British animator is one live wire

Spotlight: Nick Park


WASHINGTON -- Peter Sallis, the voice of amateur inventor Wallace, once told Nick Park, the guiding genius of the Wallace and Gromit series, that its appeal was hard to pin down because "you can't write charm."

That piece of wisdom applies to the hilariously elusive Park as well. At age 46, he still exudes the airy sort of mischief that most people either lose or can't pull off by the time they reach, say, 22.

He talks easily about how he grew up in the Lancashire, Northern England, town of Preston, in weathered digs with old wallpaper, similar to the house that Wallace and his valiant dog, Gromit, share at 62 W. Wallaby St. Life there instilled in him a love of the ordinary, he says. Then he'll note with comical frustration that the Preston library had no books about stop-motion animation.

Park, who also co-directed the 2000 hit Chicken Run, soon catches himself, and says, with a laugh, "I shouldn't say bad things about my hometown." Yet a second later, he points out, "I did name the evil cyber-dog in [1995's] A Close Shave after Preston, didn't I?"

Similarly, he'll confess that when he animates the dim and ingenious Wallace, he'll sometimes see his father's face behind the ever-popped and seemingly clueless eyes. His father was an architectural photographer by trade, but also an inveterate tinkerer in his backyard tool shed. He once bought a used trailer on the cheap, stripped it of everything but its wheels and base, and built a whole new family caravan on top, complete with room furniture, bunk-beds, and (of course) wallpaper.

"My father didn't really look like Wallace," says Park, "but everyone found him funny, and there is something in Wallace's face that looks like my dad's side of the family. You know, I shouldn't say that; I will probably get some cousins very angry."

In some ways, this conversational tic is the equivalent of a youngster's voicing outrageous insults and then remarking, "Just kidding." The difference is, "kidding" is the very air that Nick Park breathes. He's a walking, talking font of cozy yet cataclysmic whimsy. Wallace and Gromit are natural expressions of Park's yen to preserve and satirize a lower-middle-class Britain filled with homey rituals like tea and all manner of eccentricity.

Park now lives in Bristol, the small Southern England city where Aardman Animation makes its headquarters. The important thing, he says, is that he's stayed close to what's real to him and away from London, which he finds terrifying. His parents gave him a hands-on arts-and-crafts background. He often watched his father photograph the models of future buildings for his architect bosses as well as shoot the sites and finished structures.

His mother was a sometime seamstress who made and sold dresses. He'd see every American or British movie that he could on TV, including King Kong - a big event not just because it boasted a stop-motion title character, but also because it contained dinosaurs, which he loved.

He always thought he'd become a creator of comic strips or comic books. But when he noticed that his parents' 8 mm Bell & Howell home-movie camera had a button that allowed him to photograph one frame at a time, and was labeled "Animation," he began cartooning with anything at hand, including bits of felt and foam donated by his mom. Because 3clay was always around the house, he tried molding it into 3-D images of characters that started out as sketches. Today, he still works in clay: the "plasticine" that forms the 10- and 5-inch--tall figures of Wallace and Gromit (respectively) is clay mixed with oil and pigment.

When asked how he maintains his enthusiasm over the course of a five-year shoot that involves moving clay figures in minuscule measures frame by frame, Park says, "I suppose I like living in my own brain."

Just as Park's first feature, Chicken Run, rested on a simple, fecund idea - remaking The Great Escape with chickens - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (co-directed with Steve Box) gained traction when Park had the notion of "a vegetarian horror movie."

Park says he avoids analyzing his own inventions, but he does slyly note that his new movie features rabbits ravaging gardens. "There is something about rabbits being so masculine, and I read somewhere that Freud thought that gardens represent the female. Maybe that's what people mean when they say the humor is so British. It's finding a different way to play with themes like love and sexuality."

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