EARLY EDI­TION

STEP BACK IN TIME TO MEET WAL­LACE & GROMIT’S CAVEMAN COUSINS

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As any­body fa­mil­iar with scrip­ture will know, con­jur­ing a new uni­verse from scratch is not a feat to be scoffed at. For the bet­ter part of the past two years, though, Aard­man An­i­ma­tions has been at­tempt­ing to do just that. In plas­ticine. One painstak­ing frame at a time.

It is a sti­fling Wed­nes­day in the sum­mer of 2017 at Aztec West, a busi­ness park nes­tled at the meet­ing of the M4 and the M5 near Bris­tol in the UK. This hero­ically un­in­ter­est­ing es­tate – named not for any sem­blance of ex­oti­cism but for its prom­ise to con­tain the West Coun­try’s “A to Z of tech­nol­ogy” – has been home to Aard­man since 1999, when a re­ported £167 mil­lion ($A306m) deal with Dream­Works saw it take its fa­mously cosy oper­a­tion up a few notches.

For­ever loyal to the gru­elling art of “clay­ma­tion” ( mov­ing pli­ant mod­els one in­fin­i­tes­i­mal step at a time to cre­ate stop­mo­tion an­i­ma­tion), it’s here that the stu­dio moved from its most fa­mous, Os­car-win­ning char­ac­ters, Wal­lace and Gromit, into ful­l­length fea­ture films with 2000’s Chicken

Run. That de­but in­volved Wal­lace and Gromit’s cre­ator, Nick Park, co-di­rect­ing what he pithily called “The Great Es­cape, but

with chick­ens”, and it went rather well. It re­mains the high­est-gross­ing stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion of all time, beat­ing Aard­man and Park’s 2005 fol­low-up, Wal­lace & Gromit: The

Curse of the Were-Rab­bit, into sec­ond place. That film, he said, was “a veg­e­tar­ian Ham­mer hor­ror”.

Now, af­ter more than a dozen years in which Aard­man has used other di­rect­ing teams, and Park has fo­cused pri­mar­ily on writ­ing and pro­duc­ing (in­clud­ing the ev­er­ex­pand­ing ovine em­pire of another of his early char­ac­ters, Shaun the Sheep), the win­ning com­bi­na­tion of stu­dio and direc­tor is back for another stab at mould­ing cine­matic gold. And this time they’ve gone epic. So what is Park’s nut­shell de­scrip­tion this time?

“Ah, well,” the 59-year-old says, sip­ping a cup of or­ange squash in an Aard­man meet­ing room. Aside from the odd movie poster, the only dec­o­ra­tion is a cabi­net con­tain­ing just about ev­ery award winnable in film and tele­vi­sion. He folds his arms and gazes at the ceil­ing for a mo­ment. “It’s a kind of ca­per re­ally. It feels like an Eal­ing com­edy, or like

The Beano’s Bash Street Kids. But in the Stone Age, of course. And with foot­ball. A Stone Age Eal­ing com­edy. How’s that?” It’s good, but here is a more de­tailed pre­cis:

Early Man – a fea­ture-length com­edy co­fi­nanced by StudioCanal – sees Park trade

the gen­tle, nos­tal­gia-soaked Lan­cashire set­ting of Wal­lace & Gromit for a vast, pre­his­toric world, where di­nosaurs, mam­moths and cave­men roam. The story fo­cuses on a mis­fit tribe of rab­bit-hunt­ing Stone Age peo­ple, and on one plucky mem­ber of the group in par­tic­u­lar: Dug, voiced by Ed­die Red­mayne. When the gang’s val­ley is claimed by Tom Hid­dle­ston’s vil­lain­ous Lord Nooth of Bronze Age City, Dug and his friend Hog­nob (a sort of cud­dly boar thing) must rally the tribe into ac­tion. In­stead of tak­ing on Nooth’s forces in war­fare, they chal­lenge him to a foot­ball match. It’s wild, pas­sion­ate, and en­tirely silly. Think of it like the tale of the world’s first plan­ning dis­pute.

