The longest – and perhaps funniest – shot in Aardman Animations and Nick Park’s stop-motion animated film Early Man features Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston), the villainous leader of the Bronze Age City, being unexpectedly massaged in a bathtub by Hognob, a wild boar whose home is being threatened by Nooth.
The 38.05 second shot – praised by none other than animation master Richard Williams – is made up of 917 frames. It took an Aardman animator seven weeks to shoot, and saw the use of such diverse animation aids as a power drill for adding motion blur, and scores of glass beads, hair wax, and Vaseline for the soap bubbles. Park even massaged Hiddleston during the voice recording sessions.
Aardman animation director Will Becher explains to Cartoon Brew how the sequence – which also includes Hognob playing a harp and singing to Lord Nooth – was put together.
Becher says that the massage sequence was one that, once boarded, changed very little in the course of the production, even as boarding moved to animatics and then production. To help Hiddleston in his original voice recording for the scene, Park actually provided the actor with a massage inside the recording booth.
“It gave Tom’s delivery an authenticity that would have been hard to achieve any other way,” said Becher. “It’s particularly fitting because Nick voices Hognob in the film, so they were both in character!”
Once Park was back at Aardman in Bristol, U.K., and had selected the best takes, the animation team set out to record their own reference footage, dubbed ‘live action videos’ or LAVs. Park then massaged Becher – “The day I had a massage from the Academy Award winning Nick Park will stay with me” – who then also got to massage Park for reference.
“I then worked with animator Steve Cox, who was responsible for the sequence,” said Becher. “We talked through the reference and played with some other ideas and details in the live action videos. Steve referenced these videos whilst shooting the shot.”
The puppet for Nooth was almost entirely made of clay, which, owing to the character’s extensive dialogue in the sequence, made animation particularly challenging since Cox had to re-sculpt and clean up the model almost every single frame.
Hognob, too, was a major challenge, mainly owing to the puppet’s fur covered body – Aardman purposely retained a slight ‘boiling’ look that stop motion gave the fur in the film, part of the studio’s wish to retain the thumbprint and hand-made style they are well-known for. Meanwhile, Hognob’s face needed to be replaceable so the animator working on a shot could access the mouth section.
“We looked at a number of different materials,” said Becher, “but decided in the end that clay was the most suitable material for Hognob’s face. It’s so expressive, allowing the animators to hand sculpt comedy and performance unique to each shot.”
The entire massage sequence took several months to shoot after a number of weeks of prep-time and testing. The single 917-frame massage shot was a Herculean seven-week effort from Cox. Both Nooth and Hognob were on rigs. These were metal supports with winders that allowed them to move up and down and rotate in minute increments. Cox also cut holes in the base of the set in order to access the puppets from underneath.
Those soap bubbles – which not only had to look ‘soapy’ but also seem to move around freely – were a massive challenge in stop motion. Aardman eschewed a cg approach and instead relied on glass beads. A similar approach had been used previously on the 1995 Wallace and Gromit short, A Close Shave, also directed by Park. To make the soap suds for the massage sequence, Aardman’s assistant animation team spent some time building up groups of bubbles on white foam to create a number of different soft peaks mixed with hair wax and Vaseline.
“Then,” said Becher, “Steve worked with Del Lawson, one of the riggers, to create a nylon mesh that could be pushed up and down by a series of mechanical winders. This allowed all those bubbles to be manipulated and undulated up and down for the duration of the 40-second shot. To give it added authenticity, Steve would also add and take away beads in order to give the sense that some were popping.”
Glass beads weren’t the only slightly unusual addition to the scene; Cox also relied on a power drill to generate the necessary motion blur for Hognob’s vigorous massaging. “Steve attached his drill to a worm gear connected to Hognob’s arms that was hidden from camera to create some movement,” said Becher. “This meant that as Steve shot a frame he could move the limbs, creating natural motion blur in the image.”
The result was a raucous scene in which Nooth believes his personal masseuse is working his back, only realizing it is in fact Hognob when the boar is called on to sing a few tunes while playing a nearby harp. Becher certainly considers the massage moment a monumental one in the film.
“Steve was producing between three and six seconds per week. It was a real challenge to keep focused on the shot for so long and he did a fantastic job.”