Nick Park: Making His Mark in Clay

An interview with the creator of Wallace & Gromit and co-director of DreamWorks’ and Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Animation Magazine contributor and animation art conservation specialist Ron Barbagallo recently spoke with Nick Park about his artistic influences, how he uses drawing to start telling a story and what it was like to bring everyone’s favorite plasticine duo to the big screen for the very first time. To check out some great images from the production, head over to Ron’s website at www.animationartconservation.com/wallace_gromit.html.

Nick Park: It’s really a dream come true. Wallace and Gromit were my college creations, and it is quite something to think that they are starring in their first full-length feature film.

I look back on having made the three shorts as if they are in a sense like making smaller feature films, so the feature seemed like the next actual step. I guess because I found what was great about working in the medium–how you can light it, how to do camera work. It satisfied many things for me.

But at the same time I was a bit cautious because sometimes what works in short films works because it is short. I was cautious on how to get there, how to make that step which is partly why we did Chicken Run first.

I was waiting for the right idea to come along that was big enough and simply expansive enough to suggest a full-length movie. An idea that had the potential for an 80-minute film with character development and story but also was inspiring enough to sustain me through for the next four or five years.

Once you decided you wanted to move forward with planning a movie for Wallace and Gromit, how did you start your production?

After I’ve come up with the initial idea, you know this whole idea of exploring rabbits, Bob Baker, the writer, and I were sitting in a pub in Bristol and we got this lightning strike of an idea — what if it were a were-wolf movie, but with a big funny rabbit eating vegetables instead of people and develop it for Wallace and Gromit? After that I decided to develop it with a guy I was going to co-direct it with, Steve Box, who worked with me on Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers. He animated Feathers McGraw.

We sat there typing it and as we were typing, one of us would be drawing, or vice versa, or the other one would be making a mock up model in clay while we were writing. So it all went on at the same time.

Then there was a certain point when we stopped writing, where the script becomes very visual and we went into storyboard for most of the writing time actually. We spent a couple of years storyboarding. We’d shoot the boards and then put them into a digital edit system. We put our own voices on, temporary music, some sound effects and edit the whole thing.

It would be very rough, but those storyboards would become our story reel. We’d constantly be editing from that. Redrawing stuff, trying to make acts better, trying to find scene structures that were better. Sometimes we’ll throw out the whole scene and decide we don’t need it or add a scene somewhere. It remains a very organic, constantly rolling process to the end of the movie.

It’s like making a sketch, really, refining lines, going back and bringing certain qualities forward, deciding if something works or not?

Yeah, that’s what we show to Jeffrey [Katzenberg] every few weeks. They make comments and our other writer, Mark Burton, would come in and think up some better lines of dialog. We’d have a brainstorming meeting over a scene and think–how can we make this scene funnier? How can we make the story point a bit quicker? You know, that kind of thing. It gives an overall sense of the shape of the movie above all as well. Obviously in this kind of filmmaking we can’t afford to shoot stuff we don’t use and we did end up not using a couple of minutes worth.

How would you describe your take on storytelling? What sort of things did you look at while growing up that you feel influenced you as a filmmaker?

The Wallace & Gromit movies I made were always referencing other film genres outside of animation, films that I loved all the time. Hitchcock films [and David Lean's] Brief Encounter, and I equally love the work of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Tom and Jerry cartoons and Disney films. I grew up on all these films.

I’ve always loved slapstick comedy. I love Buster Keaton and all the Laurel and Hardy films. Maybe that’s where I got Gromit looking at camera and giving us kind of a knowing look to the audience. Maybe from Oliver Hardy, the way he would seem so "give me strength," you know, put upon, looking for sympathy.

I’ve always loved book illustration as well, and collected comic books. In the ’70s and ’80s, I read graphic novels like Hergé’s Adventures of TinTin and the illustrated books of Raymond Briggs. He did a book called Father Christmas and Fungus the Bogeyman, which were popular in the U.K. I love that graphic and chunky style that he had where everything is rendered. He also did The Snowman, which was later turned into animation.

I always loved those 1950s shapes, all post-World War II. I used to watch Ray Harryhausen’s Mother Goose Stories. He did one called Hansel and Gretel (1951) years before. I love that and that kind of holiday animation that was on TV. A lot of ideas I have are inspired by those kind of things, those kinds of aesthetics.