In cast­ing Red­mayne and Hid­dle­ston, Park has fi­nally united two of your mum’s favourite well-man­nered heart-throbs, even if they are 12 inches tall and barely recog­nis­able. Around them is a who’s who of cher­ished Brit tal­ent. Ti­mothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Rob Bry­don, Johnny Ve­gas (who plays a char­ac­ter called Asbo) and Miriam Mar­golyes are all in­volved, while Game of

Thrones star Maisie Williams voices the film’s hero­ine, Goona.

If any­body had fears about Aard­man and Park scal­ing up too much, they can rest easy. The scenes I’m shown in a dark board­room look ev­ery bit as charm­ing and funny as their pre­vi­ous work. With fewer toast­ers.

“I found it sort of scary, creat­ing this en­tirely new thing,” says Park, who joined Aard­man in 1985. “There’s noth­ing like start­ing afresh and work­ing to get an au­di­ence to like some­thing. These char­ac­ters re­ally grow on you though. And the land­scape is very ex­cit­ing. In a way the set­ting seemed nat­u­ral, be­cause of the earthy tex­ture of ev­ery­thing and the ma­te­ri­als we use. It def­i­nitely feels epic. More so than any­thing we’ve done be­fore, any­way.” Aard­man has wanted to make a film like

Early Man for more than a decade. At Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in 2005, just be­fore The Curse of

the Were-Rab­bit was re­leased, the stu­dio’s co-founder, Pe­ter Lord, an­nounced that John Cleese would be writ­ing its next fea­ture, funded as part of the Dream­Works deal. It would, he said, be about “a pre­his­toric cul­ture clash be­tween two tribes, one com­par­a­tively evolved tribe, and one un­evolved tribe”. When the Dream­Works part­ner­ship ended two years later, that project went with the Amer­i­can stu­dio, end­ing up as 2013’s The Croods, a fairly good 3D com­puter an­i­ma­tion that has gone on to launch a mini-fran­chise. Aard­man put its Stone Age am­bi­tions on ice, but Park, who cites One Mil­lion Years BC and its an­i­ma­tor, Ray Har­ry­hausen, as two of his big­gest in­flu­ences (in fact Early Man be­gins with a quick shot of two fight­ing di­nosaurs, which Aard­man named Ray and Harry in trib­ute) started sketch­ing new ideas five years ago.

Lord con­firms Early Man is very much a Park cre­ation. “Apart from be­ing a great yarn, I think Nick is just very ex­cited about fi­nally get­ting into that genre. It’s a world of ex­ag­ger­ated dra­matic nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes, vast chasms, his­tor­i­cal non­sense. He just wanted to play in that world. It’s all very Nick,” he says, mak­ing it clear that’s a high com­pli­ment.

In the best pos­si­ble way, you would never know you were look­ing at four-time Os­car­win­ners who deal with bud­gets in the tens of mil­lions as you walk around the Aard­man fac­tory. Half the 250-odd staff look like Iron Maiden road­ies, the other half like ad­ven­tur­ous ge­og­ra­phy teach­ers, and they all seem bliss­fully happy in their work. On one floor, reg­gae wafts out of a ra­dio, met by a whistling cho­rus of car­pen­ters. I can­not imag­ine any­body has ever raised their voice, or handed in their no­tice, for that mat­ter.

As with all his creations, Early Man be­gan with Park sketch­ing char­ac­ters on pa­per. Writ­ers Mark Bur­ton and James Hig­gin­son, who worked on Shaun the Sheep Movie, and John O’Far­rell, who has con­trib­uted to

Spit­ting Im­age and Room 101, then came aboard to flesh out a script.

“It’s a world of ex­ag­ger­ated dra­matic nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes, vast chasms, his­tor­i­cal non­sense.”

