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How Nick Park hid Wallace and Gromit in Early Man, his latest movie

Visual effects supervisor and co-founder of Axis Studios, Howard Jones, explains the director's methods -- plus a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo.

Aardman Animation/Lionsgate

If you work with the studio behind Wallace and Gromit, you get a T-shirt to say you've worked with the studio behind Wallace and Gromit.

Visual effects supervisor Howard Jones has three of those T-shirts. He worked with Aardman Animations, based in Bristol, England, on Pirates! Band of Misfits, the Shaun the Sheep Movie and Early Man.

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Howard Jones

Aside from free clothing, Jones received another gift: Aardman insider knowledge. For one -- and it's a big charming cracker of a one -- he knows where Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park added a cameo of the beloved stop-motion characters in Early Man.

The film came out in 2018 and tells the story of cavemen who play football. Aardman and longtime employee Park are experts in sweetly-humoured films that also happen to win Oscar awards. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is one of those, and living room staple Chicken Run is the highest-grossing stop-motion film of all time.

"The cameo was put in by Aardman in a physical puppet crowd-wide scene as the queen arrives," Jones told me via email. "Wallace is reasonably visible but you have to look quite hard to see Gromit. It's hard to spot them unless you are in the know."

There's more.

"There is the penguin from The Wrong Trousers and a cameraman both in another shot," Jones said. "The only clue I'll give as to where, is there's a big duck's bottom in the shot. I'll leave you to search for that one."

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Cavemen were the originators of football, according to charming stop-motion animation.

Aardman

Big duck bottoms are a perk of working with Park, whose brilliantly eccentric Wallace and Gromit films, such as The Wrong Trousers, have told the world how much British people like cheese and crackers. Park has since gone on to direct the Shaun the Sheep Movie, a spinoff of Wallace and Gromit.

Despite Early Man's seemingly simple plot -- a big football game will decide the fate of a tribe's valley -- it's one of Park's most ambitious films. Jones' job was to interpret what Park wanted for the visual effects. In one Gladiator-inspired scene, 20,000 CGI people boo, cheer and look astonished in a crowd. Along with scenery, it's one of the few parts of the film rendered in CGI.

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Two people have delayed astonished reactions. That's how detailed this is.

Aardman

"The key for me is to listen to the director and figure out what they mean," Jones explained. He checked the VFX dailies, the footage his 12-person team at AxisVFX created every day, ensuring their work was top-notch Park quality. He clearly succeeded: Early Man was nominated seven times at the 46th Annie Awards (honouring excellence in animation).

"If a director doesn't speak VFX but can suggest the speed of a rocket flying past with a few sound effects, I need to understand what that means and visualise it," Jones said.

Early Man is mainly stop-motion with some CGI. Jones' team ended up delivering 1,350 shots during Early Man's 13-month production, making life easier for the sculptors by digitally creating lush valleys, volcanic badlands and other scenery, as well as that huge crowd scene.

"AxisVFX did a fantastic job for us, delivering VFX work that blended beautifully with the look of our prehistoric and Bronze Age worlds -- while working under very demanding pressure from our tight delivery dates," said Aardman's Tom Barnes, technical director on Early Man.

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Park embraced technology for Early Man.

Aardman

A longtime fan of Aardman, Jones grew up watching the Aardman character Morph, an orange shape-shifting clay man featured on the kids' art show Take Hart from the '70s. He graduated with a fine arts degree in 1988 and followed his passion for film into a position at Avid, the company behind the professional editing software. From there, he worked in TV before his first collaboration with Aardman on Pirates. 

Jones owes a lot to his time working with Aardman. While working on Pirates, a non-Park film about a ragtag group of pirates trying to win the world-renowned Pirate of the Year competition, he made a fortuitous friend.

Jones' collections of statuettes from working with Aardman.

Howard Jones

"My earliest memory of working on Pirates was sitting in reception on the first day waiting to be taken over to my workstation," Jones said. "This other guy turned up and after a very short conversation we sat there like two grumpy old-ish men. However after Pirates wrapped we carried on working on each others projects and two years later we set up AxisVFX."

Now, after six years of working together, Jones and Grant Hewlett "still sit there like two grumpy older men."

When it came to Early Man's 20,000-strong VFX crowd, Aardman supplied Jones' team with about 30 animated reactions. Through the software Golaem Crowd, the team combined the animations to create a natural balance in the crowd.

"We could dial in a percentage of props, and behaviours so that the action was natural and not distracting from the main action," Jones said.

After that, Park gave the team live-action video, in which Park himself acted out the main crowd reactions. "It's a great way to get his direction. From that we timelined the sequences to work out what action was where and how it transitioned across shots," Jones said.

Jones and his team are currently working on Aardman's next film, Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie, due out Jan. 9 in 2020 and no doubt an equally adorable sequel to the first film. 

Every time Jones works with Aardman he takes something away. "You get into [the directors'] minds and vision for the film. And how they really craft each frame. All experience rubs off, at least it should, so I take a lot with me."

He also takes, along with the T-shirts, the gift of a "small statuette" representing each film.

"They take pride of place next to my goldfish bowl."