In an age where more and more animation is going digital, Aardman Studios, the home of Wallace and Gromit, still likes to do things the old-fashioned way, especially when it comes to stop-motion animation. The studio made a name for itself producing short claymation Wallace and Gromit videos, starting with A Grand Day Out in 1989, growing in scale and complexity until Aardman made Chicken Run - the highest grossing stop-motion movie of all time - in 2000, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, and now they're going even bigger with Early Man.
With the scale of Aardman's productions growing so drastically, the studio expanded into a new studio space for Chicken Run, and took full advantage of this new space with Early Man. Building as many as 40 miniature sets at a time, spread across 4 studios, and taking up the space of 4 Olympic sized swimming pools, Early Man had as many as 30-40 animators working on entirely separate scenes at the same time, with an output of around 5 seconds per week each.
Early Man is introducing more characters than any previous Aardman production, and with so many distinct personalities, split into 5-second chunks of animation across several dozen different animators. While the stellar voice cast, including Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, and Maisie Williams certainly helps establish distinct characters, it's up to the animators to maintain physical differences, which could easily be completely washed away due to the sheer number of animators involved. But director Nick Park takes special attention to make sure this doesn't happen, making ample use of their Live Action Video process to establish major character traits for the actors.
During Screen Rant's visit to Aardman Studios during Early Man's production, Park said LAV is "my way of conveying to [the animators] exactly what's in my head to kind of timing everything, the nature of everything, really." Park takes serious ownership of all his characters, as anyone who has seen an Aardman production can attest. Beginning on paper, he designs the general appearance of each character before moving on to the puppets themselves. The design of each prototype can take as long as 12 weeks, with each duplicate (remember, they're working on as many as 40 scenes at once) taking another 2-3 weeks to produce.
After the puppets are designed and constructed, Nick works with the animators to test the possible range of motion for each before designing particular traits for each one, such as the way they walk, before moving on to shooting Nick doing LAV. Nick utilizes full-sized replicas of props, such as Dug's spear or even costumes, complete with plaster rounded bellies to match the traditionally bulbous look of classic Aardman characters. During the LAV, Nick will physically act out specific character moments so the animators have frame by frame motion to match their own footage against before blocking each shot at a much lower frame rate for reference before finally shooting a full speed version of the shot.
Because all the animators are using a common reference point - usually Nick's dressed up acting of the characters - they can ensure that regardless of which animator actually constructed the scene, individual character traits are consistent across the entirety of the movie. While he may not act out every character in every single scene, capturing LAV for important moments with any main characters is key to Early Man rising to the next level. And with 4 Academy Awards under his belt, it's safe to say Nick Park knows what he's doing.
While it ultimately wouldn't have the same polish or production quality as the final version of the film, the opportunity to see Nick's LAV footage cut together to match the final film would definitely be entertaining for Aardman fans. Maybe, if we're lucky, Aardman will provide some of this footage for the Early Man Blu-ray release.
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