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Friday, March 10, 2006


He molded a classic

At age 48, Nick Park sits at the top of his field. When it comes to 3D animation, only Tim Burton ("Corpse Bride") and Henry Selick ("James and the Giant Peach") can rival him. Working out of the Aardman Animation studios in Bristol, the soft-spoken, self-effacing clay boffin from Lancashire has garnered praise from all quarters, from Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam to stop-motion godfather Ray Harryhausen, who described Park's claymation as the smoothest ever. Surrounded by his models, Park spoke with The Japan Times on his painstaking filmmaking process.

It seems like you and Tim Burton are the hold-outs on stop-motion animation. How different are your techniques?

Our models aren't as sophisticated as theirs. I mean, we have the same kind of skeletons inside, but whereas his are covered in foam-latex, silicon materials, ours are covered in clay -- it's more kind of squash and scratch. We do use other materials too, like Wallace's torso is harder. It's made of plasticine, then cast in resin. So you don't smudge the tie every time you get hold of it.

Plasticine gives you greater expression, but for a feature film the time required must get insane.

It's very time-consuming. On "The Wrong Trousers," I did most of the animation myself. I was literally re-sculpting Wallace's mouth every two frames, It was taking forever. So we developed a system where we take the head off every time and just replace the mouth. Each animator of Wallace, or any speaking character, would have a set of 20 mouths. They're premade, press-molded out of plasticine, so they're still flexible, but the animator replaces it for each syllable of every word. When we film, we record the dialogue first, and the animators follow the dialogue track -- that gets good lip-sync.

Do you still storyboard everything clearly from beginning to end?

Yeah, the whole movie. We actually shoot the storyboard. It's very jerky, but that goes onto the digital editing system, and we can put temporary music on and edit the whole movie. It gives us an idea of the overall shape, so we don't shoot stuff that we don't need. We can't afford stuff that we don't need.

Brad Bird of Pixar said the same thing, that in "The Incredibles" there were only one or two bits that they shot and didn't use.

Yeah, well, that's what we aim to do (laughs). But, in fact, for some reason, you start shooting way before you're finished [preparing]. It's a very organic process. You start shooting one scene, and at the same time you're completely re-editing and re-boarding another scene, and hopefully get it locked down before you have to shoot it.

Is is always possible to realize your ideas on screen?

Steve Box -- he animated the penguin in "The Wrong Trousers" -- and myself, we wrote it together, and we tend to have a fairly good idea of what we want. When we're writing, we almost know what every sound effect should be. We're pretty meticulous about everything. But I think the nature of this animation is you don't plan things too much. I mean, you have to have a plan, but when you come to talking to the animator about it . . . it's almost like doing a performance. It's very direct and improvisational -- you don't know how it's going to go.

Do you ever shoot more than one take of a scene?

Yeah, sure. Because you never know how it's going to come out. Just like live-action, every take is different, and you never know if the one they're doing is the right one. But we can't afford to shoot more than three takes of anything. Especially if it's taken two days! The animators dread the director walking in and going, "Mmmm . . . not exactly what I was thinking."

You started making the Wallace & Gromit films by yourself. Have you learned to live with delegating authority now?

Well, I do miss the hands-on quality of doing the animation myself. You know, people like to think that this is two blokes in a shed in Bristol [making this], and in a way we try to make it seem like it is, even though it's 250 blokes now. It's a personal style. Even now that I'm standing back, the pay-off is I get to control a much bigger canvas. And I don't feel like I've let go, because I'm in there all the time as a kind of control freak, tweaking. Everyone goes through rigorous Wallace & Gromit classes, exactly how to move them, the feel -- you know, don't clean them up too much, keep the fingerprints on the characters. Because it's very important to keep the spirit of the short films. I wanted to make sure it didn't get too slick as a feature film. Or lose any of that kind of innocent, handmade, tactile quality.

Have you dabbled in CG yet?

Not first-hand. But almost every shot has some sort of digital effect in it. After-effects: You put in explosions, or fog, or steam out of the kettle and stuff. Anything you can't do with clay. There's one scene where Wallace sucks all the bunnies up into the "Bun-Vac 6000," and that was just going to be impossible to do with clay. We scanned a clay bunny into the computer, and they reproduced him many times, changing his color so it looked like many of them. But we made sure there were fingerprints on the bunny that was scanned, so it still looks like clay.

There's a bit of recycling going on too with CG. Like you can see bits of Mordor in "The Matrix: Revolutions."

Oh, really? Well, when we went to our computer guys, we were looking for an explosion for the fairground finale, and we wanted a big fireball, because it's ridiculous, over-the-top. They were like, well what kind of explosion do you want? I actually chose an explosion from "Pearl Harbor."

Read the movie review:
"Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit"
Kids' stuff, but for all of us

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