EARLY MAN – Interview with animaton director Will Becher

They’ve given us ‘Wallace & Gromit’, ‘Chicken Run’ & ‘Shaun The Sheep’ and this January Aardman studios look set to deliver their biggest stop motion animation yet with ‘Early Man’. Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, ‘Early Man’ tells the story of how plucky caveman Dug, along with sidekick Hognob, unites his tribe against the mighty Bronze Age in a battle to beat them at their own game. Directed by Oscar winner Nick Park, the voice cast includes Eddie Redmayne, Maisie Williams and Tom Hiddleston. We caught up with animation director Will Becher to chat about the movie.

What’s your background with Aardman stuidios?
I first came to visit Aardman aged 14 after writing lots of letters to Nick Park. Him and his assistant sent back loads of advice and help over the years, I came in for a set visit during the filming of ‘A Close Shave’, then over a few years I pursued my hobby and studied animation in college and every summer of my degree I came to Aardman and worked. My very first job was during ‘Chicken Run’, when I was a a trainee model maker and all the way through I had a passion for becoming an animator and got lots of help and advice which helped me with my college degree.

Can you tell us how ‘Early Man’ went from a concept idea to a big screen adventure?
Many years ago, about 6 or 7 years ago Nick (Park) was pitching the idea for the first time, he generally works visually, so the initial idea was that it’d be fun to make a cave man film, suited to Aardman’s style of animation. He was really interested in the way the characters would look, clay was part of the prehistoric makeup. He then wrote it with Mark Burton for a few years just developing the idea and picking what the story was about. It started out as an idea in his head, then went onto his sketch pad then evolved slowly to the film. Originally they were looking at how the characters might talk and gave them a cave man style of dialogue, when I first started on the movie the characters had monosyllabic voices but it evolved because we realised it wouldn’t be as engaging. 

Is creating and evolving the characters a fun part of the process?
Yeah, I love it. In stop-motion animation nothing exists to begin with, so you’re always working with a blank canvas. Nick had very strong ideas about certain elements, when we first started he would sketch all the characters on paper, then he would work with the sculpture to sculpt them into clay, from that process we discussed how the characters would act and perform and look and sound. It evolved over a year before shooting started, and once you start shooting and more animators join the characters evolve further.

What would your average day be like on set at Aardman?
Every single day is different, the general structure would be coming in at 8.30, everything goes through (director) Nick, he’d brief us and act out the script on camera, so we’d get a video reference for every shot.  We’d try avoid anything really dangerous but we do pretty much dress up as cave men and use this filmed reference with the animators to kick-start a discussion of what’s involved in a shot. We’d spend lots of time working on how a character would look and act and set them up. For every shot we’d work with the art department, the model makers, the lighting, to create the vision that Nick has in his head. We’re part of the process of getting that vision onto the screen.

How long does the average scene take to film?
Our main statistic that shocks and alarms people is that the animators each try to do 5 seconds of footage a week. What we’ve found is that there are no easy shots, you see a shot on a storyboard that looks relatively simple but quite often the close ups are the hardest ones to get, every sequence contains a varied number of shots. For example, an animator might be able to do shot in a day but it probably would have taken a week to set up that shot. We had one animator working with Nick, where a single shot took him seven and a half weeks to animate.

What is the process for actors recording their voiceovers?
The first meetings we had with Eddie and the other tribe members was six months before the shoot. Then maybe once every three to six months they’d come back and do another recording session. The cast worked together once or twice but on the whole they’d just record solo with someone reading in. It’s quite a challenging process because they’ve to repeat lines over and over again and not with the clearest intention of exactly how it’s going to come out in the end. They had to give lots of different options just to get the perfect delivery. They also had to imagine it all, Nick would take down sketches at the beginning and take up puppets to show them so they’d get a sense of how their characters would look, then show them rushes as they went along to encourage them. There’s a trust involved, as they’re providing the voice before the animators build the film.

It was lovely seeing how the actors talked to Nick, there’s clearly a lot of respect for him in the industry but equally he was very respectful of them. It was a great collaboration, Eddie brought a lot to it, immediately when he found the voice it fed in to the performance. We started tweaked the character’s mouth, changed the way he stood, he used his amazing voice as a starting point and we elaborated on it.

EARLY MAN hits cinemas on January 26th