Watch out Feathers McGraw! Aardmans got a whole new flock. Andrew Osmond visits Aardman Animations as they put the final touches on Chicken Run, the studios first feature film.
Standfirst: Aardman Animations does The Great Escape. With chickens. For some readers, that will be all they need to know. For others, read on...
Let's get the bad news out of the way first. All the chickens in Chicken Run are bona fide fowl. There are no penguins stalking the shadows with strategically placed rubber-gloves on their heads. This is not Wallace and Gromit IV, though that may come in a few years' time. Sorry, Feathers McGraw fans.
The good news is that Chicken Run, directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park, introduces us to a packed cast of Aardman newcomers, feathered, furry, nice and nasty. It's the 1950s in the North of England, and in the confines of Hut 17 on Tweedy's chicken farm, one fowl has had enough of her dark and dreary life. Ginger has a vision of escape to a better world, beyond the tyranny of cruel, chicken-hating Mrs. Tweedy. Unfortunately, she's no leader and can't convey her urgency to her apathetic fellow captives. These include the deeply dippy Babs, a featherbrain who asks, 'Have you had a nice holiday?' each time Ginger returns from solitary after a failed escape attempt. Then there's Bunty, stoical and realist, whose attitude amounts to: 'Our mothers were egg-layers, our grandmothers were egg-layers, what's the big deal?'
Old Fowler is the farmyard cockerel, an ex-RAF mascot and military bore, whose life is a litany of his former glories in the service. (Naturally, the chickens ignore him.) Ginger's only initial ally is Mac, a mad genius inventor and the brainbox who implements her escape schemes. Mac is a fast-talking Scot, but unlike a not too different Star Trek character, she has a good Scots accent. The rats Neck and Fetcher operate the black market economy, trading stolen goods in return for eggs. Presiding over all is the fearsome Mrs. Tweedy, scheming about how she can dispatch the loathsome chickens and make a buck in the process. The henpecked Mr. Tweedy (sorry) is a simple soul, with a slightly barmy belief that the chickens are up to something...
One of the most important characters makes a dramatic entry. Early in the film, Mrs. Tweedy disposes of a non-egg-laying chicken named Edwina. (Note to British readers: Aardman denies the name has any connection to a certain egg-phobic Tory politician.) The other fowl are traumatised, and Ginger, in utter despair, offers up a forlorn prayer for help, from anywhere. At that moment, there's a distant boom, a flash and a character drops out of the sky. It's Rocky the Flying Rooster -- at least that's what the poster with him says. Rocky is an all-American hunk, to the delight of the womenfolk and the dismay of Fowler. Unfortunately, as Ginger finds, Rocky is also an all-American sweet-talking total fraud. Or is he?
It's the friction between Ginger and Rocky which drives the story. After considering several movie couples, the creators decided to model the pair on Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, whose volatile screen chemistry delighted audiences from their first team-up in Woman of the Year (1942).
The cross-generation culture clash was inspired by films like Rock Around the Clock (1956), while the Anglo-American theme -- with plenty of digs at both sides of the Atlantic -- is in the tradition of pics like A Fish Called Wanda. The directors confess they were nervous how audiences would react to some of the American jabs, until they heard the laughs in preview screenings.
Rocky is voiced by Mel Gibson, in his second animated feature role following John Smith in Pocahontas. According to Nick Park, "Peter Lord and me already knew Mel was a fan of Wallace and Gromit. We met up with him in Los Angeles a couple of years ago and he invited us out for lunch. We went wondering what it was about and it wasn't about anything really! But we knew we had a good contact. By the time we saw Gibson in Maverick we had created the character of Rocky, and made him as a model. So we took a bit of Gibson's dialogue from Maverick, animated Rocky to his lines, and it fitted perfectly."
