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Sam Fell Talks ‘Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget’

The director of Aardman and Netflix’s acclaimed ‘Chicken Run’ sequel discusses why the ‘heart is in hand-made’ and how the vibrant medium of stop-motion animation, like no other, helps visualize the fun, heartfelt story of Ginger, Rocky, their daughter Molly, and where nuggets really come from.

Most Chicken Run fans agree that heroine Ginger’s most admirable trait was her unwillingness to stay trapped in a cage, her unfailing determination to escape to the outside world, and her undiluted sense of freedom. These are the values, after all, that liberated her and the whole coop from the dreaded Mrs. Tweedy’s evil clutches. But now, the freedom-fighting badge Ginger wore so proudly could be the very thing that turns her own daughter into a nugget. And not the cute kind. The crispy kind. 

“I think what everyone loved about the first movie was that there was a big, strong female cast and a great female hero,” says Sam Fell, director of Aardman's Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, now available on Netflix and the recent recipient of two Annie Award nominations (Best Storyboarding - Feature and Best FX - Feature) as well as selection for two BAFTA longlists: Outstanding British Film and Animated Film. The film is also in consideration for an Oscar nomination.

Fell continues, “And then to think of Ginger, a Freedom Fighter, who’s found this freedom and has got the green grass between her toes, everything she ever wanted, her happy ending... what would be the next challenge for her? The next challenge turns out to be motherhood. Especially if her daughter turns out to be just like her, and has the same values, energy, and adventurousness. Ginger's looking to keep her safe and contained on this island. And Molly, the daughter, wants to get out and see the world. And that created this great conflict. And it comes straight from the first film.”

In the sequel to Aardman’s hit 2000 animated feature, Ginger (Thandiwe Newton), Rocky (Zachary Levi) and the rest of Tweedy’s former coop have finally found their dream home – a peaceful island sanctuary where the whole flock stays hidden, far from the dangers of the butchering, pie-making human world. When Ginger and Rocky hatch a little girl named Molly (Bella Ramsey), their happy ending seems, at last, complete. But Molly proves to be a wild card with a deep desire to see the world on the mainland. Unfortunately, the whole of chicken-kind faces a new and terrible threat, and Molly, in her efforts to escape the helicopter watch of her parents, quickly finds herself stuck inside a state-of-the-art nugget factory. For Ginger and her team, even if it means putting their own hard-won freedom at risk, this time, instead of breaking out, they’re breaking in!

Steve Pegram, p.g.a. and Leyla Hobart, p.g.a. produce from a screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O’Farrell and Rachel Tunnard. The story is by Kirkpatrick and O’Farrell. Stephen Perkins BFE is the editor; the music is by Harry Gregson-Williams. Executive producers include Peter Lord, Nick Park, Carla Shelley, Paul Kewley, Kirkpatrick, and Fell, who notes that Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget holds the record for the longest amount of time the director has ever spent on a film.

“I've been on this for six years, and when I look back now, I realize that the first two or three years were me finding my feet, finding a way to respect what the team was doing [before I arrived], and respect everything about the past, but then actually find a way to evolve it into a new era, and make my own movie,” says Fell, known for Flushed Away and ParaNorman. “The shift, really for me, was bringing in a daughter and switching it to Ginger's story.”

Dawn of the Nugget had been in the works for a while before Fell came on board, and, initially, the team had the idea to make this chicken-led heist stop-motion movie about a father and son. 

“There was a lot to build on,” says Fell. “Obviously, the first movie, big success, absolutely beloved. Somehow, it got under everyone's skin. So many people love it and feel like they have some ownership of it. It was Pete Lord and Nick Park’s first feature and a big milestone for the studio. So emotionally, it’s very important to them. Karey Kirkpatrick came in and unlocked this idea of the characters breaking into the factory, which gave Aardman a new type of movie to deal with, along with all the fun and comedy that comes with that genre. And they already knew they were going to shift it into the early '60s, and there was going to be this kind of kooky brainwashing angle.”

He continues, “When I arrived, they'd also decided to shift the focus to Rocky, because he's such a fun character, to be honest. So, I worked with them on that for quite a while. But the most important thing for a director is to really tune in to what you believe the movie needs and should be, and have the confidence to dig your heels in where you need to while still listening to other people, and collaborating, and bending, and flowing with the people around you. And, on this movie, I found that center and that ability to say, ‘No, this is what we're going to do.’”

