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Interview with Marika Aakala, Model Maker on Aardman's "Early Man"

Dug and Hognob in Early Man. Photo courtesy of Aardman.

“As a child, I was always making something or drawing something,” Marika Aakala, Finland born and bred model maker on Aardman Animation’s recent stop motion feature film, Nick Park’s Early Man, tells Stop Motion Geek. “I drew my own comics,” Aakala continues, “sculpted things with clay, sewed my own toys, and later built a dollhouse with furniture and dolls while I actually should have been studying for my high school exams.” Yet, despite her inherent knack for making things, Aakala’s journey to the puppet making industry was an indirect one, and the title she now claims – “model maker” – was a destination that took her many years of working in many other industries to discern.

“I have lived most of my life in Finland where I was born in a relatively small village called Hollola. There are no practicing artists in my family, and pursuing an art-related career just did not seem sensible. Certainly, I did not think that I would be good enough to work in the animation industry,” says Aakala. In the wake of this belief, upon graduating high school Aakala earned an artisan degree in ceramics. However, she never worked as a potter and instead went on to continue study design and ceramics for six more months. “Basically, I did not think that I was good enough to be a ceramist,” says Aakala.

Aakala’s belief that she wasn’t a “good enough” to work as an artisan led her to search for a career as a recreational therapist. “The fact that there are also more jobs available in the social and healthcare sector influenced my decision making,” says Aakala. Once she had acquired a BA degree in Culture and Arts and had worked as a recreational therapist for four years, Aakala slowly fostered a desire to learn more about the “meaning of occupational identity and human well being,” which led to her earning another BA degree in Occupational Therapy and to then work for three years as an occupational therapist. “I was slowly drifting away from the creative side,” she tells Stop Motion Geek.

It was only while working as an occupational therapist that Aakala took a part-time degree called Further Qualification in Puppet Technology and Design. It rekindled her natural aptitude for making things, a talent which, for her, translated to “learning how to make puppets, initially for theatre as there were no puppet animation opportunities available in Finland.” Her hobby slowly began to gather momentum – both for personally and professionally. She began to attend workshops about puppet making for theatre and to learn as much as she could from online tutorials and books about prop making and the process behind practical effects. She also worked as a volunteer scenographer and props trainee after what she referred to as her “‘real’ working hours.”

Aakala continued, “My first paid art-related work was in Theatre Hevosenkenkä in Finland, where I made puppets and props to one of their plays.” Only after this job did she make the move to the UK, where she continued to work as an occupational therapist, although in her free time she continued to fuel her for passion puppet making by making props for a stop motion animated short film entitled Dangerously Ever After.

“Eventually, I allowed myself to pursue my old dream to work in the animation industry,” says Aakala. “I chose to believe that I have what it takes to be a professional puppet maker at 31 years old. I joined Arts University Bournemouth for an MA degree in animation production, got a 2-week work placement at Aardman and a few months later started as a full-time trainee puppet maker at Early Man and completed my MA degree while working.”

Early Man final poster. Photo courtesy of Aardman.

Early Man – directed by Wallace & Gromit creator and Chicken Run co-director Nick Park – tells the hilarious tale of how one plucky caveman named Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) unites his tribe to attempt to save them from the vile plot of the villainous leader of the up-and-coming Bronze Age, Lord Nooth (voiced by Tom Hiddleston). The film is a glorious and riotous romp through pseudo-prehistory that manages to be everything that has come to be known as Aardman’s trademark style – heartfelt, beautifully crafted and animated, and, perhaps above all, terribly funny.

In our interview, Aakala discusses how she manages her tasks when on a project. She also tells us about her work on Early Man, a project which she worked on for about one year and five months and which she made various elements of many puppets, such as arms, heads, hands, and legs. She also speaks about her work on the project doing “puppet maintenance,” which involves fixing puppets – and attempting to fix them in as short amount a time as possible – that break during the animation process. Aakala also contrasts the differences between crafting puppets for theatre and for animation, and she also shares with us her advice for aspiring model makers. You can read our interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: What was your path to becoming a model maker? In retrospect, does this career path seem an obvious one when considering qualities you had as a child, or does it come a bit of a shocker to you that you’re now a professional in the stop motion industry?

