Interview by Matthew Turner
"We've often thought, just how long have we got in stop-frame? But it seems to have carried on, from strength to strength."
Best known as the creator of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, British animator Nick Park is still delighting audiences with his painstakingly created stop-motion crowd-pleasers.
His new feature film Early Man tells the story of a plucky caveman who unites his tribe against a mighty enemy.
Park sat down to discuss the difficulties of staging Stone Age football matches, and the origins of Wallace and Gromit.
Inspired by Ray Harryhausen
Almost 30 years after Wallace and Gromit first appeared in A Grand Day Out (losing out on an Oscar to another Aardman Animation's favourite, Creature Comforts) Park is still proud to be flying the flag for stop-motion.
"There are so many great computer generated films out there now," he notes. "But the stop-frame aspect helps us to really stand out against the crowd.
"Stop-motion is our USP and it seems fitting for the subject, somehow, as well, the sort of tactile nature.
"The characters are designed with fur fabric, things animators would often avoid, but like the very early King Kong films we get the boiling of the fur, because the animators are touching the fur each frame. That, for me, is a plus - it's part of the quality."
One man and his boar: Early Man sees a plucky caveman take on the world of sport (Photo: StudioCanal)
As for his new film - which boasts an enviable voice-cast including Eddie Redmaybe, Tom Hiddleston and Maisie Williams - it turns out that Early Man has its roots in Park's earliest influences.
"I remember sketching cavemen, quite typical cavemen with the club and everything. I'd probably had cavemen in my head for years, actually, ever since I was 11."
His love of legendary movie effects artists Ray Harryhausen was also a huge influence on both this film in particular, and his career as a whole.
"One Million Years B.C. was one of my favourite films and it was really that film that made me want to pick up a camera and make films - that's why I started doing animation myself, as a teenager. So I guess it's always been there."
Football in the Stone Age
When it came to Early Man, Park says that it seemed too obvious just to do another caveman adventure.
"I was looking for that quirky Aardman take on the story, with Mark, the writer, and we thought: Football! Sport!
"I think I drew a caveman with a club hitting a ball like a rounders bat, and this idea started to develop, about what if sport, particularly football in this case, brought about civilisation. It seemed to fit with the whole tribal nature of football."
Nick Park (right) with cast-members Eddie Redmayne and Maisie Williams (Photo: StudioCanal)
Having a football match as the film's climax presented the film's biggest challenge, and Park drew inspiration from an unexpected source.
"I've seen so many underdog sports movies, and so many are very inspiring, but how to pull off a stop-frame version?
"I was inspired very much by the film Gladiator - I wanted to do a football match that had that kind of excitement to it. Just how to stage a football match in a cinematic way. That was a big challenge."
'Wallace had similar traits to my dad'
Looking back on the inspirations for his most famous creations, Park remarks that, although he didn't realise it at the time, the character of Wallace was closely based on his own father.
"Not consciously, but I think it was after making A Grand Day Out, the first one, I realised that Wallace had similar traits to my Dad.
"My Dad used to love making things in the shed and I could see a similar look in his face and a similar attitude, as well."
Wallace and Gromit in the 1989 short, A Grand Day Out (Photo: Aardman Animation)
Reflecting on Wallace and Gromit naturally leads to discussion of actor Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace, who sadly passed away last year.
"He was such a unique person and a unique talent and the quality that he brought – I feel so lucky to have found just the right fit."
Park recalls that he first decided on Sallis after seeing Last of The Summer Wine.
“I loved the character of Cleggy: that sort of mild mannered, Northern sort of accent, and his outlook and everything, and that attracted me. So I did sort of ask Peter, that I thought that was in the right area, but Peter obviously didn't want to repeat that character and he kind of took it in another direction."
And it was a particular quality that Sallis brought to the role.
"Somebody said, after he'd done Curse of the Were-Rabbit, that Peter's voice is 'as welcome as a pair of warm slippers in an uncertain world'.
"I thought that really summed it up - he [brought] a sort of comfort, I think."
Early Man is in UK cinemas from 26 January