The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: History of Stop-Motion Feature Films: Part 3
Before long, a co-financing and distribution agreement between DreamWorks and Pathe proclaimed that Aardman’s first feature would be Chicken Run (Figure 1.30), directed by Nick Park and Peter Lord. American screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick was brought on board to help Park and Lord crystallize their story, which told of a group of British chickens on a farm ruled by the evil Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy. A chicken named Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) dreams of flying to freedom with her friends, who come to believe an American rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson) is the answer to their prayers. Scenes of mystery, suspense, and adventure ensue as the chickens develop their master plan to escape their fate of being turned into pies by their captors.
The film drew much of its inspiration from the 1963 film The Great Escape and other POW films from the same era, and mixed it with great design, funny characters, and (of course) outstanding animation. Chicken Run was shot in standard 35mm film, but it was the first feature film in Europe to use frame grabbers for digitally storing frames to register the animation. Computer animation was also used for shooting rough animatics of their storyboards to get a better sense of the cutting and motion between scenes. Very little computer animation was used in the film itself, except for a huge gravy explosion near the end. Five years in the making, Chicken Run was a big success for the Aardman/DreamWorks partnership; it became one of the most entertaining films of the year and was loved by audiences and critics alike.
The year 2000 also brought to the screen a stop-motion feature called The Miracle Maker, based on the life of Jesus Christ, a significant story to tell at the dawn of the new millennium. Directed by Derek Hayes, it was a co-production between Wales and Russia, and took 5 years to produce. While the Welsh studio produced some cel animation sequences and overall production, all the puppet animation was developed and shot by Russian animators at Christmas Films, who had a long tradition of adapting biblical stories to stop-motion through their Testament film series.
With Russian animation director Stanislav Sokolov leading the stop-motion production, great attention to detail was paid to capturing the customs, attire, architecture, and landscape of 1st-century Israel with perfect historical accuracy. Puppet animation, which in its very essence is created from scratch with a great sense of purity, lent itself perfectly to taking on this momentous task, and it was taken very seriously by the entire crew. The image of Jesus himself (Figure 1.31) was a culmination of many different representations of him through the ages and was ultimately inspired by photos of people from the region where he had lived. The puppets’ heads were cast in dental acrylic with sculpted replacement mouths and their bodies in a rubber material called Fastflex. The results were stunning in their realism, and were made even more powerful by a moving musical score and unique script that told the story through the eyes of a young girl named Tamar, based on the biblical Jairus’ daughter, who Jesus raised from the dead in the New Testament (Figure 1.32). Although the story of Jesus had been told across centuries through classical art and also on film, it had never been done quite like this. The film received praise from audiences in theater and television screenings worldwide.