewomen came around fairly naturally,” Park notes.

Casting was kept in mind during the design process. “Eddie Redmayne, Timothy Spall, Maisie Williams and Tom Hiddleston did a test and we’d animated the clay model to see if the voice fits. We would take their voice and, with the animator, video-record us miming to what they did and I would be able to point out what I wanted.”

Park continues, “We spent a lot of time in the edit suite, but before that I sat for months with [co-writers] Mark Burton and John O’Farrell in a room sticking cards up on a wall. Even after doing the animatic [storyboards with a rough soundtrack], you find that there are still problems and go back to cards to work some things out. It’s an organic process.”

Sound design is a whole world in itself. “I’ve worked with Adrian Rhodes since college to get the right amount of realistic and cartoon audio. It’s a rich soundtrack. For example, we have a scene in the stadium where Dug [Redmayne] creeps in to get some balls and falls down. It was always funny visually, but after a few months Adrian put these sounds of each chair springing back which made it incredibly real.”

The score was the responsibility of composers Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howe. “It seems that the music tells half of the story. You can telegraph things to the audience in all sorts of ways. It happened fairly late in the process.

“I was excited to get into a world that was totally outside the normal world of Wallace and Gromit or Shaun the Sheep,” says Park. He saw soccer as an avenue to incorporate Aardman Animations’ signature quirky humor into the storytelling. “One of the biggest challenges was how to stage a game but make it cinematic. I had the film Gladiator in my mind a lot of the time. There’s the big rush and roar of the crowd, and exciting camera moves.”

A number of underdog sports movies were watched by the British filmmaker, with major inspiration drawn from Miracle, which centers around the U.S. hockey team defeating the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980. “When you see soccer on TV, it’s shot from above, so you can tell which side is which and who’s where. However, I wanted to get down, be cinematic and tell story all of the time. It’s not just back and forth like you’re watching a tennis match. It was all about how to execute that game and make it the most compelling and exciting, but with gags. I wanted the audience to be rooting for our guys.”