One man, his dog and two Oscars: Nick Park's animated films have earned him two Oscars and plenty of creature comforts - and the novelty has yet to wear off, writes Jim White
Monday 04 April 1994
And from among the clutter of Plasticene figures on the shelves, he pulled out two sleek, gleaming Oscar statuettes.
'I like to hold them like this,' he said flourishing them, one in each fist, triumphantly above his head while apparently essaying a Red Indian war dance. 'Yes, YES] Whey-hey. Whoop, whoop-whoop. Try it. Mind you, gets a bit tiring after a while. They're pretty heavy.'
Despite the hullabaloo about British nominees threatening to win virtually every award, Nick Park was the only Briton in Hollywood last month who actually wrapped his hands round the 12in-high pinnacle of any film-maker's career. His Oscar, for the short animated feature The Wrong Trousers, was his second in three years (the first, for Creature Comforts, is now dulling at the legs from all the excited pawing). Two weeks after the event this softly spoken 35-year-old was still doing the breaststroke in euphoria.
'Just after the ceremony I did 12 interviews in one day,' he said, with the sheepish shrug that punctuates most of his conversation. 'They all wanted to know whether I was nervous getting my Oscar. Well, yes, just a bit. There is no worse situation to be in than Oscar night. Not knowing whether you've won is completely draining. Then giving the speech is terrifying. And I found I didn't have a bow-tie, so I made one out of wrapping paper and sellotape the night before. It looked a bit strange, but it turned out that at the parties afterwards, loads of people recognised me. Tom Hanks came up and said 'Good speech'. I thought, blimey, mate, what about yours.'
If ever a film was worthy of recognition it is The Wrong Trousers. It features Wallace and Gromit, the man-and-dog double act Park invented as a film-school student. They inhabit a wonderfully realised world marooned in the early Sixties; a world of string vests, tobacconists and Austin cars, a world of which John Major would approve. This is the world Nick Park grew up in, in Preston, Lancashire.
'My father spent most of his time in the garden shed making things,' he says. 'He once made a wooden caravan, decorated the insides with wallpaper. He hitched it to the back of our Land Rover and we went to Wales in it, Mum, Dad and the five kids. Everything was home-made, my mum even made my school blazer. At the time I wished we could buy one like everyone else. But looking back, I'm glad.'
Wallace, the cheese-loving northerner voiced by Peter Sallis, is a nut for DIY, too, creating all sorts of things, he tells his dog Gromit, 'to make our modern life easier'. In A Grand Day Out (Park's first animated feature and a rarity for him: an unsuccessful Oscar nominee) Wallace invents a moon rocket for a Bank Holiday trip. In The Wrong Trousers, however, he confronts his nemesis, a pair of 'techno- trousers'. Wallace, his invention out of control, spends most of the film with the wide-mouthed look of confused terror seen most recently on the faces of English batsmen in Trinidad.
'I sometimes tease my Dad that Wallace is him,' said Park. 'I think he's rather pleased by the idea.'
Park Snr was largely responsible for encouraging his son's animation habit, a fascination which began with those children's television shorts that used to come on just before the news: Pogel's Wood, The Clangers and Noggin The Nog.
'Dad had a cine camera and used to love home movies,' Park said. 'When I was about 13 I discovered that you could take a single frame with it, so I started my own model animations.'
The first Park character was called Walter the Rat, made from cotton bobbins left around the house by his mother, a dressmaker. Walter had a Plasticene worm side- kick, who ended up as bait in his first film, Walter Goes Fishing.
'When the school found out I did this, they insisted I show them at assembly. People loved it, which was great because I loved making people laugh, but wasn't much by way of a performer.'
The teenaged Park set up a studio in his attic and had turned out half a dozen films by the time he was 15. When he left school for art college, however, he put aside such childish things, and concentrated on sculpture and still-life. 'I didn't tell the tutors I did animation, I thought they wouldn't think it was serious art. When I told them I did it, they loved it.'
Encouraged by his parents, he took an animation degree course at Sheffield Polytechnic. From there he went to the National School of Film and Television, where he had to make a graduation film. 'I went back over the sketch books I'd filled at Sheffield for ideas and discovered Wallace and Gromit, except Gromit was a cat then. I made them into Plasticene shapes, and started A Grand Day Out. It took me longer than I expected. When I got a job at Aardman Animations they said I could use their equipment to finish it off in my spare time. It took six years.'
Aardman, Britain's leading animation studio, has produced everything from Crunchie ads to Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer' video. In 1988 it was commissioned to make four short films by Channel 4, and suggested Park might like to do one. His idea, anthropomorphised zoo animals, voiced by ordinary people vox-popped in the street, was Creature Comforts.
'About the same time I did that I finished A Grand Day Out, so I suddenly found myself pushed into the limelight. I had two films nominated for Oscars at once.'
The success of Creature Comforts was extraordinary. Soon cuddly tortoises, panthers and parrots were everywhere, on electricity commercials and in toy shops across the country. Park had become rich.
'In some ways I find the marketing a moral dilemma,' he said, fiddling with a prototype Wallace fridge magnet as he spoke. 'You lose control so easily if you're not careful. You get people coming in with a range of teapots and they're all wrong and the only way to do them right is to do them yourself, but that's the last thing you want to do. My only defence is that the amount of letters we had from kids asking for models was amazing.'
The demand for another Wallace and Gromit vehicle is equally huge. Mainly, Park feels, from the pair themselves. 'I think they believe this is their Oscar,' he said, indicating the two standing sentry in a grand travelling case behind his cluttered desk. 'They didn't get it last time, they were a bit disappointed. It's good to see them doing well in the world. I take a parental pride in their achievements.'
'The Wrong Trousers' is on BBC 2 tonight at 6pm.
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