I guess it’s the satisfaction of everything I love coming together, you know, Jules Verne stories, H. G. Wells, TinTin Adventures and Laurel and Hardy comedy kind of all coming together but with the atmosphere of a Hitchcock movie.

What is the role of drawing in your films?

I always start off by drawing. I start off with visual ideas. It’s what started off my film, A Grand Day Out. I started drawing this rocket, and I thought it would be great to just build to it. That’s one of the sort of things that attracted me to 3D really. The chance to build something like this rocket in this big cigar shape and cover it with rivets.

Years ago, at college, a lot of my illustrations, the ones I did when I wanted to illustrate books and do the stories, were done as just illustrations. So, I’ve always started off by drawing, drawing nice shapes that I liked.

When did you start to take the world of your 2D drawings into the world of 3D clay animation? Was it while you were in college creating drawings?

Yeah. It was, really. Sometimes I thought, well, should I do this in 2D? Then I thought it’s such satisfaction making them in clay. The idea that you can make them three dimensional, so that they had their own natural perspective. You can light it and all. I love that world. There’s a certain other worldliness. It’s like an almost other reality, but it’s not.

And, while I’m interested in clay I think I wanted to take clay animation more into the area of story. You know, use it for like a bigger thing than just an animation affect. With clay animation you can treat it like a cartoon, really, because of all this squash and stretch. Yet you’re working with all these cinematic live action elements, tools and devices: lighting and camera work, drama.

That’s why going to film school was so great because it really educated me about movie making. The more films I saw, the more I could learn.

Were there any changes in materials or technology you had to make to take Wallace and Gromit to the big screen? Any changes to the clay you were using for the shorts?

No, it’s the same old stuff really [a special blend of Plasticine, nicknamed "Aard-mix" which is slightly more durable than ordinary Plasticine]. I was really keen to keep the feeling of the short films in there. I didn’t want to think that just because it’s become a feature film it had to suddenly get slicker or smooth or have another visual quality. I wanted to keep the hand-made quality that’s it’s always had.

Are your backgrounds still handmade sets with fully painted backgrounds behind them, or were they done digitally this time?

Nick Park:

No, the backgrounds are all real sets with painted backdrops. Even if we blue-screened or shot Gromit against a green screen when there’s a real effect in the background. You know, like when they’re flying along and stuff like that.

We did use digital technology sometimes to create effects like fog and even then we didn’t always do that digitally, because you can’t animate fog. The smoke would move. Sometimes after a shot we would take the figures out and do a run where we added smoke. Then digitally lay that in afterwards; or we’d create smoke digitally, like for a kettle boiling or a flame on a cooker.

At certain times, some of the bunnies in the Bun-Vac 6000 were put in digitally. But we were keen that they would look like they were made of plasticine.

With Peter Jackson having made the decision to use digital technology to create King Kong in his upcoming film of the same name, did it ever occur to you to do the same? In the original film, Willis O’Brien used handmade 3D animation to create Kong.

It’s funny that you should mention that, because we could have done our Were-Rabbit using CGI because you can do such great fur and everything. But we just chose to do it more in keeping with Wallace & Gromit and do it in the old way–make a big fur puppet and animate it, harking back to King Kong because of the sympathy the animator was able to put in his eyes, in his facial expressions. He was the force of antagonism, a beast. And yet you felt so strongly for him. We were trying to tap into that kind of quality and didn’t mind if the fur was a little moppy or twitches a bit, like in King Kong.

Did you base the characters of Wallace and Gromit on anyone in particular? Did you have a dog?

No, I never had a dog. Gromit is the only family dog I’ve ever had.

You’ve known Wallace and Gromit for sixteen years now. Was there anything about them you didn’t know, that you learned about them while making the movie?

[Laughs] I suppose there is, because in a way they sort of write their own stories these days. It’s the beauty of having established characters. They take on a life of their own and you’re waiting for them to tell you the story in a way.

I think, if anything, I learned just how far I can you push them. That in their own way, they’re an elderly couple. They know each other so well, a love-hate relationship. But it’s a deep-seeded love relationship and at the end of the day, they will look out for each other. So we were able to push Gromit’s loyalty to the extreme. And, also, it occurred to me while making the film that Gromit is always trying to change Wallace. Gromit had to face [the question] how much can you change someone?

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit opened as the No. 1 movie in North America on Oct. 7, and is poised for a big U.K. debut this weekend.