Puppet film is the sort of animated film that occupies some of its most famous authors, like the four-time Oscar winner Nick Park (born in 1958), the father of the unforgettable characters of Wallace and Gromit, but also of the feature-length hits like Chicken Run (2000) and Shaun the Sheep serial (2007). The World Festival of Animated Film – Animafest Zagreb 2014, taking place 3-8 June at Europa, Tuškanac and Cineplexx Kaptol Centre theatres, dedicated its central thematic programme precisely to puppet film. The dominant part is a historical top list of this technique Masters of Puppets to the selection of 45 today’s greatest artists. As much as the selectors’ choices were different, every list inevitably included Nick Park’s films, so the only question was which films to select from this English master’s incredibly influential body of work. The Animafest audience will be given a chance to see Creature Comforts (1989), in which a ZOO bestiary humorously speaks about their frustrations, parodying British social documentaries, the film which earned Park his first Academy Award, and Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers (1993), perhaps the finest Wallace and Gromit film, interspersed with subtle quotations by Park’s inspirations. It was these films, next to the first Wallace and Gromit episode, A Grand Day Out, that made Park the greatest animation celebrity. There is another record-breaking fact testifying to that: by 2010 Nick Park won every Oscar he was nominated for, losing only once, in 1991 – from himself. Nevertheless, he has remained a modest and relatively secluded artist who rarely gives interviews and spends his days at the famous Bristol-based Aardman Animations studio, to which he remained related throughout most of his career. Aardman is almost fully oriented on the historically younger tradition of the ‘soft’ puppet-film which uses clay and special kinds of plasticine and silicone, media used by Park to create his hits.
Animafest: Among all of the available animation techniques, why have you chosen stop motion plasticine / clay animation for the most part of your career? What are the particularities in working with it and what does it bring in the matter of style and approach to animation?
Nick Park: Even as a 12-year-old boy I experimented with different techniques, drawing, cut-out, blackboard, but also clay. I have always been interested in direct, immediate techniques that do not need a lot of planning, because it seemed like the best thing to have everything ‘happen’ in front of the camera. I was not too inclined to clay, partly because it was very hard to animate with it. There are so many practical difficulties, for instance, the material very quickly heats up under the lights. Besides, puppet animation I had a chance to see at festivals seemed much closer to live action, which was what FX technicians used it for. However, while I was at the National Film and Television School, I returned to clay and loved it unconditionally. I decided to pursue the idea of the story about a man making a rocket in his basement as a puppet film. Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out (1990), which I began making as a student, showed me that my characters were truly born out of clay and could not exist outside of it. For instance, when I came to make a few first shots of A Grand Day Out, I tried to give more expressivity to Gromit, so I moved his eyebrows and realised – this is the face of a dog. Gromit was initially envisaged as an active character jumping around, just like a dog, but these moving eyebrows changed everything – suddenly he was brought to life as an intelligent, introverted, sensitive, knowing and caring character, who connected with the audience. Suddenly everything I planned turned upside down because of the clay really. He was born from clay.
Throughout its history,puppet film, clay, the model animation in comparison to much more industrialised, like factory produced drawn animation (Disney), has mainly been pushed aside. Puppet film can be practically really difficult, it doesn't cover everything and I am not a purist who will say this is the only good technique. At Aardman Animations studio we used different techniques, technologies and effects, "smoke and fog" that are characteristic of film art in general.
A clay model is great for short films, but with larger productions it is not easy to have all collaborators working in the same style. On Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers (1993) there were just the two of us doing animation, but on Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave (1995) there were several animators working on Wallace’s model. I developed certain techniques to tackle this challenge. I knew that at some point everybody would animate Wallace and his face was going to change, so I had pre-made mouth moulds with 12 predefined positions for his speech.The moulds were simply imprinted, press-moulded onto Wallace’s face to make it always look the same. With The Wrong Trousers we had a different problem – clay would come out of Wallace's trousers, stick to fingers or come over Wallace's face, which was uneconomicbecause the cleaning process would take a long time. So we made Wallace's trousers out of clay-imitating rubber. However, we could not use rubber for the faces, arms or hands, because it is not expressive enough. You have to design your characters in such a way that animating does not take too long. On the other hand, what I like about clay is that it gives you a chance for a clear artistic signature, fingerprint or style visible even when you work with many people. It never becomes too smooth. Clay ‘remembers’ your imprint and charms with tiny imperfections.
