Animation Directors Merlin Crossingham & Will Becher “massage” ‘EARLY MAN’ to life

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Filmmaking is such a collaborative effort. Never has a sentiment rung truer than in the medium of animation, where the finished product is the result of the efforts of a team of creative, talented people. In the case of director Nick Park’s  EARLY MAN, animation directors Merlin Crossingham and Will Becher were tasked with helping bring the story of a caveman (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) saving his home from a greedy ruler (voiced by Tom Hiddleston) to life, overseeing a fleet of animators, gigantic set pieces, and puppets – lots and lots of puppets.

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke to the affable pair about everything from helping to bring this director’s vision to life, to what element was re-purposed from another Aardman Animation classic, to the fingerprints Ray Harryhausen left on this film.

How was the process collaborating with Nick to combine what he was doing on the narrative-based side and what y’all were doing on the technical? I was so blown away by the tactile nature of the characters, hair, fur and other elements.

Will Becher: You’ve hit upon a key part of Nick’s design. What he was really after was that this was a handmade, very textural film. The art department went to town making this immersive physical world and the animation team were let loose with their hands on the fur, so it’s got that constant stop-motion movement and the clay faces. The animators were really putting life into the puppets with their hands. It’s great to be able to see that it’s come across that’s hopefully not distracting, but in a way that makes you know that it’s something that’s been created.

Merlin Crossingham: Yes. It’s real. It exists as a physical thing and it’s being photographed as a physical thing. I think that’s what you’re possibly connecting with. You know it’s fiction, but it’s a physical thing that is tactile. It has depth and dimension physically. Working with that on the studio floor, animation directors traditionally work with the animators, but we were working the whole studio floor – art department, director of photography – and massaging it to life.

Becher: It was a case of putting the experience we got, working with Nick on different projects and spending as much time as possible in the early stages to get a sense of what it was he wanted to create. And then we split the film into sequences and then would brief all the teams individually.

Crossingham: It’s very much Nick’s film. The thing we had to work hardest at was that we didn’t deviate from his vision at all. While Nick is very welcoming of everybody’s contribution, there comes a point where it’s like, ‘This needs to go this way, because what Nick wants.’ Just finding what that balance and what that line was, was probably the most important thing we had to do. The actual execution of it on a daily basis was the easy part, even though it is hard work.

Let’s talk about the challenges of combining the digital elements with the physical ones. I was amazed at how the crowd scenes in the stadium sequence turned out. I thought, “How did they even do this? It must’ve taken ages!”

Becher: It’s really good you thought that. We had a team, who were working in the building, who were doing digital backgrounds. So on the really wide, expansive shots, we’ve got 35,000 stadium fans, we had our head of animation, really get the CG crowd to fit and to move like our stop-motion.

Crossingham: We used a crowd simulation software where we had something like seven characters, who each had ten outfits, who, once you get them, the computer can randomize them. The animator does a set of animated sequence for each one of those variables and then the computer kind of mushes it altogether and it creates a random scene that’s textural. Hopefully you don’t isolate one thing in particular, because you’re looking at the foreground, which is always stop-motion. I think that’s why it worked for us.

Mid-ground, we did do some digital doubles. All of our key characters had digital doubles created. In the stadium, for example, we had the grass, we had the fence that went around the edge and that was the only thing that’s physically there. The rest of the stadium was all digital. And we used virtual reality sometimes. We had a system set up where we could go into virtual reality and find the shots. On set, it would just be a green screen, or a blue screen, and we’d have no idea what was actually there. We could take our frame up, our composition, before we started shooting and go into virtual reality and reference what we were actually going to see, just to make sure that we weren’t looking somewhere we shouldn’t for continuity.

This may be a stupid question, but I’m going for it. Is animating characters sailing through the air more difficult than a character standing still?

Becher: It can be, depending on what the motivation is. There’s a technical challenge in doing anything in stop-motion that involves being in the air just because the puppets are quite heavy and they’ve got to stay exactly in position. Actually, probably some of those harder shots were those key acting scenes…

Crossingham: …that were static…

Right! Because you need to have life behind them.

Becher: It can’t just be moving. It’s got to emote with the audience to what the character is thinking which is not easy to do. The skill of the animators is to get just one tiny movement in an eyebrow to suggest how Dug is feeling.

Crossingham: A thought, or an emotion. Action can be quite forgiving because it’s fast and furious. The only time it isn’t is when it goes into slow-motion. And that becomes more of a technical exercise, but it’s very difficult.

