PARK, NICK

British Animator/Animation Director

The name of Nick Park is synonymous with that of Aardman Animations, the Bristol based company founded in the early 1970s by Peter Lord and David Sproxton and responsible for a highly successful series of 3D stop-frame animation shorts made for British television. The most celebrated of these have been the three films featuring the adventures of Wallace, a nondescript Northerner with a flair for ramshackle invention, and his perspicacious but put upon dog, Gromit. The first, A Grand Day Out, started out as Park's graduation project at the National Film and Television School, where he studied animation from 1980 to 1983, and was finally completed in 1989. The Wrong Trousers was screened on BBC2 at Christmas 1993: the highest rating programme over the two day holiday period, it went on to become one of BBC Worldwide's most valuable properties both for video sales and merchandising. It also brought Park his second Oscar for Best Animated Short, the first having been picked up for another Aardman film, Creature Comforts, in 1991. The third in the Wallace and Gromit trilogy, A Close Shave, also won an Oscar in 1996.

Park's work with Aardman Animations is a popular manifestation of the wider, if less frequently reported, success enjoyed by British animation in the 1980s and 1990s, much of which has been nurtured by Channel 4 and their commissioning editor for animation. Aardman's highly successful work on commercials--particularly the captivating "Heat Electric" campaign, a stylistic and thematic development of Creature Comforts--has also allowed the company to spread its wings, a reminder of the importance of this area of television production as a source of funding and creative experiment in a country bereft of a subsidised film industry.

Park began making puppet animations in his parents' attic at the age of 13, using the family's Bell and Howell 8mm camera. He was persuaded to show his work at school and in 1975 his entry in the European Young Film-Maker of the Year Competition, Archie's Concrete Nightmare, was shown on BBC Television. He completed a BA in Communication Arts at the Sheffield Arts School before going on to study animation at the NFTS. His work shows the signs of his early fascination with science fiction and monster films and the special effects of Ray Harryhausen, as well as his later admiration for the imaginative animated puppetry of Ladislaw Starewicz, Jiri Trnka and Jan Svankmajer. However, it is the influence of a childhood filled with Heath Robinson inventions (his parents once fashioned a caravan from a box and set of wheels, fitting it out with makeshift furniture and decoration) which seems to permeate the world of Wallace and Gromit, with its handmade objects, idiosyncratic domestic details and, above all, its enterprising mechanical contraptions.

Park's stop-frame animation of plasticine models has developed into a distinctive and highly sophisticated technique and is often perceived as the Aardman house style, though the company have used a number of other processes--in the Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer pop promo for example, on which Park collaborated with several independent animators, including the Brothers Quay. The method grew out of Aardman's work in the 1970s on sequences for BBC Children's Television featuring Morph, a plasticine character capable of metamorphosing into a multitude of shapes. Parks' first job with the company was on the Morph production line. By this time, Aardman had also made two series, Animated Conversations for the BBC and Lip Synch for Channel 4, in which plasticine characters were animated to a soundtrack built from fly-on-the-wall recordings of real conversations and interviews. This became the basis of Park's award-winning Creature Comforts, in which a range of vox-pop interviews about people's living conditions provide the speech for animals commenting on their life behind bars in a zoo. It was here that the subtle, psychological and sociological characterisation and carefully observed facial and gestural expressiveness that are the features of Wallace and Gromit was developed. For all their farcical playfulness, these narratives are shot through with stinging moments of poignancy, as the animated figures momentarily betray the pain, longing and regret behind a life of repressed British ordinariness.

Although particularly televisual in its domestic intimacy and attention to psychological detail, Park's work has also brought a sophisticated level of film literacy into the process of animation. With their larger budgets, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave are not only technically more accomplished than A Grand Day Out, but are more cinematic in their use of lighting, framing and camera movement. Both later pieces are also full of film allusion and pastiche, with references to a number of popular genres and stock sequences, as well as specific British and American movies.

-Jeremy Ridgman

 

NICK PARK. Born in Preston, Lancashire, England, 1958. Educated at the Sheffield Polytechnic, Faculty of Art and Design, B.A. 1980; National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, 1980-1983. Animator since the age of 13; worked at Aardman Animation in Bristol, since 1985; projects include Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer video, 1986; numerous commercials for Access credit cards and Duracell batteries; creator of claymation stars Wallace and Gromit. Recipient: three Academy Awards, three BAFTA Awards.

FILMS

Sledgehammer, 1986 (animator); War Story, 1989 (animator); A Grand Day Out, 1989 (animator/director); Creature Comforts, 1989 (animator/director); The Wrong Trousers, 1993 (animator/director); A Close Shave, 1996 (animator/director); Wallace and Gromit: The Best of Aardman Animation, 1996 (animator/director).

FURTHER READING

Adair, Gilbert. "That's My Toon." Sunday Times (London), 19 June 1994

Macdonald, Kevin. "A Lot Can Happen in a Second" (interview). In, Boorman, John, and Walter Donohue, editors. Projections 5. London: Faber, 1996.

Thompson, Ben. "Real Lives" (interview). Independent on Sunday (London), 10 March 1992