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PETER LORD AND DAVID SPROXTON An animated discussion on Early Man

The latest Aardman Animation film, Early Man, hits Perth screens this week. Directed by Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit, Chicken Run) the film features the vocal talents of Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Tom Hiddleston (Thor: Ragnarok), and Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones). It pits a clan of lovable losers against the invading forces of the Bronze Age, as the cavemen attempt to win back their home. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke Peter Lord (The Amazing Adventures of Morph, The Pirates! Band of Misfits) and David Sproxton (The Amazing Adventure of Morph) two of the producers of Early Man, and co-founders of the legendary studio, about their role-models, Early Man, and how things have changed in the decades since Aardman’s founding.

Peter you’ve stated previously that one of your idols was Ray Harryhausen (Clash of the Titans, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). Did you finally get your Harryhausen moment and animate one of the dinosaurs in the opening sequence?

PL: Alas, no! I still didn’t get the chance. Well I had the chance, but politely declined to take it. It’s funny, because we’ve got dinosaurs in the opening and it is the classic thing you do in puppet animation. The absolute archetypal, back to Harryhausen thing. Most people at Aardman have never animated a dinosaur in their lives, so there was fierce competition for those shots.

And David, you say your history professor would have a fit with Early Man, why is that the case?

DS: When I studied a Durham university, one of the courses was pre-history, and somewhere along the lines our chronologies got a bit confused in this film. (Laughs) I think he’d be right to make a comment.

Yeah, it’s a bit One Million Years BC with the dinosaurs and the humans together.

DS: Exactly.

In it’s playful approach to history, do you think Early Man demonstrates Aardman’s English comedy roots, following in the footsteps of Python and Blackadder?

DS: Yeah, it’s a question we often get asked, and in a way it’s a very simple answer. We are British born and bred, and we’ve come up with all these classics (Python, the Goons, leading up to The Office), there is a distinct oeuvra of British comedy about losers to be honest, ” the bottom of the food chain”, which we take our comedy from. Probably reflects our class based society. So that is what we are steeped in. You in Australia probably pick it up a bit more, than in America.

Is Early Man the biggest film you’ve done in terms of sets?

DS: As is ever, Murphy’s Law comes into play, we’ve taken more studio space in the last five years – and we’ve filled it. If you’ve got the space you’ll fill it.

PL: In scale it’s probably the biggest we have done. A very big stadium scene at the end which was a massive operation. It also wants to be a classic Aardman film. We make no pretense in that, these are living puppets. We think that there’s an extra level of magic and charm animating puppets. So in Early Man, Nick (Park) was very careful in making sure the fingerprints were visible in animating the faces, so you believe in them…and at the same time know these are moving puppets. That’s what clay animation does. You know it’s hand made, and has a kind of humanity about it. The viewer knows that love and care and attention has gone into every shot, every detail.

Could you give our readers an idea of the time and effort that goes into this sort of animation? You produce… what… about a minute a week?

DS: A minute and a bit a week. The animators each put out a second a day. It’s much much harder to get much faster than that. So the shoot on this was 12-14 months. The pre-production is the longest bit of the cycle, about four to five years. Although Nick had been thinking about it for much longer than that.

How do you attract such high-calibre actors to your films?

DS: What we’ve found over the years is it allows actors to play a role that they never would in person (Apart from Hugh Grant in the latest Paddington – great fun that film). But it allows them to do something for the kids, say if their main living is “shoot ’em ups” or in something like that, and I think it allows them to have a lot of fun. The other thing is the process means you don’t have to be in the studio from six in the morning for 16 weeks. We fit the sessions around their schedule. But they can have a lot of fun doing it and they are playing characters that are very different, and it gives them an opportunity to show their talents.

These will also tend to be the films that kids play over and over again, and become part of a kids cultural heritage in away.

So how have things changed in the decades since you’ve founded Aardman?

PL: Enormously. When we started, our only realistic ambition was to do a TV series for kids. Back then, in the early 70s only Disney was making movies, there were a few TV commercials, and the rest was kids TV. That’s changed incredibly now. In every field of animation there is so much stuff for teenagers, and people in their twenties. There’s serious animation for a grown up audience. For example Loving Vincent, you wouldn’t have dreamed of that forty years ago, or The Red Turtle.

Early Man is a family film, so quite traditional from that perspective, but elsewhere at Aardman we do apps, we do computer generated, we do short films for adults – a huge variety of things. For us its become a bigger world.

Did you ever expect Aardman Animation to become what it is today?

DS: It is a little like having a family. You don’t expect your six month old child to become a 35 year old adult, you can’t see it at the time. We kept on and it grew in a very organic way. Working advertising in the 80s taught us short term storytelling and built our reputation, as with the work we were doing for TV.

And of course the Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer clip didn’t hurt?

DS: Interesting you say that. We did a full restoration of the film recently. And looking at it now….we spontaneously were working ideas. That film had an extraordinary impact for us and Peter Gabriel, and MTV. It was a seminal moment.

What’s next for Aardman?

DS: We are shortly starting on a Shaun the Sheep sequel. We are building that now. It’s very funny…caves, and volcanoes, and the Bronze Age world is all disappearing and being taken out to storage, and we are bringing in the English countryside. It’s happening right now, and loads of other stuff to. It’s a very interesting company to work in.

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