Exclusive interview: Early Man director Nick Park talks Aardman, Bristol and Eddie Redmayne

Now on release in Cineworld, Early Man is the latest animation from British institution Aardman. 

Eddie Redmayne voices caveman Dug who must square off against the villainous Bronze Age tyrant Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) to determine his tribe's fate. The solution? A prehistoric football match, of course.

We were delighted to catch up with director Nick Park, the creator of claymation icons Wallace and Gromit, to discuss the making of his latest family classic.

Well Nick, it's such a privilege to talk to you, as you're one of my childhood heroes being the creator of Wallace and Gromit.

Oh, thank you!

I vividly remember watching A Close Shave for the first time when I was younger, around 1995 I think it was?

Yes, I think so. It suddenly makes me realise how long ago it was. Whenever someone comes up to me and says they remember watching something, I tend to think of the film in question as having come out in the last couple of years.

Early Man marks your return to directing for the first time in several years. What was it about this project that prompted such a return?

In a way, I feel like I've never been away. It goes back to what we just said then about time passing. It has been busy since Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which was then followed by A Matter of Loaf and Death.

I've been helping out in small ways on the Shaun the Sheep movie, bits and pieces of Wallace and Gromit, and of course Early Man, which I've been developing for quite a few years. Before we met distributor StudioCanal, there was a lengthy process in terms of developing it, pitching it and then sitting in a room with writer Mark Burton.

So, I don't feel like I've been away, if you know what I mean? It's just taken time to put it together, and half of that time has actually been making the film.

Yes, I wanted to break down the production and ask about the process. How long does it take to animate a few seconds of footage in the film, and how long was the production process overall?

Well, the actual filming itself takes about 18 months. It's the same really for any production of that size, whether it be CGI or stop-frame, or hand drawn.

The jobs in essence are similar – it's just that with CGI, for instance, you're building a character in a computer. But with stop-frame, it takes one animator to do about two or three seconds a day, on average. And we had between 30 and 40 animators. at any one time.

So, about a minute of usable footage a week would be very good going. We'd be steaming ahead!

You created Wallace and Gromit back in 1985. When you look back on Aardman's development, are you surprised by how far it's come and how much people have embraced it?

Yes, I am. It's just seeing people's reactions really, all the time. When I come out of the woodwork with another film, it really astounds me just how recognisable our work is, and how much it sits in people's consciousness. You know, people have grown up with it.

The fact we can now call up anyone we want to do a voice, and there's a likelihood they'll say yes, is quite amazing. What really knocks me over is there's a love of the work. There's a sense of admiration, which always touches me.

Early Man is, in essence, a football movie, which I wasn't expecting, although there is a snippet in the trailer. Was that always the central conceit or were there several ideas on the table at one point?

I've always been attracted to the idea of cave people and Stone Age people. There's always been a story there in the offing. But I didn't want to do yet another caveman adventure because, somehow, it wouldn't seem like Aardman to do that. We had to find a slightly different angle.

It was when I was doodling a caveman holding, typically, a club, that I started to think about the idea of sport. It all came down to the fact that I'd never seen an underdog prehistoric sports movie. So, that seemed to have legs and it made people laugh. We first called it Early Man United [laughs].

That gag of course makes it into the movie.

Yes, we couldn't use it as the title, because it would have been a bit complicated, but we used it as a joke. There was also a fear with the studios that it would make it seem too primarily a football movie. It might seem like it was exclusively for boys, or Man United fans, which splits everybody up.

I'm not a football fan, so I didn't want to make a football movie, really. I wanted to make a big family adventure comedy that has a quirky element of football in it.

Looking at the film itself, clearly stop-frame animation has come on leaps and bounds in the last 30 years or so. How has your approach to the technique both advanced and stayed true to its home-grown roots?

Peter Lord and Dave Sproxton founded the company and they're all about diversifying and keeping abreast of the latest technology. We have of course made a couple of CGI movies, Arthur Christmas and Flushed Away, and I think we also recognise that stop-frame is what we're known for.

Personally, I've always loved clay. I think it has a humour of its own and carries humour with it. It has a certain spirit, which I've always felt is a contributing factor. We've always had that sort of handmade feel, and the challenge of producing a feature film is sustaining that feeling.

I was insistent that we retain the fingerprints and the sense that it all feels 'made'. To have that creative imprint, even if it's done on a large scale. We have to industrialise the process yet at the same time retain that handmade feel.

That said, while most of the principal animation in Early Man is stop-frame, when we get into the bigger scenes, we do adopt contemporary technology to depict lava, smoke, large crowds and so on.

I live in Bristol and Aardman are of course based in Bristol. Local question: is there anywhere in the city that you and your team use to get creative inspiration?

[laughs] That's interesting... Down at the [infamous student hangout] Coronation Tap in Clifton. The old Exhibition Cider!

Yes! Fond university memories for me.

Yeah, we were in Clifton back then, but then we moved. I mean, gosh, just being in Bristol for me is an inspiration. It keeps us sane and away from Hollywood. We retain our humour and identity by being in Britain. And StudioCanal, being Paris-based, never once asked us to appeal more to American audiences. It's very refreshing that there's no pressure to appeal to the American high school and so on.

Do you have a particular favourite scene from Aardman's output?

I think The Wrong Trousers always stands out for me. It was in the early days and we were a small team then. We didn't really know what we were doing. I think pulling off the train sequence was an achievement, and the penguin himself, Feathers McGraw. There's this freshness that arises when you don't think too much.

The joke when he's wearing the glove and swipes it back as if it's his hair - that always stuck with me.

[laughs] Yeah, I enjoyed making that film, and working with Steve Box, who designed the penguin.

How important was the presence of Eddie Redmayne as the voice of Dug? What did he bring to it?

Yes, voice casting has always been very important to our projects, right from the days when members of the public voiced Creature Comforts. Eddie was great. He was perfect. I knew it as soon as he agreed to come in and test for it.

I'd seen him playing a novice monk in this film called Black Death, playing a rather quiet character, understated and vulnerable. I loved those qualities in him as an actor. He asked me, 'How old is Dug?' I said, 'About 15.' Then he went, 'Alright, Hognob!' and started acting as this teenager. I thought it was brilliant.

One final question that also relates to voice casting: what prompted Tom Hiddleston's hilarious Allo Allo French accent for villain Lord Nooth?

[laughs] Well, if one was testing a pompous French middle manager type, one wouldn't naturally think of Tom Hiddleston. We were kind of stuck thinking who could play him but I saw him on The Graham Norton Show doing incredible impressions of Robert De Niro and politicians.

So, I approached him and he came in and he's just so clever. Such a nice guy too, like Eddie. We sort of had a French accent in mind – no comment on the French at all! He just happens to be an avaricious social climber. And Tom just rose to the challenge.

Yes, it's a bit Allo Allo, but that's the kind of comedy we were trying to reach. He's not a dark villain. More a pompous idiot who's trying to impress Queen Oofeefa.

Wonderful stuff. Nick, it's been a pleasure talking to you. I'll have to pop down to Spike Island Studios and see Aardman in action. All the best with the film.

Enjoyed talking to you. Thanks, Sean!

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