A man configures the caveman characters in a stop motion animation scene. Asbjoern Andersen

Early Man is the latest feature-length clay animation project from animation legend Nick Park - and here's the story on how supervising sound editor Adrian Rhodes brought it to life with sound:
Written by Jennifer Walden. Images courtesy of Warner Bros.
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If the name Nick Park isn’t instantly familiar, then you might be more familiar with these — Wallace and Gromit. The clay animation characters are a staple of Aardman Animations. Their first adventure — the Oscar-nominated short animation film A Grand Day Out (1990), paved the way for three more short films, a feature length film, a TV series, video games, and several spin-offs, some of which involve the lovable Shaun the Sheep character. Although A Grand Day Out didn’t win the Oscar for ‘Best Short Film, Animation’ that year, Park still took home the Oscar in that category for his other short animation Creature Comforts. In total, Park has won four Oscars — proof that he has a knack for creating memorable characters and entertaining stories.

Park’s latest feature-length clay animation Early Man tells the story of a Stone Age tribesman named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), whose clan is challenged by the Bronze Age people led by Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston). In order to preserve their territory, Dug and his people must defeat the Bronze Age people in a game of football (soccer).

Park chose long-time collaborator, award-winning supervising sound editor Adrian Rhodes at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea, to supervise and design the sound on Early Man. Here, Rhodes talks about how the experience of working on past Aardman Animations projects compares to Early Man, and how they used sound to tell this unique story.

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Two men laugh in the vocal booth.You’ve worked on many Aardman Animation films, like The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Shaun the Sheep Movie. How did the experience of working on Early Man compare to those films?

Adrian Rhodes (AR): I have done a lot of Aardman films, so I’m quite experienced working with their style. I was actually at film school with Nick Park and we’ve stuck together for a pretty long time now.

Early Man was the first film I’ve done since coming back to De Lane Lea. I rejoined after a few years, so it was nice to come back with another Nick Park film. The last one I had mixed at De Lane Lea was The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

There’s a lot more dialogue in Early Man than in most of the other Aardman films I’ve worked on, with the possible exception of The Pirates!. This one seemed quite dialogue-driven. I’d also say that with every new Aardman film there’s an increased amount of unsupported movement of characters across sets. I think in the early days the characters didn’t walk independently so much because they had a framework attached to them to support them, and CGI removal was less prevalent. So much was often concealed by having part of the characters falling into the edge of frame where the rigs were off camera. Using CGI to paint out rigs was a costly process but now it seems relatively easy to do. So, in Early Man the characters move a lot more across the set and you get a lot more walking, running, and complex movement.

With the increased movement, do find that the role of Foley has increased?

AR: Most definitely, and I’ve always embraced Foley within the scope of the sound effects for stop-frame films I work on. Because it’s not a live action film where feet and prop effects can come with the production recordings, you need every footstep as a vital ingredient that brings the models to life. I find it important to include Foley in with the sound effects side of things, largely so I can achieve correct perspective and get to an overall sound effects balance in a better way. I always create the Foley right from the word ‘go’ rather than waiting to do a final Foley session to a locked cut.

I’ve definitely given a lot of attention to the footsteps in this film. There were a lot of different surfaces. You have a tribe of people who are largely barefoot on one side and then on the other side of things you have the Bronze Age people and there’s a lot of metal involved. The characterization and movement of the tribe differed from the Bronze Age people and their movements so we worked very hard on the footsteps.

A tribe of cavemen, along with a boar and rabbit, smile and run.

And what about the cloth pass, with the Stone Age tribe in furs and the Bronze Age people in cloth and metal?

AR: I only use cloth where it’s obvious. I don’t need the cloth pass throughout. I find it’s not particularly true to life or most realities to hear clothing rustle to any great degree. I don’t do a continuous blanket track of cloth and I only use it very sparsely and specifically, when there’s an obvious need to hear it to draw attention to some fur or cloth/clothing rustling around.

When we did record some fur and cloth, I found the Neumann U 87 mics useful for close, full, fat recordings.

