How a doodle became the stop-motion ‘Early Man’ from ‘Wallace & Gromit’ creator

Inspiration for “Early Man,” the new stop-motion animated film from director Nick Park, came about, as he says many of his ideas do, from a simple doodle. One day back in 2010, he drew a caveman hitting a rock with his club.

“It’s very important to doodle,” says Park, a four-time Oscar winner for different movies in his “Wallace & Gromit” series. “You wait for those lightning strikes of ideas. Like with ‘Chicken Run,’ you’re drawing a chicken digging out of a coop – ‘The “Great Escape” with chickens!’ ”

The caveman, the club and the rock led Park to riff on the idea of prehistoric people and then – eventually – sports, Park says during an interview at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. He was there with other members of the film’s team from Aardman Studios headquarters in Bristol, England.

  • Nick Park, creator of the popular “Wallace & Gromit” series of movies, holds up Dug the Caveman and Hognob from his new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

    Nick Park, creator of the popular “Wallace & Gromit” series of movies, holds up Dug the Caveman and Hognob from his new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

  • The team of “Early Man”: animation director Merlin Crossingham, creator Nick Park and animation director Will Becher holding puppets from the new movie in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

    The team of “Early Man”: animation director Merlin Crossingham, creator Nick Park and animation director Will Becher holding puppets from the new movie in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

  • Nick Park, creator of the popular “Wallace & Gromit” series of movies, holds up Dug the Caveman from his new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

    Nick Park, creator of the popular “Wallace & Gromit” series of movies, holds up Dug the Caveman from his new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

  • “Early Man” is the new film from director Nick Park and Aardman Studios. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

    “Early Man” is the new film from director Nick Park and Aardman Studios. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

  • Clay puppets, Dug the Caveman and Hognob from the new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

    Clay puppets, Dug the Caveman and Hognob from the new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

  • Eddie Redmayne voices Dug the Caveman in “Early Man.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

    Eddie Redmayne voices Dug the Caveman in “Early Man.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

  • Removable mouths for clay puppets from the movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

    Removable mouths for clay puppets from the movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

  • Tom Hiddleston, who voices Lord Nooth, with Nick Park, the director of “Early Man” seen in the screen behind him. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

    Tom Hiddleston, who voices Lord Nooth, with Nick Park, the director of “Early Man” seen in the screen behind him. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

  • Maisie Williams with a puppet of Goona, her character in “Early Man.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

    Maisie Williams with a puppet of Goona, her character in “Early Man.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

  • Nick Park, creator of the popular “Wallace & Gromit” series of movies, holds up Dug the Caveman and Hognob from his new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

    Nick Park, creator of the popular “Wallace & Gromit” series of movies, holds up Dug the Caveman and Hognob from his new movie, “Early Man” in Los Angeles on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Photo by Nick Agro, Contributing Photographer)

  • Dug and Hognob in a scene from “Early Man.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

    Dug and Hognob in a scene from “Early Man.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

  • Eddie Redmayne, left, with a puppet of Dug, whom he voices in “Early Man,” with Maisie Williams, the voice of Goona, center, and Nick Park, the director of “Early Man” who also voices Hognob, Dug’s best friend. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

    Eddie Redmayne, left, with a puppet of Dug, whom he voices in “Early Man,” with Maisie Williams, the voice of Goona, center, and Nick Park, the director of “Early Man” who also voices Hognob, Dug’s best friend. (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

  • Dug the Caveman and his best friend Hognob in a scene from “Early Man.” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

    Dug the Caveman and his best friend Hognob in a scene from “Early Man.” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

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“I’d never seen cavemen playing sport, and what if soccer, in this case, was an influencing, civilizing thing?” he says. “Plus, the whole tribal nature of the game, even today.

“And just the idea of what if a whole bunch of lovable, kind of lunkheaded, idiotic cavemen and women had to learn a game, and not use their fists and their clubs, and play a sport? That was kind of how it all started to spark up.”

