Nick Park’s characters have wormed their way into our hearts. Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, and now Dug in Early Man.
In Early Man, Park takes the ropes as director to tell the story of how cavemen invented football. Inspired by the idea that football is, in fact, tribal, Park came up with the idea, four years in the making. He talks about the doodles and sketches he makes as he develops his new projects.
He tells us how he found his cast to voice the animation, including how an appearance on Graham Norton inspired him to cast Tom Hiddleston as a French Lord. He works with plasticine for his stop-motion features and walks us through the process of shooting and working with his animators to bring us the delight that is Early Man.
We all love Wallace and Gromit. Your latest is about the origins of football. How did you hit upon Early Man as the right project for you to direct?
I’m always waiting for the right ideas to come along. They seem to eventually and I actually keep a sketchbook of doodles and ideas. A lot of them just come from a simple idea that you just run with.
With Chicken Run, I remember thinking of a chicken digging its way out of a coop and it’s all in that brain width really. It’s The Great Escape, but with chickens.
With The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, I had this idea through Wallace of his ears turning into rabbit ears and I don’t know why I did it, but that suddenly became the basis for the world’s first vegetarian horror movie.
With this one, I was thinking of cavemen, clay animation and the primitive nature of it all. I was thinking of stupid cavemen with low brows and the format. I didn’t want to make another caveman movie because it’s been done before. I thought of football and how it’s so tribal. I think I was drawing a caveman with a club and how much like baseball or rounders (British sport) it is. Then I thought about how a sport got invented, and then I thought of football and how primitive it is. That’s what got me going.
The way I pitched it was “cavemen inventing football”. It’s early Manchester United and with Man United being a big brand, I couldn’t really use that title. That’s how it started out. I’d never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before.
You’re working with clay again, and football isn’t the easiest sport to translate. How did you achieve that?
It was a big challenge and a bit scary. I’m a clay man and wanted it to feel like a clay film. I didn’t want it to feel like there was too much CGI and not too slick. I was nervous because football has to feel dynamic and not feel tacky. I was keen that the animation is dynamic and reflected that.
The hardest thing was to stage the match because when you watch a football match on TV, it’s not that interesting. You have these aerial shots to show who’s kicking what, but I wanted to get down there and be more like the film Gladiator. I wanted it to be a dramatic spectacle with the roar of the crowd. I wanted it to be thrilling and yet comedic with the gags landing. That was probably the most challenging bit.
There aren’t many sports movie about. I think the last big one was Bend It Like Beckham so it was difficult to look at references that way.
Didn’t you actually go to a football game to get those football crowd chants to give it that authenticity?
What we did was we went to a football ground in Bristol. We advertised for it and got 750 people in the sounds. You can find crowd sounds in the library but they wanted it real and bespoke for the film. It was quite an experience.
Gareth Malone came and conducted the crowd for us.
I saw his name in the credits.
I remember watching the crowd and I remember they advertised for choirs of people. So, we got middle-class people. I wanted a more raucous football crowd and I remember him saying, “You all sound like you’re shopping at Waitrose. We need more big men at the front.”
That’s hilarious. Waitrose shopping! That’s not your typical football cheering crowd.
It was superb. We eventually did get what we needed at the end.
This took you three years. Talk about the clay-animation process and what goes into that. Let’s look at the opening scene.
From beginning to end, it was about four years. I worked with Mark Burton who I’ve worked with before. We sat in a room and we mainly looked at cards on the wall for about a year, trying to figure out various plot points. We write up drafts and if that doesn’t work, we go back to the cards. It’s only when we’re reasonably happy we start storyboarding the whole thing. The storyboard goes into the edit and it becomes a story reel. That’s all before any filming is done. That storyboard moves at real time. We’ll put scratch voices and scratch music to see how it’s going to look. We do that so we can figure out what shots are required. We start designing the characters and the sets can start to be designed and built.
When we’re happy with a storyboard scene or sequence, that’s when we start to shoot it. Nothing is in the right order and it’s chaotic. It’s about 35 animators each shooting on a different set. There are about 35 to 40 different lighting setups going on at the same time. Lots of puppets are being set up. We’ll have 15 Dugs or Hognobs shooting on different scenes simultaneously. Each animator is probably shooting about 2 or 3 seconds a day. That mounts up, in terms of animation.
We shoot on digital rather than film because it offers more flexibility so you don’t have to wait for the turnover from the lab, so the turnover is quicker.
Hognob was a brilliant character. He reminded me of my own cat who thinks he’s a dog.
He is a pig but thinks he’s a dog. He’s more of an excitable puppy than Gromit is a dog really. Gromit is more human than a dog in some ways.
Let’s talk about your voice casting. It’s so important when that comes to the world of animation. What was the move for Tom Hiddleston to go French? I thought it was brilliant and rather funny to hear that.
Eddie, Timothy, and Maisie were all great. Tom came on slightly later. We thought he could play Lord Nooth. I’d seen him on Graham Norton doing impressions. He was doing a great Robert De Niro impression and I thought if he’d be up for having a go at it. So, I approached him and he said yes. Arriving at the voice, I don’t know why we chose a French accent but we did. I have to say, even StudioCanal liked it and they’re based in Paris.
How has technology evolved as you came to make Early Man?
We’ve been embracing technology slowly over each film. A lot of the technology was developed for commercials in the ’80s and we used it a lot. After Curse of The Were-Rabbit which was shot on 35mm film, we had over 30 of these old cameras, but we switched to digital eventually on the short that I did. We realized that digital alters the colors in different ways, so we’d dampen down some.
The basic technique remains the same, it hasn’t changed at all so we have that safety net.
So, a good example of where technology helped was that scene when Dug is in mid-air, we’d have had to suspend him on wires and hope the audience didn’t see those. Now, the animators get on with it quickly because there’s a metal rig holding him there and we paint that out. Anything we can’t do with plasticines such as fire and smoke, we can do after. In the stadium, we had a cast of thousands, and we couldn’t build ten thousand puppets. We kept the main characters as real as we could, but sometimes – we couldn’t afford full-blown CG- the rendering was low quality, so we had the crowd out of focus. That’s where digital came in handy.