Director, Nick Park briefing crew on set

Historical revisionism meets Aardman’s signature clay animation for a comedy about cavemen playing soccer in the beloved studio’s newest stop-motion adventure, Early Man.

More than 10 years after winning his fourth Academy Award for the irresistible charmer, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, director Nick Park returns with a feature-length offer set in pre-historic times, somewhere where the Stone and Bronze Ages’ timelines collide. Infused into the mix, are well-trodden sports movie tropes filtered through the team’s British idiosyncrasy, more specifically the country’s passionate predilection for soccer, or better said, football.

Shaggy-haired Dug (Eddie Redmayne), the film’s leading cavemen, is a diligent and curious fellow who often guides his boneheaded friends away from trouble. His inseparable sidekick, Hognob (amusingly voiced by Nick Park himself) is a loyal boar-like pig, who might have more athletic skills than the others acknowledge. He is a reliable scene-stealer. Dug suspects that their ancestors discovered a game that involves kicking a spherical object around, but it’s only when a villain from Bronze Age City, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston with a devilish French accent) takes over the cavemen’s valley that he discovers what football is and the fervor it awakens. Beating the enemy’s professional team in order to recover their home will be an uphill match, even more so with a tribe of stubborn amateurs.

In scope, Early Man steadily challenges what Nick Park and the animators at Aardman had tackled before: a giant armored mammoth, a stadium with numerous extra figures for the crowd, and fast-paced sequences with several characters interacting at once. Their painstaking methods never disappoint visually, and continue to exalt the medium. Director Nick Park sat down with MovieMaker in Los Angeles to hammer out some thoughts on how stop-motion has changed his previous feature, how Brexit almost forced them to change a character’s voice, and the universality of sports.

Hognob and Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) in Early Man. Image courtesy of Aardman Animation and Lionsgate

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): It’s been over a decade since you directed your last feature, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. How do you think stop-motion has changed over these years in terms of the technology and techniques used?

Nick Park (NP): The biggest thing is that with Curse of the Were-Rabbit, we shot on film, on movie cameras. We had about 30 of these 35mm movie cameras, which were adapted for animation, and now we shoot everything digital on digital cameras. It’s essentially the same, the technique. It’s the same as when Ray Harryhausen did it. We have puppets in front of the camera, and we have to manipulate them frame-by-frame. Maybe we use technology to help speed up the process, and as a kind of safety net as well. For example, because we’re shooting digitally, it means you can easily put in backgrounds afterwards, you can shoot against green screen, and it’s a quicker process. If something goes wrong in the shot, like a tree falls over, or a branch moves on the tree, or a light pops or something, then you can fix it afterwards very easily. Also, in this movie there’s a lot of running around and jumping with the soccer, and a thing that speeds up animation, for example, is once upon a time the animator would have to hold the figure on a fishing line with wires, and try to make sure the wires didn’t reflect the light, and it took ages to position in mid-air, but now we just have a rig that holds up the character, and we paint the rig out afterwards. So in the dailies, you see the rig, but that gets painted out very quickly afterwards. It speeds up the animation.

MM: Do you feel that your style has remained the same from Creature Comforts and the original Wallace & Gromit shorts to Early Man, or has it changed in your opinion?

NP: I’ve tried to keep it that way. It’s been important for me to try and keep a voice and a style, and also maybe because that’s what I default to. I don’t seem to be able to move away from it. It’s basically eyes close together, and the wide mouths. I tried to vary it a little bit, and change it a little bit in this with the cavemen, giving them a slightly goofier look, with a mouth that’s not so much wider but goes up and down. It’s probably a small thing. I felt the subject of cavemen and cavewomen suited clay animation. I like the earthiness, and I wanted cavemen who are kind of scruffy, with long hair like ’70s rockers.

Tom Hiddleston (Lord Nooth) and writer-director Nick Park share a laugh during voicing sessions of Early Man. Photograph courtesy of Aardman Animation and Lionsgate

MM: You clearly take a lot of liberties with timelines and history for comedic purposes, but how much research was involved to presents certain elements accurately? Were there other sources of inspiration?

NP: I did do a lot of research. I learned a lot about the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, and it’s good to do all that, but yeah, some of the references are not necessarily historically or scientifically accurate. It’s more about a story, and a lot of the jokes are referring to other movies rather than history. For example, when the meteor comes and the ancestors discover football, or soccer. That was very much a reference to one of my biggest influences, Ray Harryhausen, and One Million Years B.C. I was a big dinosaur fan, and it was actually the film that made me pick up a home movie camera and start making movies as a teenager, so there’s a big nod to Ray Harryhausen and One Million Years B.C. with the dinosaurs. We called one of the dinosaurs Ray and one of them Harry as a tribute to Ray Harryhausen.

MM: What were some of your references in terms of sports films?

NP: Making a sports movies was kind of what appealed to me about the idea really. I’d never seen a prehistoric, underdog, sports movie before. I watched a whole stack of them, with the writer Mark Burton. We watched a whole stack of sports movies over the whole time really. They have always influenced me. DodgeBall is one of my favorites, as a comedy. Then there is Slapshot, Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks, Miracle, and a lot of other ice hockey movies and different sports like baseball. There’s a lot to look at in how these films are structured. There seems to be different genres within it as well. There are those that are about the team, and those that are about the coach. A lot of them are about the coach redeeming himself, like in The Mighty Ducks, or a player redeeming himself.

MM: One of the most memorable characters in Early Man is Hognob, Dug’s loyal pig. How did you end up doing the noises for Hognob or did you always know you wanted to “voice” him?