Next, Park says, they tested it “to de­struc­tion”. Given how labour-in­ten­sive Aard­man’s method is, no­body can af­ford to shoot any­thing that may not make the film, so an­i­ma­tors first act it out them­selves.

“We do all our ex­per­i­ment­ing be­fore mak­ing any­thing, so it is a long process, go­ing from broad strokes to ex­actly how it will look,” Park ex­plains. “We’ve been in slightly un­known ter­ri­tory for ev­ery­one this time, too.”

While a few crew mem­bers look about as com­fort­able as sober peo­ple at a karaoke night in video footage of the live-ac­tion re­hearsals, Park has al­ways ab­so­lutely rel­ished them. He got so into it this time, in fact, that when it came to de­cid­ing who would voice Hog­nob, that pig thing, no­body could imag­ine a pro­fes­sional ac­tor bet­ter­ing the gruff porcine howls made by Park him­self. “I sup­pose it’s a com­pli­ment, isn’t it?” he says, clearly proud as punch. “Yes,” I say. “I sup­pose it is.”

Un­til the mid-1990s, Park had only ever needed to cast one ac­tor: Pe­ter Sal­lis, the voice of Wal­lace. All his others char­ac­ters, namely Gromit, were si­lent stars in those days. Sal­lis died last year, but he had “ex­actly the right sound, the home­spun qual­ity needed” for an Aard­man talk­ing part, Park says, and not ev­ery ac­tor can pull it off.

Thanks to Chicken Run and all its sub­se­quent films, the stu­dio has now worked with some of Hol­ly­wood’s most ven­er­a­ble names, and the in­com­ing gen­er­a­tion know Park’s oeu­vre in­ti­mately. It means no­body turns them down.

“I find it amaz­ing but it scares me,” Park says. “If I’m out – not that I go out very much – I can bump into an ac­tor and they tell me they grew up watch­ing our stuff and they’re 25. But to be able to go to such high-cal­i­bre Alis­ters is in­cred­i­ble.”

Ed­die Red­mayne was al­ways the first choice for Dug, af­ter Park saw him play­ing a brave monk in the 2010 ac­tion-hor­ror film Black Death.

“Ed­die has this novice teenager side to him. He’s not al­ways per­fectly ar­tic­u­late, and he’s di­shev­elled; he doesn’t feel like Hol­ly­wood. I felt he could fit into the slightly off­beat side of it all, and it works bril­liantly,” Park says.

Red­mayne, an Os­car-win­ner in his own right, prob­a­bly isn’t quite that con­fi­dent. When Park casts some­body, he’s usu­ally re­searched them on YouTube to such an ex­tent that he knows if they will be good enough, mean­ing there is no for­mal au­di­tion process. This time his lead­ing man in­sisted.

“I have been in record­ing stu­dios when I’ve done the voice-over and di­rec­tors have looked com­pletely dis­ap­pointed in me when I’ve spo­ken aloud,” says Red­mayne. “This is Aard­man, it’s a na­tional in­sti­tu­tion! You do not want to be the guy who messes it all up.”

Maisie Williams, who is most fa­mous for play­ing Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, had a sim­i­larly per­sonal at­tach­ment. She was born down the road in Bris­tol, although ad­mit­tedly not un­til 1997.

“Aard­man was a ma­jor part of my child­hood, whether it was Crea­ture Com­forts or Chicken Run, and if you’re from that area then you know peo­ple who have worked with them over the years,” she says. “It’s very close to my heart. I wanted to be in a last­ing an­i­ma­tion film, and they do it in such a beau­ti­ful, old-fash­ioned way.”

For no rea­son in par­tic­u­lar, Park de­cided to let the Bronze Age cast mem­bers have vaguely for­eign ac­cents.

Williams de­cided to go with a Scan­di­na­vian lilt, and spent hours learn­ing to copy the voice of a Nor­we­gian YouTu­ber called Sunny. Tom Hid­dle­ston, mean­while, has an ‘Allo ‘Allo!-style pan­tomime French twang.

