Aardman Studios achieved popularity years ago for its quirky claymation characters in Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, but the studio only continued to gain acclaim as it elevated claymation and stop-motion animation with ever more ambitious full-length projects, even logging the current highest-grossing stop-motion movie of all time with Chicken Run in 2000. The studios' newest effort, the prehistoric caveman comedy Early Man, ambitiously seeks to raise the bar again.
While there are usually a number of constraints when it comes to producing full-length stop-motion animated movies, the simple act of shooting the film is the biggest bottleneck. Studios can increase the size and scope of the models and sets, but so long as a movie is being created one shot at a time, stop-motion movies can take years to produce. In order to support the production of Early Man, their largest movie yet, Aardman Studios is shooting on dozens of miniature sets at once, greatly improving the overall production time, but also causing a huge increase in the scope of production.
In order to support the production of Chicken Run, Aardman moved into a new complex housing 4 studios with a combined size of 4 Olympic size swimming pools, and during Early Man's production, Screen Rant was invited to visit the studio where we saw them taking full advantage of this space and learned about the true scope of the effort that goes on behind the scenes.
Setting up as many as 40 individual sets, with potentially as many animators working simultaneously, each scene of Early Man can still take several weeks to block, then gets shot frame-by-frame at a rate of around 1 second of movie runtime per day. This is where the 30-40 production units working on Early Man come into play, giving the ability to run that same fram-by-frame process in as many as 40 instances at once, drastically cutting down on overall production time.
Running this many units at once, however, also requires more puppets. Aardman's 22 person model making team painstakingly creates prototypes, a process that can take up to 12 weeks each, before producing 8-10 replicas per character, each of which can take an additional 2-3 weeks (a process that also destroys the original prototype), with some of the more involved characters, like the main character, Dug, getting as many as 20 copies. Part of the reason each puppet takes so much time is because every component has a number of iterations to help animators create a full expressive range. This is particularly true of facial components, each of which has multiple flexible versions to ensure full range of motion and maximum expressiveness for each character.
While some newer production techniques can be utilized, such as 3D printing, the lack of flexibility in the materials used for that process actually results in a need for more individual pieces to create the same range of expressions, meaning it can actually increase production time and expense. Aardman used this method in 2012's The Pirates! Band of Misfits, but the Pirate Captain (for a variety of reasons, including technical production issues) took 2 1/2 years to get fully right. While such a process can improve the ease of mass production, the more traditional plasticine molding process Aardman followed with Early Man ultimately gives animators much better control over expressions without having to physically swap mouths, eyes, and etc out as many times between frames.
The massive scope of Early Man doesn't end with the puppets, either. The story sprawls from scenery including volcanoes to neanderthal villages to a Bronze Age city and massive soccer ("football") stadium at the center of the Bronze Age culture. While all the puppets are approximately 1/5th scale, the Bronze Age stadium is more of a a miniature miniature, coming in closer to 1/15th scale, which still fills an entire room, while making it fully to-scale with the rest of the puppets would result in a set piece bigger than the studio it's shot in.
This is where the movie, understandably, extends briefly outside of practical stop-motion claymation and into CGI territory, as the sheer scope of the stadium and its occupants is far too much to feasibly animate, although the CGI is more for filling in the details, such as a larger crowd, with the main action of the scenes still primarily constructed via actual stop-motion photography - a massive feat in and of itself.
Working with miniatures in stop-motion would normally suggest a much smaller production than an equivalent live-action film, and while Early Man is certainly a less involved effort than a full-scale live-action production would be, the sheer scope of the project is nonetheless impressive.
In raw materials alone, the plasticine - the moldable putty-like substance that puts the "clay" look in "claymation" - is ordered several pallets at a time to ensure color consistency so minor differences in batches don't show between takes with different puppets. When it comes to almost everything else - the sets, the non-flexible character components, many of the props, and etc, Aardman procured over 3 tons of jesmonite - a weight greater than that of an average rhinoceros.
With a track record as successful and ambitious as that of Aardman studios and director Nick Park (who has 4 Academy Awards for his previous animated projects with Aardman), the sheer scale of Early Man should excite any animation fan, particularly those that love the studio's past work. Pulling out all the stops with an all-star cast including Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, and Maisie Williams, the stop-motion prehistoric claymation caveman comedy will truly be an event to behold when it hits theaters on February 16th in the US (January 26th in the UK).