Interview: The Plasticine man

John Walsh meets Nick Park (soon-to-be CBE)
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It takes a certain skill to invest a clapped-out gas cooker with feelings; but Nick Park's first animated feature film, A Grand Day Out, somehow manages it. Equipped with rusty controls, a drawer full of odds and ends, and a recurrent fantasy about going on a skiing holiday, the cooker lives on the Moon. It's the only inhabitant of the place encountered by Park's legendary duo, Wallace and Gromit, when they land there in search of lunar cheese. As the cooker discovers their presence and tries to gate- crash their return to Earth, it runs through a gamut of emotion from pique to puzzlement, to officiousness to rage, to crushing disappointment. It is easily the most eloquent household appliance ever seen on celluloid - and that's including R2D2. By the end of the film, when the cooker (newly kitted out with skis) waves the astronauts on their way home to No 62 West Wallaby Street - well, I've known grown men go quite misty- eyed with pathos.

I've know the same grown men shiver with suspense in The Wrong Trousers, Park's second film, when Feathers McGraw, a jewel-thieving penguin who disguises his identity by putting a washing-up glove on his head and pretending to be a chicken, is followed to the scene of his next crime by Gromit the dog, concealed in a cardboard box with spyholes. Viewers also get emotional about the dawning of romance in A Close Shave, between Wallace, the inventor, and Wendolene, the dowdy but good-hearted proprietor of a woolshop, with whom he has lovelorn but tongue-tied conversations in the manner of Brief Encounter. At none of these key moments does it seem to matter to the grown men that the protagonists with whose lives they are so strongly empathising are made of bendy schoolroom clay.

"It often strikes me that the product we come out with is the same as live-action movies." says Park, "We're making real films, but we're doing it with small Plasticine models. It is simply amazing that we can move or frighten people, yet what they're watching is a penguin this big...". His fingers are six inches apart. He has been fixated by making things, by pictures and Plasticine, since he could first walk. And when you talk to this Orson Welles of the bonsai melodrama, this three-times-Oscar-winner who will pick up a CBE for service to British animation from the Queen next Tuesday, you're transported back into a child's-eye world, where adult behaviour is surreally baffling and turbulent adventures could take place on the carpet of your parents' living room.

Park is 38, and looks, say, 25. He strongly resembles a younger Jeremy Hardy, the comedian, though his diffidence and nervous giggle remind one more of Tom Hanks playing a 10-year-old boy in Big. His head twists this way and that as he speaks, as though trying (and failing) to find a congenial angle at which to view the world. Though his favourite word is "sensibility" (usually twinned with the word "British") he is happiest talking about the Beano-and-Blue-Peter land where his creativity first flourished. Though he's entirely delightful to meet, you cannot be sure if you are embarrassing or mortifying him by asking questions which sound too pretentiously grown- up. It is no insult to the amazing Mr Park to report that, by the end of our talk, I felt like asking him out for a Sherbet Dip.

He is a craftman from his sandy hair to his desert loafers, and always has been. "My mother tells me I drew a whole train across the doors of her kitchen units in indelible ink when I was two," he confesses shyly. "I remember discovering Plasticine on my first day at school, and making a train with it". One thinks of the storming climax of The Wrong Trousers, when Gromit is pursued by the gun-toting Feathers on a train. "I was always known as the artist in the class, which was a good boost because I was absolutely rubbish at everything else. I didn't do well academically. I'm a very slow reader. But I liked writing stories." He favoured science fiction tales and funny stories. "I have memories," Park said, with his head on one side like a debutante sparrow, "of my teacher when I was about eight, reading my story out in class with tears running down her face, and everybody laughing and that gave me such a thrill."

He learned to knit at seven, and to draw cartoons. He drew pictures in flip-books, filmed them with the cine camera his father brought home when he was 11, and later moved on to Fuzzy Felt cut-outs and Plasticine. The results were shown before his school in Preston, Lancashire, at the urging of a sympathetic teacher, and were greeted with rapture. He was inspired, he says, by every manifestation of animated art - "The Clangers and Noggin the Nog and Terry Gilliam's stuff on Monty Python, and Bob Godfrey's Rhubard and Custard..." He even has a good word for the excruciating productions from eastern Europe that used to send children out of the TV room screaming with boredom, "though I thought that line of Mel Smith's was very observant, when he said something was `as boring as a Polish award-winning animated film about a Plasticine man being chased by tower blocks'."

The cooker-on-the moon film, A Grand Day Out, took six years to make, during which time Park moved to Bristol to work at Aardman Animation, the nation's most imaginative crucible of animated commercials (remember the spectacular chocolate dancing girls in the Crunchie ad?). The movie won a Bafta award in 1989. It was trumped in that year's Academy Award for Animation by Creature Comforts, also made by Park - a wonderful series of tableaux of animals in a zoo complaining about their living conditions, with voices supplied by real people in schools, bedsits and old people's homes. Park first impinged on the national consciousness when The Wrong Trousers won him a second Oscar and was shown on BBC2 at Christmas. The second 24-minute adventure starring Wallace, the cheese-gorging Northern inventor, and his laconic canine sidekick Gromit, with its irresistible combination of Fifties floral decor, Hitchcockian plot and hi-tech SF nonsense, was a smash hit with children and grown-ups. To date, it has won over 30 awards and made Park's Plasticine menagerie known around the world.

