5 Times ‘Early Man’ Director Nick Park Made Claymation Cool Again

Clay-mazing!

Michael Carrby Michael Carr

Nick Park might not be a name that you recognise straight off the bat, but you definitely know his creations. From the inimitably charming Wallace & Gromit to Shaun the Sheep and now with his latest film, Early Man, Park has continuously re-popularised the art of stop-motion claymation for generation after generation, the young and young-at-heart alike.

Along with his longtime collaborators at animation studio Aardman Animations, Park and his team have established a distinctive voice within the field of animation, standing out as a plucky underdog punching well above their weight alongside the likes of Pixar and Disney. Finding whimsy and childish fun in unexpected places – from a WWII prison camp-inspired chicken farm to a paraphrased version of the dawn of civilisation – Park’s films remind us what it is like to look at the world through the eyes of a child, finding humour and drama in all the absurdity.

So with Early Man currently in cinemas, we’re taking a look at 5 times Early Man director Nick Park made claymation cool again.

1. Creature Comforts

Park’s uncanny ability to take hunks of clay and transform them into characters that we not only recognise as human, but actually feel for and root for, is unparalleled. Understanding that the animation is only part of what makes these characters so compelling, with his debut short film Creature Comforts, Park had a game-changing idea.

Instead of animating characters and then having actors bring them to life, Park decided to record interviews with real people and then animate them as zoo animals – with absolutely hilarious results. Speaking to a mix of low income housing and retirement home residents, including a Brazilian student studying abroad and a family who owned a local shop, Park and his team asked their subjects to discuss their respective living situations, then drew funny and insightful parallels between life in a city and life in a zoo via the animation.

Going on to be nominated for a BAFTA and winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, the format proved so successful that it was even spun-off into a series of ads and a TV and web series, proving how effective claymation can be when approached from an imaginative and inventive perspective.

2. Wallace & Gromit

Park’s next project introduced us to the pair who would become – for anyone in their 30’s like me – his most iconic and well known characters; Wallace & Gromit. Having learned from the success of Creature Comforts that the seemingly unremarkable feelings and sentiments of everyday people could be a wellspring for comedy and drama, for his new characters’ first outing in A Grand Day Out, Park married this celebration of the mundane with the kind of fantastical and whimsical view of the world we expect from a children’s movie.

Thus, even on their more wild and out-there adventures, there is always a very grounded sense of the “Little Englander” in Wallace and Gromit’s story. For instance, in A Grand Day Out, the duo fly to the moon not for the sake of exploration, or to defeat some dastardly foe, but just because they want cheese – as everyone knows the moon is made of cheese. However, where any other animated children’s film would reward the characters for their long voyage, our duo arrive on the moon only to discover it’s rather chalky, and no good with crackers.

The pair would go on to have many more adventures, with each new outing seeing Park & co. push the limits of both animation and storytelling. From sheep rustling robot dogs, to a poultry impersonating a penguin cat burglar and even a dreaded Were-Rabbit, the intrepid pair faced down numerous foes and won a slew of awards including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and the BAFTA for Best British Film for The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.

3. Chicken Run

With Wallace & Gromit having become household names – at least within the Commonwealth – by the time work began on Chicken Run, Park and Aardman Animations’ first attempt at a feature length film was one of the most hotly anticipated animated releases of the year 2000. Seeing Aardman Animation partner with Dreamworks, and starring Mel Gibson as the fast-talking Rhode Island Red Cockerel Rocky Rhodes, Chicken Run saw Aardman expanding the scope of production while Park expanded his creative vision into something more cinematic.

Set on a failing poultry farm where the chickens are caged in the style of a WWII prison camp – with a high fence, barbed wire and patrol dogs – the film picks up with the farm’s owners deciding to stop farming eggs and instead turn the farm into an automated chicken pie production plant. The film then plays out as a prison escape film recalling The Great Escape and The Colditz Story, adding a layer of film literacy over the children’s story for all the knowing parents in the audience.

