Nick Park Interview

Stop animation at its best! Into the world of a man and his beloved dog, and that curse of the were rabbit

Just when you thought Corpse Bride was the only stop animated film out there, think again. Wallace and Gromit is the second of the genre to hit the big screen this fall, but this is claymation. The creators of Chicken Run, Aardman, has brought their man and dog pals into theaters in The Curse of the Were Rabbit.

In 1985, as a young college student, Nick Park joined Aardman and introduced the world to Wallace and Gromit with his short film, A Grand Day Out. Throughout the years, his dreams have come true with the release of this feature film. Nick spoke to us up in Toronto; we were the first room of the afternoon. When he walked in the room, he was joined by another gentleman who had a briefcase. As Nick started talking the man brought up the two Wallace and Gromit figures. As he started talking about the clay figures, I was mesmerised as Nick started moving Gromit (the dog) and changing his emotions; I was like a little kid in a candy store! If you would have seen it, you would have been amazed as well! What else is pretty neat is Nick sounds like Wallace. He doesn't actually do his voice; the guy who voices Wallace is Peter Sallis. But you can tell, just by listening to him, Nick loves to talk about these two; and you'll love reading what he says:

Just when you thought Corpse Bride was the only stop animated film out there, think again. Wallace and Gromit is the second of the genre to hit the big screen this fall, but this is claymation. The creators of Chicken Run, Aardman, has brought their man and dog pals into theaters in The Curse of the Were Rabbit. In 1985, as a young college student, Nick Park joined Aardman and introduced the world to Wallace and Gromit with his short film, A Grand Day Out. Throughout the years, his dreams have come true with the release of this feature film. Nick spoke to us up in Toronto; we were the first room of the afternoon. When he walked in the room, he was joined by another gentleman who had a briefcase. As Nick started talking the man brought up the two Wallace and Gromit figures. As he started talking about the clay figures, I was mesmerised as Nick started moving Gromit (the dog) and changing his emotions; I was like a little kid in a candy store! If you would have seen it, you would have been amazed as well! What else is pretty neat is Nick sounds like Wallace. He doesn't actually do his voice; the guy who voices Wallace is Peter Sallis. But you can tell, just by listening to him, Nick loves to talk about these two; and you'll love reading what he says:

Can you talk to us about Wallace and Gromit's relationship.

Nick Park: Yeah, I mean, that's how he - going back to the first Wallace and Gromit I made, the short, A Grand Day Out, which is a college movie, a college project really. I was really planning, from – [the figures are brought in]. These are the characters – these are the originals from the movie, two of the originals. This is the size we work with. It was really, from the concept at the beginning, I actually had Gromit with a Scooby-Doo kind of voice and I actually recorded it with a guy who does mimicry and stuff. It was kind of a growly voice. In the drawings, he had a mouth and when I came to do the first shot in a Grand Day Out, it was a scene where Gromit's underneath a door and Wallace is sawing through the door building a rocket – and I couldn't access his legs to animate them or his mouth. I just couldn't lean in really to reach – there and then, that's where Gromit was born in a way. I found that, because he's clay, you know, I could just manipulate his brow and do everything by doing so little and all the expression came. And he certainly became an introvert dog and a very intelligent dog in that moment. That was it really. It made a really good dynamic with him being so extrovert and stupid and his dog being so much smarter.

Do you test some of the storylines and animation with kids and what age groups?

Nick Park: The first time, we did a bit on Chicken Run and some test screenings and we did some on this.

While you're making it?

Nick Park: Yeah, in the middle of making it, and I've never really done that before with the shorts. They were really never marketed or aimed at kids particularly, but they just happened to have a –

So do you change it or do you get reactions that surprise you?

Nick Park: Yeah, being a feature film with so many kind of eggs in one basket, it was useful and I think it made Dreamworks feel better to know that it was gonna work on the big screen. It was the first time out – there was some things we learned. We made some changes like made sure the British accents were understandable. So we sometimes made them more clearer. Sometimes there were suggestions to change the phrases. We pretty much stuck to our guns. I just wanted it to be a quirky British movie and, you know, that's what Jeffrey bought into. And, respected very much that they'd worked well before on the small screen, in those shorts I mean. And so we were playing on home turf in many ways and Jeffrey pretty much let us get on with it. You know, we'd learn things like, we put in a couple of jokes early on because we cut out some stuff as well because it was taking too long to get into the story. So we lost about a minute's worth of animation at the beginning – just small things like that really.

