Early Man – Aardman’s new prehistoric comedy adventure

EARLY MASTER

A story that’s epic in style, with a prehistoric twist. It’s about this one little guy who decides to save his tribe.

Early Man is the new prehistoric comedy adventure from four-Time Academy Award®-Winning Director Nick Park And Aardman, The Creators Of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun The Sheep, and took 8 years to reach the big screen.

Shot in Aardman’s own distinctive style, the film will take audiences on an extraordinary journey into an exciting new world, unleashing an unforgettable tribe of unique and funny new characters voiced by an all-star British cast.

Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures roamed the earth, EARLY MAN tells the story of courageous caveman hero Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his best friend Hognob, as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Early Man is the largest production mounted by Aardman in its 40-plus year history. It went into production in May 2016, and finally wound up in the last few weeks of 2017. However, preparatory work began well before the cameras started rolling.

Director Nick Park had been contemplating and refining the idea of this caveman comedy since 2010. Though he has directed short films, including the legendary Wallace & Gromit titles broadcast on the BBC, and jointly directed Chicken Run (2000), and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), this marks Nick’s debut as sole director on a full-length feature.

Nick was determined to direct Early Man alone – which meant significant changes in the way the production, at Aardman’s Aztec West studios, was organised.

Aardman production veteran Carla Shelley notes that whereas Nick would normally be ‘directing the floor,’ overseeing and doing the rounds of all the animators creating different scenes, that task was assigned to two other Aardman stalwarts, Merlin Crossingham and Will Becher, who served as animation directors. This left Nick free to direct the voice actors and to keep refining the story as filming progressed, along with writers Mark Burton and James Higginson.

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Carla views Early Man as a step forward for the studio: “As elaborate and expensive as other films may have been, this one has been more challenging in some ways. Nick pitched it as ‘Gladiator meets Dodgeball.’ He really wanted that sort of gladiatorial feel to the stadium and to the football scenes.  So there’s been a lot of effects work, including computer graphics, creating the huge crowd. If we’d built that football stadium for real…well, we couldn’t, it would have been bigger than our whole studio! So there were lots of technicalities in matching the physical and digital elements for the film.”

Some of the statistics regarding the making of Early Man are remarkable. Around 150 people have been directly involved with the production, and at its peak 33 animators were working on the film.

Early Man has required 273 puppets  made by 23 different modelmakers over a 30-month period. Every individual puppet was created over a period of more than 10 weeks, with the model making team completing a total of 18 Dug puppets, and eight of each member of the Stone Age tribe. An astonishing total of 3,000 interchangeable mouths were crafted for the film’s characters by hand.

As for the sets, Aardman’s art department made 60 trees for the Stone Age tribe’s forest – each taking about a week to complete.

This extraordinary pace was maintained in a gigantic work area.

The combined space at Aztec West is approximately 51,000 square feet – roughly equivalent to four Olympic-size swimming pools.

“It has been incredibly intense work,” Carla notes. “We’ve had up to 40 units on this one, working simultaneously. Normally we contain it at out at 35, but at its peak there were 40 cameras on the go at once.

“The reason we’ve pulled it off is we’ve got such an experienced team some of whom have worked with Nick for 25 years. All the model makers, set makers, the DoPs and floor crew, know their craft so well and they’re the ones who managed to pull it off. There is a shorthand between them and Nick that has been invaluable….

“It’s a challenge at this budget level because there’s expectation around the production quality of an Aardman film so you can’t compromise on that.”

Visitors to the set have marvelled at the intricate work done to replicate the prehistoric era.  Arguably the ‘main attraction’ is the Bronze Age city, which includes the gigantic stadium – scaled down to miniature size, while retaining all sorts of architectural detail.

Matt Perry, who designed the sets along with Richard Edmunds and their team, stresses: “We wanted to make the point that these were two worlds colliding – Stone Age and Bronze Age. Cavemen live in a world that’s soft and lovely – bucolic with trees. The Bronze Age is the opposite — architectural and exact. It’s technical, industrial, the least hospitable place on the planet, and they’re mining for their bronze ore, which is a source of wealth.”

Nick discussed with Matt and Richard the notion that everything in the Bronze Age had to be ‘branded,’ as befits a ruthless, ideological society. So there are designs of sharp, hard, spiky helmets everywhere – even the arches of the stadium. The other recurring visual emblem in the Bronze Age city is the football, with its distinctive hexagonal patterns. It’s even on its soldiers’ shields. The city’s team, Real Bronzio, is just about unbeatable – it’s a symbol of the city’s power.

In the Director’s chair

Never a man to pass up the chance of making a joke, Nick Park refers to his caveman film, set in prehistoric times, as ‘a mammoth production!’

EARLY PARK

Yet in terms of scale, execution and preparation time, ‘mammoth’ is an accurate definition. As Nick tells it, the idea for Early Man has been on his mind since 2010. “It’s been on the back burner for many years now – the writing alone has taken more than three years. Mark Burton started writing it with me, then went off to do Shaun The Sheep, and came back again.

“It’s just the way we do it at Aardman – We cut the storyboards together first, for the whole film, then edit it, add the temporary music and voices. We’ve written and re-written everything 100 times, it seems. We’ll decide a scene isn’t funny enough or simply not working. And that goes on for two years before we even start filming. I feel like I’ve made the film twice! But it’s worth it.”

