Park takes bronze - and hopes he's come up with movie gold
Oscar-winning animator Nick Park features the Bronze Age in Early Man - and finds plenty to laugh at
"What if cavemen were to put down their clubs and play football?" This was the question that inspired Nick Park's latest endeavour Early Man.
I met the diminutive director, writer and all-round creative genius at the Aardman Animation studios in Bristol while they were finishing production on the film.
Park and his team gave me a glimpse of the intense creative process that lies behind stop-motion animation and let me tell you, it's a process that requires saint-like levels of patience.
For the uninitiated, stop-motion animation is where puppets are manipulated frame by frame to create the illusion of movement.
The process is meticulous, time-consuming and expensive. On the day I visited Aardman there were 34 active sets, each filming specific scenes for Early Man. Park's metier is Claymation (where the figures are made of "clay" - Plasticine (or what we called "mala" when I was in primary school.)
I've been a massive fan of Park's Claymation work since the 1990 Creature Comforts advertising campaign for Heat Electric (Google it - it more than stands the test of time), through the various Wallace & Gromit films and Shaun the Sheep outings (my home houses several incarnations of Shaun and at least one Gromit).
Park is almost 60, (though looks significantly younger) and tells me his desire to make films and create characters goes back to his childhood.
"It's what I always dreamed of as a kid. I'd seen a documentary about Disney on TV, and how it all started with this mouse drawing.
"That's what I want to do, I want to create characters that people know. I started making films at 12, it's all I've ever done, really, since."
Early Man centres on a Stone Age tribe that comes into contact with the "modern" world - the Bronze Age - and attempts to beat them at their own game, which in this instance is football.
The three main protagonists of this new Aardman world are Dug, a young Cave Man; his sidekick/pet Hognob, a wild boar, and Goona, a young woman fighting the innate sexism of her own Bronze Age tribe.
Park knows Dug and Hognob will inevitably draw Wallace and Gromit comparisons. "We tried consciously to avoid being Wallace and Gromit again, but there are overlaps of course. You see Hognob reacting a bit like Gromit because it's in my genes," the director laughs.
Park himself does the voiceover work on Hognob: "I just go into a Scooby Doo," he explains before making a series of high-pitched sounds. "I love Hognob," he continues laughing, "he's comedy gold. Every time you see him it will be funny. Hopefully!"
The director goes on to say that he thinks the relationship between Dug and Hognob is different from that of their predecessors Wallace and Gromit. "Dug is obviously a lot younger and he's not an ideas guy like Wallace and I think Hognob is more of a pet than Gromit," he says.
The rest of the voiceovers are provided by a fairly starry array of performers: Eddie Redmayne as Dug, Tom Hiddleston as Lord Nooth the Bronze Age Baddie, and Maisie Williams as Goona. The rest of the cast includes the highly distinctive voices of Richard Ayoade, Johnny Vegas, Mark Williams, Rob Brydon and Miriam Margolyes.
The final characters arrive on screen as a marriage of Park's ideas and the voices provided by the actors.
"We need the voices before we can animate," Park says.
"We let the actors' performances influence what we do - they act out everything for timing, the gestures and so on."
Park uses Tom Hiddleston as an example: "The way he pronounces words, we manipulated Nooth's mouth accordingly. It would look different if the voice was that of a different actor."
Park confides that he enjoys the casting process of his films: "It's very exciting. I look out for people all the time on radio, TV, films… in terms of what would be a fit."
Though Park had met Tom Hiddleston before, it was the actor's performance on The Graham Norton Show that grabbed his attention. "I was after an actor who could do a good accent and he was doing impressions of Robert de Niro and others. He was great. He's very clever. He does a fantastic Donald Trump and Boris Johnson."
The tribe members all speak with distinctive Northern English accents - like Wallace & Gromit - while the Bronze Age baddies all have heavily-accented French or Italian accents. Despite the film being five years in the making, does Park worry that Early Man will be seen as a pro-Brexit statement? "We've tried to steer round this," Park admits. "I don't want to be flying the flag for the sort of nationalism that's anti-European." (Park's wife is from Monaghan and the couple spend a lot of time in Ireland.)
Surprisingly, given the theme of the movie, the director is not a football fan. "As a non-football fan I can have a more objective view as an outsider. We made sure the story works for non-football fans. I don't support any team but I've done a lot of research over the past five years." Park wants to reassure all other non-football fans that Early Man is "a comedy caper with plenty of slapstick."
As Early Man is set in prehistoric times, comparisons to cartoon The Flintstones are inevitable. "I grew up with the Flintstones," Park says, "and wondered if Early Man is a British Flintstones…" On balance he thinks not. Visual gags and puns have long been a part of Park's work and Early Man is no different. I was particularly taken with the zebra crossing in the Bronze Age town - and the Carbon Dating Agency...
As stop-motion animation is such a long process, there is generally a great deal of anticipation about each new Aardman film. Does the hype puts extra pressure on the director? "If you think about it too much there is pressure," he responds. "I'm sort of aware of it, because obviously it's important that it's successful. But really we just focus on the creative - that it is what we want to make, and funny, and hopefully it will go down well."
Having done Claymation for almost half a century, has Park ever been tempted to try anything else? "I'm interested," he admits "and we are using digital effects in Early Man, things you can't do with clay. But I feel like I'm a clay man myself; for me a lot of the humour and charm comes out of the clay and it sets us apart from everything else out there.
"It's not just a matter of choosing technique; I feel like a lot of the humanity and the nuance of the character animation comes from the technique of handling it and being in touch with it in every frame."
Early Man opens in cinemas nationwide on January 26
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