BEHIND THE TRAILER: Going Prehistoric In Bespoke Teaser For Aardman’s ‘Early Man’
Can you put together an engaging trailer for a film that doesn’t even have a frame of footage filmed (or in this case – animated)? To put it simply: yes you can – and that is exactly London-based agency Empire Design did in collaboration with Aardman and director Nick Park when crafting the public’s first look at Early Man, consisting of bespoke footage specially-animated for the film’s marketing campaign. With a voice cast featuring the likes of Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, it’s definitely one of our most anticipated animated films of next year.
While editing a trailer together from an existing cut or dailies footage of the film is one thing, conceptualising a piece like this from scratch is an incredibly challenging and intriguing process – which is why we recently caught up with editor Ric Thomas to talk about what exactly went into the making of this teaser. Check the footage out below, and read on for the full interview:
TT: What stage was the film itself at when you first began working on this teaser?
RT: The film was at a very early stage, probably about fifty percent storyboarded, and nothing was animated yet. As everyone knows, stop motion animation is a time-consuming process and the guys at Aardman really take their time, not just in production but in terms of making sure that they’re telling the best story that they can. There’s so much care and attention that goes into every frame. We first started working on the teaser in March 2016, but we’d done early promos and sizzle reels for the film in 2014 so it’s definitely an idea that Nick Park has had for a while.
TT: In general, how different is the experience of putting together a trailer for an animated film as opposed to live-action?
RT: There really isn’t much difference because the most important thing remains how best to represent the film. When creating a trailer I always try to reflect what the filmmakers were intending and stay truthful to their tone and story. That said, with animation you’re usually working with something that is quite far away from the final project. Not in terms of the shape of the film as that has to be locked down quite early, but in terms of what footage you have to work with. Most films nowadays have some effects work that’s unfinished when we work on it, but for animation that’s most of the film. I’ve worked on lots of Pixar films and all the Illumination films and we get them very early in the process, so you could be looking at storyboards, pre-viz, stand-in live action – all quite far removed from the end product. There’s a lot of imagination involved to picture what the finished film will look like but the good thing is that it usually exceeds your expectations. Animation’s such a great art form for being able to focus on every little detail and that’s something that Aardman in particular is known for.
TT: Can you talk a bit about what the whole process was like – I would imagine, given this is a custom-made piece, there was more collaboration between you and Nick Park/Aardman than you would normally expect?
RT: Yes, there was a lot of collaboration which as a lifetime Aardman fan is always a thrill. The company I work for, Empire Design, were brought on board by StudioCanal, having also worked on Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie. That film had a bespoke teaser trailer produced by a trailer house called Wonderland, which had Shaun and his flock making their own little film. That was a bit of test footage that happened to work perfectly as a teaser and so everyone was really keen to do another bespoke teaser for Early Man.
We wrote, storyboarded and cut quite a few ideas that played with the idea of this being a bespoke trailer that exists outside of the world of the film – Stonehenge as a zoetrope etc. – but as we went through the process it became clear that for this particular film it was more important to focus on the characters than step outside to the idea of it as a film. Shaun the Sheep is an existing property and so the big idea for that piece had to be about Shaun coming to the big screen. For Early Man, while it was important to say ‘Aardman are doing cavemen’ to some extent, it was most important to introduce the main character and his tribe, and make the humour and story of the trailer about them.
To that end Aardman and Nick Park wrote the concept that became the finished trailer: Dug the caveman on a hunt, interrupted by his tribe. They drew some storyboards and I put them on a timeline and started to shape the piece. It’s really constructed more as a scene than a trailer so that was a unique challenge in itself. We have a print studio at Empire and so have amazing storyboards artists on hand, so we added our own in as necessary and then went back and forth over several versions between Aardman, Studiocanal and ourselves. I think version forty was what finished, but there were no major structural changes from the first version, just a lot of refinements to timing and tweaking specific moments.
As the joke of the trailer is that it’s Dug’s tribe playing the tense music as he hunts until the point where they distract him, music was really key. I temp scored the trailer with two library cues, one for the initial tension and then one for the escalation as he approaches his prey, and then passed that over to a composer that I work with a lot, Jordan Rees. Jordan scored a new track, working with a list of ‘caveman’ instruments that we’d been given by Aardman, and then we went through a few versions finessing timing and tone. It was a lot of work finding the balance between the music sounding big and ‘trailery’ and also like it could be played by this bumbling tribe of cavemen. The right sounds for the tribe’s reveal were really hard to perfect but we were helped by Aardman bringing on their feature sound designer, Adrian Rhodes, who really brings the whole thing to life. It’s always good to do bespoke music for Aardman films, to honour the sheer amount of work that goes into the films, and it’s something I’ve done now for The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, Shaun and this.
It was great seeing the finished animation months later. As I said, there are so many great details that you don’t get from storyboards.
TT: Is what we see in the teaser then actually going to end up in the final film in some way or not?
RT: The tribe hunting is a big part of the first act of the film and that’s really where they idea sprung from, but no – beyond maybe a few shots. That was actually something that I was keen to address in the trailer, to make sure that people had an idea that this trailer had been custom made, to justify all the work that had gone in! Early in the process we’d worked up a lot of ideas that involved some kind of title reveal and so we ended up using elements of those at the end of the trailer. Hopefully when you see the tribe running into the title you get the idea that this scene probably isn’t going to be in the film itself – at least not in that form. That reveal had its own problems though as we had to work out a way of creating the title out of rock that was easily changed for the different international translations of the film title. Our initial version where every letter ended up individually carved out and ‘see through’ had to be changed and became a big lump of rock where the title could be engraved or painted on.
TT: Something that’s been popping up more and more of in responses to trailers online is people, particularly fans of the property in question, criticising them (once they see the film) for featuring scenes and shots that don’t end up in the final film, or for, more generally, selling something that isn’t there – a recent example being It Comes At Night. What’s your take on this ‘issue’?
RT: It’s an age old problem, and unfortunately one that is unlikely to change any time soon. The simple explanation is that we’re working on these trailers so early in the process that there is no final film. We’re working with long assemblies, or even creating our own assemblies from dailies often years from release. However, I think people are aware of the issue and sometimes you get directors flagging up things that they might be intending to cut. When I worked on Les Misérables and we were building trailers around Anne Hathaway’s performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, it was very quickly determined which take was making it to the feature and all others were to be disregarded. It’s also easier when it’s an effect shot in question, because at some point someone has to decide whether they’re going to spend the money to finish it. It definitely has become more of a problem in this age of online trailer breakdowns…
By the time we get to the TV campaign and there’s a final feature we really do try to lean on that as opposed to things that might have been cut. Like I say, my priority is to reflect the film and the filmmakers’ vision and ideally that means the final film!
Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob, who unites his tribe against the mighty Bronze Age in a battle to beat them at their own game.
Featuring the voices of Eddie Redmayne, Maisie Williams and Tom Hiddleston, Nick Park’s film is released in the UK on January 26, followed by the U.S. on February 16. A big thank you to Ric Thomas at Empire Design – check out more of their poster and trailer work at empiredesign.com.