Aniamfest: The Wrong Trousers was selected by 45 international artists as the best movie of the world retrospective of this technique that will be shown at the World Festival of Animated Film in Zagreb. What are the subtle differences between Wallace and Gromit films - which one do you personally prefer and why? What do you think appealed to international electors in The Wrong Trousers, as opposed to your other movies?
Nick Park: I am very proud of being selected by all these distinguished filmmakers. The Wrong Trousers in my mind is also the best one, the best Wallace and Gromit movie. The first one, A Grand Day Out, was nevertheless a college film that Aardman helped me to finish, made at the time when I still did not know much about the story structure. In A Grand Day Out events follow one another without a real plot or narrative – the film was based on a very whimsicalidea about a guy who builds a rocket to go to the moon. It's all very linear, there is no any plot really. Working on The Wrong Trousers, it was the first time I had a screenwriter (Bob Baker) who helped me express some inspirations, for example Hitchcock’s films and others that I liked.The Wrong Trousers is a film with original, idiosyncratic and somewhat strange combination of ideas like the penguin lodger and techno-trousers. The story of The Wrong Trousers is small enough to breathe and be convincing in its 30 minutes – it is not packed with plot so there is chance for characters to breathe and plenty of room for empathy towards the characters, for the audience to feel strongly with them. Not even the chasing scene is too long. At the time I remember, I was thinking whether this Tom-and-Jerry style chase would ruin the basically slow-burning, mystery-suspense movie.I wasn't sure it would work. To give you a small clue- we did not always know what we were doing, but it was exciting and it worked. Significant contribution came from Julian Nott’s Bernard Herrmann style score and Steve Box’s penguin animation. The penguin and his subtle less-is-more manner were definitely one of our big successes. It all just came together. When Bob Baker and I were writing the Wallace and Gromit stories, we often wondered how do we do it, how to be economic in terms of the storyline and find that big funny strike of originality. In The Wrong Trousers we made it in a truly original way, if I am allowed to say something like that about my own film.
Animafest: What went through your mind when you finished your first Wallace and Gromit movie A Grand Day Out? Did you expect it to be so popular and what was the creative mission you set in front of you before you started? In what way did the success of your movies(Oscars and other prestigious awards, warm welcome by the audience) changed your life?
Nick Park: On A Grand Day Out I worked for seven years, first as a student, then as a part-time Aardman Studio employee, only to finish it in 1989. As I was finishing it Aardman asked me to do Creature Comforts (1989), based on my own idea, where we joined animated animal characters in the ZOO that I did with the sort of documentary voices,interviews that Peter Lord and David Sproxton made. Before then I wasn't known at all, and then suddenly I touched the sky with two movies that were nominated for an Oscar in one year. I was proud to be nominated alongsidethe great Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto, whose works I admired in college. Creature Comforts won an Oscar and it was a big splash, it made a lot of impact, so I was suddenly this famous animator. This was a big change for me. A couple years later, another Oscar, with The Wrong Trousers, followed by feature films – everything was constantly going upwards. The problem with such successes is that you do not know how long they will last, but in my case they lasted surprisingly long – it was a great period and I felt really privileged. But you still wonder "can I better that in any way". Unfortunately, a success does not make filmmaking easier. I am currently working on my new film and an associate asked me: why is every film so difficult?It never gets easier, even with the experience. It gets more difficult. You try just to keep going, be original and self-critical. That's the difficult bit.
Animafest: Wallace and Gromit movies have often been called distinctively British. Which aspects of British culture are most significant for your work – literature, film, animation, design or popular, everyday culture?
Nick Park: I draw ideas from things around me. They tend to come from things I remember or grew up with, or from movies I saw. That's what attracted me to model animation as well – the chance of making small lampstands behind Wallace, chairs and the patterns that surrounded me. I grew up in the 1960s, when everything we had was second handfrom the fifties. I liked this post-war, kind of round aesthetic – I saw it as something friendly. From my own British perspective it is hard to tell what is distinctively British in my work, but I suppose it is subtlety and understatement.
Animafest: Can you name few artist (local or international) that have influenced your work and why?
Nick Park: Hergé’s comic book Tin Tin was a big influence on me growing up. I loved both the design and the stories, which were already like storyboards. Then there was Ray Harryhausen (the famous American special effects master and stop-motion pioneer), especially his work on Jason and the Argonauts (1963), one of my favourite movies in general, with the famous living skeletons and puppet animation. I was influenced by everything really. Hitchcock’s movies were also significant, as well as silent comedies by Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. I also absorbed European animation, mainly through festivals which I still love to attend.
