‘The best animators are akin to actors’

Amrita Prasad
Tuesday, 16 April 2019

 Animator-writer-director Nick Park talks about his film Early Man, his fascination for Stone Age and the appeal of the animation genre

If you are a lover of animation films, chances are that you are a huge fan of Nick Park. The English animator, director and writer best known as the creator of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, is a four times Oscar-winning and five times BAFTA-winning artist. Park creates organic, stone-age animation with targeted CG and does not use 3D printing animation in his work. His stop-motion animated comedy film Early Man, a production by Aardman Animations and UK Film Council, has won hearts and nominations at many prestigious awards. The film will premiere on Sony PIX this month.  

Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of how plucky caveman Dug, along with sidekick Hognob, unites his tribe against the mighty Bronze Age in a battle to beat them at their own game. Dug, Hognob and the rest of their tribe face a grave threat to their simple existence. Lord Nooth plans to take over their land and transform it into a giant mine, forcing Dug and his clan to dig for precious metals. Not ready to go down without a fight, Dug and Hognob must unite their people in an epic quest to defeat a mighty enemy.

Early Man unleashes an unforgettable cast of hilarious new characters and marks Park’s first feature film since Academy Award-winning Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. 

Here’s chatting up Park... 

What made you to tell a story about a caveman in Early Man?
I have long been attracted to the idea of telling a prehistoric story, about cavemen and cavewomen. Firstly, I feel the subject really suits our clay, stop motion technique as it is so earthy and tactile. It’s great for expressing the humour and primitive nature of our characters. Most of my ideas start with sketches in notebooks. In this case, years ago, I was doodling cavemen and how their typical clubs resemble baseball bats or rounders bats. This got me thinking of sports and excited about what could be the world’s first prehistoric underdog sports movie.

I have long been a fan, since my teenage years, of the films of animator Ray Harryhausen. The film I’ve paid tribute to in Early Man is One Million Years B.C, a film that inspired me as a teenager to want to be an animator in the first place. By the way, for movie buffs, the two dinosaurs that appear at the opening and end credits of Early Man are named Ray and Harry, as a tribute to the great Ray Harryhausen. 

It took you about 13 years to return to directing a full-length feature for the big screen. Were you focused on other pursuits during this time?
It was about 11 years after Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit that I started directing Early Man, but I was about five or six years in development and writing prior to filming. I also directed the 30-minute Wallace and Gromit short, A Matter of Loaf and Death, in that time and was involved in the development of other projects like the Shaun the Sheep movie. It wasn’t a conscious decision to not direct a full-length film at that time; such fims just take a long time in developing and then shooting.

It is quite evident from your work that you are particularly fond of clay animation, which the audience also got to see in Early Man. You have been quoted as saying that this chosen medium complements your filmmaking style. Can you elaborate?
I am a big fan of contemporary digital and CGI techniques, especially in the hands of the great artists in this ever-growing field. But personally for me, there is something charming and a certain humour that comes over in clay animation or stop motion. It’s a personal preference perhaps and is hard to define or explain, but is evident on the screen, if done well. Seeing fingerprints in the clay reminds us of the artistry involved. Clay animation for me, since the animator is ‘hands-on,’ sculpting frame by frame every movement and gesture of the character. This allows the animator to tease out small, subtle and nuanced and very human observations.

For Early Man, a team of 33 animators worked simultaneously on different sets. What is it like to collaborate with so many animators on the same project?
It was a great privilege to work with such a wonderful team of fantastic animators and artists. It’s a great discipline too. Each animator has to style their work so that it fits with the overall style of the film. The best animators are akin to actors, in that they know how to make a character not only move around on screen but also live and breathe as if they have a soul and life of their own.

What are some of the challenges of a stop motion filmmaker? And what are some of the trends in stop motion animation films?
I think the challenge for any filmmaker, in whichever technique, is to tell a compelling story with compelling characters. And achieving that in a full-length animated feature film is by far the biggest challenge. 

In the case of Early Man, making and executing the big football match sequences was most challenging, and pulling off a Gladiator style action/adventure movie in stop motion, a technique not traditionally associated with the genre, making sure that these scenes were thrilling, had great action, a great story and full of gags and funny character moments, often all at the same time, was no small feat. But it was a great and welcome challenge to us as filmmakers.

Your films have received both Academy Awards and BAFTA Awards, which indicates that animation is loved by all — young and old. What is it about it that attracts you to the art form?
I have loved animation since I was very young. My reference points and inspiration come from remembering the films and TV shows I loved as a child — the films that scared me as much as those that made me laugh. It’s important to be in touch with one’s childhood. I, and we at Aardman Animations, feel we are making films for ourselves ultimately, appealing to the child within and the adult at the same time.

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