Marika Aakala: As a child, I was always making something or drawing something. I drew my own comics, sculpted things with clay, sewed my own toys, and later built a dollhouse with furniture and dolls while I actually should have been studying for my high school exams…

Being a professional puppet maker at this point makes perfect sense to me when I look at my strengths and interests. I don’t consider it as a huge surprise to find myself in this profession, knowing that puppets and animation have been my passion for as long as I can remember. But there are still moments when I need to pinch myself as it is often hard to believe that this is really happening!

I have lived most of my life in Finland where I was born in a relatively small village called Hollola. There are no practicing artists in my family, and pursuing an art-related career just did not seem sensible. Certainly, I did not think that I would be good enough to work in the animation industry. It took several years to realise my strengths and to allow myself to chase my dream. After high school, I did an artisan degree in ceramics but never worked as a potter. I went straight to the university and continued to study design and ceramics for 6 more months until I shifted to culture and arts course. Basically, I did not think that I was good enough to be a ceramist and thought that perhaps I would be better suited to work as a recreational therapist. The fact that there are also more jobs available in the social and healthcare sector influenced my decision making. After acquiring a BA degree in Culture and Arts and working as a recreational therapist for four years. Eventually, I wanted to understand more about the meaning of occupational identity and human well being and off I went to study another BA degree in Occupational Therapy and worked three years as an occupational therapist. I was slowly drifting away from the creative side.

While still working as an OT I did a part-time degree called Further Qualification in Puppet Technology and Design. I also dedicated most of my free time learning how to make puppets, initially for theatre as there were no puppet animation opportunities available in Finland. I attended several workshops on theatre puppet making, worked as a voluntary scenography and props trainee after my ‘real’ working hours. I watched online tutorials on prop making and practical effects, read puppet making related books and made small personal projects to teach myself the essential skills.

My first paid art-related work was in Theatre Hevosenkenkä in Finland, where I made puppets and props to one of their plays. After moving to the UK, I kept working as an occupational therapist while continuing my puppet making passion during weekends. I made animatable props for an independent short film called Dangerously Ever After and read about the law of attraction and visualization. Eventually, I allowed myself to pursue my old dream to work in the animation industry. I chose to believe that I have what it takes to be a professional puppet maker at 31 years old. I joined Arts University Bournemouth for an MA degree in animation production, got a 2-week work placement at Aardman and a few months later started as a full-time trainee puppet maker at Early Man and completed my MA degree while working.

A mechanized puppet head test made during Marika Aakala's MA studies. The design is from a short film called The Lanqwitch where Aakala helped with co-producing the production. Advice for the fabrication of this head was provided by senior model maker and team leader Nigel Leach from Aardman. Photo courtesy of Marika Aakala.

A.H.: Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement as a model maker on Early Man? For how long were you involved in the project and what specific tasks were you responsible for while working on it?

MA: I joined Early Man in May 2016 as a trainee puppet maker. At this point, the production was still in the pre-production phase and the animating was just about to start. I worked on Early Man until the end of the production, October 2017. All and all I worked about a year and five months on Early Man.

I was part of an amazing group of people who kindly shared their knowledge with me and told me the secrets of puppet making. My main tasks involved making multiple puppets and various parts, like arms, hands, heads, and legs. Some of my tasks were preparing the armatures, casting resin or silicone, seaming silicone, painting silicone, soldering for head and wig components, wig making, and some costume making. I was also fortunate to be able to do some sculpting and mould making. Towards the end of the production, puppet maintenance took a good chunk of my time.

A.H.: I imagine you grew up with the early Aardman films, shorts, and commercials – Morph, Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run...the list goes on. What has Aardman meant to you over the years and can you tell us what it was like for you to see the studio and their process of creation from the inside and to work in that environment?

MA: I have always admired and loved the animations and characters created by Aardman and I have watched the films several times while growing up. I loved to watch all the behind the scenes documents, most of these dozens of times and I read all the art books available on Aardman’s films. This had given me some idea of how it is like to work as a puppet maker, but obviously seeing it all and living it all in person is just an incredible, beyond words, experience. I just feel so grateful to be able to work here, walk the corridors, be surrounded by puppets, props, and photographs of previous productions, and collaborate with all the amazing artists. It is all just mind-blowing and overwhelmingly wonderful. Walking in the studio, talking with colleagues, directors and animators just blows my mind every day. I am trying very hard to disguise my excitement on a daily basis.

A.H.: I read in your résumé that you were involved in puppet maintenance on Early Man. Can you give us a few specific examples of problems you ran into with these broken puppets? How did you go about solving these problems?

