Director Nick Park brings humor, homage & heart to ‘EARLY MAN’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I had to pinch myself, thinking, ‘I’m massaging Tom Hiddleston!’ [laughs]. I’m sure many would pay good money to see this.

Nick Park has introduced us to loveable, indelible characters and built wonderful worlds that have opened our imaginations. Whether it be a story about a man and his clever dog (the WALLACE & GROMIT series), a flock of rebellious chickens staging a great escape (CHICKEN RUN), or an expose on the inner thoughts of zoo animals (CREATURE COMFORTS), Park’s work has consistently made us laugh and swept us away. His newest animated film EARLY MAN – which marks Park’s first sole credit as a feature director – hits all of these right notes.

In the film, Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) yearns to do something greater with his life. Sure enough, the opportunity arrives when the nefarious, bronze-loving Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston) invades, threatening to take away his home. The two engage in a bet over the land – one that involves a soccer match between Dug’s forest-dwelling Stone Age tribe facing off against Nooth’s highly trained soccer team of choice, Real Bronzio.

At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, I spoke with Park about the Ray Harryhausen influence shown here, where he found that voice for Hognob, Dug’s warthog sidekick, and what it was like to give Tom Hiddleston a massage.

The dinosaurs movements reminded me very much of something out of a Ray Harryhausen film. It felt very much true to his spirit. Was that the intent?

Yes. It’s very much a tribute. Ray Harryhausen was my hero. ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. was my favorite film and actually is the movie that made me pick up a camera, making my own movies. As a kid, I was a big dinosaur fanatic. I couldn’t believe seeing what seemed like real dinosaurs. We even named the two dinosaurs “Ray” and “Harry” as a nod to the man.

It was funny. Even though it was shot on digital cameras, which is immaculate, we had to then degrade the film to make it seem like it’s from 1968 or 1969.

How did you go about putting those flecks of dust and all that?

That’s just put on using digital. It always takes a bit of getting it right because you can have all different aspects of weather flicker or dust – lack of contrast.

It feels like the story is a sort of meta commentary on the new age of animation (digital, CG) versus the old age of animation (hand-drawn, stop-motion).

Very much. In fact, it’s pulled in both directions in a sense that on the one hand, we’re not purists, open to technology and we have done gradually on each movie. Each movie uses digital effects, creating fire and smoke and that sort of thing. But at the same time, as a caveman, the whole idea of these stone age people, for me, is what partly inspired me to do it in stop-frame – a kind of primitive technique. The earthiness of the clay and the low-brow – the naiveté sort of inspired me. I feel like that kind of humor comes from that  technique as well. It’s actually encouraging animators to go more rough with it. Don’t apologize for finger prints. Don’t smooth it too much – not too slick. Otherwise, you might as well do it CG. I did want to celebrate the glory and the imperfection of it – a handmade feel to it.

You’re right. There’s a tactile feel to this. I wanted to reach out and feel the fabrics, fur and grass.

Oh good! I really wanted, a lot of stop-frame animators even, the finer ones, would shy from the fur fabrics, because the problem is, with the animator having to handle the figure every frame, you get this kind of twitching if you’re not careful. I actually wanted that. I wanted to encourage that, because it has that whole kind of style.

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

Do you ever feel limited to what you can do narratively because the technology, or the scope isn’t quite there yet?

I’ve never really felt, even if we didn’t have the technology…I guess without the technology it might limit what exactly you could do. But I never feel like technology is just a carte blanche to do anything. Ideas always need some kind of restraint and discipline to know where your boundaries are thematically. It’s a hard thing to pin down. You need boundaries to know what your arena is – where you’re working. I work visually with a writer, but my ideas are all very much, I guess, knowing what can be done in this medium – what would look good and what would be funny. A humor comes out of the medium – a certain spirit. It’s a tricky one. At the same time, this became sort of epic and big landscapes. It was handy to have digital. We often didn’t have the studio space to do the sky – and the skies had to be moving. And the volcanoes…

Some of the crowd scenes, too, were seamless.