Can you expand to whole idea of claymation with Gromit's eyebrows and other emotions.

Nick Park: Yeah. I mean, that's exactly it really. That's why I'm so attracted to clay really, claymation, clay animation, stop frame animation. I never felt like I really ever made a choice between this and any other medium. CG, whatever, Wallace and Gromit were born out of clay for the reasons I said with Gromit. You know, I just find it such an expressive medium and a very immediate medium as well. It happens in front of the camera, like live action really, but in a slower way. We're tweaking the characters in very tiny increments in front of the character. The animator has direct contact with the clay on every single frame of film, every 24th of a second. You can kind of imbue the characters with soul because you kind of, you're slowly nudging and teasing out the characters in a small way. You can make Gromit's brow change his expression so. I can't see what's going on but, you know, you can be so manipulative of the characters and create anger or sympathy just by manipulating the brow up and down.

Is there room for digital in that world?

Nick Park: Yeah, sure. Yeah, I mean it's fundamentally stop frame animation. All the character work and all the sets are real and, you know, models. But sometimes when it was just too difficult – like there's a scene where Wallace uses the Bun Vac for the first time – sucks up all these bunnies and they're all spinning around. It was in a glass case and we just couldn't access the bunnies. (laughter) And even if we had done it stop frame, we would have had to paint out digitally all the spots of the rabbits. So we thought, well, why not just create them digitally? And it worked. The guys who did, computer film - sorry, the moving picture company in London did those rabbits. We gave them a clay rabbit and they scanned it into the computer and animated them.

If you did the whole movie like that what would happen to the characters? Would they lose something?

Nick Park: Yeah. I think so myself, yeah. I'm a clay man myself. They wouldn't, they probably wouldn't have come about in the same way if they came from a computer because there isn't that kind of direct access to the clay that humans feel. You know, I'm not at all against CG. I really admire many films that are made, especially when they have such great design sense to them. I think that's so important, whichever medium. You use a medium for a reason.

There's a sweet line when he says good night old chum; it touched me in terms of their relationship. Do you think that has to do with something about people's relationships to their animals? Did you have dogs growing up?

Nick Park: No. I never had a god. Gromit's the dog I never had. He is. In a way, you know, some people say he's more human than Wallace. It's something - yeah, I think, I know Britain is a nation, has always been said to be a nation of pet lovers, but I think that's really a universal thing. I think that's why its appeal is so universal the way it has so far. I was planning, earlier on a Grand Day Out, I was planning him to be a cat at first. And then I just found, when I made him out of clay, it was easier to make a dog. The shapes are bigger and rounder and then, and also, it was very suitable for this relationship. It's almost like an elderly husband and wife relationship. The long suffering wife and the stupid guy, in the traditional sense – the way he rolls his eyes all the time. When he became more intelligent, the way I explained it, it became more the kind of humor of a dog/man relationship. He was more intelligent. When you look into an animal's face and wonder what it's thinking. You know, and especially in this case, the dog is much smarter than the guy.

Two new characters in Lady Tot and Victor. How involved were the actors in developing those characters and what were the inspirations for them?

Nick Park: Ok. All kinds of inspirations actually. For the whole movie, we looked to Universal horror flicks of the horror pictures of the 1930's – Lon Chaney, Jr., Wolfman, particularly werewolf movies but all sorts actually – for different characters. All the secondary characters. We looked to classic werewolf movies, The Invisible Man, you know, the skeptical policemen, the priest or Victor or whatever that seems to know a lot about the supernatural and the occult. (laughter) With Lady Tottingten, we watched a lot of films, including films like Barry Lyndon, you know Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. We saw the aristocracy in Europe. King Kong, definitely King Kong. That has always been a favorite of mine from a kid. With the hunter, Victor the hunter – King Kong, Solomon's Mine - but also for his pomposity and stuff, Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, that kind of thing. Orson Welles in Wuthering Heights I think it was, that kind of dashing aristocrat. You know, the actors, Helena and Ralph, they really put a lot into the characters. I remember Helena, we were talking about how to do a rather dippy rather aristocratic lady. Very posh, you know, how to get that character. She called Tim at home and got him to send a box of prosthetic teeth he keeps under the sink kind of thing in the bathroom. She got these teeth and put them in. (imitates her - laughs) That was when we were just testing her. She didn't keep them in because she couldn't speak. We would take that track and we would then do… we'd need to record the track first and we did some animation to that track and just see if it really fits in the character well [and] seems to come from them.