The metal and armor required a bit more work, and we recorded a lot of rattling metal of all kinds either in-studio or out and about.

Were there any big moments for Foley in the film?

AR: Loads of them, all the way through the film really. In particular, I think a lot of the football sequences towards the end of the film were particularly Foley-driven. You have interesting contrasts between the Stone Age men in their caterpillar trainers (sneakers) and the Bronze Age guys rattling around in metal armor. So the football match was full of contrasting Foley.

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Let’s talk about your sound team for the film. Who did you chose to work on Early Man with you?

AR: It was myself and Antony Bayman on both effects and Foley. I’ve worked with him on a dozen films now. He did Foley and effects on Shaun the Sheep and The Pirates! with me, so he has a great appreciation of the level of detail required. In particular, he focused a lot on the Foley on Early Man. Much was done out of the studio so that we had a greater variety of surfaces to play with than we could get in the studio. I’m always very keen to try and experiment to see what we can get off-stage. We did a lot of close-miked feet out in the countryside at night for background quietness, especially the barefoot Foley which was frequently achieved by slapping and cupping hands on a vast variety of stone, dirt, and grass.

We didn’t have a huge number of people on the sound crew. On the dialogue side we had Tim Hands, who I’ve worked with many times before. He ran the dialogue on Chicken Run and on The Pirates! and provided the voice of the stray dog in Shaun as well. In one of his other jobs, he covers the ADR dialogue on Game of Thrones. As per most animated films, a lot of the dialogue is recorded up front and laid up by the picture editor and 1st Assistant prior to animation. (For Early Man, that was Sim Evan-Jones and Tom Doggart, respectively.) Tim took care of all aspects of the dialogue once we were in post, and he sorted out the loop group recording. He is a talented vocal artist in his own right and amazingly great with accents. He was the voice of the rabbit and many other background characters in this film as well. He’s a very useful man to have on board.

One of the things I’m most happy with on this film was the mix. I was fortunate to have re-recording mixer Chris Burdon as the main mixer at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea. He was the lead and re-recording mixer Gilbert Lake was handling the effects side of things. This film was mixed in Dolby Atmos; as it was the first time that I was involved with an Atmos mix it was great to have this kind of experience on the desk. Gilly [Lake] had been a key part of mixes on the Lord of the Rings films down in New Zealand. And Chris earned an Oscar nomination for his work on Captain Phillips. The two guys are amazing talents and it was a really enjoyable mix. We also had some highly skilled sound assistants on the team at WB De Lane Lea — James Cassidy, Mark Timms, and Marcus Moll.

Tony Lewis, our music editor, performed seamless work, coping with more than several last-minute recuts. And Simon Rhodes (my brother), was our scoring engineer, recording and mixing Harry Gregson-Williams and Tom Howes’s score at Abbey Road.

You’d have a thousand people gasping in perfect synchronicity. The sound was incredible.

One more guy I should mention is Danny Hambrook. There are a lot of large scale crowd scenes in the film, especially in the last two reels which are set in a big stadium arena. We did a large scale crowd recording session which Danny recorded on a 24 track Cantar. Aardman put out an advertisement to get as many people as we could into the Memorial Park football stadium in Bristol. Early one Saturday morning, literally a thousand people turned up. Danny miked them up beautifully with Schoeps MS pair, Audio-Technica short shotgun MS, two short shotgun DPA 4017’s, two hypercardiod DPA 4018 mics, and hidden among the crowd were some DPA 4061 lav mics. We recorded an amazing session of one thousand people gasping, screaming, booing, shouting hooray and chanting various things. We were fortunate to have Gareth Malone, a renowned UK Choirmaster, direct the crowd. When you have a thousand people, you need someone to control and direct them, to keep them together and to get the detail of the subtleties that you want. So he really shaped it. He was incredible and had these people at the end of his fingers. He’d say, “On the count of three, ‘gasp.’” And you’d have a thousand people gasping in perfect synchronicity. The sound was incredible.