Park ad­mits the Night Man­ager star was a rogue cast­ing choice. He wanted to make Lord Nooth a deeply comic, slightly ab­surd char­ac­ter, and hadn’t thought of Hid­dle­ston un­til he caught him do­ing im­pres­sions on The Gra­ham Nor­ton Show.

“He was very funny and silly, but I’d al­ways as­so­ci­ated him with these slick, dap­per char­ac­ters,” he says. “I think we all had. I found it quite ex­cit­ing that you wouldn’t know it was him, and he rises to the comic chal­lenge of it.”

Hid­den be­hind Lord Nooth’s strain­ing gut and shiny bald pate, you re­ally wouldn’t know Hid­dle­ston was in the film. The same can’t quite be said for Red­mayne. Ac­cord­ing to Nigel Leach, the model-mak­ing team leader, Dug was orig­i­nally sup­posed to look a bit more, well, cave­manly, un­til the slen­der Red­mayne was cho­sen for the part.

“It didn’t re­ally suit him if we had him big and thick like the others in the tribe, so we slimmed him down a bit, and gave him all this hair,” he says, plonk­ing a 12-inch Dug model down in front of me. It grins gorm­lessly from be­hind a floppy rus­set fringe. Dug doesn’t look un­like Red­mayne.

“I ac­tu­ally no­ticed that Ed­die touches his hair a lot, run­ning his hand through it in a kind of bash­ful way, so we in­cluded that as a man­ner­ism of Dug’s as well,” Park says.

I re­lay that to Red­mayne a few months later, and he dou­bles over with em­bar­rass­ment.

“Oh God, no! No! That is ab­so­lutely mor­ti­fy­ing. It’s my ner­vous tic that I never stop play­ing with my hair. It’s why I wear wigs on a lot of films, you know, be­cause I never seem to touch it if it’s not real.”

Aside from one or two in­tro­duc­tory ses­sions, the cast rarely met. They’d in­stead work with Park alone in Lon­don, or record via Skype. About 30 or 40 takes was fairly com­mon, Red­mayne re­mem­bers, and it was ex­haust­ing.

“I think I had to see a chi­ro­prac­tor af­ter­wards. You put so much into it when it’s just you in a lit­tle booth. The first day I was record­ing I went into the bath­room and saw seven cans of de­odor­ant lined up for me. I didn’t re­ally know how to take that, but by the end of the day I knew ex­actly why they were there. You need a shower af­ter ex­pend­ing that amount of en­ergy.”

There are 14 iden­ti­cal Dugs, all of which have de­tach­able mouth­pieces so that dif­fer­ent emo­tions can be stuck on, gob-first. Each model is com­posed of a metal skele­ton, built up with all sorts of dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als. Clay is still the base, as it has been for Aard­man since the days of Morph, but a com­bi­na­tion of more durable things like sil­i­cone and resin are in­cluded now too.

Park con­tin­ues to wel­come vis­i­ble thumbprints as well. It’s a bit of a hall­mark.

Leach urges me to give Dug’s ex­posed thigh a squeeze, which I’m more than happy to do. It is sur­pris­ingly squishy, like a stress ball. Next to him, one of the Hog­nob mod­els looks even cuter. He is some­where be­tween Gromit, Den­nis the Men­ace’s Gnasher and

Shrek’s Don­key. Do not be sur­prised if Hog­nob “does a Shaun” and goes solo by the end of the year.

“There’s a lot of fur in this, and that’s a night­mare for any an­i­ma­tor,” Leach says, stroking Dug’s one-piece.

“When you’re mov­ing some­thing a few mil­lime­tres at a time, you have to find a way of mak­ing the fur move as if the char­ac­ter is re­ally run­ning. It’s what we call a ‘boil­ing ef­fect’, when it twitches. Naked flesh is much eas­ier.”