How many years was it between recording the initial audio and finishing the animation?

Nick Park: Yeah, well we kind of record - start with - you would need some audio to do the animation to, that's how you get the good lip sync. We'd keep going through lots of scripts changes and scenes we hadn't even written properly yet. We'd go back to them about a dozen times throughout the whole movie over about two years.

It's been a long time since the 90's when the shorts were in Spike and Mike. When starting out, is this how you envisioned your career?

Nick Park: No, it isn't actually. Well, in a way, I always aspired to make a feature. For me, the shorts were kind of frustrated feature films. That's kind of what I love about the technique. There's so many kind of things – which is why is why I like to refer to a lot of movies. It's kind of a movie buff's film in a way. You know, the technique, even though it's in miniature, you can create the same lighting effects and camera moves and I've always wanted to create something different that people haven't seen before. You know, using what has always been considered a technique for kids TV – Gumby and whatever – and take it to that feature level but give it all the production qualities of feature film.

Is there anything in technology that could make this faster for you?

Nick Park: I think it would take away. For me, it would take away from the technique because I really wanted to make this film true to the shorts. The hand-made quality of it, to me, is important. It's part of the charm of it.

So we can't expect another movie for five years?

Nick Park: Yeah, probably.

Do you have control over the merchandising? Are you involved?

Nick Park: I have done up to now; I've been very involved, because I don't want to fill the world with trash. (laughter) But, I just haven't had time on this one. The people, now we have a whole department to Aardman who know all about the aesthetic decisions and they know how to get a good doll made.

Will there be toys?

Nick Park: There will be stuff. Yeah, apparently; I have seen a few. Yeah, I mean, it's good stuff. It's kind of nice to do that.

What's the relationship of this film to a film festival?

Nick Park: Right, Yeah, I mean I think it's, for me, it's a dream come true just to be taken seriously in sense, you know? Not that it's not serious. (laughter) Just to be taken seriously as a movie, as a film. I think Steve Fox and myself, who co-directed the film. We tend to think of this as a movie, not really as an animated film in a way. That's how we approach it. We don't approach it from a cartoon. It's not like a cartoon that's become more sophisticated. There is a cartoon quality and I love live action movies as much as I love cartoons. This is kind of marriage of the two in a way because you can be, with the plasticine, you can be flexible like in a cartoon and squash and stretch and everything.

Your work is showing up now on commercials. Did you think about selling your creations for commercial purposes?

Nick Park: Yeah, I mean, as far as my personal, you know, characters I've created. We haven't wanted to let Wallace and Gromit do much commercial work. They have actually done some. In Japan they've done some. If we do, we've had times, kind of leaner times in the studio where we've been forced to kind of go commercial with them, just because we need the money. We've had to choose the subject so they're not seen everywhere on everything. In Britain, they've just advertised cheese and crackers. (laughter) And tea, they're doing tea at the moment to help launch the movie.

Is Wallace or Gromit someone special to you?

Nick Park: I see myself in both of them actually. (laughter) They're both opposites. There's a kind of tension, you know, Gromit wanting the quiet life and order and Wallace constantly going off on tangents and causing chaos and getting mad ideas. So I think one is the dark side, you know. It's funny, after making the first film, A Grand Day out, where Wallace builds a rocket and goes to the moon. Inside the rocket, it's all like wallpaper and furniture he's made. After making that film, I suddenly realized it's my dad. He made a trailer and we all went on holiday in this trailer in Whales. It had wallpaper inside it just the same. My dad always loved to spend his time in the shed making things.

What are their next adventures?

Nick Park: Well, I don't know specifically.

Do you know what your next feature project will be?

Nick Park: No, no. It's been so long, I just want to take a break.

Would it be these characters or different set?

Nick Park: It could be, it could be them.

So you're not against another Wallace and Gromit feature?

Nick Park: Not necessarily; what I don't want to do is just do it for commercial demand. You know, whatever. It has to be like an idea that really inspires me, almost demands to be made into movie.

This movie has two writers and two directors; what's the process of making a call?

Nick Park: I ultimately do, yeah. If there is any controversy, then I get to make the final call. I've got writer veto creatively on everything, which is unheard of signing up with a Hollywood studio, which is great.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it opens in Los Angeles and New York October 5th and nationwide October 7th.