By IAN FAILES
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By IAN FAILES
Few would argue that Aardman Animations is one of the most well-respected stop-motion animation studios around the world, with a long legacy of charming and successful projects including Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.
Aardman’s latest feature film, Early Man, directed by Nick Park, continues the stop-motion legacy with a story set in prehistoric times that follows a caveman name Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), his pet Hognob and a new friend Goona (Maisie Williams) as they take on the evil Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston).
VFX Voice went behind the scenes of the meticulous stop-motion production with Animation Supervisors Merlin Crossingham and Will Becher, who outline the practical side of Aardman’s frame-by-frame filmmaking.
Like all Aardman films, the creation of convincing characters was crucial to realizing the story of Early Man. Starting with the script through to early sketches by Park, artists at the studio then sculpted rough versions of the characters into three dimensions in clay. “Clay was a very important ingredient in the film,” states Becher. “Nick felt its unique qualities were perfectly suited to prehistory, cavemen and that feeling of crudeness.
“Then once the first sculpt was working,” adds Becher, “the model-making department set about building a miniature, a fully posable puppet with an internal metal skeleton. This is the prototype; by the end of the production there will be multiple copies of each character. There were 18 identical Dug puppets by the end of the shoot.”
The puppets were built with a stainless steel skeleton known as an armature inside of them. Practically, the armature works like a human skeleton with matching ball and socket joints at places such as the elbows and knees. The team fleshes the armatures out either with a resin or other core over which a silicone skin is dressed. Sometimes a foam latex body is cast.
“These methods require very accurate molds to be made from the master sculpts so that details are maintained and that multiple puppets can be built,” notes Crossingham.
The faces on all the characters in Early Man are made from modeling clay. Clay, in particular, is one of Park’s trademarks, and is also a material that can be easily sculpted by hand. To help with the many and varied mouth shapes required during animation, a set of pre-made replacement mouths were used for dialogue.
“The mouths are still made from modeling clay,” says Crossingham, “but having shapes pre-made saves lots of time in an already time-consuming process. Another advantage of using modeling clay is that the animators can adapt and adjust the mouth shapes to any subtleties of voice or character performance. The eyes of our characters are solid resin and have a tiny hole in the pupil that allows the animator to move them with a pin.”
“We like to use the best tools for the job, and while Early Man is a stop-motion film we do use a bevy of digital techniques that are now standard in feature films. We make use of green and bluescreens to separate elements, digital set extensions, matte paintings for skies and CGI particle effects, and character doubles for crowds and occasional background action. I like to think of harnessing the bleeding edge of creative technology with modeling clay.”
—Merlin Crossingham, Animation Supervisor
During the puppet prototype building stage and into final production, Aardman embarked on an animation development stage of the film to help ‘find’ the characters. “This is much like a rehearsal,” says Crossingham. “The voice artist is also pivotal in contributing to the character as we use their vocal performance to inspire the physical action on screen.”
“Nick works closely with the actors to find the character’s voice,” adds Becher. “I work with the lead animators who start to animate the prototype puppet to recorded dialogue from Nick’s session with the actor. At this stage we look for key expressions and traits which help establish who the character is and how they might deliver a strong and believable performance on screen. Remember, no one has ever seen this character on screen before, so by a process of exploration we have to find it and hone it down.”
This process involves changing and developing the way the character looks and moves, and even how he or she speaks. It’s why clay works so well, notes Becher and Crossingham, because the medium is flexible and changeable and allows for the changes to evolve organically.
With reference animation under their belts, the animation supervisors formally introduce new animators to the characters. Says Becher: “We go through in detail how the characters look, how they stand and walk – referring to a character bible – and what techniques can be used to create great dialogue and expressions. Up to 35 animators will be working on the film at its peak and they all need to know how to work with all the film’s cast of characters.”
Another key aspect of finding the characters involves the use of live-action video, or LAVs. Here, Park will typically act out every shot in the film while being filmed to give the animators a solid understanding of the performance required. “This doesn’t detract from their unique skills, they will need to embellish and take ownership of the performance in the shot in order to make it really work,” states Becher. “We treat the animation team like individual actors; they build on the voice, but the visual performance on screen is down entirely to them.”