Cavemen hop on hot stones to avoid the lava.

What was director Nick Park’s direction for sound on Early Man? How did he plan on using sound to help tell this story?

AR: I’ve worked with Nick a lot; he’s now very trusting of what I do and (after initial conversations and spotting sessions) leaves much of the detail of the soundtrack up to me. His main direction was to emphasize the different socio-geographic areas, the settings. You have three worlds essentially. There’s the Bronze Age town, which had to sound Pagan/Roman and gladiatorial or military-based. Then there’s the valley of the Stone Age people, which had to sound more idyllic and English countryside (with a hint of Paradise). To that I added a splash of rain forest sounds to make it feel a bit more like it’s the beginning of time. Then there was the Badlands, which had to feel desolate and volcanic, but obviously not too miserable sounding. We were very careful with how much doom and gloom we added. We had some thunder rolls and volcanic sounding backgrounds which were multi-purpose, gentle and warm, sometimes ominous, and occasionally dramatic. So that was one of Nick’s main directions, to really differentiate the areas.

Part of this approach, dialogue-wise, was to make sure there was a contrasting difference between the accents of the people living in the Bronze Age town and the tribesmen of the Stone Age village. The Bronze Age people had a European flavor to them — French/German/Scandinavian, and the tribesmen sounded British albeit with various regional variations. We wanted to make sure we were very strict on getting the accents right for all the dialogue right through to the loop group recordings.

Another big direction was to use the stadium crowd (in the last third of the film) to act as an atmospheric participant in the drama. The ebb and flow of the crowd sounds texturally and emotionally underpinned the rise and fall of the drama of the football match.

Two men stand in a stadium packed with people.

In addition to the accent differences between the Bronze Age and Stone Age people, were there any other sonic distinctions that you wanted to make?

AR: We wanted to make sure the sounds for the tribesmen reflected their simple, bucolic life. There’s a primitive simplicity about how they live and we wanted to keep the sound of them and their environments naturally basic/minimalistic and surrounded by nature.

The Bronze Age people had a lot of metal and mechanical sounds, and there was more sophistication of the armor for them. They had quite a Medieval/Roman militaristic feel and that sets them up for being the dominant force. They were all armored-up and they’re opposing these loin cloth-clad cavemen. It’s very David and Goliath.

Aardman animations have a very distinct look. How did the look of the animation impact your approach to the sound?

You want to give them the weight that suits their screen presence so they cease to feel like little models.

AR: The most important thing I find about doing the sound for these films (where you have these plasticine/clay characters) is that you want to bring this world to life by adding the right feeling of weight. You want to give them the weight that suits their screen presence so they cease to feel like little models. You want to give them body and movement in an instinctive way, so that it feels real, but the audience is never distracted by the sounds; they just belong and feel right. It’s important how you cut the sounds and I tend to edit the sounds very specifically and ultra-tight to the animation. It’s a relatively simple approach but I find that helps immeasurably with ‘believability’ of movement. And you want to add lots of detail, often very subtle detail. With practice and some trial and error with combinations of sounds, they suddenly spring to life when you get it right.

Were there any other sounds that you captured specifically for this film that you would like to talk about?

AR: The most satisfying record was field recording of the crowd; that was the big one.

I did go to Brazil last year and I recorded Brazilian rainforest sounds so I was able to put some exotic bird calls and insects from there into the film.

I also recorded the contents of my garage and beyond, throwing around lots of metal objects and pieces of wood. I did a lot of recording to achieve a few snippets that I could use for various bits and bobs.

We found a heavy leather authentic football from the 1960’s on eBay and Ant [Bayman] and I close-recorded it whilst playing football.

I asked friends at a studio situated in a London inner-city farm if they could bring a duck into the studio and the duck was happy to have a little clip mic around her neck for some very close-up recordings.

