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In ‘Early Man,’ Nick Park goes all caveman

Aardman Animations

Director Nick Park, whose new animated film “Early Man” opens Friday, was inspired to use stop-motion animation by the Ray Harryhausen classic “One Million Years B.C.”

By Ed Symkus Globe Correspondent 

British animation director Nick Park is at it again. After co-directing two stop-motion feature films “Chicken Run” (2001), with Peter Lord, and Oscar winner “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005), with Steve Box — he’s returned to solo directing on “Early Man,” a sweet-natured, slapstick tale centering on an optimistic Stone Age fellow named Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) and the theory that cavemen invented soccer. It opens next Friday.

Park is best known for creating the man and dog team of Wallace & Gromit, who starred in “Were-Rabbit,” but made their names in the earlier shorts “A Grand Day Out,” “The Wrong Trousers,” and “A Close Shave” (the first was Oscar nominated, the other two took home the gold).

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Park, who makes his films at Aardman Animations, and directed the short films on his own, was introduced to tandem directing when Aardman went into a short-lived feature distribution deal with DreamWorks Animation. That was the DreamWorks method from their first film “Antz” (1998) up through “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010).

But Park, 59, who made his first stop-motion film, “Walter the Rat,” on an 8mm camera when he was 13, and in 1985 joined Aardman, where he was part of the team responsible for the dazzling video of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” wanted to return to his roots on “Early Man.” He spoke by phone from his home in Bristol, England, about that decision, as well as his fascination with dinosaurs and cavemen, and his lack of interest in soccer.

Q. Can you recall any movies you saw early on that might have led you to doing stop-motion?

A. It’s funny, and very appropriate that one of my favorite films as a kid was [special visual effects creator] Ray Harryhausen’s “One Million Years B.C.” I was obsessed with dinosaurs back then. I still have this collection of plastic dinosaurs. I couldn’t believe the film when I saw it: real live dinosaurs next to people! It was just thrilling. That was actually the movie that made me pick up an 8mm camera and start making my own films, and it definitely influenced “Early Man.”

Q. Had you been planning to make this film for a long time?

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A. Strangely enough, the caveman movie “The Croods” (2013) started at Aardman when we were at DreamWorks. But when we split with them, they took “The Croods.” But, yes, since I first came to Aardman we’ve often thought of caveman ideas and Stone Age ideas. One day I was drawing a caveman with a typical club — a Gary Larson-type thing. I had him hitting a rock, and I was thinking of baseball, or rounders, as we have here. So, we were thinking of cavemen and sport, and maybe having sport as a civilizing force, bringing people together. Then I was thinking of the whole tribalism of soccer, what we call football. What if you had a bunch of lunkhead cavemen that have to put down their weapons and learn a game? The whole thing developed from there.

Q. Everyone in England has a football team. Who’s your team?

A. Well, I grew up in Preston, in the north of England. We had a team called Preston North End. But I didn’t grow up in a football family, and I was a very nominal supporter. I had a school bag with Preston North End on it, but I never ever went to see a match. I’m not really a football fan, but the writers and storyboard artists on “Early Man” are.

Q. What prompted you to direct alone this time?

A. We’ve always used that model from when we started doing feature films with DreamWorks, where there was two-hander direction because it helps an awful lot to have an ally. It was good to have one in “Chicken Run” and “Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” But this time I just felt that I wanted to be at the reins, and see what it’s like.

Q. And how was the experience, compared to doing it on the short films?

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A. It was quite exhausting, because you’re at the top of this pyramid, with a crew of about 200 people, and everybody obviously has lots of questions, every day, all day long.

Q. You started off your career working on both sides of the camera. You were directing, but you were also making the models and doing hands-on animating. Were you still able to do any of that?

A. No, not on feature films. But I like to have hands on in the sense of designing the characters, and I’ll do sketches of a set or what the town looks like, then hand them to the art department.

Q. You landed a great cast of British actors, including Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Timothy Spall, and Maisie Williams. So why is Hiddleston, as the villain Lord Nooth, doing the part with a French accent?

A. Because the tribe in the Bronze Age world in this universe that we created is from Europe. We tried different things. In fact, one time we tried it with an English accent, but then it sounded a bit too typical, because, of course, there are so many English villains. So it seemed a bit more original to go French. And it was funnier!

Q. A lot of young audiences are going to see this film, and it has a positive message about the importance of teamwork. Is that what you were going for?

A. It’s a kind of a subtheme, but Dug carries the theme, really, in that he’s like a can-do caveman, a born optimist. He sees life with a glass half full, and he thinks: Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we do that?

Q. It’s been reported that with the writing and storyboarding and animating and editing, the film took almost five years to make. That requires a lot of patience. What do you do when you’re on break between films?

A. Well, I tend to do things where you have to have patience. (laughs) I like birdwatching, I like painting, and I do a lot of sketching.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.