Actual stop-motion animation using puppets that are shot on built sets has remained largely unchanged since the beginning of cinema itself. However, Aardman took advantage of digital SLR cameras and tools for reviewing frame-by-frame work. And they shot multiple sets at once – about 40 at the peak of production. “Each set has a team that prepares it for animation,” says Crossingham. “When it comes to animate, there will be one camera and one animator on the set or unit. If there are 10 characters in the shot then that one animator animates all 10 characters. The animators really have to focus.”
So what does stop-motion actually involve? It’s a slow and meticulous process. Animators shoot a single frame, move the puppet and then shoot another frame. They repeat the process over and over, sometimes only producing less than a second of animation in a day. With 24 frames in one second, the footage played back – which is a series of static images – appears to be linked together and taken in by our brains as movement on the screen.
During production, animators make use of specialized rigs to hold up the puppets, keep them still, make them appear to be in mid-air, and so on. In the days before digital visual effects, these rigs would typically be hidden from the camera, but now they can be front and center in the scene and simply painted out. The team also used green or bluescreen sets to enable the compositing of their characters into different backgrounds or for doing digital set extensions. Visual effects has certainly widened the scope of many Aardman productions, including Early Man.
“We like to use the best tools for the job, and while Early Man is a stop-motion film we do use a bevy of digital techniques that are now standard in feature films,” comments Crossingham. “We make use of green and bluescreens to separate elements, digital set extensions, matte paintings for skies, and CGI particle effects and character doubles for crowds and occasional background action. I like to think of harnessing the bleeding edge of creative technology with modeling clay.”
For a film set in prehistoric times, Early Man relied on an interesting mix of old-school techniques, such as the stop-motion itself, while also requiring Aardman to venture into new areas. One of these was fur, particularly for Hognob and the clothing worn by Dug. “In the past we’ve avoided this material as it is so hard to control and mixes badly with clay,” says Becher.
Another was building a stadium capable of holding around 60,000 people. Aardman actually turned to virtual reality to previsualize the right angles and find framings for their stop-motion characters to interact with here. But even this paled in comparison to the biggest challenge of having to animate one story requirement: a mammoth. Becher states that it was the single most complicated puppet ever built at Aardman. “It involved months of development across a number of different departments. The final working mammoth – we only built one – was so heavy it required scaffolding to hold it in place.”
Luckily, Aardman is well-suited to these challenges, and although they seem, well, mammoth in size, Early Man remained a quirky character-driven film, something audiences very much expect from the mind of Nick Park. “Nick’s style is firmly seated in the world of thumby and funny characters,” notes Crossingham, “and it is those characters that lead the story and define the world of Early Man.”
Early Man’s villain is Lord Nooth, voiced by Tom Hiddleston, a man who lives a luxurious ‘Bronze Age’ life and who is intent on claiming the land of others. In one hilarious sequence, Hognob finds himself giving Nooth an unexpected massage.
“During the voice recording,” recalls Animation Supervisor Will Becher, “director Nick Park went to lengths to get a genuine performance from Tom Hiddleston. In fact I think he gave him a massage as he was reading the lines. Meanwhile, I worked closely with the animator on that sequence, Steve Cox, to try to find the maximum comedy and performance. We recorded a number of live-action videos in which we tried different looks and expressions and timings.”
Once they had what they thought was the best video reference for timing, Cox set about animating the shot. It would take seven and a half weeks to complete the animation. One of the major hurdles proved to be the soap bubbles, which were made of glass beads. “I would visit Steve on set once every week or two to see how it was going and to make sure he wasn’t going crazy,” says Becher. “It was useful to keep that objective overview as when you are so close to something and working on half a second a day, you can lose track of the plan. He did an amazing job on the shot and it remains one of my favorite scenes in the film. When he finally completed the shot and Nick approved it, we had a mini wrap party.”
“I would visit animator Steve Cox on set once every week or two to see how it was going and to make sure he wasn’t going crazy. It was useful to keep that objective overview as when you are so close to something and working on half a second a day, you can lose track of the plan.”
—Will Becher, Animation Supervisor