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Aardman Model-Making Workshop Manager Jimmy Young Displays Aardman's Puppet-Making Techniques for "Early Man" to Adam Savage of Tested

Upon moving from Aardman’s plasticine workshop to the heart of their model-making department, all around special effects enthusiast Adam Savage – outfitted in his iconic, plain black t-shirt, beige fedora, and thick-rimmed glasses – is greeted by an in-depth display of half a dozen of the puppets designed, engineered, and built for Nick Park’s Early Man and by Aardman senior model maker and model making worship manager Jimmy Young – donning a plaid, blue-and-white button-up with the sleeves rolled up as well as glasses and a black “DC” baseball hat. Young proceeds to explain to Savage Aardman’s process of puppet building and model making in Tested’s most recent video documenting Savage’s in his tour of Aardman.

The display of many of Aardman's Early Man puppets seen in the video. Copyright Tested and Aardman.

“Jimmy, when you came to my cave last year you brought some of your amazing handiwork and gave me a little taste of your guys’ wonderful engineering of these puppets,” begins Savage, referencing this video, in which Young and Aardman senior model maker Gary Roberts gave another wonderful demonstration of a smattering of Aardman puppets, in that video showcasing puppets from The Pirates! Band of Misfits film as well as the Shaun the Sheep television show and feature film. “But now I’m in your shop,” Savage proceeds, “and I’m looking at a reasonable portion of the cast of Early Man and I’d love you to give me a deeper dive into how you take a character from concept all the way to being an animated puppet.”

“No, of course,” responds Young, his voice gentle and easy-to-listen-to, although matching Savage’s bubbling enthusiasm for model making, beat-for-beat.

Young begins by walking through the many stages of development every single stop motion puppet at Aardman goes through before they reach the point at which the puppet is ready for animation, and even then he notes that each animator has their own demands – requesting different tension in certain joints in a puppet’s armature and other such particularities.

Exemplifying the Early Man villain character of Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston) – a puppet which Young was heavily involved in making – Young explains that the puppet making process starts with the writing of the story and the characters featured in it, during which point some early design sketches will be made for each character. In the case of Early Man, Nick Park was the one penning the sketches of the characters in his script.

At this point in his explanation, Young displays one of the early sketches Park made for Early Man’s lead character Dug, which happens to look surprisingly different from the final design of the character in the film.

Jimmy Young displaying one of Nick Park's early "Dug" sketches for Early Man. Copyright Tested and Aardman.

While the script is still being refined, a sculptor is then brought on to work closely with the director, during which time they sculpt 5 or 6 versions of each character – the technical term for which are “design sculpts” – refining the sculpts according to how the director – Park, in the case of Early Man – envisions the character. Once a final character sculpt is approved by the director, the puppet is then sculpted again in a “production sculpt,” only instead of the character striking a pose they are sculpted in a traditional “a pose” – arms out to the side and legs straight – so that the puppet can be separated into different components (arms, legs, torso, etc.) when it’s molded. From that point on, the puppet-making process is handed over to Young and his crew or a small team like his.

Final "design sculpt" for the character of "Dug" for Early Man displayed by Jimmy Young. Copyright Tested and Aardman.

Once the puppet is in the hands of one of Aardman’s model-making teams, the team leader sits down with the director, the armature engineers, and a small crew of model makers and some of the people from the animation departments (although Young mentions that, “More minds on the job really help streamline that.”) and have an open discussion about how they should go about engineering the puppet to accommodate the particular capabilities a character may be required by the story to do – characters jumping is something that Young notes was a particular design feature for many of the characters of Early Man. Once this discussion has ended and most of the potential design challenges and aesthetic problems have been worked out verbally, the process of designing the armature and of making molding sculpts beings.

Jimmy Young displaying one of the armatures made for one of the characters of Early Man. Copyright Tested and Aardman.

After the armature is made, the process of “foaming” – injecting various kinds of foam into molds for character components – starts – a stage of development which is aided by instating a climate controlled environment because, as Savage points out, “It’s dependent heavily on the temperature and the humidity, which is changing constantly.”

The foam puppets are then baked in the molds and are then taken out of the molds and trimmed. During this time, tiny slits are made where the joint bolts are positioned in the armature underneath. Lastly, the model making department will dress and/or paint the complete puppet. As Young points out, on Early Man the model making department was working with a lot of fur which proved as a challenge unique to the project itself even though they’ve worked with fur before on projects such as Shaun the Sheep.

Adam Savage handling one of the puppet's costumes created for one of the characters on Early Man. Copyright Tested and Aardman.

“Once the first main character is made and it’s finished, it’s what we call a prototype character. Nick will take a look at it, he’ll approve it,” Young explains. “Then we’ll go out to the animation team onto the floor and they’ll start [animating the characters to perform] jumps and stretches and moving around…Just test animations just to make sure everything’s working okay because sometimes you can built a puppet and take it out and go, ‘It’s not twisting right. There’s something that’s not working here.’ Hopefully in conversations that you’ve had previously with the animation team you’ve ironed all those out, but it still happens. Once that gets approved by the animation department is when we start making multiples…of the same character and that will be scheduled out during the course of the film.”

Once the process is finished, the model making department rinses and and repeat for the next character.

Throughout the whole video, Young goes into much more detail about the process of producing the puppets for Early Man than even I’ve ascribed here, giving stop motion enthusiasts a lovely peak behind the curtain of Aardman’s process of puppet making.

You can watch Tested’s interview with Jimmy Young – “The Stop-Motion puppets of Aardman Animations” – by going here, or by visiting the Tested YouTube channel.

This is the second consecutive Stop Motion Geek article featuring Adam Savage’s tour of Aardman Animations. You can read the first article by going here.

You can learn more about Early Man by visiting the Early Man website and the Early Man YouTube channel.

Early Man poster. Copyright Aardman.

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