MA: Perhaps the most common issue was broken finger wires. I would replace the wire and glue the silicone back together and try my best to hide any signs of repair. Other common maintenance issues were cleaning the puppets and re-tensioning the armature, sometimes during a shot, while the puppet is hot on set. The most serious issues were broken armatures which needed re-soldering, which is obviously a bigger job. In these situations, I would collaborate with our team leader and armature specialist and we would work together to fix the puppet as quickly as possible.

In Early Man, we used a lot of fur as hair or costume, and often the fur or the hair needed to be cleaned or replaced with a different one for a special animatable feature. Keeping the puppets clean was very important, and every time a puppet that I was responsible for was returned to the puppet department from the studio floor, I would clean the puppet gently with IPA and baby wipes and check that all joints work perfectly.

I really enjoy puppet maintenance. Figuring out what is actually broken under all that silicone, fur, foam, coring, and coming up with a quick reliable solution to fix it, is a very rewarding process. Puppet maintenance also enables communication with the animators on a regular basis and I get to hear feedback on how the puppet is working. For a puppet maker, nothing is more valuable than learning to understand how certain materials and techniques inform the process of animation and the overall performance.

A.H.: As I’m sure you’re quite familiar with the principal at this point – that puppet making is one of those projects that one could easily lose oneself in... and also lose all sense of time and of staying on schedule! From a puppet making standpoint of working on Early Man, can you talk a little about how you managed your time while making puppets? How did you stay on task and make sure that you properly invested your time where it should be invested when essentially perfection is the end requirement (at least in the mind of a model maker, like yourself)?

MA: This is a good question and a skill that I constantly try to improve myself on. During our busiest time, I often have about 10 or more tasks on my ‘to do’ list all the time. I think that it is good to have several jobs on your list so you can organise your time as efficiently as possible. For example, when you are waiting for something to cure, you have another job to do, to keeps things moving.

I think that the key to time management is communication. It is very important to understand what is expected of me. When I am briefed about a new job, I will ask all the essential questions regarding deadline, performance (i.e. what is the puppet doing, design elements, material requirements, etc.). To reach my deadlines, I would sometime ask my team leader’s advice for a preferred prioritisation order, if I had many jobs with close deadlines, or if I was not aware of all of the deadlines.

My aim is to work as cost efficiently as possible. Improving my processes and coming up with a better and quicker way of making something is always very satisfying. For example, if I need to make 10 pairs of hands, I would work on one stage at a time (armature, casting, trimming, seaming) until all 10 armatures are made before I move onto the next stage. Another example could be that when I get an urgent maintenance task I would first figure out the most invisible access point to the problem so that I minimize the damage caused and time needed for the repair work. Mould making is an area that is very directly linked to time management. When moulds are made well they produce faultless castings, and then time is obviously saved because you don’t need to fix or sand the items after each cast. I am also very interested in rapid prototyping processes, as this cuts down the fabrication time to some extent.

The quality standards at Aardman are very high, but there are times when you need to know how much time is wise to dedicate to a certain job. If something is not seen by the audience, it might be wise to dedicate my time elsewhere on the puppet. For example, if a back of a shirt is never seen on the screen because the puppet is wearing a jacket, then I would only make the front and neck area to imply a shirt. Animation relies on illusions, so why not to utilise this in the puppet making too?

Documentation is an essential part of time management and it saves time in the long run. At Aardman, we document and record the process of all new puppets, by taking images and writing process instructions. This makes the fabrication of multiple puppets and the maintenance tasks quicker and easier. Keeping a ‘to do’ list is very important part of my time management. On most days I start the day by writing down all the tasks and the order of the tasks that I need to complete on that day.

All different components of the head designed for The Lanqwitch including including silicone skin, a resin core, a ball and socket jointed jaw, a 3D printed pot, a magnetized fur beard, silicon eyebrows, latex straps, resin eyes, and vac formed eyelids. Photo courtesy of Marika Aakala.

A.H.: Beyond having extensive experience in stop motion model making, you’ve also worked in the theatre to fabricate puppets, costumes, and props. How did your experience working in these two mediums differ and were there any skills or techniques you learned from working in the theatre that you found beneficial when applied to stop motion model making?

