Aardman’s First Feature Egg-stravaganza!
(continued from page 4)

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."

Scavenger rats Nick (left) and Fetcher (right) try to entice Ginger with their latest collection of goods. © DreamWorks Pictures.

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.

When the Tweedy’s are away, the chickens dance! © DreamWorks Pictures.

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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