Filming actually started in May 2016, but as Nick points out: “We’ve still been re-writing as we’re shooting.”

EARLY MAN marks Nick’s first directing work since the Wallace & Gromit short A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008). Before that he jointly directed two feature-length films:  Chicken Run (2000) with Peter Lord and Curse of the Were-Rabbit  (2005) with Steve Box.

Why did he decide to go it alone on Early Man?

“I just wanted to try it, really,” he says. “I’ll always be grateful to Peter and Steve, and I enjoyed directing with them. But I just wanted to be at the reins more.”

He hasn’t always found it easy: “It’s been good to do it, but this way is a re-structure.  If it’s just me at the top you have to have other people you trust on the floor. I haven’t been able to spend all the time with animators I’m used to. Merlin and Will have done all that.

“I’ve had some time on the floor, but not as much as I’d like. It makes a difference being in touch with the animators yourself.” He laughs: “I can be more of a control freak! Obviously I trust Will and Merlin, they do a great job. They’ve been my eyes and ears on the floor. And I still have all the fingers in all the pies.”

To those outside the animation business, of course, it all seems like an incredibly slow process. As Nick puts it: “If we get three seconds (filmed) at the end of a day, and if it’s good, that’s very satisfying. And if we’re creating more than a minute a week? Well, in animation terms, that’s rocking.”

Going feature length, he says, “gives you more to think about – it’s a big statement, a bigger scope, a bigger crew. For me, it’s also being involved with the design of each character so they all look as if they’re from the same stable.”

He thinks of Early Man as “a story that’s epic in style, with a prehistoric twist. It’s about this one little guy who decides to save his tribe. When the Bronze Age people come into their valley, take it away from them and banish them to the badlands, Dug fights to get it back. He knows from cave paintings that his tribe played football, which is now almost like a religion in the Bronze Age, so he brings a football home and trains his tribe to beat them.”

Nick isn’t interested in football himself: “I’ve always supported my local team (Preston North End) out of loyalty, but that’s it. And I feel as an outsider I can tell a story other people can also relate to. There are parallels in Early Man about money changing the game. But really it’s not about football at all. It’s about a tribe that has the right spirit.”

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Nick also felt his story was ideal for working in clay: “It felt very earthy. I’m a clay man myself, so I felt my style would lend itself to clay animation. It’s human and there’s a charm to it. I feel something of yourself comes through. It’s very hands-on, quite literally, and there’s a lot of nuance and expression: you’re imbuing the puppets with life. I think the real strength of Aardman films is subtlety in characters — which is where clay comes in.”

He also broke ground by voicing a character himself – Dug’s sidekick, the pig called Hognob. “I did it just for fun to start with, but I got voted in,” Nick admits. “He’s got a little bit of Gromit about him — but he’s more of a pet.”

He found the hardest part of Early Man was ‘creating new worlds – the badlands, the valley, the forests — in model animation, in a way that it all looks good — not like a train set. We’re making an epic movie on a budget here. It’s a nod to King Kong and to (animator) Ray Harryhausen’s movies.”

He’s particularly proud of the extraordinary Bronze Age city that has been created for Early Man. It’s a triumph for Aardman’s art department – and Nick revealed that every member of the team got to design a house within the city that will appear on screen – a kind of ‘signature’ for each one.

The film’s settings, he adds, “were all based on research from the Bronze age world.” He smiles: “With a bit of artistic licence!”

Nick was determined to create characters from the tribe members that would come from all parts of Britain – Bobnar is clearly a Londoner, Barry (the one whose best friend is a rock) is a Brummie, while Asbo is northern and the incomprehensible Eemack is a Geordie.

“I wanted to show the diversity of Britain,” Nick explains. “When you talk about the Bronze Age there’d have been lots of people here of different ethnicity. I also wanted a multi-racial mix, because of the football aspect. I didn’t want to end up with an all-white team. Football today is definitely multi-racial.”

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In the same spirit, Nick wanted a major role for a woman – and created Goona, the Bronze Age-raised girl played by Maisie Williams, whose gender disqualifies her from playing football.

“It wasn’t a cynical move,” Nick says. “But women’s football has really taken off in Britain recently – and in America teenage girls have been playing soccer for years. It seemed cool to have a female character who’s also such a great footballer.”

One of Nick’s main strengths as an animator is his unswerving attention to detail. As an example, he worked long hours on getting Dug’s haircut exactly right. “We would test record Eddie,” he recalled, “then take it back to the model. Then we’d change the hair a bit.  We didn’t want him too clean-cut or neat. The hair needed to be a bit dishevelled. But then again, you want to see his eyes. If you can’t see his eyes, how do we light the scene?  So you can make one decision and, it affects several other decisions.”

Nick also ‘acted out’ his characters on video, imitating their voices as best he could and suggesting their physical actions. It looks comical, but there’s a purpose behind it: “For me to act it out has been a way of putting across to Will and Merlin what I’m thinking.”

Eight years is a long haul. Does he feel the time he spent on Early Man is justified? He thinks it through: “It’s taken a long time, yes. It has. But that’s the amount of effort it takes, really, to do it right.”

Now he’s aware there are great expectations surrounding Early Man: “But there’s nothing you can do about it. Just do my best and hope people like it.” He smiles: “I’m going to like it!”