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INTERVIEW: Nick Park on “Early Man”

It’s impossible to separate Nick Park from his two most famous creations – Wallace & Gromit. But fans worldwide know the iconic Park is also responsible, as animator, writer, producer and/or director for such classics as “Chicken Run”, “Creature Comforts” and “Shaun the Sheep”. The 4-time Oscar-winner got back in the director’s chair after nearly 10 years for Aardman’s latest stop-motion adventure – “Early Man”.

Jackson Murphy: A caveman sports comedy. What was it about that concept that got you excited?

Nick Park: Well, I suppose it was the fact that I’d never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before. A lot of these ideas start with just simple doodles. I remember years ago, I was sketching this caveman. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of a caveman movie, but it seems kind of well-covered in animation these days. So I was thinking, ‘What would make this different?’ – and a bit more off the wall, and a little bit more silly.

And I just started thinking about a caveman wielding a club and hitting a rock – and it reminded me of sports and baseball – and I started thinking about the whole tribal nature of soccer… and about a bunch of idiotic caveman. They can’t fight against the mighty Bronze Age world, but instead they have to fight back through a game. They can no longer use their fists and their weapons and have to learn a disciplined game where they can only use their feet. I just found it sort of interesting and funny.

JM: And it is. You see it on the screen. And of course, soccer – or football as you call it in the UK – is huge there. What kind of research on the sport did you and your team still have to do?

NP: We did quite a lot. I’m not really a soccer fan, which sounds incredible. In the UK, everybody supports a team. It’s like religion, really. I felt maybe there’s an advantage there because I’m an outsider looking at the game. And I really want to make a film that’s entertaining as a caveman movie comedy, first of all, but with this off the wall kind of element of soccer in it that you wouldn’t expect with a caveman film.

Even though I’m not a fan myself, I did a lot of research. I went to see matches. I’ve always been excited by it, by the way. I’ve always loved the World Cup – got quite excited. My writer is a big soccer fan. Various story artists and animators would often tell me what’s right and wrong. “You can’t do this because that would be a foul.” They educated me all the time on the game. And also, they would put in lots of jokes for the football fans as well.

JM: All the jokes work. My new favorite team is Early Man United. And the commentators are great. Actor Rob Brydon voices Brian and Bryan. They’re the two commentators for the match. Were they inspired by anybody in particular?

NP: They were. They’re actually a reference… Rob was doing an impression of two very well-known commentators in the UK, who gave their blessing. John Motson and Alan Hansen are big voices on UK sports TV, and they’ve been very famous since the 70s or 80s. And he did fantastic impressions of them. I don’t think they mind.

JM: And these Aardman movies keep raising the bar when it comes to what you do with stop-motion animation. There’s a sequence when the main character Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) falls down multiple sections of stadium seats.

NP: When I first went to Eddie… I think it was in the script. There was nothing visual to show him at the time. I just said, “Okay – you’re now going to fall down these steps, through the seats, down the bleachers, one after the other. So he did a load of stuff, and then we would animate that. That’s one of the very first scenes we shot in the whole movie. We had to build the bleachers.

Of course we would storyboard the whole sequence first and the art department and set builders would look at the storyboards and figure out what needs to be built. We would use digital effects at times when the sets got just too big – too big for the studio. And so we do a lot of compositing afterwards and shooting separate elements against green screen.

JM: And you also voice Hognob, Dug’s pig pal. Did you audition yourself for the role?

NP: Well, I didn’t plan on doing Hognob. When you make a movie, you put all the storyboards together and do a story reel to finely shape the scenes and the comedy. We put temporary music and temporary voice tracks on just to see how the scenes are shaping up. And I was doing Hognob, just casually, and my colleagues just liked it. I was gonna cast somebody, but the producer and a few colleagues said, “Oh, we love the way you do it.” So I got the job! It’s a more primitive Scooby Doo impression.

JM: I laughed out loud when Hognob plays the harp. It’s comedy gold.

NP: Thank you. That was me making up that song. It’s really strange for me to see myself singing on the big screen in the cinema. I never thought that day would happen.

JM: In the closing credits, there’s a special “Thank You” to the 1,000 people who did crowd voices. How did you pull that off?

NP: I’ve worked with this great sound designer since my college film (we were in college together), Adrian Rhodes, and he insisted that “we must get a crowd together and do our own crowd recordings.” We hired a stadium and got nearly 1,000 people in there and got them all singing and chanting. It was an amazing experience. It’s amazing what noises they can make.

JM: You, of course, created Wallace & Gromit. The iconic voice of Wallace, Peter Sallis, passed away last year. When was the last time you saw Peter?

NP: Oh, gosh, yeah. He wasn’t well for 2 or 3 years before he sadly passed away. I saw him after making “A Matter of Loaf and Death”, the last Wallace & Gromit short. He was starting to go downhill then. He was amazing the way he did it – the way he recorded with us – and was in great spirit.

And I noticed his memory was fading then, actually. We had a coffee after seeing the press screening, and he said to me, “Have I seen the film, Nick?” And I said, “Yes, Peter, we just sat through it.” So that’s how he was by that point.

JM: He touched so many hearts. I have W&G memorabilia around the house, and I have the shorts on VHS still, and I play them every once in a while. I wanna thank you and Peter very much for all you’ve done with Wallace & Gromit.

NP: Thank you. He was an absolute gem. His shoes would be very hard to fill. He was so special, and unique, and had a wonderful sense of humor.

JM: And you’ve also been a driving force behind “Shaun the Sheep”. The first movie, which came out in 2015, was a big hit. “Shaun the Sheep Movie 2” is in development right now at Aardman. Anything you can tell me?

NP: The whole gang who’ve just been involved in “Early Man” – all the animators – have just moved on to “Shaun the Sheep”, so they’re all just starting production right now. I haven’t been very involved in it. I know that Richard Starzak, who directed the first one, is directing this one, and has written it.

I know there’s a sci-fi element in it. Sheep and science fiction, so it’s very promising. And I know that in the trailer, they’re using “It’s Farm-ageddon.”

from Animation Scoop http://www.animationscoop.com/interview-nick-park-on-early-man/
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