This influence makes itself felt very clearly in the film’s amazing action sequences, which once again saw Park pushing the boundaries of what was possible with claymation. In fact, Chicken Run could be said to be the first claymation blockbuster, with the film going on to take in $225 million from a $45 million budget, making it the highest grossing stop-motion animated film of all time, reinvigorating interest in the medium from artists and studios alike

4. Shaun the Sheep

Where most of Park’s earlier work was created to appeal to both children and adults – or at least those who are still young at heart – with Shaun the Sheep, the now executive producer and his team decided to specifically appeal to kiddies.

First introduced as a character in the Academy Award winning short film Wallace & Gromit: A Close Shave, Shaun – of course a pun on the word shorn – is a precocious young sheep and leader of his flock on Mossy Bottom Farm. Initially conceived as a short seven-minute television series, Shaun proved such a popular character that he soon got his own film, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and Christmas special, Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas. Shaun then went on to rival Wallace & Gromit in terms of popularity.

Getting rid of almost all spoken dialogue and drawing heavily on slapstick and silent film-era comedy, the series and film saw the Aardman team refining and streamlining their visual and comedic style rather than just dumbing it down. And with each episode running for only seven minutes each, the show in particular remains a brilliant example of economy of storytelling and highly effective non-verbal communication.

The animation style is a huge part of this, with claymation adding a sense of physicality to the characters that supports all the physical comedy. And where Aardman and Park had previously been able to rely on putting quirky dialogue into the mouths of their characters in order to amp up their charm, with Shaun the Sheep, they have almost nothing but the clay, working wonders with it to the delight of audiences around the world.

5. Early Man

Returning once again to the feature film format, Early Man represents the culmination of all of Park and Aardman’s work since the 90’s. Following stone age tribesman Dug (Eddie Redmayne) as he struggles to defend his tribe against the encroachment of a bronze age war lord and his army, from the very first frame it’s clear that this is a project on a much larger scale than any previous Aardman Animations project.

Beginning with an asteroid striking prehistoric earth, wiping out the dinosaurs but sparing a tribe of cavemen, the animation is visually stunning while losing none of the quaint charm of the studio’s previous work. As we see civilisation begin to develop through the stone age into the bronze age, Park finds a myriad of ways to visually surprise and delight us with amazing environments, characters and, of course, animals.

Once again drawing on some amazing voice talent, with Tom Hiddleston playing warlord Lord Nooth and Timothy Spall playing the chief of Dug’s tribe Bobnar, not to mention Maisie “Arya Stark” Williams as Goona, the film doesn’t sit back and rely on its visual flair alone to entertain us. Rife with the kind of heartwarming and innocent humour Park and Aardman are known for, there are also plenty of historical and film allusions and even football references throughout the film (football AKA soccer actually plays a large role in the story) making for a perfect balance between appealing to audiences both young and old.

Much in the same vein as Chicken Run, the film transcends children’s animation, aspiring to a much more cinematic style both visually and in terms of the dramatic stakes of the story. Yet where Chicken Run perhaps leaned more towards its adult audience, Early Man goes the other way, keeping the film thoroughly silly and at times Monty Python-esque even in its more dramatic moments.

This is largely carried again by the animation, with Park and the Aardman Animations team always visually reminding us that this film is meant to be fun, even when the script is telling us otherwise. The end product is one of the most enjoyable films in the Aardman catalogue, and in some ways a greatest hits of all the work the studio and Park have done together over the years.

Yet as much as the film draws on the past – both historically and in terms of Park and Aardman’s work – there are plenty of new ideas at play as well, giving us a sign of what to expect from Park and co in the future. Firmly in command on their own style and confident with exploring new directions and environments with it, Early Man confirms Park and Aardman as some of the most exciting and adventurous figures working in animation today.

Meet the tribe when Early Man opens in cinemas these school holidays: March 29 in VIC / QLD and other states from April 12 with special advance screenings over the Easter long weekend.