The rather brilliant StudioCanal are letting us take a sneaky peek at Aardman’s Early Man, a new stop motion animation from the studio behind the award winning Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep and many more.
If we weren’t excited enough to see some early footage of the upcoming prehistoric feature, we’re also treated to a close look at two of the sets which are exquisitely detailed and we get a quick lesson in model making. Let’s just say we shouldn’t give up the day job any time soon even though Aardman co-founder Peter Lord was suitably impressed with our efforts (he was being polite).
If all this wasn’t enough we also had a highly entertaining Q&A session with director Nick Park, Tom Hiddleston and Maisie Williams who lend their vocal talents to the film.
First up, Producer Peter Lord introduced the footage with help from a recorded introduction by the charming Eddie Redmayne, the voice of lead character Dug. Lord says: “It’s the story of Dug, an indomitable caveman who rallies his misfit tribe to face the mighty bronze age invaders and eventually to play them at their own game.” And that game is football. Yep, with the World Cup looming next year it would seem that Aardman have got their timing spot on to capitalise on audiences thirst for the beautiful game.
Oscar winner Redmayne - busy filming the follow up to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - describes Dug as: “A special character, a plucky caveman who leads his fellow tribe in their biggest challenge yet against the bronze age and the formidable, evil Lord Nooth played by Tom Hiddleston.”
The first clip we are shown introduces us to Dug’s tribe who include Timothy Spall, Johnny Vegas and Richard Ayoade as they prepare to go rabbit hunting. Typically of Aardman the scene is filled with charmingly clueless individuals who somehow, despite their idiocy, manage to capture their prey. This leads us into clip two, which begins with the tribe celebrating their success before being interrupted by an armoured woolly mammoth and the introduction of the loathsome villain, Lord Nooth (Hiddleston). Sporting a delightfully OTT comedy French accent, Hiddleston hams things up as the coin loving nobleman. Looking like a rotund Ming the Merciless, he’s a wonderfully grotesque creation. There’s a great gag about mining ore and an even better gag involving Dug’s pig sidekick, Hognob barking at the mammoth.
With Dug out to reclaim his tribe’s land he must venture into the modern, bustling Bronze Age city complete with literal zebra crossings and stalls which is where he meets the resourceful Goona (Maisie Williams) and infiltrates the stadium of football champions Real Bronzio. Here he challenges the arrogant Nooth to a football match to win back the land stolen from his tribe. Nooth accepts but is torn off a strip by the Queen via the brilliant message bird who is another ingenious Aardman creation.
Finally we have what is probably the funniest of the clips shown and involves the hapless Hognob having to massage a bathing Nooth who thinks his servant Stefano is the one with the magic hooves. Sure to be a fan favourite, Hognob pulls some wonderfully uncomfortable faces while Hiddleston amps up the comedy noises. Meanwhile, Dug sneaks into the stadium to nab a football for practice and witnesses Goona playing skillfully. She tells him that women and not permitted to play but is willing to help Dug in his quest to become a prehistoric Lionel Messi.
Director Nick Park tells us that Aardman have been working on Early Man for 4/5 years, beginning with sketching and writing. Always loving the idea of cavemen and women, the director felt that the stop-motion medium - using clay - particularly suited the subject matter while the tribal aspect of football lent itself to the era nicely. Story-boarding takes place over a couple of years where they add temporary music and voices: “The voice cast is so important to us at Aardman,” Park says. “The great thing about youtube is you can look up actors and see what they’ve done and initially we often use a previous film an actor’s done and try putting it next to the models to see if it works. Then we asked Tom, Maisie and Eddie to do a test and then we might do a test with 2 or 3 seconds of animation.”
For Maisie Williams accepting the role of Goona was a no-brainer: “Initially I was just really excited to work with Aardman and with Nick and to do an animation film. When I was younger I used to do little stop-animation/claymation with my friend, I’d go to his house and make little animations. So that was really exciting. In terms of doing the job at hand it was really different to anything I’d ever done, to take away all your other tools and only have your voice to portray a character and to tell a story, it was a real challenge for me as an actor. I had the best time and Goona is fantastic. I want to keep her on a shelf somewhere!” “Wallace and Gromit was a part of my childhood,” Hiddleston begins. “Nick’s work and Aardman’s work is so distinctive and so unique, it has such a particular British charm. When this came towards me it was a package, a script and a little sketch of Nooth and a 3D model that hadn’t been painted yet. I read it very quickly and it made me laugh and I was so honoured to be asked to be involved.”
In terms of the finding the voice for Nooth, Hiddleston explains: “I got the sketch for Nooth, this over weight, frustrated, middle manager with small hands [laughs]. I thought, ‘Nick Park is the first director to really see me as I am!’ It was clear from the script that he’s incredibly pompous and puffed-up and self-important and ridiculous. He thinks he’s so much more important than he is and he’s obsessed with money and wants to fleece the Bronze Age. A very small man ultimately. I remember our first session was really about finding the voice. Nick had lots of ideas and the first thing I remember him saying was, ‘I think you should do it in French.’ But it was sort of the Allo Allo school of French in that Nick was always chasing the funniest version of the line reading, it was just trying to make it sound funny and silly.”
Park adds: “What’s been wonderful for me is that exploratory process of not quite knowing what’s going to be.” Williams headed to youtube for inspiration for Goona’s voice: “I went on youtube and found this girl from Norway and she has a channel and chats to camera, everything you could ever need is kind of there I was just mimicking something like her. The strange thing is that of course with anything you shoot it over a long period of time but recording this there’s different sessions so when I go back and listen to it I can definitely feel which sessions were stronger [laughs]. You can have fun with it, it’s not a test, nothing is wrong. You can try it all sorts of different ways. I’ve had the best time! I was lucky enough one day to go into the studio with Eddie and we had day together where we recorded in the same booth, so that was really good fun.”
On the “massage” clip mentioned above, Hiddleston reveals that Park actually massaged his shoulders during the recording to help create the necessary noises: “Nick Park is playing Hognob in that scene.” Park adds: “We did about 10 takes which were unusable because of the laughing!”
Early Man hits UK cinemas on 26th January 2018.