Feb. 13-- Nick Park's life has come full circle with "Early Man," a comedy set at the cusp between the Stone and Bronze Ages. The man who has dominated the world of stop-motion animation says the person who influenced him from a young age was the man who dominated the art form for decades before him: Ray Harryhausen.
Here's where past and present come together. The biggest Harryhausen stop-animation production to have an impact on Park dealt with a group of cave people.
"'One Million Years B.C.' was my favorite film at the age of 11. I was a big dinosaur fanatic as a kid and I couldn't believe I was seeing dinosaurs moving with people. It was my dream come true. It was that film that made me pick up the movie camera and start making my own films," Park says in a telephone interview during a publicity tour stop in San Francisco for "Early Man." "This film really connects everything up because we do pay tribute to Ray Harryhausen. We named the two dinosaurs you see at the beginning of the film Ray and Harry."
The dinosaur part of "Early Man" is over in a blink as the film settles into the story of Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his caveman tribe as the Bronze Age invades their life. The only way to hang on to their world is to win a soccer match against the team put together by the bronze-loving ruler Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston).
In the question of which came first-the idea to do a story about cavemen or to set a soccer movie as his goal-the answer is it was the pelt-draped characters that sparked the story.
"I have always loved the idea of caveman and how it lends itself to animation. But, I was really looking for a different idea, though, and not just a caveman adventure. I wanted to do something that would make me want to make the film," Park says. "I was sketching a typical caveman wielding a club and I had him hitting a rock.
"I suddenly started thinking about baseball and sport. Then it came to me that I had never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before. It all came from that."
He eventually settled on soccer as the driving force behind the story. This all plays out through stop animation, which has been Park's art style of choice since he was a 13 year old growing up in the northwest of England. He used his mother's home movie camera to make his first stop-action film and has been using and perfecting the style over the years.
The big move came in 1985 when he joined the staff of Aardman Animations in Bristol working as an animator on commercial products (including the Peter Gabriel music video "Sledgehammer" and on the TV series "Pee-wee's Playhouse." It was the lovable animated pair of Wallace and Gromit that established Park's place in animation history.
Among his long list of honors is being awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1997 and the winning of four Academy Awards. His most recent win came in 2006 with the first "Wallace and Gromit" feature film "The Curse of the Wererabbit" for Best Animated Feature Film. His other three Oscars were in the animated short film category.
Taking home the Oscar statues comes with a lot of benefits, including making it a lot easier for Park to get actors on his want list of voice talents. Park finds casting the voice talents to be one of the most exciting parts of making a movie. He felt a lot of excitement as soon as he told Redmayne that Dug was a scruffy 15 year old, and the Oscar-winning actor knew exactly how to the voice the character.
Park knows casting Hiddleston as a pompous, French-sounding ruler has been a surprise to many. There was no question in Park's mind Hiddleston could handle the role after he saw the actor doing Robert De Niro impersonations on "The Graham Norton Show."
When it comes to casting the voices, it's not just Park going for famous names. Many of the actors in "Early Man" are comedians who will not be well known to American audiences but have been working with Park for years.
It's a bonus to get a famous name like Redmayne or Hiddletson, and they're able to handle the voice work. With Hiddleston, it took several tries to find just the right voice for Lord Nooth.
"We had written him as being French-which is no comment on the French-but it just worked better for the comedy to our ears," Park says. "I know if you are casting a French character you don't think of Tom Hiddleston, but that's what I like about the voice casting-the surprise."
Creating the right look for his quirky cast of characters is just as important to Park as landing the right vice talent. No small detail is overlooked in turning a Park project into a fully animated production. That's especially true when it comes to the eyes of the character used by Park to get across the emotions of the character. A simple life of an eyebrow, which can take hours to animate, can say so much.
"That was one of the first things that appealed to me about working in this medium of clay animation," Park says. "Going back to even 'Wallace and Gromit' and discovering what one can do with just a lump of clay. The way you can manipulate the clay, you can get across the most subtle things.
"With stop-motion animation, you are moving the figure, taking a picture and then moving it again every 24th of a second. But you can use that to create the most nuanced of looks and moods. ... It's the small things that grab the attention."
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