"Working with a studio like DreamWorks gave us the opportunity to use someone who was already a star," Park continues. "For a long time we knew Rocky was going to be an 'outside' chicken but we couldn't decide what to make him. Then after Maverick it all seemed to fit: the proximity of the war, how the GI's came over to Britain... It made sense to have an American among these very English backwater chickens, who have no life. It reminded us of films where new music comes in and livens up the fuddy-duddies. With Rocky, we were thinking of a happy-go-lucky, loveable rogue, extremely likeable but very unreliable. We didn't just want the American to come in and be the hero!"
The female lead Ginger, perhaps the true 'hero' of the film, is voiced by Julia Swalha, well-known to British TV comedy fans as the long-suffering Saffron (the daughter) in Absolutely Fabulous. She's also appeared in TV dramatisations of Pride and Prejudice and Martin Chuzzlewit, plus Kenneth Branagh's film In the Bleak Midwinter. Swalha is joined by AbFab co-star Jane Horrocks. In fact the chicken Babs is very close to Horrocks' dimwitted Bubble in the live-action series. The actress is best known for her extraordinary multi-vocal performance in the stage and screen versions of Little Voice. The sinister Mrs. Tweedy is voiced by Miranda Richardson, recently seen in Tim Burton's effects-laden Sleepy Hollow. Her past films range from Damage and Tom and Viv to Interview with a Vampire and Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.
Directors Peter Lord and Nick Park need little introduction to stop-motion fans. Lord co-founded Aardman with Dave Sproxton, though as Lord puts it, it was a matter of "Two schoolboys picking a name, little dreaming it would hang around so long." The pair's inspirations included Ray Harryhausen, Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations, and stop-motion TV shows such as The Wombles and Magic Roundabout. Aardman was the name of an inept hero in one of the teenagers' early cel sequences, bought by the BBC in the late '60s. Subsequently, Lord and Sproxton focused on plasticine/clay animation, mainly because no one else was working in the medium. The duo have animated numerous acclaimed shorts, many now available on Aardman video collections, while Lord was Oscar-nominated twice for Adam (1991) and Wat's Pig (1996).
It was Aardman's films that in turn inspired Nick Park, who invited Lord and Sproxton to give a lecture at the National Film and Television School where he was studying. At the time, Park was working on his first Wallace and Gromit adventure, A Grand Day Out, in which the duo go to the moon. After Park left school, he was invited to complete the film at Aardman (it was released in 1989). A wild success, it was followed by Park's short Creature Comforts (1990) and the Wallace and Gromit sequels The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995). All three won Oscars, with Comforts beating fellow nominee A Grand Day Out. Park subsequently joined Lord and Sproxton as company director of Aardman. (A common mistake, even promoted by the UK press, is that Park is sole manager or founder of Aardman, which is like saying Lord created Wallace and Gromit!)
"The idea for an Aardman feature came up after The Wrong Trousers," says Lord. "It seemed a logical ambition, the next summit for Aardman to climb." There was discussion with Jeffery Katzenberg, who was with Disney at the time, but then things went cold until after Close Shave. The seed of Chicken Run was a doodle in one of Park's notebooks, showing a chicken digging under a wire-fence with a spoon, plus the idea of The Great Escape with chickens. "Armed with that, we started writing the story," says Lord. "Nick and I worked on it for the best part of a year before it became widely public. In that time we took the idea to sundry American studios and touted it around Hollywood style."
And why chickens? "Chickens are perhaps the most humble creatures on our planet," says Park simply. "Just think how often they're ridiculed in our language. It seemed natural to make a film about them."
By now, Lord and Park were working with Jake Eberts, founder of Allied Filmmakers and former founder and chief executive of Goldcrest Films. Eberts has been involved with two past animations. In 1974, he arranged the development finance for Mortin Rosen's Watership Down; two decades later he executive produced the stop-motion James and the Giant Peach (1996). "Jake was our contact with Hollywood," says Lord. "He helped us stay independent until we had a film in place that we wanted to make, which was very valuable. By the time we did the DreamWorks deal, we had the film treatment quite developed. At that point DreamWorks came on board for the pre-production, serious model-building, the scripting, storyboarding... all that was three years ago."