For Fell, it was vital to focus the story on Ginger because it was a direct continuation of the movie viewers had fallen in love with. Though Rocky is a fun and charismatic character to play with, Dawn of the Nugget couldn’t be just another escape movie. It had to be something more. It’s been 23 years since Chicken Run was released and, for Fell, what he wanted to see more than anything was a resolution of Ginger’s trauma, a healing that meant her coming face to face with the terror that still haunts her dreams. 

“What was fascinating to me was the idea of Ginger meeting her nemesis again and that subconscious fear that she would have of Tweedy,” Fell explains. “In the end, our hero has to face her deepest fear and overcome it, in order to move on. That's the thing that gives the new story a deeper level as well. And it just seemed so right to transform Tweedy into a Bond villain and give her that makeover for fun. I do think Mrs. Tweedy is one of the great animated villains. She's Aardman's Cruella, easily. Once all that happened, it started flowing for me, and I was able to make this more my movie, but without losing what everyone loves.”

As the film continues its Awards season run, Fell says it’s a great time for stop-motion. 

“Definitely for Aardman, and for me, the heart is always the handmade, and the touch of the human hand, and that kind of craft of stop-motion,” he says. “And I think, as technology advances, and we become more surrounded by it, the handmade becomes more important, and more special. The old technology must be preserved, not because it's a museum piece, but because it's a very instinctive and common-sense way to bring things to life. You make something beautiful, you light it beautifully, you photograph it well, you have a good animator who brings that character to life, it's still astonishing. It's a stunning medium and very vibrant.”

And, though all animation is massively collaborative, Fell believes there’s an added level of sensibility, nostalgia, and community that comes with working in stop-motion, which is perhaps why Dawn of the Nugget doesn’t feel like a sequel but a continuation of a story that was vital to the emotional journey of tangible characters viewers desire to see live happily ever after. 

“All the departments and all the various disciplines that are involved in making a film... you're much closer to them in stop-motion,” says Fell. “It's not that sort of pipeline effect, where things are divided into very separate disciplines, where the whole thing is coming together all at the same time. It doesn't take longer than CGI animation. It doesn't cost more. But stop-motion demands rigor, it demands discipline, and it demands decisiveness because it's a very physical medium and it's not an easy thing to cut, copy, and paste, or iterate, or redo.”

Not to say there weren’t CG animation tools used in Dawn of the Nugget’s production. In the first film, storyboards were made that animators immediately took to the set and began shooting in stop-motion. But, on Dawn of the Nugget, the crew used digital doubles of chickens for the wider-scale scenes and constructed CG-designed layouts to scout the setting in a previs phase before official shooting. 

“Also, on the first movie, the animators would spend nearly half their day cleaning the clay, especially for the closeups, because there's a lot of dust in the studio, and you end up with little specs on the models,” remembers Fell. “And it did really slow the animation down. This time, we could clean the dust off the puppets digitally.”

But despite the increased efficiency that came from using CG on the sequel, Fell ultimately stands by the notion that stop-motion is first and foremost a hand-crafted medium, developing one-of-a-kind characters that are breathed into existence with the talented puppetry and artistic skills of a real human being. Hence, why no 3D printing was used for any part of production. “They are all handmade clay mounts,” says Fell. “The whole top of the face is sculpted in camera. And then there is the facial line, but the animators are blending that by hand, frame by frame. It’s old tech but it gives us the freedom to improvise, and you get great surprises from that. You get those thumbprints, but if it looks too polished, it stops looking like stop-motion, at least to me. There’s a weird alchemy to this that will keep me fascinated until my dying day.”

The team behind Dawn of the Nugget has succeeded in their own “chicken impossible” mission to resurrect puppets from two decades past and put them on the streaming screen with the same toothy grins (a brave choice for beaked characters) and organic charm that won hearts, turned some to vegetarian lifestyles, and pursued chicken rights with even more vigor. The images were magical, raw, and even unsettling at times. Who wasn’t traumatized by Mrs. Tweedy, makeup smeared, wielding an axe with nothing but crazy flames in her eyes? 

But that animation made us care. It was inspired. And the world has never looked at chicken pot pies or stop-motion animation the same way again, and we’re arguably the better for it. 

“Obviously, this is the first movie I've directed on my own, but everybody's poured everything they've got into this one,” shares Fell. “It's important to everyone that it follows the first one in a good way.”

The Annie Awards online balloting begins Monday, February 5 and lasts through Monday, February 12, five days before the official awards ceremony. The BAFTA nominees will be announced on Thursday, January 18, with the winners revealed at the awards ceremony on Sunday, February 18. Oscar nominations arrive Tuesday, January 23.

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Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at