Early Man, the latest stop-motion animated effort from Aardman Animations and writer/director/voice-actor Nick Park, just earned itself seven Annie Awards nominations, including one for Best Picture and another for Best Actor. That’s a solid stepping stone toward the eventual Academy Awards, familiar territory for Park and his four Oscars. Still, his last Oscar nomination came back in 2010 and his last win was farther back still in 2006. Early Man should net Park and the acclaimed studio another nod at least, but for the dedicated director, stop-motion animation is about much more than filling a trophy case.
I had a chance to chat with Park about his career as the Early Man team is prepping for awards season. We talked about his reaction to the film and his feelings towards it now that he has the benefit of hindsight. Park also shared some fantastic insider stories from the production of Early Man, like the fact that he had to give star Tom Hiddleston a shoulder massage in the voice-recording booth in order to get the right performance. (It’s a tough job sometimes, isn’t it?) Read on to hear more from the living legend Nick Park and for more insight on the awards-worthy Early Man.
Collider: What are you particularly proud of when it comes to Early Man?
Nick Park: Yeah, I really just enjoyed making it if I’m honest with you. I’m working with a fantastic team that we have in Bristol in England. There’s a big team of model makers and animators and set builders. I enjoyed working with incredibly talented people and a great voice cast as well. Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, people like that. Which is great. I get to call anyone up.
And you get to include yourself in that voice cast, too.
Park: Oh, I forgot about that, yeah, yes. I forget some things actually. It all seems like a dream now. But yeah, I cast myself accidentally. You know how we create a storyboard, story reel before the film is shot, and we do temporary voices and temporary music, just to see how the script’s working. And I was always in there doing Hognob, the pig. Dug’s pet pig. When it came to casting, I just got voted in because I enjoyed doing it. People liked him. The crew liked him. So I got voted in as Hognob.
I’m surprised that you haven’t done more roles over the years, just because I’ve seen that happen where you’re doing scratch and then people are just like, “Nah, let’s just stick with it.”
Park: Yeah, that’s right, it was just scratch. Absolutely, it happens a lot now, doesn’t it? Yeah. It was fun doing it. There was a funny moment actually where I was in the recording booth with Tom Hiddleston and there’s a bit when he’s playing Lord Nooth in the bathtub room. Hognob has to give him a massage. In order to get that voice performance from Tom where his voice kind of warbles as his shoulders are being pummeled, I actually had to get behind him and do the chopsticks on his shoulders to get that. There is film of me somewhere doing that.
Oh, I’m sure the fans will love that.
Park: Yeah, yeah. I thought how many people out there would pay to do this?
Exactly. Well, aside from giving Tom Hiddleston a massage, is there anything from the production that you wish you could go back to? Maybe an idea that you had that you didn’t get to add to it, or anything you would change if you could?
Park: Yeah, I sometimes come across notes and previous scripts just in passing. My computer and storyboards. With a film like this, there’s so much that gets cut out on the editing room floor. There are loads of lines from characters which I wish we could have used. But it becomes a very disciplined, you’re subject to the time and the budget and have to get this thing finished. But there’s enough for another film really, if I’m honest.
I know with stop motion, you don’t exactly have too many deleted scenes, because that’s a really painstaking process to go through to have something not make the final cut. Are there maybe storyboards or anything that we might see?
Park: Yeah, you’re right, it’s the reason we do the reel really is so we don’t shoot stuff we can’t use. I mean every scene was storyboarded many times just to hone it and get it better and better. And then there’s all kinds of decisions you have to make, so there are scenes with some of the more peripheral characters that maybe came through, had more screen time. But then you may be distracted from the main character. And all kinds of decisions are made.
But yeah, I think there’s some on the DVD extras, but I can’t remember exactly what, if I’m honest. Yeah. It’s funny how your memory goes as well after the film. Becomes like another world you were in. The pressure and the whirlwind.
Half the fun of it though is you guys do get to literally create another world for fans and audiences to live in, which I think is great.
Park: Yeah, yes.
Can you talk about the production level on this one and how it was different from previous films? Just because it felt big, it felt like an epic world you were creating.
Park: It was, yeah, you’re right. It was a new venture really because it was away from the familiarity. The kind of English-terraced houses and the kind of wallpaper of Wallace and Gromit in a very different setting. That in itself was a challenge in a good way. Very much. And I wasn’t trying to be historically accurate. It was more of a spoof of all the Ray Harryhausen movies. You’d have One Million Years BC, where there’s people and dinosaurs at the same time. Yeah, so in a lot, it was trying to create a tribute to Ray Harryhausen’s work. By the way, even the dinosaurs, I don’t know if you know that already, but the dinosaurs at the beginning were named Ray and Harry.
I did notice that because I watched through the credits and one of the last things on there was a thanks to Ray and Harry. And I thought that was great. I thought that was a great homage.
Park: Yes. Oh, thanks. Yeah, it was lovely to do that. But yeah, because it was all in this prehistoric landscape. The crew, in terms of the differences, in terms of the animation, we tried to keep most of the character animation actually real. Stop-motion puppets and clay as much as we could.
But because of the nature of the world and the landscape, the bronze world, the football stadium, the prehistoric lava and things like that, it was a much more expanded universe and needing a lot more in visual effects. We tried to keep the primary character work all stop-motion. Like for example in the football stadium. To build the actual pitch and stadium would have just been too … We actually built the pitch, but animators couldn’t even reach across the pitch to get the characters at the back. So we tried to keep foreground characters real and then after that, we replicated them digitally. Especially in the audience. Although some close-ups are actually puppets. Yeah, so it can vary quite a lot.
Can you talk about the technology in stop-motion animation? It’s been fun to watch it improve and make things somewhat easier for the animators over the years and to make things more expressive.
Park: Yeah, yeah. Although I’m not sure about “more expressive” myself. It certainly makes things a little bit or just more possible and actually doable in the time. One of the most time-consuming things in stop-motion is lip sync. And so, we’ve constantly tried to move things forward so they become a little quicker.
Like for example, we have this mouth plug-in system to save the animator resculpting a mouth every frame. But we keep it to fairly basic, like 20 mouths per character. Different A-E-I-O-U sort of shapes and consonants as well. But we still keep the faces made of clay so it doesn’t look mechanical, and too technical, but still have some movement, some room for movement from the animator to change the smirk a little bit or whatever, and make it feel more organic and handmade. Also with the digital, I’m always scared that it will all look CGI. And so we actually purposely trying to keep it hand-made. With the fingerprint still on.
And speaking of that, Aardman Animations has a very specific look to it. So how does Aardman’s style compare to maybe some other stop-motion houses out there, in your opinion?