“Each character feels so lived in” – Aardman studio director Merlin Crossingham talks Early Man and stop-motion

Deputy Editor Jo Johnstone caught a very special screening of Aardman’s Early Man last year followed by a special Q&A. Read all about her antics. 

Myself, our Editor in Chief Cookie, and my travelling toy Timmy (of Shaun the Sheep and Timmy Time fame,) are all gathered in YouTube space near Kings Cross in London. We are here to view the latest feature animation from British studio Aardman Early Man. The studio has given us Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Creature Comforts and Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and now head to prehistoric

Early Man is a prehistoric romp that asks the question, who invented football? When cave man Dug encounter the bronze age and its super football team, he must train his tribe to play the great game and win back their home from evil Lord Nooth.

Studio director and animator Merlin Crossingham, (yes, that’s his real name.) is talking abut Early Man, his history with Aardman, and everything stop-motion!

We have football playing cavemen set in the stone/bronze age, what was the inspiration to this idea?

‘Well I don’t want to give too much away. The film is a film by Nick Park and his ideas bubble up from, who knows where. It’s not going to spoil things, but football plays a large part in this movie. I think Nick was walking along one day and wondered, who invented football? Who invented it and where did it come from? He doesn’t even like football in particular, he doesn’t follow a team or anything. I think its just one of those ideas that just settled there for a while then just bubbled away and got a bit out of control and we ended up making a movie.’

At what pace were you able to animate? Is there kind of an average portion per day?

‘So for a movie like Early Man, we had a team, at its maximum, of thirty-nine animators. Each of those animators had a target to shoot three seconds per week. And that would be a really good week. That means we were shooting for about eighteen months. One and a half years for the actual animation. That doesn’t include writing it or preparing or post production, just the animation. With something like Morph, we animate much faster. Morph is about six seconds a day. So that’s quite fast, it is lighting fast.’

What causes such a big shift?

‘Well Morph, he’s just made of modelling clay. There’s nothing in him, he is just that. This clay Morph, I made this evening, we could shoot with him. We could make a series, like his YouTube series he has. We shoot faster just because he’s more simple. But feature films, there’s just so much more detail in everything, on every level. Things just slow you right down, the performances, the acting, and the sculpting.’

Do the mouths take up time in particular? Because that’s always the detail that I’m fascinated with, that looks I imagine very effortless but is probably anything but.

‘Well the puppets that are upstairs are actually puppets from the movie, so there not copies, they’re real ones from the film. I have one down here, so I can show you. Dug’s head for example, his hair comes off then his whole head comes out of his body from his neck. You can actually rip his mouth off, so your kind of left with this space here. Then the animators have a box of different mouth shapes. They start with about fifthteen. When people speak, there are some basic shapes that humans make. So there’s a, e, o, s and so on. They have those basic shapes in a box made out of modelling clay. The animators will have all the audio of the performances of the voice artists, and the sound editor will break it down into twenty-four frames a second. Every second of film you see here, there are twenty-four individual frames and the animator will know by this little chart what sound is being made. So if its an aa, they get the aa mouth and they’ll look at it. And if it’s a loud aa, they’ll open it up a bit like AA, and that’s the great thing about clay;  the animators can adjust it frame by frame to correspond with the subtlety of the performance.’

Its one of those charming things when you watched the film, that you can even forget that and just see it as its own thing. But at the same time sometimes it nice to focus in on things just for a second. Just to appreciate that there is so much detail happening.

‘And we don’t hide the fact that we’ve made them with our hands. There are going to be times in the movie where you can see hairs and bumps and thumb prints. You’ll see the jackets and things twitching, from where the animators have had to touch the puppets every frame. We don’t make that go away, we kind of embrace it.’

Am I right in thinking when Flushed Away was animated, even though it was CGI, thumb prints were actually added in so it looked like that same kind of style?

‘Yes that’s right. Actually when we made, going right back to when we made Chicken Run, it was our first feature film, and we thought, “no one wants to see thumb prints.” So we spent ages  – literally you had to lick your thumb and smooth them out. It took forever and it’s a great film. I love it, I worked on it, but there’s something kind of missing. So then when we came to make Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it was like thumby and funny and we just embraced the thumb prints.’

Are you scared of identity theft?

‘You probably could scan the frame and get our prints so yes.’

With that in mind I guess I’m curious to know, without giving anything away, what were some of the bigger challenges you came across during this film? There are some big sets pieces in this.

‘There are massive set pieces. It’s a stop-motion film, so the stop-motion technique using modelling clay. We used a lot of set extensions, so this stadium is all digital, the only real bit is the grass and the fence. For the crowd, they’re digital doubles but scanned from our puppets. The skies are all painted and put in afterwards. Previously we would have tried to do that with the camera. But you’ve already got puppets that good, you don’t want to make a stadium that’s like…well, it wouldn’t fit in this room. You’re talking a massive arena, nobody could make thirty-five thousand puppets. But when you see close ups of the crowd, they are still our puppets. So when you see, I don’t know seventy of them, we could do seventy but we can’t do thirty-five thousand.’

That’s understandable. One thing I was curious about,as well, is the amazing cast. This film has a great selection of British actors, a real plethora of talent. I was asking earlier, whether you get the recordings first, then animate to their performance? Or whether you animate first, then get the actors to dub the performance?