With this method of an­i­ma­tion, the so­lu­tion to any such is­sue is ef­fort. And lots of de­tail. The time and place in which Early Man is set may not al­low for the kind of claus­tro­pho­bic fac­sim­i­les of real things Aard­man achieved with Wal­lace & Gromit, but the team’s eye is as sharp as ever.

Graphic de­sign­ers spent months study­ing cave paint­ings and an­cient cal­lig­ra­phy to come up with ac­cu­rate marks in the back­ground of some shots. Lights are rigged so that shad­ows are cor­rect for the time of day in the story. And, as an­i­ma­tion direc­tor Will Becher points out to me in one of the film’s 37 cur­tained-off “shoot­ing units” (mini sets), de­spite it not be­ing set any­where in par­tic­u­lar, all the trees in Early Man are British va­ri­eties. Oaks, beeches, pines.

“We wanted ea­gle-eyed peo­ple to be able to tell, and to have a real rich­ness to the whole back­drop,” Becher says. “You could check them, they’re all ac­cu­rate.”

I trust him. In a good week, the aim is to cre­ate four sec­onds of com­pleted film per an­i­ma­tor. It has taken al­most two years to film ev­ery­thing, but they’re all kept on track with a gi­ant long­hand spread­sheet de­tail­ing which scenes they’re shoot­ing on which week. Given the film’s scale, the oc­ca­sional part has been added us­ing com­puter ef­fects, such as dou­bling the height of a mas­sive, Wem­b­ley-look­ing model sta­dium used to film the foot­ball scene (Park orig­i­nally wanted the ex­tra tier made, but even he had to con­cede that was un­nec­es­sary) and com­plet­ing skies. But other than that, the ago­nis­ingly slow old tricks are still in play. Becher en­thu­si­as­ti­cally shows me a wa­ter­fall he cre­ated by rustling shiny pa­per in front of a cam­era. “See? Real wa­ter wouldn’t work. It’s too quick!”

It’s all an in­ter­minable has­sle, of course, but it looks fan­tas­tic, and still in­fin­itely bet­ter than any­thing in CGI. The projects Aard­man works on to­day have slightly larger bud­gets (more than £30 mil­lion ($A55m) for this one) than Pe­ter Lord and fel­low an­i­ma­tion en­thu­si­ast David Sprox­ton worked with when they started their lit­tle com­pany more than four decades ago, but its essence – that unique fid­dly qual­ity – re­mains the same. Sprox­ton of­fers one the­ory as to why it holds such ap­peal.

“It’s hard to say, but we all play with dolls as kids, and we all wanted to be­lieve they could come to life. It’s the sim­ple thing of real light hit­ting real ob­jects. There’s hu­man­ity in the im­per­fec­tions, I think.”

Park, mean­while, is just hope­ful that au­di­ences will like his new world as much as his as­sid­u­ously re­alised old ones. It’s dif­fi­cult to mea­sure at this stage, but he does have one early yard­stick.

“I like it when peo­ple see their rel­a­tives in the mod­els,” he says with a lit­tle smile. “It’s hap­pened al­ready a bit. Peo­ple have seen a caveman and said, ‘Oh, you clearly based that on my sis­ter,’ or some­thing. When au­di­ences al­ready think they know and recog­nise new char­ac­ters, that’s when we’re do­ing some­thing right.”

© The Tele­graph, Lon­don Pre­view screen­ings of Early Man are at Event Cin­e­mas and GU Film House Glenelg un­til April 2 be­fore its gen­eral re­lease on April 12

Direc­tor Nick Park on the set of Early Man with Lord Nooth and Dino, Nooth’s as­sis­tant; Dave Alex Rid­dett, direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, lights a scene; Ed­die Red­mayne, who voices Dug and Maisie Williams, who voices Goona, with direc­tor Nick Park, who also voices Hog­nob

An­i­ma­tor Maria Mor­eira Cas­tro ad­justs a model of Dug, left; se­nior set dresser Joe Bour­bon at work, be­low mid­dle, and, bot­tom left, a scene from Early Man fea­tur­ing Hog­nob and Dug

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