Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Nick Park.
Ever since his first two shorts, A Grand Day Out and Creature Comforts, were both nominated for Academy Awards in 1989, with the latter taking home the prize, Nick Park has become a stop-motion/claymation legend. While a student at the National School of Film and Television, he landed a job with Aardman Animation, helping with commercial projects, and in turn received workspace and resources for his own films. From his initial success, he has continued to work with the studio, going on to co-direct the features Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, both loved by critics and audiences, and now Early Man. His characters are often known for their unique aesthetic and quirky humor and have become household names internationally.
Given all his accomplishments (including three more Oscar wins for Wallace and Gromit shorts and the feature plus another nomination) and his iconic renown in the field, Park is someone to admire whether you’re a stop-motion animator, traditional animator, or even a live-action filmmaker. So we’ve compiled some tips he’s given out over the years below.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Nick Park
The first key to getting any film made is, of course, to make that film, as Park told The Guardian in 2009 when asked for advice for young filmmakers:
“Get out and make films. There are so many cameras now to suit any budget, so there are no excuses.”
Take a Film Course
When deciding to pursue a filmmaking career, the transition from fun activity to a professional job can be overwhelming. But as Park mentioned in an interview in 2009 for the 20th Anniversary of Wallace and Gromit (watch below), taking a film class can really be helpful:
“You know, I used to do animation as a hobby at home and make films on my own in the attic, you know, in the garden shed. And I remember my dad saying, ‘Why don’t you apply to college and find out where to do a film course or an animation course? Because you could do a degree in film or animation.’ That was probably one of the best bits of advice I ever got.”
Work With a Sympathetic Producer
The role of director often goes beyond leading a film’s artistic choices. While Park himself prioritizes creativity, he notes the importance of keeping an eye on the budget and working with a producer who is on the same page.Park emphasizes this point in an interview published in the 2014 book “Directing for Animation: Everything You Didn’t Learn in Art School”:
“I just try to stay on the creative side, and you’ve always got to pay attention to budget. You always seem to be trying to cut corners no matter what you do, no matter how much of a budget there is, you’re always fighting to cut corners, and get things done more quickly, and more economically. I work with good producers. I think it’s important to work with a producer who’s sympathetic, that you’re not at odds with. Who has respect for what you need creatively, and to make a great film.”
Keep Your Individuality
In the same interview, when discussing the shift from making animated shorts to a feature-length film like Chicken Run, Park stresses the need to hold onto your originality, for projects both big and small:
“I remember [with] ‘A Close Shave,’ things became exponentially much bigger, like 40 people suddenly. I had to respond honestly, and tactfully, and learn that people actually wanted to help me. I had to learn that because I come from a culture where animation isn’t much of an industry really, you know. It’s always been a cottage industry in Britain, and especially puppet animation is always a cottage industry everywhere it seems, and so we’ve tried to industrialize the process, at the same time as keeping the auteur, you know, the individuality as if it’s made by one person, and sometimes I’ve felt that it’s becoming out of control, and that’s been less satisfying. I’ve worked with some great artists, but I’ve just learned over the years that you’ve gotta work hard at keeping the sense of individuality, and style to a piece, and it’s hard when you’re at the top of the pyramid it just makes it a lot of work, but slowly, the people that I work with have kind of learned this culture, and so I feel that have been reined back in a good way. I think ‘Chicken Run’ was a big learning process for that, and then [with] ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit,’ things were becoming much more handmade again, and with a kind of fingerprint. It had chunky texture again, which we just kind of find more attractive.”
Park expressed a similar idea in a 2015 interview tied to the Shaun the Sheep Movie premiere (watch below), and this is what he believes is the key to Aardman’s wide success:
“We tend to not have a target audience. Our characters tend to appeal across the board. I think it’s because we do them as true to ourselves. You know, we tend to make what we find funny, and that goes in. And I think that’s the secret really.”
Commit and Observe
If you’re embarking on a project as time-consuming as a stop-motion film, it’s easy to get off track during the years required to finish the film. However, as Park advises in an interview published in the 2015 textbook “Success: International English Skills for Cambridge IGCSE,” devoting yourself to a film and being open to inspiration goes a long way:
“Firstly, I think commitment is essential in this work. Any filmmaker must learn to be single-minded for those times when it is all too tempting to do other things. Setting up with expensive equipment doesn’t need to be a major problem. I started with a cheap 8mm cine-camera and one problem to overcome: the price of film. Secondly, without good powers of observation, it is difficult to find sufficient inspiration. Study examples of animation to see exactly how they have been created. Many video players will operate frame by frame to show how the animator has worked.”
Learning to Draw is Important
With all of the different ways to animate a film today, knowing the basics of traditional animation may sometimes seem unnecessary. However, in an interview with Alex Belfield in 2013 (watch below), Park emphasizes the reasons as to why knowing how to draw is still essential:
“I started off wanting to be a cartoonist, and I think that being able to draw really does help actually. I don’t think everyone, all the animators, are necessarily brilliant at drawing, but most have some ability. Graphics and a sense of design and a sense of you know, composition. It’s all quite important because it’s not just cartoon, it’s not just comedy, it’s about filmmaking and about composing shots and having a kind of overall vision for the movie, as well.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
In a medium as involved as stop-motion animation, true commitment to a project and willingness to collaborate with a team is key. Surrounding yourself with individuals who appreciate your vision but are also more adept in areas where you maybe aren’t can strengthen your film overall. No matter the type of animator you are, the basics of filmmaking still apply: always be open to learning from others, but never lose sight of what makes you unique. Having a passion for the medium you work in is probably most important, but if you’re not yet sure which direction you want to go in, taking a film class or two can be a great start. At the core of it all, creating timeless characters who you never tire of, just as Park never tires of Wallace and Gromit, will continue to motivate you throughout your career.