Moviegoers can judge the results when “Early Man” opens on Friday, Feb. 16. The film’s humor and emotions are similar to previous Park projects ranging from the “Wallace & Gromit” shorts to features including “Chicken Run” and “Shaun the Sheep Movie.”

In “Early Man,” actor Eddie Redmayne, an Oscar winner as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” plays an optimistic 15-year-old caveman named Dug. When his peaceful valley of Stone Age cave folk comes under attack by the Bronze Age villain Lord Nooth, voiced by Tom Hiddleston, Dug convinces his hapless tribe to take on Lord Nooth’s all-star team in a soccer match.

Given the fact they know nothing about the game leaves their chances next to nil until Dug befriends Goona, a Bronze Age girl played by Maisie Williams, best known as the feisty and headstrong Arya Stark from “Game Of Thrones.” She agrees to coach them and play on their team because girls aren’t allowed on the field in her hometown.

Park was accompanied to L.A. by animation directors Merlin Crossingham and Will Belcher, who say that – unlike most animated films – the cast had to create their characters before animation could begin so that animators could match the stop-motion lip movements to the dialogue.

“There’s a certain element of finding the voice with them, isn’t there?” Crossingham says.

“I remember Eddie saying, ‘How old is Dug?’” Park says. “I sort of went, ‘About 15,’ and suddenly he went into a younger (voice). I just knew, as soon as he started doing it, that this was going to work.”

Hiddleston’s Lord Nooth, whom Park describes as “not really a very dark villain, more of a pompous buffoon, middle manager,” ended up with a ridiculous French accent for comic purposes.

“It was funnier as French,” Park says. “With Brexit, we got slightly worried that it might be seen as a bit anti-European, because of the nature of the story, so we tried him as an Englishman at one point and it just didn’t work. Even StudioCanal (the French production partners on “Early Man”) preferred the French.”

Park says he’s always been a little nervous working with actors; despite his own fame and success, he still looks up to the people whose faces fill up the movie screen. In this case, though, Redmayne, Hiddleston, Williams and others expressed excitement at getting to work with a man whose work they’d grown up with.

“It was very flattering,” Park says. “But they’ve since told me they were nervous coming to the audition, which is hard to imagine.”

“Early Man” is the biggest production yet from Aardman, partly a result of its setting in such an early time and place.

“It’s certainly the biggest in ambition,” Crossingham says. “I think it came from where Nick set it. The outdoors, for a start, is a big place, and you need it to feel epic.’

Park agreed, reminding Crossingham and Belcher of one moment when they all realized the impact of the sets and characters – unlike traditional animation, in which everything is drawn by hand or computer, stop-motion films physical pieces – they had built.

“I remember when we first did that shot of the mammoths crossing the bridge and that really struck me: ‘Guys, this is big,’” Park says.

The movie is Park’s solo debut as a feature film director – “Chicken Run” and “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” were co-directed with Peter Lord and Steve Box, respectively. But while it’s a tremendous amount of work, he says having Crossingham and Belcher to oversee much of the animation on the studio floor was a tremendous help.

And then, too, this project took him back to his earliest dreams of filmmaking, a boyhood fascination with dinosaurs that took cinematic flight when he saw the 1966 film “One Million Years B.C.,” the effects for which were done by stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen. (The appearance of dinosaurs Ray and Harry in the closing credits is a tip of the hat to the man.)

“I was loving cartoons, drawing cartoons, but at the same time a massive dinosaur fanatic,” Park says. “So when we heard, and saw a trailer for “One Million Years B.C.,” I couldn’t believe that, that people were with dinosaurs – it was like what I’d always imagined, and it was there on the screen.

“That’s the movie that actually made me pick up a film camera myself and start making my own films at 12 years old,” he says. “I had my own clay dinosaurs and started moving them. It’s like it’s always been in my blood.”

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