The last time filmmaker Nick Park graced our screens, it was with the most recent “Wallace & Gromit” animated short, “A Matter of Loaf and Death” (2008), although he did co-write the wonderful 2015 “Shaun the Sheep Movie.”
Now comes Park’s first stop-motion animated feature in over a decade. “Early Man,” which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters, is an unlikely combination of cavemen and football (a.k.a. soccer).
Park, who recently visited The City to discuss his film, says he had been toying with the idea of a caveman picture for a while, which he says are “good for animation.”
He drew a picture of a caveman with a club, then added a ball.
“Something hit me about the tribal nature of soccer,” says Park, “and I thought, ‘what if you had a tribe of lunkhead, but lovable, cavemen and they were forced into playing a game where they had to put down their clubs and use their feet.”
Perhaps more ironically, Park, and animators Will Becher and Merlin Crossingham, who also joined in the conversation, are not football fans.
“We were setting out to make a movie that appeals to non-football fans,” says Crossingham. “It is a very civilizing force. It allows people to channel their primitive aggressions in a non-violent way.”
The trio, all associated with the legendary Aardman Animations, display a handful of actual models used in the movie, one of them cross-sectioned to reveal its flexible, metal skeleton.
The models must be stiff enough to hold their position, but not too stiff so that they can’t be moved, Becher explains.
Despite having raised the bar in the stop-motion world since 1989, when Park released his shorts “Creature Comforts” and “A Grand Day Out” — and won an Oscar for the former — it still takes about five years to make an animated feature.
“The rate at which animators are shooting is almost identical to ‘Chicken Run,’” says Becher of Aardman’s 2000 theatrical feature film.
“People often say, wouldn’t it be easier if it were on computer, but it’s really not. It takes the same amount of work,” he adds.
The screenplays are more or less locked down before production, though there is some flexibility for new ideas. “You can change things,” says Crossingham, “but it’s best if you don’t.”
It’s harder with jokes, which are tested and screened during production to make sure they’re actually working.
Park says “[Co-writer] Mark Burton is very good. I’ll sometimes think of a joke and he’ll then take it and make it funny.”
Casting and voice acting happens before animation takes place, so that the animators can work around the voices.
Eddie Redmayne voices Dug, the hero of the cavemen, who challenges the more evolved players of the “Bronze Age” to a match to keep their ancestral land.
“I had seen him in a movie called ‘Black Death’, where he played a medieval, novice monk. It’s quite a dark film and he’s so understated, but it was great how he went into this 15 year-old, went younger so physically,” says Park.
Tom Hiddleston voices the bad guy, the bilious, greedy Lord Nooth, using a French accent. “Tom is just so good at accents. We tried him with an English accent, but it just seemed too typical,” says Park. “Even Studio Canal in France preferred the French
The movie also includes Maisie Williams (“Game of Thrones”) as Goona, a most welcome female Bronze Age character who loves football but is forbidden to play by the ruling men. She winds up playing with the Stone Age characters, and teaching them as well.
“I think she’s also very strong because she’s not really sexualized. She just is,” says Crossingham.
Surprisingly, Park himself voices Hognob, Dug’s helpful pig companion, with a series of snorts and grunts. Park had never performed onscreen before, and had only expected his voice to be used as a “temp” track. But when the movie was tested, Hognob already seemed perfect.
“When it came to casting, a colleague said they’d grown to like it,” Park says, “so I got the part!”