Nick Park: 'We'd 40 animators and we'd be trying to hit about a minute a week'

Aardman animator Nick Park tells Esther McCarthy how his latest feature took two full years just to painstakingly film the scenes.

Nick Park: 'We'd 40 animators and we'd be trying to hit about a minute a week'

Aardman animator Nick Park tells Esther McCarthy how his latest feature took two full years just to painstakingly film the scenes.

WHEN Nick Park was a boy, his father found the old cine camera he’d bought for Nick’s mum years earlier, showed him the ‘animation’ button, and unwittingly fostered a passion that would change the course of animated-movie history.

The young Park was already avidly drawing and creating characters in his imagination, and wondering whether others would get to meet them some day. But the camera gave him a practical way of bringing his stories to life.

“My mum and dad were very creative. My mum still is, she’s a dressmaker and she always had lots of offcuts of material,” he tells me. “My dad was a photographer of architecture. They encouraged me to pick up a camera and it just happened to be that we had a family cine camera that my dad bought for my mum in 1967. We found out it had an animation button on it. My dad had heard about how animation is done. I asked him about it because I wanted to have a go, and that was it.”

One of five children, all of them artistic, Park started making short movies in the attic of his family home in Preston, Lancashire, creating versions of characters that would go on to be among the world’s most beloved, Wallace and Gromit.

The eccentric, cheese-loving inventor and his loyal and bright dog became iconic characters, earning the animator six Oscar nominations and four wins, and helped put Bristol’s Aardman Studios on the international movie map.

It was a good thing, he says, that his parents encouraged his creativity, as the north of England in the Sixties and Seventies was no hotbed of stop-motion animation. “I grew up in Preston in Lancashire, and back then, in the Seventies, I didn’t know anyone who did animation. It was all about going to the library and finding out myself about it. I was pretty much on my own, really. But my mum and dad were always very: if you’re good at something, do it. Follow it.”

Not many were creating stop-motion animation in those days, especially with clay characters, but the young Park would watch Morph and Vision On on BBC, which introduced him to the work of legendary artist and presenter Tony Hart. Another influence was the stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, whose work Park saw on A Million Years BC and dreamed of emulating.

“I loved drawing cartoons as a kid and I wanted to create my own characters. I remember seeing a documentary about Walt Disney, and how he started by drawing this mouse character. That really inspired me and I suddenly had big aspirations that I wanted to invent my own characters. My dream was that people would know my characters one day. I even started making badges of them and giving them to people at school,” he smiles.

GRAND DAY OUT

Nick Park with Maisie Williams, who provides one of the voices on the film.
Nick Park with Maisie Williams, who provides one of the voices on the film.

He first met Aardman co-founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton when he invited them to speak at the film school he was attending. At that time, the student was struggling to finish his first film, A Grand Day Out, featuring a character named Wallace and his trusty dog, Gromit. Other early projects included work on Peter Gabriel’s memorable ‘Sledgehammer’ music video.

“I met them while I was at film school. I invited them to give a talk. They saw early stuff I was doing, they were looking for animators. I ran out of time and money at film school and they said: ‘Why don’t you come and work for us at Aardman part-time and we’ll help you finish your film?’ I finished A Grand Day Out at Aardman, the first Wallace and Gromit film. They were kindred spirits and we got together because there weren’t many model animators around.”

Smash hits like Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were Rabbit followed. Yet when we meet in a Dublin hotel, Park’s passion for animation is as evident as in the boy who played make-believe with his first camera. He seems genuinely in love with what he does, and truly pleased at the good reviews his latest film is generating.

Early Man introduces us to caveman Dug and his four-legged friend, Hognob, part of a stone age tribe at risk of being wiped out by the smug, arrogant next generation, the bronze-agers. In a bid to keep the valley that is their home, they agree to a high-stakes match against their top team, Real Bronzio, despite never having played football.

“Dug is this can-do caveman, he’s an optimist,” he says. “It’s funny, he didn’t start off like that. It took a while to develop him. You often see the end result and think that most have been how it started, but it took a while to find his character, his relationship with the tribe and where he stands. Dug, through his innocence really, through naivety, thinks everything’s possible. He sees the glass half full.

“Hognob was a bit more natural. I suppose inevitably one will compare him with Gromit, because he does have similarities.”

The work that goes in to bringing these films to life is painstaking. It takes years to develop and create the story and characters, and two full years of physical filming once the cameras start rolling.

“Well, one animator may have two characters to do at the same time, or more. If it’s just one you’d get two or three seconds a day. On the film we had between thirty and forty animators working and we’d be trying to hit about a minute a week. If we hit a minute that’s good going!”

IRISH SCENE

A keen fan of other forms of animation, Park is conscious of Ireland’s thriving animation scene, and congratulated Midleton-born animator Nora Twomey and Cartoon Saloon for their Oscar nomination. “I’m a big fan of their work, it’s beautiful work,” he says. “It looks like a very vibrant time for Irish animation. Some of my best animators have been Irish.”

Big US studios have come a-knocking over the years, but Park is more than content to stay where he is. “It’s important to have our own voice and not be sucked into the studios. There have been offers on the table, but we stay in Bristol because we want to stay separate and our humour is our own homegrown humour.

“With CGI, we often felt: ‘Gosh we’re going to be left behind, outdated’. But I feel like now we stand out. If you tell a good story with compelling characters, that’s the main thing really. And the technique I feel has a quality that’s very endearing. It has something special.”

- Early Man is now in cinemas

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