"Wallace and Gromit are going down very well in Japan," said Park in the modestly puzzled voice with which he announces good fortune. "They're queuing around the block in Taiwan and Korea. In Hiroshima, they all roared with laughter whenever Wallace said `cheese' because they all think cheese is such a strange thing to eat. Somebody wrote in a review, `Mr Park gave the audience great happiness for 20 minutes'. Very nice, but I thought: What happened in the other four?"

Park's hero, Wallace, a designer of Heath-Robinson contraptions for getting out of bed in the mornings, is usually taken as a portrait of Park's father. But "I always wanted to be an inventor, myself," he says. "As a kid, I had this thing I used to call the Box of Useful Things under my bed, in which I collected bits of old toys and electric motors and stuff. I used to think, one day I could build a time machine." It was not necessarily the sign of a nascent scientist ("I loved science but more the magical side, the showmanship"), rather the sign of a compulsive creator, who would rather invent a device for buttering toast than a particle accelerator. "The nice thing about animation is that you can realise your inventions without understanding all the hard theory. You can build something that works - like the Knit-o-matic machine in A Close Shave - without having a clue about science."

When not making things, he was glued to the telly, traumatised by the many incarnations of Doctor Who - the doyen of time travellers - or driven by Blue Peter into a frenzy of construction, of sticky-backed plastic and empty detergent bottles. The workbench and the screen seem to exert an equal fascination. Perfectly happy to discuss, say, different types of Plasticine like an Inuit tribesman discoursing on snow ("The best is the traditional British stuff, Harbutts Plasticine, because it doesn't melt under the hot lights. You need something you can manipulate and push around. There's an American type which has brighter colours and you can melt it without having to knead it with your hands - but it goes soft in the heat, which is no use in animation...") he enthuses about movies. His films are dense with allusions and homages: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Rififi, The Ladykillers, Frankenstein, Brief Encounter... "I find I pick up a lot of ideas from the B-movies I used to watch on Sunday afternoons. I have a particular liking for black and white films - they had a weird sense of mystery about them because you couldn't see all the details; they had these shadows, this veil over everything..."

Where did the sinister penguin in The Wrong Trousers come from? "Feathers McGraw was animated, brilliantly I'd better say, by Steve Box and when we discussed how it should act, we talked about Mrs Danvers, the creepy housekeeper in Rebecca and the way she glides everywhere. But when I look at that moment when Feathers realises he's being spied on - well, I realised that's, of course, from Hitchcock's Rear Window." He thinks "people spot more film allusions than there actually are, although they're not necessarily wrong. People often ask me if I make a habit of observing things very closely, but I don't do it consciously. The truth is, a lot more has gone in than I think has gone in."

So, one must assume, did a lot of intrigued notations of the way grown- ups behave. One of Park's signature techniques is a fascination with the grotesquerie of human manners - the way people blink with bafflement, drum their fingers with boredom, the way an Adam's apple rises and falls in embarrassment, the massive explosion of lips and teeth which signal that Wallace is in the grip of an Idea. His characters (even his kitchen hardware) talk and think with massive expressiveness. Did it come from staring, wide-eyed, at his big family when they all came to stay? "I've got quite a big family, certainly, but we're quite close, and I never felt an outsider. But certainly they're eccentric. And sometimes when I'm animating a character, I do see an uncle or aunt of mine. On Creature Comforts, I remember doing one of the polar bears, and I couldn't believe it. It was my four-year-old niece, with just the look she has in her eyes. It's almost as though it had printed through without my doing anything."

There is, sadly, no immediate prospect of another Gromit adventure. Instead, the past year or so has seen Park's creations reach dizzy heights of consumer penetration. As with Jurassic Park, Dennis the Menace, Little Noddy and every Disney production, the phlegmatic inventor and his inscrutable dog have become ubiquitous merchandising products, their loveable features moulded into everything from alarm clocks to fridge magnets. And, inevitably, America has finally got in on the act. Park has always expressed dismay about the prospect of Hollywood getting its sentimental mitts on his creations, no matter what the money or the cajolings. But, for the past two years, since A Close Shave secured his third Oscar, he has been "in development" with a major (but at present unnameable) Burbank studio to make Chicken Run, a full-length, 80-minute movie, co-directed with Peter Lord, his first mentor, the boss of Aardman Animations. Did this mean he had finally sold out? "No, no. We're in partnership with this very nice guy, Jack Eberts of Goldcrest, who's really on our side. He's putting up a lot of the money, and he very much sees our point of view and sensibilities. Wallace and Gromit are going down very well in America at present - people love the Britishness of it - and they seem to see, just as we do, that they'd be shooting themselves in the foot if they tried to change what we do."

Chicken Run will be an unusual drama. In Hollywood "high-concept" terms, it's "The Great Escape with chickens" - a stiff-upper-beak wartime drama with a love story thrown in. Will there be a chicken on a motorbike making a final doomed run at the end? "We've been through every war gag, every pun, we've watched all the wartime movies," says Park wearily. "But it's a much bigger world than Wallace and Gromit's and it's hard to know what line to tread. Two years into it, we still haven't finished the script."

The unimaginable labour of 80 minutes' animation - inching forward at a rate of three or four seconds a day - doesn't seem to daunt Mr Park. He can now delegate much of the hands-on animation to others, and devote himself to direction. Did he ever, I wondered, experience the slightest urge to direct, you know, real people? "Oh, but I like the unrealness of it. I mean, it's real because it's three-dimensional, it's actually there, but I like the fact that it's unreal at the same time. It is like theatre in that you can create a whole world, an illusion in a certain style, and all on this tabletop. That's what I love about it. It just wouldn't be the same with real people"

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