‘It’s very important to us that we have the voice first. So we knew three years ago who our actors were. Just to recap we have Tom Hiddelston, Eddie Redmayne, Masie Williams, and Nick Park as the voice of Hognob. On top of that, we have Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Johnny Vegas, and loads of others. We’re really lucky that they all jumped on board. The reason for recording first is that actors can do things with their voice, which really allows us to embody the character afterwards. So the voice performance becomes a spring board to the physical performance that you see on screen. It is where the animators can listen and dial in, to either the emotion or the action of the moment.’

I think you really sense that with the performances, they really are so sort of, I was gonna use the word animated, but literally. Were the characters designed first so the actors have something to springboard off and think of, or were you not certain of the look?

By the time the actors actually come to record, we will have first sculpts. They might not be finished puppet’s but we have the first sculpts, so they see something. Some studios put a little bit of the actors features into their puppet but we kind of, well clearly we don’t. Often when you cast there’s a reason you cast them, because they feel like that kind of character. They can be the character you want them to be, so hopefully there’s a similarity there.’

The Johnny Vegas one in particular…

‘He’s brilliant.’

If you had to choose your Early Man name, what would you pick?

‘I think Merlin is a pretty good name already. I think maybe crusher, because I’m not like that at all.’

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As a company that started out in TV, there a major difference working from the big screen to the small?

‘One informs the other. So Morph is our studios oldest character. He’s 41 years old. (Wow… no wrinkles.) He’s still going strong, we still make Morph and we still make work for TV. I think our studio makes feature films, which are great, big and fancy. But having the ability to make stuff for TV, advertising, digital and online content really means that we can nature future talent. I think just focusing on one is a loss from the other areas of creation. I think it’s really important we do them all. There are things you can’t do on TV but you can do on film and vice versa.’

When things in the film are flying, such as the arrows and the football, how do they create that effect?

‘So the puppet Morph is real. He’s held on the floor by gravity. So anytime anything, puppet or a spear, has to fly through the air, we will use a rig. It might be just a bit of fishing wire or a bit of metal that kind of goes clear of the shot. You would still see a bit of metal, you’d still see that fishing wire but we would animate it. Once we’ve done the animation, we take the puppets away from the sets and we film a bit of the set empty. That means we can use, well its sort of like Photoshop, if you’ve ever used that at digital post production. We can get rid of those things holding up the spear and just leave the spear. That way, it looks like its flying through the air. It’s very clever.’

You’ve got a really interesting job, how did it all start?

‘Well I wanted to be a pilot but I’m colour blind, so I couldn’t be a pilot. I was like, I don’t know what to do, so I gate crashed a lecture that my friend was going to about animation. I was about eighteen and just though, oh my god, that’s amazing.

So I got myself into film school, studied animation I was lucky to get a job at Aardman as a runner, doing the odd jobs. Then Aardman saw my work and took me on. That was twenty-three years ago and I’ve been with the studio ever since.’

Does the colour blindness affect any of the animation?

‘No, not really. The only thing it can affect in the past was when I was an animator. (Sorry, I then became an animator and director later on.) In Creature Comforts the series, there’s several characters with green tongues, things like that. I just need to have an art director that I trust. The thing is I know when things aren’t right, I just often can’t articulate the specific colour why. I can say, its too warm, too cold, too this, too that. I just can’t say it’s too much orange.’

With you being colour blind, does your team sometimes play with you and try and sneak random colours in?

‘No. Probably for the best.’

In a day and age when technology is so amazing and its all about making money and getting things rolled out as quick as possible. What’s the rationale behind stop-motion animation verse CGI, where the regular punter wouldn’t see the difference?

‘CGI is about two thirds more expensive than stop-motion. If it were just on a money thing, stop-motion is actually cheaper to make. But the film industry is about making films successful and they are an investment for companies like StudioCanal and Aardman. Really the technique behind it, for us, is what will make the film work and be funny? The unique thing that Aardman brings is a physical sensibility, through its stop-motion. We’ve also made two CGI movies, so if the project is right for CGI, we’ll do CGI. Really just depends on the idea for us.’

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In your career as an animator director, what has been your all time favourite project to work on?

‘Well my first feature film Chicken Run was quite brilliant. I was the lead animator for Rocky, who was Mel Gibson’s character. But I think my favourite film to work on was actually Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I was lead on Wallace and Gromit and second unit director as well. It was the beginning of my directing career but also a wonderful film to work on.’

How do you go about the casting process for the actor?  The voices behind each characters, how do you choose them?

‘It’s a lot of listening with your eyes closed because they must be good voices. We’re not after their dashing looks, I mean its helps when it comes to press and PR but its actually the performances they can give. British actors are unique in as much as there’s a thriving radio play industry. Lots of British actors have performed on radio, and it really makes them thinks about how they vocalise and express themselves. Otherwise it’s the same as anything else. We know the character from the script, and we’ll listen. If we can’t get them in to read some lines, we’ll take lines from various movies they’ve done. Maybe animate to them with our character. Then the next stage is to ask them to read a line or two, animate it. It’s kind of a casting session. It’s a lot of time involved, and they do change. Early on scripts could still be evolving. If the character changes, the voice artist, no matter how talent they are, may not fit. But I think with this film, Nick had a very clear idea in his head who the characters were and who he wanted. He went for them and got them first time, so that’s the best way. And it works so well and each character feels so lived in.’

With that Merlin bids us farewell to watch Aardman’s latest offering Early Man

Early Man is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!
Read our review! 

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