MA: I think that puppet making is based on problem-solving skills, on understanding of the mechanics of movement, and having a broad knowledge of different materials and techniques. There are certainly several similarities between theatre puppets and animation puppets, as all puppets are built to perform. Author Steve Tillis has written that the difference lies in the performance: Theatre puppet performs in front of an audience in real time, when animation puppet is animated behind the camera. The biggest difference from a making point of view might be the armature. Animation puppets need to hold their pose, but in theatre, puppets have hardly any tension in them. The armature principles can be similar in both, but materials are different. Animation puppet have either wire or steel armature with ball and socket or hinge joints, and a theatre puppet has joints made of wood, PVC pipes, vinyl, or leather. In animation, costumes and wigs need to be relatively stiff and wired to avoid flickering between frames, but in theatre puppets all loose movement is encouraged to support the illusion of life when a puppet is being manipulated on stage. Polyurethane resin, foam latex, metal, and silicone are the main materials used in contemporary puppet making for animation, but in the theatre world puppets are often made with more traditional materials, such as wood, using plaster for moulds and laminating paper into these moulds, or laminating paper directly onto a sculpted clay head.

I think that working in the theatre world has helped me learn essential team working skills and it has helped me to build an understanding of the mechanics of movements and joint functions, and an understanding on how different materials behave. My puppet thinking always starts with an interest towards the performance requirements, which I learned from the theatre world, but have found it extremely useful in the animation world too.

A.H.: Do you have any advice or knowledge concerning model making to share with aspiring model makers who wish to make a living working in the stop motion industry? What qualities and personality traits does one need to become a successful model maker?

MA: I would say that model making and puppet making needs skills that anyone can learn. It is not about personality traits. If you are passionate about model making and puppet making, I believe that you naturally exhibit the behaviours and tendencies that are beneficial in this line of work.

The easiest way to become successful is to do something that you love and are absolutely passionate about. Everything else will follow from that. Perhaps some traits will make the work easier, such as having an eye for detail, ability to concentrate on small scale and often repetitive tasks for a long period of time, having good organisational skills and having an interest towards problem-solving, appreciating teamwork, and being willing to learn. These are just some qualities that I came up with and many of them you will develop further once you gain more experience.

I would like to mention a few points that I found useful when I was establishing a career in puppet making. Perhaps they are helpful to someone else too:
  • Read and watch everything related to puppet making and teach yourself the skills you need. 
  • Show that you are passionate about the field and interested to learn. 
  • Before you get your first paid role, keep your day job, but on your free time join a small-scale film production. There are many independent small-scale filmmakers who would love to have you on their team. My first stop motion related job was unpaid and I did it on my free time. I built the assets at home and shipped them to New York. I gained valuable experience and got to know amazing people. 
  • Make things that represent relevant skills in the industry and built a portfolio, take good pictures of your work. Having a social media presence may help, but for me that did not make a difference. 
  • Built a network and list of contacts who might hire you in the future. Again, Google and social media are great for this. 
  • Do a degree in animation or in an area related to puppet making and arrange a work placement in an actual studio environment. 
  • Most importantly choose to believe in yourself. Know that you have what it takes to do this and don’t give up!
Chief Bobnar in Early Man. Marika Aakala was involved in producing multiples for elements of Bobnar, in particular casting teeth, heat components, and making various sets of his legs and arms. Jack Slade produced the crocodile. Natalaya Hamideh was in charge of Bobnar's overall visual appearance, particularly in his hair and mustache, and was in communication with director Nick Park. Hamideh made Bobnar's hair, mustache, necklace, and assembled all of the Bobnar puppets and was responsible for maintenance. Gary Roberts moulded, cast, and painted Bobnar's foam latex waistcoat and he built the head mechanisms and moulded the head, arms, and legs. Ade Sims designed Bobnar's armature. Marika's team leader Anne King sculpted Bobnar's waistcoat and supervised the whole build. Andy Bradbury did the production sculpt. Photo courtesy of Aardman.

You can explore more of Marika Aakala’s work by visiting her website and her Instagram.

Aardman’s Early Man is currently in theaters. You can learn more about the film and find show times near you by visiting the film’s website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

You can stay tuned for the upcoming interviews and articles by subscribing to Stop Motion Geek via the “subscribe” button at the top right corner of our homepage, or by following us on Facebook @StopMotionGeek, or by visiting https://www.facebook.com/StopMotionGeek/. You can also stay up-to-date with the blog by following us on Instagram or @stop.motion.geek.blog.

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