More recently, of course, DreamWorks announced a $250 million 'long-term affiliation' with Aardman, committing the Hollywood major to not just Chicken Run but four future Aardman movies. "It's an incredible deal," says Lord. "We have full creative control. We can choose our projects, stars, subject-matter..." Park and Lord have nothing but praise for Jeffery Katzenberg, DreamWorks co-founder and contact. "He lands here in his private jet every month or two months," says Lord. "What amazes us is his commitment, which not many studio bosses have to a single film. He doesn't tell us what to do -- he's said this is an Aardman film first and foremost -- but challenges us to get it better. The important thing is that we deal direct with him, not with a bunch of department heads. He's accessible, experienced and the only person we need to listen to." A smaller bonus: if Aardman produces 90 seconds of animation in a week, Jeffery Katzenberg pays for staff lunch. (Which is why this visitor can truly say he had lunch on Katzenberg.)
Park says of DreamWorks, "They respect what we do; they seem to love our shorter films, the comedy in them. It's a learning process both ways. DreamWorks learned about the kind of films that suit us, but at the same time we learned so much about making a long-format film. Keeping an audience hooked for 80 minutes is a very different ballgame from making a short film. Once upon a time, we were making films primarily for ourselves, for our own enjoyment. But if you want to work with Hollywood, you need regimentation."
Given that Aardman are known for shorts and mid-length films, what are the challenges in going to feature-length? "I always thought making a feature film would be about two-and-a-half times harder than a 30 minute-film," says Park. "But the amount of work and mental effort, the man-hours everyone puts in... it's easily twenty times as much. The story is the most difficult thing, getting it to work over eighty minutes. It's harder to hold in the head than a thirty-minute story, and you've got the audience attention span to consider; you have to take the viewer on a journey of ups and downs, fasts and slows. It's difficult to calculate, which is why we ended up making the film in story-reel form, basic moving drawings, which we use to judge how it's playing before we shoot." (More on this later...)
There have been excellent stop-motion features over the years, from Ladislas Staewich's French classic Tale of the Fox (1938) to the charming Norwegian film The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix (1975), directed by Iva Caprino. Yet only two have ever received international distribution: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), both directed by Henry Selick and distributed by Disney. Nightmare was a hit, but James barely broke even in Stateside theatres. And with computer animations like Dinosaur and Toy Story 2 grabbing the headlines, won't audiences find stop-motion passé?
"Computer animation is a big deal now," Lord agrees. "It's gone from a marginal, specialised area to a mainstream brand in ten years. Stop-motion's never really been mainstream since the days of Harryhausen, but I feel it's having a resurgence now. Chicken Run isn't spectacular in the blow-you-away sense of computer animation, where it's easy to have twenty thousand warriors rushing across the plain. It's more subtle than that, on the level of character. I think it's nice what we do is more human; you get tired of effects movies after a while." A rough version of the film's opening bears out Lord's point. It's a montage of Ginger's failed escape attempts, becoming increasingly outlandish and desperate. There are no jaw-dropping effects, at least to an audience used to Aardman's impeccable animation. What grips is the urgency, the pace, the atmosphere -- in short, the story.
"But we like spectacle too!" adds Park quickly. Indeed, the new film promises plenty of white-knuckle thrills, including a sequence in the tradition of Spielberg with conveyer belts, giant rollers and lots of blades. On new technologies, Park comments, "Computer animation would mean nothing if it didn't have good ideas, stories, direction and characters. Anyway, I think there's something very appealing about the use of plasticine. Every child has handled plasticine and relates to it -- it's so tactile, you can see the fingerprints. To see plasticine characters moving round in full animation is in some ways more impressive than computer animation, I think. It has an extra kind of appeal."
