‘The Great Escape with chickens’: Aardman’s Peter Lord reflects on ‘Chicken Run’

The stop-motion film is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Peter Lord was still at high school when he began his animation partnership with David Sproxton. The two would go on to form Aardman Animations and, later also with Nick Park, set a high bar for stop-motion animation, providing the world with Morph, Creature Comforts, Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep, The Pirates! and many more commercials, TV shows and films.

For many years after Morph, Aardman continued to advance the art of stop-motion animation and score many accolades in the process. The studio’s productions were mostly featured on television, but it would be the theatrical screening of some Aardman works that soon led to Lord and Nick Park to direct their first full-length stop-motion feature Chicken Run (2000).

“Nick had done the Wallace and Gromit pieces The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave,” recounts Lord. “Both of those in different ways ended up being shown in the cinemas. Of course, they’re made for TV – the characters are lumps of clay and it wasn’t entirely obvious that you could make a feature film that way beforehand. But when we saw these things playing in a theater – I remember seeing A Close Shave for example playing at the Venice Film Festival, you saw how they held up on the big screen and how much an audience responded to them.”

By 1996, Park had also won three Oscars for the animated shorts Creature Comforts, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave. “That gave us the confidence to think of a feature film,” says Lord. “Nick had this drawing of a chicken with a spoon which proved to be the inspiration for the whole film and together he and I took some time out to work up what we thought was a good story.”

Joining up with a producer familiar with the studio system, the directors traveled to Hollywood as what Lord describes as ‘complete innocents.’ “Because of Nick’s Oscars we had a number of very successful meetings where we went around town and we met all the studio heads. That was the time – 1996-ish – that the explosion of animation was just starting. Pixar had just released Toy Story. Warners were doing animated, Fox too. Every studio was suddenly doing animation. We were part of what became a big movement.”

Lord and Park pitched their Chicken Run story – about a group of chickens who plot a masterful escape after being faced with certain extinction – to the newly formed animation studio DreamWorks SKG. “Memorably,” says Lord, “we were at the Sundance Film Festival showing A Close Shave and we were invited to go down to LA – they sent the DreamWorks jet – a smart move because we were impressed by that! We had dinner with Jeffery Katzenburg, who we already knew, and Steven Spielberg. We had a chicken dinner and we pitched Chicken Run to them.”

Nick Park sets up a shot.

“It did have a bloody good pitch,” suggests Lord. “It was: we’ll do The Great Escape with chickens! The Great Escape, especially at that time, was still a very well loved film. It was exciting and memorable. In Britain it was shown every public holiday on TV. It’s a classic. Then you say ‘with chickens’. And then, going even further, a chicken farm looks quite like a prisoner of war camp. Then you suddenly realize that chickens are so ridiculous and that they are famously cowardly. So you mix together extreme heroism with these great cowards and it seems absurd. ‘The Great Escape with chickens’ were five words that suggest excitement, absurdity and comedy – and even suggest the type of film.”

The ‘bloody good pitch’ was successful, but Lord acknowledges that Aardman was ignorant about what it would take to make a feature film. “It took so long to nail down the script and story,” he says. “Nick and I went away and worked on the story, the way you do innocently, thinking about all the things that might happen in a POW film. We looked for tropes and references. I remember we went off on a big tangent, wasting months and months. There was this film called Hut 17, an American POW drama, and on the camp there’s a traitor who is betraying the would-be escapers, and we endeavored to put that in and spent months putting that in, and then eventually lost that completely.”

The production took on some external writers, including Karey Kirkpatrick, to help hone down the script. “Nick and I were into the gags and performances, and Cary considered his job was to structure the film around our desires,” relates Lord.

“The other challenge was that DreamWorks had certain ways of making films. We didn’t know what a story reel was. We’ve always done animatics for all our films, but they’ve always been done carefully and slowly. But suddenly Jeffrey came along and his philosophy was to get the film up on reels quickly, so you could look at it on screen and judge it and adjust it. That entire process was new to us.”

Indeed, the resulting ‘story blitz’ process where the script was split up amongst a dozen or so artists around the world to storyboard separately is remembered by Lord as being overly chaotic at the time. “But although that wasn’t successful, the story reel has really become part of our process now. We depend on it very much. At a certain stage the story evolves not on paper but on the story reel. That’s really where it takes shapes and changes.”

Lord and Park managed to massage the story into one where Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) orchestrates the chicken escape with the help of Rocky the Rhode Island Red (Mel Gibson). The directors researched chickens – to an extent. “Well,” laughs Lord, “we went to a chicken farm. In most movies you get an interesting reccy, but ours was down to a chicken farm.”

What they did learn about chickens was translated into designs fashioned by Park, with Lord concentrating on the humans and their fearsome dogs. Aardman had previously worked almost solely with plasticine for animation, but on Chicken Run the studio cast latex skins from original sculptures over silicone body shapes. Underneath the bodies were skeletal armatures that allowed the animation puppets to be manipulated.

“The animation puppets we made were really limited,” remarks Lord. “They were shaped like big fat bottles, and there was no movement at all in the body and not much in the neck either. The legs could bend and the arms and hands could bend a little bit. But really compared to a human being they’re so limited.”

“It was very hard to make a chicken look tired, or anything with posture was hard to do,” adds Lord. “But their faces could be animated to look angry or suspicious, frightened, delighted – that was easy. They were eccentric. People liked that and warmed to it. Of course, they had teeth which was absolutely bizarre. There’s a saying ‘as rare as hen’s teeth’ – well our film was full of hen’s teeth!”

The teeth were in fact there by design. “Those teeth and the big wide mouth are Nick’s trademark,” says Lord. “It’s a funny thing, because it just works. You can’t rationalize it – it just does.”

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