How 'Early Man' mixes painstaking puppetry with a little CG

Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park talks us through Aardman's stop-motion creative process.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

In his new caveman movie "Early Man", writer, director and animator Nick Park goes back to the beginning of time. Although the techniques used to make this stop-motion movie are the same as at the beginning of Park's own career, they're enhanced by the most cutting-edge moviemaking technology.

Creator of the much-loved plasticine pals Wallace and Gromit, Park is co-founder of Oscar-winning animation studio Aardman. "Early Man" is the latest in a long line of stop-motion films from Aardman.

"The basic technique hasn't really changed from the beginning," explains Park of the meticulous animation technique with which Aardman is synonymous. Variously known as stop-frame animation, stop-motion or claymation, it involves photographing puppets made from modelling clay while making the tiniest movements in each frame. When the images are played back at speed the characters come alive.

It's a slow and painstaking process, but as fans of Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and many other stories will tell you, the results have a real charm and spontaneity.

Sculpting puppets and backdrops requires a lot of time and effort. So for "Early Man", which goes from a lush valley of hand-sculpted trees to mountainous volcanic badlands and soaring football arenas, Aardman opted to use make things a little easier. "We've always been open to using technology," says Park, "and we always have digital effects that we just can't do with a model or clay, like smoke, explosions and sometimes water. The big scene at the end [of "Early Man"] with the big football game was quite difficult to create 30,000 puppets, so we went digital there as well."

Aardman has made digitally animated films before, including "Arthur Christmas" and "Flushed Away". But the main characters of "Early Man" are still sculpted and animated the old-fashioned way, frame by diligent frame.

This process involves a lot of trial and error, with the filmmakers visualising the story multiple times. To start with, the finalised script is locked off and storyboard artists draw out the action. Then the animators try their hand at acting, getting in front of a camera to act out the sequence. "Often the best animators are actually quite good actors," says Park.

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Under the guidance of one of Aardman's expert sculptors of stop-motion puppets, I had a go at making a character from "Early Man" out of modelling clay. Guess which one is mine.

Richard Trenholm/CNET

He and his two animation directors then look at the animator's amateur dramatics and give suggestions on the acting and timing. That provides the basis for a "block", which is the first rough animation.

The different animators' blocks are then edited together to see the final film coming together. "We have a look at the timing and the pace and the context, and then finally, when we've decided all that, they go and animate the shot."

Animators, modelmakers and storyboard artists all contribute ideas, and it's Park's job to keep everyone heading in the same direction. "More times than not it turns out brilliantly," he says, although he does admit, "it's a slightly hit and miss technique."

Fortunately, there's some flexibility even in this most exacting of animation techniques. "You might cut a shot out or cut stuff into a different order," says Park. "Even when the film's finished, you can rerecord new lines and put them in while a character isn't in the shot."

But even the laborious stop-motion process won't turn Park to computer animation. "I'm not really tempted," he says. "I just love the stop frame more, really. While the technology offers great possibilities and can create big crowd scenes and so on, I encourage the animators not to be too slick. Let's enjoy the technique. I think we should glory in it, embrace the fingerprints in the clay."

The scale of "Early Man" is a far cry from Park's earlier projects. "The very thought of another thing like this is quite daunting," he laughs. "It makes me dream of working with two or three characters again. One speaking character, a dog and a penguin seems like absolutely bliss now!" he laughs.

And as for those old favourites? "I would love to get back to Wallace and Gromit at some point," says Park. "But I'm just going to have a long rest now!"

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