The final screenplay was written by Jack Rosenthal and Karey Kirkpatrick. Rosenthal has written for numerous UK film and TV titles, as well as co-writing the Barbara Streisand picture Yentl (1983). Kirkpatrick's credits include the cel Rescuers Down Under and the stop-motion James and the Giant Peach. The writer is now collaborating with Mark Burton on Aardman's second feature,The Tortoise and the Hare.
The music is by John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams, who scored DreamWorks' computer-animated Antz. They're supervised by Hans Zimmer of Lion King fame.
The directors agree there's "distinctly more dialogue" than past Aardman films (think how many of the studio's past stars were mute). Asked whether the script was complete before filming, Lord admits, "You could say without great inaccuracy we're still working on it. We intended it to be complete before filming. That was the plan. We thought, We've got a long time, we'll get it all sussed, the script will be ready, ready, ready! But it doesn't work that way. Even now, about three weeks before the end of the shoot, it's possible a line or two will change. Certainly some shots have changed. The structure was tightly in place before the filming, but details and spoken words have changed a lot. It's a very fluid process."
At the time of writing (mid-April) the film is in its last weeks of production, with just a few shots to be filled. To house such an enormous production, Aardman took on new premises in the 'Aztec West' Business Park, eight miles from Bristol centre. The building is devoted to Chicken Run, while Aardman's regular output of shorts, commercials and TV work continues at its other sites. Neither Lord nor Park are doing any physical animation themselves. Instead their days are packed with approving rushes, consultations with individual animators and generally holding the film together. "A lot of the animators were quite inexperienced when they came," says Lord. "But now we learn from them, and some are quite brilliant. They're not technicians, but actors, performers. It's very collaborative in that sense." Not that a director's job is easy. "On a bad day we might cover ten sets," says Lord. "We'd be directing an action scene, a love scene, a slapstick scene -- it's mindboggling."
The pair have split duties down the middle: Park handles the chicken scenes, while Lord deals with the Tweedys and the 'spiv' rats. They see their skills as complementary. "The film would be impossible if one of us was doing it alone," says Lord. "It's been very interesting from the point-of-view of ideas and techniques. Nick and I come from slightly different backgrounds, and we're interested in slightly different techniques, which come together in this film. Nick is brilliant with facial stuff, while I enjoy more full-body animation." Viewers who've seen Lord's creations Morph and Adam, both built around gesture and mime, will know what he means.
As in cel animation, the animators 'act out' planned character moves before making a series of test animations leading up to the final product. Computer monitors give instant playback, a great aid to checking continuity. The work-in-progress storyboards the animators follow are stored in an AVID editing system, producing a rough animatic film that can be tweaked and reworked at will.
Despite all this, the directors stress it's never a computer-led operation. Instead it's an extremely manual process, requiring both space and a lot of time. There are vast hand-painted skies, depicting every kind of weather, on canvasses stacked sideways from floor to ceiling. Motion-control cameras sit on huge mobile arms, perched above scale farmyards and green rolling hills. The cameras and lighting take two days to set up for some shots. Character models are only partly plasticine. The non-moving sections are made of silicon, while the humans' clothes are foam rubber (watch out for minor details, especially the hidden chickens on Mrs. Tweedy's clothing). However the heads and hands are certainly plasticine and few viewers should notice the difference.
Park says, "When our films were first introduced into America, one festival presenter introduced them as, This is the smoothest claymation you've ever seen. It's odd, because the one thing we've never aimed for is smooth. Sometimes we even go for character above smoothness. The acting you get in this film is like nothing ever seen before in stop-frame animation. We've pushed the animators and they've risen to the challenge. When we started out, creating and working on our own characters, we always thought if we industrialize this process, there's a danger we'd lose the personality, and the feel and the style will change. But you can't see the joins."
Chicken Run premieres on June 23rd in America, and June 27th in Britain. DreamWorks is distributing in America, and Pathe in Europe. Four more Aardman features will follow, all distributed worldwide by DreamWorks. Contrary to previous reports, a Wallace and Gromit feature is not confirmed, but here's hoping.
Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.
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