I recorded some sounds for the mammoths at a wildlife park called Port Lympne. So it was nice to have my own real elephant sounds for that. As well as their trumpeting, we captured some lovely grumbling sounds. In our design for the mammoths, we did include some bear growls and other trunk-free animals to give them a more threatening, primitive feel. With the young audience in mind though, we had to be careful not to go too scary with these big mammoths or with the giant duck sound. We did record a real duck in the studio by the way. I asked friends at a studio situated in a London inner-city farm if they could bring a duck into the studio and the duck was happy to have a little clip mic around her neck for some very close-up recordings. It was great.

For field recording, I record on a Zoom H4N, using a Sennheiser MHK 416 or DPA 4061s. I’m always recording bits and bobs. I find it easier and more original to record sounds I need instead of trolling through endless amounts of library effects. The compactness of the Zoom means it’s always with me and I’m ready to grab whatever happens aurally.

A duck walks around with a lapel mic.

Overall, what was the biggest challenge in creating the sound for Early Man?

AR: It was probably a more technical challenge than creative. As discussed, we had a lot more CGI work in this one than I’d expect for an Aardman stop-frame film. Most of the stadium crowd work was CGI. The challenging thing was not seeing that for months and months and having to guess how it would be. We were trying to create the drama of the crowd shifting around, reflecting and reacting to what was going on in the main action, but we couldn’t physically see what was happening with the crowd until really late in the process. We were laying up these tracks of the crowd that we recorded but then we would have to adjust that almost on a daily basis to fit the changing cut. When a shot came in with CGI, we could see the reactions of a thousand people in the background shot and we’d have to reshape/retime the sound. We were crafting the reactions of the crowd to the drama but when the shots came in the sound for that wasn’t always right and needed finessing or needed to be completely changed all very late in the day.

Some of the shots we never saw until after we finished the mix. We were given little place markers, little frame flashes on the screen saying there’s going to be a reaction here or a volcanic explosion here, and so we put the sound in and hoped. Then the shot arrived after the mix and we had to hope that it worked. The first time I saw the finished print I had my fingers crossed hoping that everything would be right, and it was. It turned out all right in the end.

A woman in furry pelts kicks a football in a massive stadium.

Did you have a favorite scene for sound in this film?

It’s a very Nick Park humor moment, with these big doors that have complex cogs and mechanisms, and then there’s a little squeak as the small bolt finally locks the door.

AR: I have two. I loved the doors closing scene. When tribesman Dug [Eddie Redmayne] arrives in Bronze town on the back of a cart, the doors close and lock behind him. It’s a very Nick Park humor moment, with these big doors that have complex cogs and mechanisms, and then there’s a little squeak as the small bolt finally locks the door. The sound plays on Nick’s humor very nicely there.

I think the other bit that I really like is when Dug falls down through the stadium bleachers, down through the seats and you have the clackity-clackity-clack of the seats as he falls. He just keeps on going. There’s no music there; it’s all effects, and the humor is that the sound just keeps going on and on as he’s falling. Again very Nick humor. The clarity of effects we got there makes it work really well and we created a good space using the acoustics of the stadium and the way that we treated it was very nice. We had good sounds from wooden paddle slaps and a good mix playing beautifully with perspectives and we were utilizing the clarity of the Atmos panning.

What are you most proud of on this film?

AR: Everyone’s work but I’m especially proud of the mix on this film. Chris Burdon and Gilly Lake did such a lovely job. Chris steered us through wonderfully. It was difficult because this film had so much dialogue and a lot of complex movement, a lot of big scenes, plus a lot of music as well. Chris found great paths through it brilliantly, to really embrace the humor and drama. The sounds on this film are great (of course) but the way that Chris brought it all together was just superb. It’s a clarity thing. When you have a film where the music, sound effects, and dialogue all play a major role it’s a challenge to bring that all together so that it’s not a cacophony. The director Nick usually had very few notes. When he heard the mix, I think he was a bit blown over by it, as I think we all were. So, I’m banging the drum for the mixers and Stage 1 at WB De Lane Lea in London!


A big thanks to Adrian Rhodes for giving us a look at the humorous, textured sound of Early Man – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!


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