NP: That was not planned really. When we put the storyboard together, and we edit the whole thing with music, we do scratch voices ourselves as we test out the script. I was just doing Hognob all the time just for fun, and I was going to cast somebody, and a few colleagues said, “We love the way you do it,” so I ended up doing it. I was just doing a kind of Scooby-Doo voice really, with more of a pig sound.

Dug’s stone-age pet hog, Hognob, in Early Man

MM: Do you enjoy being involved in the selection of the voice cast and directing their performances?

NP: Absolutely, because I’m involved in some of the writing, I have it all in my head. That can be a hindrance, in the sense that the actor may bring something of themselves. Obviously you want them to bring something of themselves to the part, but if it’s not quite like the way you envisioned it, you can go, “Oh, maybe try it more like this.” You have to do that, but it was great to have such a fantastic voice cast for the film. It’s lovely to be able to go to such a top lineup of actors and comedians, and now that they know our work from years gone by, there’s a good chance they might say yes to doing it. I was so thrilled to have Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, and Tim Spall.

MM: Timothy Spall had voiced a character in one of your films before.

NP: Yeah, he was a rat in Chicken Run. I love his voice; he’s got a great voice. There was one funny incident with Tom Hiddleston. He’s such fun to work with. I saw him on a talk show in the U.K. called The Graham Norton Show, and he was doing impressions of Robert DeNiro, and I was looking for someone to be my Lord Noth, and I was like, “Hmmm, I wonder,” and he was really up for it, and did this kind of French accent.

MM: Was that his idea or did you envision that accent from the onset?

NP: It was mine and Mark’s idea really. It’s not a dark villain. We were thinking of more of a pompous buffoon of a villain, who was like a middle manager and a social climber who’s very avaricious and loves money. We were after a more comic version, and somehow a French accent suited that, nothing against French. We tried changing it at one point because of Brexit, because we didn’t want it to feel like we were making a nationalistic, anti-European film, so we tried it with an English accent, but it sounded too typical. There are so many English villains, and we felt it wasn’t funny enough. Even Studio Canal, who backed the film, preferred the French villain.

MM: At the times the film feels very much like a British film, through certain moments and jokes.

NP: Does it? Yeah, that’s interesting. How objective can we be about that? I think we just try to make films from the heart, and I felt that, being about football or soccer, there were some self-deprecating jokes in it about being British. The English feel that they invented the game, or the rules anyway, so there’s this old joke that we invented it but we can never win, so that’s kind of built into the script: The tribe that invented it sucks.

MM: Soccer is an incredibly popular sport around the world, particularly outside of the U.S., that seems to help the film’s universality.

NP: We’re kind of mindful of how it’s got to travel, but at the same time it’s about being true to ourselves. I grew up on American movies and American stories, and I guess we think that this is a way to tell our own story, but it’s got to be universal. I feel like if you do something that is from the heart, then it becomes universal, because people relate to it. There are lots of universal aspects to it. Everybody feels for the underdog, and their home being taken from them, the injustice; these are universal ideas, it’s just that the details maybe have a British flavor. We were always thinking that, in the U.K., the only time we’ve won the World Cup was in 1966 against Germany, so it’s this whole thing where we’re always hopeful, always optimistic, but will it ever happen?

MM: What’s your take on the state of stop-motion animation today? Do you feel it’s in a healthy place with other filmmakers and companies getting involved in stop-motion or is the advent of CGI a threat?

NP: I’m amazed. It’s funny how much interest there is in stop-motion. It’s incredible really. I think it’s maybe how a lot of people start, and now you can get an app for your iPhone or iPad and do stop=motion on the kitchen table. We get a lot of students who love stop-motion. It’s funny how, 20 or 30 years ago when CGI was really growing, we used to always think, “How long have we got left?” And it’s still very strong out there with Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Laika, Henry Selick, and all of these different stop-frame houses. There seems to be almost a renaissance of it, and I guess as long as we’re telling good stories that suits that medium, and strong characters, it will keep going. For us, now that there are so many other feature films out there, and there are some great ones out there, it means that we still stand out slightly because stop-motion different. We have a signature that’s recognized against all the other styles.

Lord Nooth (Hiddleston) soaks in a bath-time read as Hognob looks on in Early Man

MM: On a larger film like Early Man, with many characters and sets, do you still get to animate yourself, or do you have to relegate the actual animating to the team and oversee?

NP: On an animated feature I like to stay hands on if I can in different ways, but when you’re directing you have to stand back and preside over the whole thing, which is a great thing in and of itself, because you are making millions of decisions all day long about everything on the story, from the storyboards right through to the models. I like to be quite hands on with the design of the characters. I have ideas in my head about what the Bronze world looks like, so I do a sketch, hand it to the art department. Then I see the characters forming and I tweak them and change them. I have my two animation directors, Will and Merlin. We work together so that we’re all on the same page. I miss doing it myself a little bit, but you have to decide, whether you want to do a small film and do the animation, or a big film and stand back and let go of the animation.

MM: Are there still stories at Aardman for more Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep movies?

NP: Definitely, the whole crew has just moved on to the next Shaun the Sheep movie. They’ve all started on it. Richard Starzark is directing. He directed the first one, and he really got the whole series together, so he’s directing this one. He’s written and directed it. That’s all underway right now, and I’ve got more Wallace and Gromit ideas, definitely. I’d love to come back to it. MM

Early Man opened in theaters February 16, 2018, courtesy of Lionsgate. All images courtesy of Aardman Animation and Lionsgate.