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How the Studio Behind Early Man Is Keeping It Old-School in a Digital World

How the Studio Behind Early Man Is Keeping It Old-School in a Digital World
From TIME - February 14, 2018

Its 10 a.m. in an enormous studio in Bristol, England. For hours, a film crew has been adjusting lights and setting up cameras for the mornings shoot. The stars of todays scene are waiting off set, their intricate costumes receiving last-minute touch-ups, their stunt doubles ready.

Action time. The camera begins its journey down a railway-like structure, capturing the scene frame by frame. Theres silence on set. Then disaster strikes.

The ear of the leading lady has fallen straight off, landing on the sets wooden floor with a soft phut. An assistant rushes over and the cameraman curses, knowing hell need to reshoot the scene. Everyones wondering the same thing: how easy will it be to reattach the organ?

Despite the chaos, theres no blood. No ambulance is called, no movie contracts studiously examined. Why? Because the star of this scene is a clay puppet, whose movements are animated in meticulous detail by a team of professionals at Aardman Studios. Aardman is the home of stop-motion animation, also known as claymation, and the studio is best known for the creation of Wallace and Gromit, an eccentric inventor and his intelligent dog who, in the 1990s, became some of Englands most beloved characters.

Ahead of the release of the Aardmans seventh feature film, Early Man, TIME visited their studio in Bristol. The family-friendly adventure comedy, which stars Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Game of Thrones Maisie Williams and hits U.S. screens on Feb. 16, continues the studios long tradition of prioritizing a lovingly handmade feel even as the rest of the world goes digital.

Aardmans origins: From a teenage hobby to the Oscars

Schoolmates Peter Lord and David Sproxton began animating together as a hobby when they were teenagers, using a 16mm clockwork Cine Camera belonging to Sproxtons father, an amateur photographer and a producer at the BBC. The pair played around with cut-outs from magazine color supplements and chalk drawings, spending weeks making fun one-minute clips.

Through pure nepotism, according to Sproxton, their first work came with Vision On, a BBC show for children who were deaf or hard of hearing that ran from 1964 to 1976. Aardman Animations, named after an early character, was registered as a company in 1972, and the pair moved to Bristol around four years later.

Lord and Sproxton worked steadily, earning their first Academy Award in 1990 for their short film Creature Comforts (1989), in which the voices of real members of the British public play out of the mouths of plasticine zoo creatures, to great comedic effect. Around a decade later came the shape-shifting Morph, now one of the studios iconic creations, designed for the childrens program Take Hart in 1997.

Nick Park joins the team, bringing Wallace and Gromit

In 1985, four years before Creature Comforts, Lord and Sproxton joined forces with Nick Park, a talented animator and graduate of the prestigious National Film and Television School.

Park had invited the pair to give a lecture at his college. At the time, he was working on his graduate project, A Grand Day Out, starring Wallace and Gromit. The now iconic duo looked a bit different then: Gromit was initially a catuntil Park realized that a dog was far simpler to animate. (The plasticine limbs could be longer and fatter, making it easier to walk it.)

Lord and Sproxton recruited Park to help out with Morph, eventually offering him a full-time job. As a trio, they followed up on Parks original Wallace and Gromit film with six successful shorts starring the duo, and an Oscar-winning movie, 2006s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But the studio wasnt just making films. Aardman brought its signature style to music videos, from the Spice Girls Viva Forever to Nina Simones recording of My Baby Just Cares for Me. Their advertising partnerships with brands included McDonalds, the bubble gum brand Hubba Bubba and Chevron.

The painstaking labor behind Early Man

Claymations enduring appeal

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