Oscar-Winning Animator Nick Park on Returning to Claymation With 'Early Man'

Early Man Trailer Still - H 2017

The four-time Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit creator talks working with Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston on his "prehistoric underdog sports movie," Aardman's most ambitious to-date and Park's first film in 10 years.

It’s been 10 long years since Nick Park last unleashed his clay creations upon the world, but finally the U.K.’s four-time Oscar winning stop-motion animation legend and the man behind the iconic duo Wallace and Gromit is back.

Early Man, from Park’s long-time collaborators Aardman Animation and being launched in the U.K. by StudioCanal on Jan 26 (Lionsgate is releasing in the U.S. on Feb. 16), has all the director’s quintessential traits — big-eyed, clumsy and utterly charming characters in a world full of very-British silliness — only this time set in the era of cavemen. Helping him on his way is an all-star U.K. voice cast including the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall and Richard Ayoade, and a story in which a plucky tribe of not-terribly-bright Neanderthals come up against the mighty Bronze Age. Even Park himself gets in on the action, voicing the Gromit-esque wild boar (and frequent scene-stealer) Hognob.

Shot in from Aardman’s studios in Bristol (where Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and numerous other delights were all made), Early Man is the most ambitious feature film the U.K. animation giant has attempted before, with some 35-40 animators working simultaneously for 18 months across 40 individual and intricately designed sets. 

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter from the studio last year with just two weeks of production left (and with timing crucial as Shaun the Sheep Movie 2 was taking over the space immediately afterwards), Park discusses sticking with his beloved claymation (“you almost put your soul into it”), creating what could be the first "prehistoric underdog sports movie," how he ended up giving Hiddleston a massage in the recording studio and why the late Peter Sallis, who voiced Wallace and passed away in 2017, would want his most famous cheese-loving twosome to keep going.

Is Early Man an idea you’ve had around for while, and where did it come from?

It’s actually been in the works for years. There are drawings I found the other day from 2011. So it’s been in my mind for a while. I keep sketchbooks a lot and sometimes it’s just the smallest thing sparks something and cavemen have always appealed to me. For some reason I think they suit the texture and the earthiness of the clay.

They’re quite caveman-ish in Wallace and Gromit. Was this something that you noticed back then?

I did have caveman ideas for Wallace and Gromit actually. One of the oldest Britains ever found is in Cheddar Caves and he’s known as Cheddar Man. And I thought that’s a perfect ancestor for Wallace. I immediately drew pictures of him. You think he’s inventing the wheel but it’s actually a big cheese. That came before this and partially sparked it.

Stop-motion animation is obviously a painstaking process. In the time you’ve been away, has technology changed to make it any easier for you?

I don’t know if it makes it easier necessarily, but yeah, since the beginning we’ve adapted technology to help us with the stop frame technique, even if it’s just being able to save a frame and compare it with the next. But now, like any movie, we’re enhancing everything, expanding the world using CGI, mostly for stuff we can’t do. It’s not so much easy but you can do more. You can be more ambitious.

How much did you use CGI before?

If I think back to the Wrong Trousers, there were seven FX shots in the whole film. And they’re all done in the old optical technique, there’s nothing digital. And then slowly we’ve adapted technology. Chicken Run and Were-Rabbit had it — usually stuff you just can’t do with clay, like flames, smoke, mist, things that enhance the atmosphere. 

How many FX shot are there in Early Man?

Well almost every shot. Because it’s part of what helps us do the animation quicker — we don’t have the hide the rig. In the early days we had to do everything in camera in one take and so you spent ages hiding fishing lines and wires. Whereas now we can rig them — so if you’ve got a character that has to jump in the air you can just have a rig that’s in shot all the time and paint it out afterwards.

With almost all other animation studios having headed very much towards CGI, is it nice to keep maintaining that traditional style?

I just love it. In a way it’s not a choice for me. Gromit’s character came out of clay. I might not have arrived at the same thing if I’d been working on a computer screen. There are amazing things going on. I quiver at what can be achieved in CGI now. But there’s something very primal about the technique, about the animator having hands on. And because of that, because you’re able to manipulate in small implements, you almost put your soul into it really, because of that direct contact.

It may not measure up or be the same as a lot of CGI but I kind of like the charm. There’s a sort of thrown back to the early days of King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, where you saw where the animator had handled the fur. And there’s a charm in there. And also for me, the clay, I’ve always worked with clay and there’s a humor that comes out of it for me… it’s not sophisticated.

With the storyline involving football, is there any concern that our American cousins won’t get it?

I guess it’s been a subject. But it seems with football or soccer that America is really getting into it. And it’s a growing thing there, especially with women. But what comes first is the story and the characters. Yes, it is an integral part of the idea. I’ve never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before. That got me hooked on the idea in the first place. But at the same time the football is the metaphor, it’s more about the small guy conquering the giant obstacle, the great foe, and believing in himself.

Now you’ve got this phenomenal world and characters, have you got other stories involving them? Essentially, do you have a sequel planned?

I haven’t thought ahead to be honest. I haven’t had the head space for that. But I guess it’s always a possibility. Early Woman? It’s hard really. It absorbs your whole life for a few years.

In Redmayne, Hiddleston and Williams you've got three of the biggest British names at the moment. How has the experience been?

It’s really wonderful for me to work with such a strong lineup. They’re world renowned, but very well known British names.

Is that something you sought out?

I don’t mind working with glamorous, attractive people, if I’m forced to! I’ll do it if you twist my arm. But they were my first choice. It’s wonderful to be able to go to such people and when you work with them you do realize why they are so well known. They’re not getting any rehearsal time, they’re often getting the pages that morning and it’s like, let’s get in the room and play around with it. It’s great to have that exploratory, experimental side to it, and they’ve been so game for messing around. 

You can barely recognize that it’s Tom Hiddleston because of his accent…

He’s a really funny guy! There’s a scene where Hognob is massaging his character Lord Nooth. I’m playing Hognob, and he was like, "how can I get more of a wobble on the voice?" So I said, "why don’t I massage you?" So I’m massaging Tom Hiddleston. How many people would pay good money for this?

Was there a vigorous process to try to find someone to voice Hognob or was it always going to be you?

When we put the reel together — we make the whole thing in storyboard and put a temporary track on — I just took on the role, I was always doing him. So I was just voted in. It stuck. But it’s nice to get a little cameo.

Are there any little Easter Eggs in Early Man that might reference other films of yours?

Yeah, there are! I haven’t told anyone this before. There’s a little cockroach at the beginning who puts sunglasses on when there’s a big explosion, like in A Grand Day Out, and that in turn came from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are lots of other film references. A lot of it is my love of growing up with Ray Harryhausen films. One Million Years B.C. was always one of my favorites. The opening has a couple of dinosaurs fighting and we named them Ray and Harry.

Finally, and I can’t not ask, any chance of a Wallace and Gromit return?
I hope so, in time. I know it’s a big question with Peter Sallis no longer with us. It’s hard to fill his shoes. But I can’t stop thinking of Wallace and Gromit ideas. I have a long affection for them and always will. I think Peter would have wanted us to carry on.