Animafest: Throughout your career you were part of Aardman Animations. How did this collaboration with Peter Lord and David Sproxton shape your ideas and style - the way you approach movie-making? Was it significant for the creative process, or only for the visibility (production, distribution aspects) of your movies?
Nick Park: They certainly have been very good to me ever since I came to Aardman to finish A Grand Day Out. Lord and Sproxton invited me to come to work with them when I was in the middle of the film, which helped me a lot. Their quality is seen also from the fact that there was nobody else I wanted to work for really. They are particularly good at nurturing young directors because they offer not just the umbrella of the production company and the facilities, butthey make you better. They are very good in being critical of what you are working on, but also encouraging, fostering creativity and constructiveness. Aardman is an exceptionally creative environment with a team of outstanding authors. All this finally helps you to make a better film. It's nice to be in such a place where we are constantly pushing ourselves and remaining critical of what we do.
Animafest: What are the differences in making an animated short, feature film and television series?
Nick Park: Switching from shorts to features was a big challenge for me. One of the constant challenges is telling a three times longer story, because it's not just "more story". It has been quite a learning curve, but I realized along the way how to shape the architecture of narrative, the structure. I am currently working on a new feature and I have to say the narrative is a big recurring challenge. As far as series are concerned, let us take, for example, the very successful Shaun the Sheep, for which Richard Goleszowski takes much more credit. A lot depends on economy; with a series you need to be mindful about how much something costs and if people or broadcasters are willing to pay for it. Those things haven't concerned me an awful lot in the past, but it turned out that in series production the ideas are very tied in to the costs.Like, if it's snowing one episode suddenly there is a problem because you already got a field built with a green grass. So one episodeworth of snow might be very costly,because it's a new set, dressing and everything.The narrative challenges, however, remain the same – how do we make a story that is funny, original and quirky. How do we keep this funny-quirky spark. Everything I do, regardless of the form, needs to have this quirky touch. Working on different forms, I realised how important writing is. Something that is a bit neglected in the animation, I think, the writing side, because it's not visual.But writing is very visual! That is probably the biggest thing we had to learn over the years - what the writing is actually, especially on feature films, but in series too.Short animation filmmakers usually start with the visual ideas, the ones which tend to come to them, which in a way is the beauty of animation as visual art. But structure! Writing is all about structure, setting the ideas on solid ground and care for credible character development. Narrative structure still often seems to be neglected.
Animafest: It seems that for a humorousness of your characters gag and timing (dynamic), combined with specific material, are the most important - can you comment on this bond? How do you perceive humour and in what ways are you creating humorous situations in your films?
Nick Park: I tend to start just withdoodling sketches in my sketch book and creating simple situations – just playing around with possibilities. Then I keep drawing and testing as many interesting and funny ideas coming out of these situations as possible. When I started working on the penguin character in The Wrong Trousers, I had few drawings and assumption what would penguin get up to if he stayed in the house. Then I drew him getting stuck in a vacuum cleaner, riding in toys, cars, trains. I like just playing with physical in a drawing, all until I think: ‘Hey, this would be nice to make as a model’. It's funny I just said that writing is the most important thing, but animation technique, the medium is also important. It is part of this art’s charm. As I already said, Gromit would probably not just happen in the same way if he was made in anothertechnique. I have always started from the sketch book idea before, and I still do. Then I go to the screenwriter, we put cards on the wall and talk the big story arch for the characters, but I'm still doodling and thinking: what's funny here. You always have to look for the funny, that's important. And you got to get the big things right and put them together as well because if they aren't right than it won't be funny.We try to make the big story thing funny - the choices made, all the story turns should have certain quirkiness about them, as well and a certain silliness.Sometimes it takes a lot of effort just to make a story work well, but then you might do well and still look at it and say: it's great now, but it's not funny. Then you have to go back and see what could you ‘twist’ to make it funny again.
Animafest: The Wrong Trousers also won Grand Prix of Zagreb Festival in 1994. Have you ever visited the Festival and what is your memory of it?
Nick Park: Yes, I did go to Zagreb once, but with A Grand Day Out, so before The Wrong Trousers. It must have been around 1990. I got a prize for A Grand Day Out there (Children’s Competition). I enjoyed the festival very much, the atmosphere was magnificent. I always heard about Zagreb, so it was a great thing to finally go there, spend time with all these famous animators. I remember asking every single one of them to draw something in my sketch book, which I still got. It was great fun and I well look after to visit the Zagreb festival again.