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Interview and career insights with 4x Academy Award-winner Nick Park.
Extract from Spark for the Fire: How Youthful Thinking Unlocks Creativity.
Reading time: 8 minutes
Ten years ago, Spark for the Fire: How Youthful Thinking Unlocks Creativity was published. To celebrate this milestone, this is an extract from an interview with Academy Award-winner and creator of Wallace and Gromit, Nick Park.
Nick: “Animation for me started when I discovered that my mum’s old 8mm home movie camera could take single frames. I already had an inkling that I wanted to do animation. I’d seen films about Disney, and I loved drawing cartoons, so the two came together. It was a bit like thinking, ‘One day, I might play for England’ or something like that. I just thought if I keep going, keep doing, maybe one day people will know my characters.”
Production for A Grand Day Out began on his course at NFTS and was later taken on by Aardman. At the Oscars in 1990, the film was one of two short animated films nominated that were directed by Nick. The other, Creature Comforts (1989), was the eventual winner on the night. In total, A Grand Day Out – the 24-minute stop-motion film with characters made entirely from plasticine – took him a painstaking seven years to complete.
Nick: “It was a gruel. It wasn’t a straight road at all. After about a year or two, I realised I’d bitten off far more than I could chew. And I didn’t have time to finish it, either.
Back then, animation was a very solitary process at film school. I had to learn all these other skills. Eventually, I just ran out of money and time, and then Aardman helped me. When I came to Aardman, that’s when there was a more practical approach. They said, “This story is going to take you another nine years to complete.” So it was a case of sitting down and thinking about how I could round it off. I had to do a lot of curtailing of the script. It wasn’t planned. I strayed from the script enormously. I didn’t know anything about discipline or structure then.
What kept me going was the knowledge or feeling I had that I was doing something different, creating something I hadn’t seen before. I had been trying to think about what to do for my graduation film, and I still wasn’t sold on model animation. I happened upon my chosen technique myself, really; I just thought I’d try this story out in clay before anything else. I remember doing a test of Gromit and just moving the eyebrows and the effect it had on people.
For me, the most difficult aspect of filmmaking is the long-haul nature of it. Especially a feature film. The writing alone takes around two years. You think of a joke, and then four years later, you wonder, ‘Is it still funny?’
I guess it’s a purifying process. The great jokes stay in, and you’re slowly taking out the bad ones. And they are hard to let go. As Oscar Wilde said, “You have to murder your own darlings”, and that’s the hardest thing.
But there’s something very satisfying about making sure it’s a good story and a good journey for the audience to sit through. I just like thinking up original jokes, and I can’t wait to show them. And that keeps me going.”
Nick’s characters have enjoyed a prolonged run of success, with no obvious falter – whether starring in hit films or as the face of the Wallace & Gromit Foundation, a charity that helps hundreds of thousands of sick children and their families every year. And yet Nick still shares the same uncertainty familiar to us all.
Nick: “I’m terrible at going through doubt, partly because I’m very self-critical. I’m going through a strange battle at the moment, trying to find the right level. I think I’m naturally a perfectionist, but perfectionism can stifle creativity. The beauty of our kind of animation is that it’s imperfect. It’s never one or the other, though. It’s a dance between them. It’s a struggle.
A friend of mine put it well: like any artist, you have to tame the materials you’re working with. You’ve got to fight them and control them, and find the ‘thing’ in the clay—you’ve got to get some excellence out of it that wasn’t there at the beginning. But at the same time, you’ve got to have humility towards the material that allows the material to be itself.
I think it’s just finding the right balance in that struggle. It can be difficult. At the end of each film I’ve made, after the mix, everyone is working so intensely on every edit and sound effect, and everyone is so serious. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, ‘I’m not sure if this is funny. What if the audience hates it?’
It’s difficult because I feel so lucky to be where I am. I didn’t plan it. I don’t tend to plan much. I just follow my nose. It’s been good for me to be under this umbrella at Aardman. I hate speaking high and mighty as if I know anything; I don’t really. I think it’s just important to do it. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to try and demonstrate that. And it hasn’t happened overnight; it’s been a lot of hard work. You’ve got to be driven by some hunger to do something. And I’ve always felt hungry.”
You never, ever feel like there’s tons of money to play with. It just goes up more because you have to do more, or there’s more story to tell. Even now, after all the success, we have to think how can we write more economically. ‘How can we make this for this budget?’
In 1999, Aardman struck a five-film distribution deal with American movie studio DreamWorks. The new partnership, a huge achievement for Aardman and one of the biggest deals to be achieved by any British studio, tied them exclusively to DreamWorks for their animated feature productions (the deal would eventually be cancelled two films early in 2006). Founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen (the initials of whose surnames form the ‘SKG’ on the DreamWorks logo), DreamWorks Animation has to-date released 27 animated features, including Shrek (2001), How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and Madagascar (2005). The deal meant Aardman could tell stories with radically increased budgets. The first film, Chicken Run (2000), directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord, had a budget of $45,000,000. The two previous films Nick had directed were reportedly budgeted at £1,300,000 and £650,000, respectively.
Nick: “You never, ever feel like there’s tons of money to play with. It just goes up more because you have to do more, or there’s more story to tell. Even now, after all the success, we have to think how can we write more economically. ‘How can we make this for this budget?’ It is always a struggle, there has never been an open purse to do what we want. Even in the pre-recession days with DreamWorks, it was always a case of, ‘How can we get this done for as little money as possible?’
Jeffrey Katzenberg used to say, “Pick out your five money scenes, and don’t spend any money on the bits in between!”
There’s always a belief, both within Aardman and myself, that creative solutions often come from being forced to think economically. I know you need some money for some things, but as young artists we can be so set in our ways of thinking. We have a great idea that seems unachievable and we want to blame it on the world outside. Really what we need to do is look inside, check our own ideas; can they be done differently? You’ve got to constantly think on your feet, and more so as you get older.
There’s a child within us all I think, and I never want to let that go. I just want to have fun. And this gets more challenging the more you do. I find filmmaking is very disciplined. Perhaps too disciplined sometimes. Now I feel like I’m learning an awful lot more about story and structure and how to put ideas together. When I was younger, I didn’t know that, so I would think, ‘Oh, I’ve got this penguin, and these techno-trousers, how can they be in the same story?‘ ‘But what is important is hanging on to that original something you have when you’re young that is brave and not thought-through. The older you get, the more you think about things – but what’s important is constantly trying to get back. That’s where creative energy comes from.”
I still look at The Wrong Trousers (1993) as a momentous film. It had a massive impact. It just seemed to work. When I make another Wallace & Gromit film, I want to get back to that as a formula. The simplicity. Finding that original take. I believe it shouldn’t take much effort, but somehow it does. I guess people don’t see the effort – and they shouldn’t. Michael Arndt, the writer of Toy Story 3 (2010), says that writing a screenplay is like climbing a mountain. But the first job is finding the mountain.
Yes, you do need some money for ideas, but what people have at their disposal now with laptops and editing software and digital cameras and Canon whatever – you can just go out and do something. I could never afford sound when I was a kid, it was all on 8mm.
Now if you’ve got it in you, you’ll do it.
You’ll find a way.”
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