Yeah. That was perhaps the greatest challenge was how to create a finale – a third act in the soccer game that was cinematic and exciting. My mind was on the film GLADIATOR – where the camera is and the roar of the crowd. I was after accomplishing  something like that, but also keeping it funny and with gags. I didn’t want to make a film for soccer fans, but, in a way, soccer was more of a quirky idea that was not in your usual prehistoric story.

Tell me about digging down deep to find the essence of Hognob. He’s my favorite! Was it always the plan to voice him?

I wasn’t planning to at all. When we put the storyboard reel together, and the temporary tracks and everything, we do the voices ourselves  just to test how the script is going. I was always doing Hognob. It just felt natural [laughs].

I love his reactions.

[Park does Hognob reaction voice] I was kind of thinking of Scooby Doo. It was quite accidental. The producer and some of my colleagues loved the way I was doing it, so we stuck with it. I got the part! [laughs]

I know this is an all British cast and Tom Hiddleston is fantastic, but was there ever an inkling to hire a French actor instead?

We considered it definitely. I think it came down to it being a comedy that, because it’s sort of a spoof, the nature of it, it’s nice to be able to control how much of an accent there is. If it was a French person, they may not be aware of what it sounds like to our ear. So it was more of that, really. It was a cartoony accent.

From a production standpoint, this film marks somewhat of a change. Your focus was on voice actors and story and Will Becher and Merlin Crossingham oversaw the floor duties with the animators. How was the collaborative process?

Because I’ve co-directed before, this one, I wanted to see what it was like being at the helm myself. It does need a different structure. I needed to have two, very strong people, who were not just underneath, but share the same vision and be on the same page. I had to have people I trusted very much and saw the film in the same way and shared the same kind of humor. That was great working with Will and Merlin.

Even though it was a pyramid thing going on, I do like to keep it kind of hands on as well – not actually doing the animation, but very much in the character design. Very hands on. Even in the writing, I’m sketching and coming up with ideas. It’s really feeding the floor. It’s very demanding. Somebody described directing as being pecked by a hundred chickens all day long. Everyone has a question they want to know so they can carry on. It’s being able to delegate. I may do a sketch of how I’m imagining the Stone Age world, or the Bronze world fortress, but they then take that and embellish and bring in more ideas.

Tom Hiddleston and Nick Park in the recording booth on EARLY MAN. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Do you have a favorite sequence that turned out better than you imagined, or maybe right in line with what you had imagined? I loved the timing on the scene where Dug falls down the stands.

That’s one of my favorite scenes we pulled off. And the Hognob in the tub – the massage. All of it, because it’s stop-frame, a lot of it is about technique that’s unknown – you don’t know quite how it’s gonna go because there’s lots of different types of animators. This is how we’ve got to work very tightly with how to impart information between Will and Merlin and all the teams. I often wind up acting it out on video as a way to explain what I’m after – how I’d like the gag to work.

The scene with Hognob massaging Lord Nooth – I like to be in with the actors because it’s more direct. Tom was trying to read the script and also massage himself – how it affects your voice, the warble in your voice. I said, ‘Why don’t I be Hognob?’ And he went, ‘Oh fine!’ So that is what you hear. Tom’s going, ‘Oooooh!’ and that’s me doing [mimics chopping hands on shoulders] that. He’s going, ‘Harder! Harder!’ I had to pinch myself in the middle of that thinking, ‘I’m massaging Tom Hiddleston!’ [laughs]. I’m sure many would pay good money to see this.

I want to see the video!

There is one actually! [laughs]

EARLY MAN opens on February 16.

Header photo: Hognob (Nick Park) and Dug (Eddie Redmayne) in EARLY MAN. Courtesy of Aardman Animation and Lionsgate.

About author

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.

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