Early Man (at the Box 5/22) is another stop-motion animated gem from Nick Park. Park is best known as the creator of the cheese-loving inventor Wallace and his faithful dog (and protector) Gromit, stars of three Oscar-winning shorts (A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave). This modern master of an art form that reached towering heights with Willis O’Brien (King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (One Million Years B.C.) takes stop-motion animation back to the Stone Age with this underdog story about a tribe of hunters who must play the ultimate game of soccer to win back their homeland from Bronze Age marauders. Like Park’s previous features (Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit), it’s ’s at once charming, thrilling, wildly inventive and a joy for all ages.
Park spoke with Redbox about creating whole worlds from clay and what the future may hold for Wallace and Gromit in the wake of the passing last year of Peter Sallis, the indelible voice of Wallace.
Redbox: I grew up on the stop-motion creatures created by Ray Harryhausen. Were the dinosaurs in Early Man’s prologue your tribute to him?
Nick Park: Very much. In fact, we named the fighting dinosaurs Ray and Harry. One Million Years B.C. was one of my favorite films when I was 11. I was a massive dinosaur fanatic. I couldn’t believe it when I saw what seemed like real dinosaurs (interacting) with people. It was one of the films that made me pick up my family’s home video camera and start making my own animated movies.
Redbox: I agree with the person who once said that CGI looks real, but feels fake, while stop-motion animation may look fake, but it feels real.
Nick Park : Yeah, there’s a certain charm to it. I know you can do amazing things with CG. I appreciate those movies and have many colleagues, many friends, in the CG world. But I personally prefer the tactile nature of stop-motion animation. For this film, the primitive nature of the cavemen lent itself. For me, there is a certain humor that comes out of clay as well.
Redbox: Is it true that generally, the animators were only able to complete a minute of footage each week?
Nick Park: It’s a slow process (laughs), but there is a satisfaction. It’s like writing poetry. You don’t think of how many words—it’s what it all represents in the end.
Redbox: What was the genesis of Early Man?
Nick Park: I like to keep ideas in a sketchpad. Ten years ago, I drew a typical caveman with a club hitting a rock. That made me think of baseball and sport and that got me thinking: I had never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie. What if a bunch of cavemen had to play a game to win back their homeland? It seemed like an epic idea far away from the cozy terraced houses of Wallace & Gromit or the lovely English countryside of Chicken Run. A prehistoric world had lots of scope and excitement to it.
Redbox: This is your most ambitious feature yet. Your first short was made in 1989. What technological advances helped to make Early Man possible?
Nick Park: All the principal character animation is stop-motion and clay. But with this expansive prehistoric universe, things like lava and meteors are too hard to do with clay. The massive third act football match was mostly stop-motion actually, but we could afford to use CGI for the backgrounds. It would have been too much to do 100,000 models for the spectators (in the stadium).
Redbox: Does casting influence your character design?
Nick Park: I was designing the characters before casting. Then, you look for someone who will suit that look and who would sound good coming out of that character’s mouth. Once you’ve cast them and you’ve done some voice tests then you animate the character to that voice and you make adjustments so the voice marries well with the visual character. Eddie Redmayne did the voice of Dug by speaking with a teenage kind of attitude–in a nice way. There was a charm in the way he did it. We gave that to Dug as well. He does have some of Eddie’s gestures and attributes.
Redbox: You could probably retire on this next question….
Nick Park: Yeh… (he knows what’s coming)
Redbox: What does the future hold for Wallace & Gromit? What do you think they’re up to?
Nick Park: I can’t let them go. They’re like my children. I’ve always got more ideas for them. (Peter Sallis’ death) was a great loss, but I’d like to think we can make more Wallace & Gromits. It will be an issue as to how we fill those shoes.
Redbox: What’s in your sketchbook now?
Nick Park: That’s a good question. I’m having a bit of a break now. I love to think of new ideas and to create new characters. I’m not involved, but the studio is already filming the sequel to Shaun the Sheep. Beyond that, I’m probably not allowed to say. It could be Wallace & Gromit, but I’m not sure.