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Aardman, the Making of Early Man – How to Make a Claymation Epic, and SWWE Branch AGM. 15 May 2018

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Martin Gosden, the Branch Chairman, conducted a brisk AGM, introduced the committee, got agreement of the 2017 AGM minutes, reviewed the past year and looked forward to the next. Gary Mainwaring, the Branch Treasurer, discussed the financial statement. Following election of the committee, the Chairman introduced our speaker for tonight, Richard Beek, Aardman Animation, Producer of their latest Claymation epic, Early Man and Head of studio.

Richard started off by explaining his role as producer, which is to support the director by providing resources, facilities, and the funding required to realise the creative vision but also to constructively challenge the director to get the best from them and hopefully strengthen the film.  The producer is also responsible for managing the relationship with creative notes from the Studio (in this case Aardman) and the financiers (in this case Studio Canal) – it is essential these parties have a voice in the process but also that the director’s vision is supported as this is what hopefully make the final film unique / special.  Dealing with creative people requires the producer to have very good people skills. As Head of Studio he is line manager for the production managers and is responsible for continuity, consistency and development of production techniques across all projects to ensure that the planning and management of the films is as strong as the creative direction.

Richard explained that his presentation looked at the production process in clear segments, but that in reality, the process is a lot messier and iterative. He explained that in comparison with typical Hollywood films Aardman budgets were £10s of millions rather than £100s of millions, and so the production process needs very careful control of costs. His presentation was richly illustrated with art work and examples from the Early Man film, together with several models of the main characters.

The process starts at the development stage, with Nick Park generating sketches of ideas, often in isolation without a story. Early Man started about 10 years ago with the concept of man discovering football. This early work was funded by Ardman, who take a portfolio approach to new ideas which can be developed to a stage to pitch them to potential investors.

Mark Burton worked with Nick Park on the script. A rough guide is 1 minute of film per page of script. Concept art is developed to capture the mood of the film, and characters are developed from initial sketches into sculptures.  A story board is developed which is a rough version of the whole film. The production team work on the budget, estimated from previous films and, schedules for the crew and animators needed week by week with a line schedule for the number of puppets required. The basic estimate for planned shooting is 5 seconds per week per animator. Critical assumptions are also recorded.   All this is then used to pitch to potential investors with the aim of achieving a green light sale to move to preproduction.

Preproduction takes between 12-18 months. Schedule planning is carried out for each of the 33 shooting units, by week and activity using planning boards, and not computers.  These allow the whole crew to see the complete picture, and allows tangible, hands-on involvement which engages all of the production staff in the process – something that a computer screen can never do. There is risk due to the nature of the creative process which means that change will happen as the film and characters develop.

For Early Man, there were 50 named Characters which required 273 puppets to be made, each of which took 12 man weeks at a cost of £12-£15K.  Each has an engineered armature inside which allows consistent movements, and a descriptive ‘bible’ detailing every aspect of the Character to ensure consistency between the animators. 18 sets of key locations were constructed, that were huge but built to be split to allow access for filming.

Actors record the voices for each character, with many takes that allow the director to choose which ones to utilise.  Only then can the actual animation be done so that the mouth shapes match the dialogue.

Production takes place at the 51000 square foot studios, Aztec West, which is a challenge to fit the massive sets and the 45 shooting units while filming at the same time. The puppets mouth movements are generated using fixed mouth shapes for each syllable, this is much faster than full plasticine. The arm and leg movements are easier to manage with the puppets engineered armatures. These are covered in silicon, that looks like plasticine, but again faster to model.

Filming involves the story board, as a reference, then Live Action Video (LAV) with actors that help guide the animators, then a block process to rough the sequence and finally the actual shoot.  CGI was used for the complex stadium scenes for the multiple audience elements.

Richard explained that production tracking is essential to allow informed decision making to ensure the right balance between the animators working to schedule and maintaining quality within the agreed budget.  Getting the incentives right is key.  To do this, production is tracked in huge detail right down to each of the 24 frames per second shot as well as the final edited version.  This helps predict growth towards the 80 minutes final run time.  Essentially it is earned value management on an exceptionally detailed scale.

Once the film footage is locked editorially, the team move to London Abbey Wood Studios to add the music.  However, the composers are brought in early to get the feel of the film, and create temporary versions of the music used for the pitching stage and also early feedback.

The sounds effects are then added.

Marketing of the film includes 3 trailers, 1 bespoke one and 2 edited from existing footage, plus extras for specific sponsors adverts, such as Yeo Valley.

In summary, the project management control used in the planning and monitoring of the production is amazing. The use of ‘old fashioned’ planning boards should be a lesson for all project managers; they allow the whole team to have clear visibility and involvement in the whole process which cannot be achieved on a computer screen.  Tracking production output at 24 frames per second using EVM techniques shows how well EVM can be used to provide precise information for decision makers.  This is a clear lesson about how all projects should be using EVM.

Martin Gosden
SWWE Branch Chairman


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