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