For Nick Park, it always begins with a drawing. On “Chicken Run” (2000), it was a chicken digging its way out of a coop with a shovel, which became a riff on “The Great Escape,” and on his latest, “Early Man,” it was cavemen kicking what would eventually become a soccer ball.
Thus began Aardman’s first prehistoric underdog sports movie in stop-motion, and Park’s first feature since the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005). Only this time, he decided to direct solo without partner Peter Lord or animator Steve Box.
“Cavemen are well covered now with ‘The Croods’ [which began at Aardman before DreamWorks took it over] and ‘The Flintstones,’ but I was looking for a quirky Aardman angle, and soccer became the hook,” said Park, who pitched “Early Man” as “Gladiator” meets “Dodgeball.”
“This could have legs: a group of idiotic, lovable cavemen who only know how to fight and use weapons, but the only way they can win back their Valley was to win a soccer match,” Park added. “I’d never seen a prehistoric underdog sports movie before and in the UK football, or soccer, is a religion, very tribal. And it seemed a good area to explore.”
Studying Underdog Sports Movies
Park looked at everything from “The Mighty Ducks” and “The Miracle” to “Slap Shot” and “Lagaan,” an Indian fave about a villager challenging the British Raj to a cricket match. But Park was at a loss for finding the underdog angle since cavemen invented soccer. So he came up with the idea of a prehistoric prologue (inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work on “One Million Years B.C.”), in which the game was invented by their ancestors, but it’s been kept under wraps ever since because of a deep, dark secret.
In “Early Man,” a pompous tyrant, Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), forces the tribe to flee to the Badlands when he discovers bronze in their Valley. But Dug (Eddie Redmayne) challenges the Bronze Age foes to a soccer match to win back their Valley. “We needed football to have moved on and adopted by the Bronze Age people, who have corrupted the game through bronze and money, which is very much a comment on the modern game,” said Park.
And in Dug and his lovable hog, Hognob (voiced by Park), Park found the equivalent of Aardman’s iconic Wallace & Gromit. Not surprisingly, Hognob steals the movie when he’s forced to give Nooth a massage. In fact, that was one of the most difficult scenes, which took 18 months to perfect. “There’s a naive charm to them like Wallace & Gromit,” said Will Becher, the animation director.
Making Soccer Puppets
For the puppets to run and appropriate other soccer skills, Park designed them to be simple, chunky, and long-legged. “Early Man” required 273 puppets (including 18 for hero Dug), with 3,000 hand-crafted interchangeable mouths. “It was hard to pull off an exciting, cinematic game,” Park said. “‘Gladiator’ helped with action and crowd scenes. But the challenge was how to do soccer with stop-frame. We tested how they ran with the ball and added motion blur or sped up the animation to keep the dynamics.”
But setting it almost entirely outdoors in the Valley, the Badlands, the Bronze Village, and the soccer stadium provided the greatest epic scope in Aardman history. “We did the stadium digitally apart from Lord Nooth’s throne and the corner gates, which were done practically,” said Merlin Crossingham, co-animation director. “We couldn’t do all the puppets so we did the crowd digitally except for those hero shots in the foreground.”
Aside from “Wallace & Gromit,” the other Aardman features embrace how to unify a community. “And football is the perfect symbol of that with teamwork and how the tribe pulls themselves together, even though the coach [Timothy Spall] doesn’t really believe they’re any good,” said Park. “He loves them but he keeps them in a low ambition state because it’s safe. It’s something that all the underdog sports movies have in common.”