Becher: Again, puppets really aren’t built…Nick’s designs really aren’t suited to really subtle movements.

Crossingham: And that’s what we require often.

Becher: Yeah. We have these huge cavemen that have to move very, very minutely in slow-motion. It was very intricate for the team.

Crossingham: But they pull it off.

Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston) and Hognob (voiced by Nick Park) in EARLY MAN. Courtesy of Aardman Animation and Lionsgate.

There are other elements you’re dealing with here too – things like water, fire and goo. The bubbles in Lord Nooth’s bubble bath looked like silica gel spheres.

Becher: We use different things. Whenever, we have to do stuff like smoke or fire, we have done it, in the past, with real objects, but it’s never quite stylized look. A lot of the smoke and effects are CG, but pretty much everything you see interacting with the characters is real. We’ve got wax and the bath in the hot tub is little glass beads, which I think we used on A CLOSE SHAVE.

Crossingham: The tears, for example, is a glycerin physically on the puppet. We work with the director of photography – sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the lights right so it sparkles and you see it. Things like fire, there’s lots of torches around the stadium and in the Bronze Age world, those are all CG. But you can’t just have the CG – you have to have the light physically on the set flickering. So our director of photography went right back to the old school and he’d get his lamp pointing at the set and have a jam jar with different strips of lighting gels. It would rotate, frame by frame, and it gives the light in the room a flicker. So when you apply the digital flame, it feels embedded in the location.

That’s so cool!

Becher: That reminds me. He uses a lot of theater techniques. In our lush valley, we’ve got all these streams of light coming in – and the mist. It would be difficult to add that in as a post thing. So they were using netting with lights cutting across it, which means, in camera, we’ve got a really lovely scene with all the right elements to make the film.

Crossingham: So we’re using really old and established techniques and the latest cutting edge. It’s colliding in the middle.

The narrative seems to echo that as well.

Crossingham: Yeah, yeah it does.

This is one of the most ambitious films Aardman has done. What were some of the challenges on this you’d never faced before?

Crossingham: Simply the scale of it. The cast, the locations – we had more locations than ever. Just in the numbers game, from the production point of view. It was a big mountain to climb. Right in the beginning, we weren’t sure how to achieve it.

Becher: These massive locations equates to space in the studio. Part of the reason it was so big was because physically some of the sets became much bigger than we’d done before.

Crossingham: Even with forced perspective. It’s still huge.

Becher: We expanded out to the biggest studio space we’d ever used. We had the biggest team ever.

Crossingham: It was like 51,000 square feet. It’s really big. Everyone thinks stop-motion is all done in miniature. We had something like 40 stages when we’re at full speed. Some of them are the size of this room and some of them are the size of tennis courts.

I would imagine nailing the comedic timing with the animation requires a certain level of precision.

Becher: It’s always unique. Nick’s take on it is pretty spot on. He worked with the editor to refine and hone down the storyboards and try to get it to a point where it worked really well on the boards. And then we work with Nick and the live-action unit and film some of these sequences and try to find the comedy there. On top of that, the animation team, some of them are particularly good at comic timing. When we find an animator that works well, we’ll pitch them into certain scenes. There’s a little bit sometimes afterword playing around with the frames, but generally, what you shoot is what you get at the end of it.

Crossingham: Animators are our actors. Without them, there would be no performance on screen. Everyone performs in a different way. We do cast people to specific scenes – emotion scenes, or comedy scenes – and really make the most of their performance chops in whatever area is their strength.

The dino fight at the very beginning was a lovely homage to Ray Harryhausen.

Becher: So many of the animators on the film wanted to animate that shot. It’s iconic to a lot of people who ended up animating on various films. That scene was key to them. The guy who actually did it, John, he watched those references from the early films and tried to animate it in a slightly different way from the normal style. So it’s got more of a Ray Harryhausen feel to it.

Crossingham: And we called them “Ray” and “Harry.”

Becher: It’s great. They’re really made in memory of those. The puppets are made almost identical. The whole team – the model-makers loved making them, the animators loved animating them.

Crossingham: Having worked with Willis O’Brien, but Ray then took it and made stop-motion the technique we use. The format of visual effects, was gone by the wayside, but now, the way we make films is not a visual effect – it’s a whole form of entertainment. Hopefully, we’re plussing what Ray established.

Becher: We’re doing quite a cutting edge film, for us, but is really harking back to what got Nick inspired in the first place.

EARLY MAN opens on February 16. Read our interview with director Nick Park here.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.