Early Man, backed with National Lottery funding via the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 26 January 2018
From Fantasia (1940) to The Flintstones, animation has a long history of doing the prehistoric era proud. Think of the stop-motion dinosaurs pioneered by Willis O’Brien (King Kong, 1933) and Ray Harryhausen (One Million Years B.C., 1966), or cartoon favourites like The Land before Time (1988) and Ice Age (2002).
Throwing his hat into this primordial ring is Aardman’s Nick Park, whose latest stop-motion marvel Early Man imagines existence at the dawn of the bronze age. Thing is, nobody has told Chief Bobnar (voiced by Timothy Spall) and his valley-dwelling tribe that the stone age is over. They’re living a rabbit-hunting life of blissful ignorance until invaded by the imperious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and his men, and taken as prisoners to Nooth’s bronze age town. It’s plucky caveman youth Dug (Eddie Redmayne) who sees a chance to earn back their freedom, challenging their captors to a match of something this more advanced civilisation takes very seriously… football.
Watch the Early Man trailer
Aardman’s biggest production to date, this primeval spin on the sports underdog movie is Park’s first feature as director since 2005’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. He’d stepped back from directing duties on Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), but this caveman caper proved too close to his heart to take a backseat – not least because the dinosaur sequences gave him the opportunity to pay tribute to one of his all-time animation heroes, as he explains below.
With Early Man arriving in cinemas, we met Park to discuss Ray Harryhausen and six more animators who have shaped the Aardman legend’s career.
Harryhausen was a great inspiration for me, with One Million Years B.C. (1966). It was the dinosaurs. I was too young to notice Raquel Welch, but I was obsessed with dinosaurs. It was a dream come true to see it, because I used to imagine what they would be like, and what would they move like if you saw them. It was seeing that on TV in the early 1970s, when I was 11, that made me pick up my parents’ home movie camera and make me want to make films. I dreamt of how I would make different movies with dinosaurs. I did end up making dinosaurs but I also loved drawing cartoons so I switched to that. Then I started animating plasticine and anything that was around.
There’s a big tribute to [Harryhausen] in the opening of Early Man, and we called the dinosaurs Ray and Harry.
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin
Postgate and Firmin did The Clangers, and Pogles’ Wood, which was one of my favourites as a kid and inspired me a lot, along with the cutout animation of Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine.
They did a whole slate of different TV shows for the BBC, and they were on all the time when I was a kid – before the news, or in the middle of the day if you were off sick. You couldn’t wait for the next one to come on. It was Oliver Postgate who also did the voiceover, and it was such a magical voiceover, something that drew you in as a kid. The style of animation was always fairly economic but it somehow really worked. It was always mesmerising and full of imagination and slightly quirky.
- Watch The Clangers: Vote for Froglet online on BFI Player
- Vote for Froglet! and The Road to Hell: the Postgate connection
Tom and Jerry: Jerry and the Goldfish (1951)
I was always a big fan of Chuck Jones, and Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner. Before we made The Wrong Trousers (1993), I was at a festival – Annecy Film Festival, actually – and I was so overloaded with different arthouse films, some fantastic ones, but I wasn’t feeling inspired one day and there was another cinema just showing Chuck Jones films, endlessly. That really inspired me, just the invention that they had all the time – all those Tom and Jerry chases around the house, using household objects. That’s when it struck me: what if you did this, but in plasticine? What if plasticine and clay and stopframe stepped out of that usually quite safe area and became more stretchy and cartoony, and fast and furious?
How do you defy gravity in stop-motion, for chase scenes or the football match in Early Man for example?
When we shot on film we used to have to get a fishing line or a wire, though it was often in danger of reflecting the light. We’d get a magic marker and go along the wire to make it disappear. It was always a risk that you might be able to spot it, and it took ages to position it in the air. A wire would break and a character would swing all over the place, and it’d take ages to find the position again.
Nowadays, we have a massive great rig behind the character, and it doesn’t matter if you can see it because you can paint it out afterwards. That’s the beauty of digital. That now happens on nearly every shot we do – it’s quicker for the animator, say if a character is running along leaping, you just have the rig there all the time and don’t worry about gravity. The character is held on a sort of ball and socket jointed crane.
Yuri Norstein was a Russian animator who made films in the 1970s. He was a real artist who took years over every film. He made a film called Tale of Tales (1979) that’s just a complete masterpiece, a work of art – beautiful to look at. There’s political commentary in it. He comes from the Soviet era when there was state money for animators, and they made films that were sort of obscure so that the state wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Yet the state was proud of them and continued to finance them.
Tale of Tales (1979)
Tale of Tales was all done on glass, with a flatbed rostrum with a camera above. He used cutouts but they were made very intricately and they were backlit, which had a beautiful effect. They’d render onto transparent plastic or celluloid and they’d cut the figures out. Quite intricate really, but just lovely artwork. I aspire sometimes to that sort of thing, but I’ve gone the more cartoon way.
In a similar way to Chuck Jones, I’ve always admired Richard Williams, who I actually know really well now because he lives in Bristol. I never thought I’d get to know him because he was one of my idols. He was a conventional, Disney type of artist. He’s Canadian but he used to have a studio in London in the 1970s and 80s. He did a version of A Christmas Carol (1971) and he was director of animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
The opening scene of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
That sequence at the beginning of Roger Rabbit with the baby crawling around in the kitchen I really admire – that’s very Chuck Jones. That sequence really influenced me when I was making The Wrong Trousers. He’s still working, doing his own stuff. All hand drawn, very intricate, amazing stuff.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus series three opening credits (1972)
Gilliam’s work for Monty Python was a great inspiration as a kid. He inspired me to start cutting things out and to be a bit wacky and off the wall. I became attracted to economic forms of animation, because they often had a lot more energy and soul to them.
- Terry Gilliam: five essential films
- Michael Palin revisits his early career: ‘When Monty Python came along, it was a bit special’
Roobarb: When Custard Stole the Show (1974)
Bob Godfrey’s Roobarb and Custard made me feel like I could do that. It was wobbly drawings that weren’t registered very well – they weren’t painstakingly traced. Just quickly done with a marker. That made animation seem very accessible to me