It’s probably been 25 years since I last played with Play-Doh, but here I am, in the bowels of a hotel in London, attempting to sculpt a prehistoric pig from soft putty and cocktail sticks.
But instead of being watched over by Miss Jimmison in year 2, I’m being guided by people who’ve graduated to making a living from such Plasticine-like models: the puppetmakers of Aardman Animations, who’ve come to London to share a peek at their new film “Early Man”.
Following the success of previous stop-motion films like “Chicken Run” and the Wallace and Gromit series, Oscar-winning Aardman is going back in time with “Early Man”. Director Nick Park once again employs stop-motion animation — with a bit of computer wizardry around the edges — to tell the story of a group of cavemen and prehistoric creatures roaming the earth at the dawn of time.
The assembled journalists and I are doing our best to recreate one of the film’s characters, the loveable be-tusked pig Hognob. Like all the characters, Hognob is sculpted from modelling clay — commercially available Newplast, to be precise. Aardman mix their own colours at their studios in Bristol, sometimes adding a little chalk to the mix for strength. While filming, the warmth of studio lights keeps the models malleable rather than threatening to melt them, while the advent of cooler LED studio lights helps keep the shape of the models.
The Aardman team have brought a few of the models along today, and looking at them up close I’m amazed by the subtle detail, variations in texture and above all the life-like character they conjure in each one.
When we’ve finished sculpting our own attempts at an Aardman character — with varying quality results — we’re shown a couple of scenes from the film. It is, of course, hilarious. Eddie Redmayne provides the voice of curious caveman Dug facing off against the villainous Lord Nooth, voiced with gusto and a thick French accent by Tom Hiddleston. Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade and Gina Yashere also lend their tones to the film as members of Dug’s prehistoric tribe.
Maisie Williams adopts a broad Scandinavian accent to play the plucky Goona. Speaking at the screening, Williams revealed that the film brought her back to her roots in more ways than one: she was excited to work with Nick Park because she grew up in Bristol, where Aardman is based. And the film brought her full circle to some of her earliest work: “When I was younger I used to go my friend’s house and make little stop-motion claymation films!” she smiled.
Park also turned to his youth for inspiration. The film’s prehistoric setting harks back to films like “One Million Years B.C.” in which prehistoric creatures were realised by stop motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen. In fact, there are two dinosaurs in the film named Ray and Harry.
Giving her character a voice meant a new way of working for Williams. “It was a challenge to take away all your other tools as an actor and only use your voice,” she said. “When you strip things back and that’s the only tool that counts, it can get every intricate.”
The intricate recording process saw Park and the team seeking out different variations on the dialogue to find the best combination between the different actors’ performances. “In the first few sessions it took a lot of getting used to because I wanted to try and get it right,” said Williams, “but there’s a million and one ways you can say a line… it’s not until you go and animate it that you know which is the right one to choose. You go again and again and do multiple lines and only one of them will work. But it’s not like a test — Nick opens it up to messing around and having fun.”
“Nick was always chasing the funniest line reading,” said Tom Hiddleston of the recording process. “I basically just tried to make Nick laugh,” he said, explaining that he’d try each line various ways in search of the sign of approval from Park: a silent thumbs-up.
“Early Man” will be released on 26 January 2018.
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