Toy story

The creators of Chicken Run find soul in a lump of clay

Nick Park speaks so softly that the tape recorder barely registers him at all. His is a whisper of a voice, the sound of a man who has spent years in isolation talking to no one but himself. Transcribing an interview with him is like trying to decipher a man's private thoughts. Perhaps that is because for the past 30 years, Park has been holed up in a bedroom and, later, a studio, posing tiny plasticine puppets in front of a movie camera, bringing inanimate creations to life a millimeter at a time. The man must have the patience of the dead.

Park has spent years creating minutes' worth of movies, short and feature-length: Two pages of a script can take up to five months to film. For so many of those years, Park has worked alone with only his creations to keep him company: a man named Wallace, his faithful and insecure dog named Gromit, and, now, a farm's worth of chickens dying to escape their dreary confines. And though they speak on screen, it's quite the chore to turn them into conversationalists.

It is then left to Peter Lord to speak up, to postulate and proselytize while his partner sips his late-afternoon tea. Lord was Park's inspiration: When Nick was a child growing up in Lancashire, England, it was Peter's clay-animated characters on the BBC that inspired him to pursue this solitary life. In 1972, Lord co-founded the Bristol, England-based Aardman Animations studio, creating animated programming for deaf children. At the time, Aardman was a sanctuary for animators wanting to create intelligent, thoughtful fare for adults and their children. But theirs was a cottage industry, and the cottage had only one small room. Now, 28 years later, Aardman is in business with Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen's film company, DreamWorks, which is releasing Park and Lord's Chicken Run this week. The cottage has become a mansion.

The meat of it: Nick Park (left, holding a model of Rocky the Rooster) and Peter Lord begin work on Chicken Run.
The meat of it: Nick Park (left, holding a model of Rocky the Rooster) and Peter Lord begin work on Chicken Run.

"But we're still a rare breed, actually," Park says. "I started making films as a hobby at age 12. I used to see Pete's work on the BBC, and it was the only clay animation that was on there. It was a little character called Morph, who was a sort of Gumby meets Marcel Marceau."

Park, sitting next to his partner in a suite at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, casts a sideways glance at Lord, as though this is the first time he has tossed out this description in front of his partner. Lord raises his eyebrows, tightens his lips into what's either a smile or a grimace, and then begins to laugh. They both do.

"It was a fantastic lesson, because Morph was a sprightly little chap who metamorphoses, and what was always magic and holds people to it was he's not only a little man, but it's clay," Park says. "It's a thing you played with every day of your childhood. It's plasticine, but it's living, and it's magically changing shape. It's pure magic, because you see this thing, and he's actually walking and breathing. He has a soul, and it's just absolutely mesmerizing."

It was only a matter of time before Nick Park and Peter Lord welcomed Hollywood to Bristol. In 1990, Park's first Wallace & Gromit film--A Grand Day Out, which Park began in 1985 while he was a student at the National Film and Television School in England--was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short Film; his next two shorts starring the dog and his invention-loving master, 1993's The Wrong Trousers and 1995's A Close Shave, won Oscars. But the courtship with Hollywood has been a long process. Katzenberg tried to woo the duo when he was head of Disney, but they believed their films were too personal for a big studio, and they were not interested in making compromises. They felt features would be too "tacky," Lord says.

But Chicken Run compromises nothing. The tale of a group of chickens trying to escape their prison-camp-like farm before they're turned into pot-pie stuffing is at once bleak and joyous. It's The Great Escape with feathered females, Stalag 17 with a rooster (Rocky, voiced by Mel Gibson) instead of William Holden. In the film, one chicken is taken to slaughter because she doesn't produce enough eggs. Her execution is more than hinted at: An axe's shadow and a loud thunk signal her demise. A few minutes later, her carcass is seen on the farmer's dinner table, plucked to the bones. It's a rather daring move for fare being pushed on children: Rarely has animation been so willing to feel real.

"That is the heart of the thing," says Lord. "It is quite bleak for children. No, it's austere in a certain way. The reason I don't think it's bleak is because I think ultimately you feel great coming out of the movie; you feel uplifted. But it has its...Yes, there is death. There's a dark side to it. There's a sinister side to it. I suspect that if DreamWorks had been making it alone, had it been their movie, they wouldn't have made it so much that way. They would have made it softer all around, less sharp edges. But much of this is reflected in the books of Roald Dahl, and I think that's the sort of place we're coming from. Dahl makes these stories that contain violence and savagery, which are for adults, but I think kids like that, and I think it's good for them. I think it makes for a good story, and a happy ending is only worth having if you've been somewhere really bad on the way there."

"And," Park adds, "I think it would have been doing an injustice to kids to sanitize the world too much."

Most animated films of late are empty vessels, show-off showcases for animators enamored of computer-generated technology to the point that they render storytelling secondary--or, as Lord says with a sly grin, "thirdary or fourthary." Movies such as DreamWorks' own The Road to El Dorado, which proved a dismal failure at the box office, or Don Bluth's just-released Titan A.E. may look extraordinary on their burnished surfaces, but they contain nothing beneath. They're hollow products, slick commercials for their fast-food-chain tie-ins and toy-store merchandise. It's as though the medium so dazzles the filmmakers, they forget to write a script. The characters might as well speak in gibberish, so irrelevant have they become to the process.

Yet when an animated film does come along that's both thoughtful and beautiful, it's practically ignored (discounting, of course, the Toy Story series and A Bug's Life). Last year's The Iron Giant, about a lonely boy and his adopted alien robot, was one of 1999's best films, but it was a movie to which parents took their children, not the other way around, and grown-ups tend to treat animation like something best left to Saturday mornings. The Iron Giant fared poorly at the box office--Warner Bros.' failure to merchandise it was a welcome relief and, ultimately, the movie's undoing--but it likely will be one of those films we marvel at decades from now, precisely because the animation never gets in the way of a good story or two-dimensional characters who feel so very 3D. It was a cartoon populated by flesh-and-blood (and steel) immortals.

Chicken Run may well be animated, but it, too, is warmer to the touch than any film released so far this year; it is the most human movie in theaters this summer. Park and Lord insist they would be sorely disappointed if audiences left the theater dazzled only by the technique. Indeed, they'd consider themselves failures if that were to happen.

"The last thing we wanted to do was make a film where people come out impressed by the animation, by the fact this is done in clay, and don't come out thinking, 'What a great story' and that it has some kind of resonance for them as well," Park says. "There is the content there. It's not about chickens' liberation"--he chuckles--"and it's not about vegetarianism, particularly, although there is something of that. We do have a handle on that. It is tied to the reality of mass exploitation. There is that kind of moral in the story, but we didn't want to explain it in the story. We wanted to give you something to chew over. That's one thing animated films don't often do. They want to tell you the moral and then tell you what it means and tell you what relevance it's supposed to have."

If these characters do indeed have a soul, as Park likes to say, it's one borrowed from their creators and their animators. It's found in the indentations left behind by the crew of puppeteers and animators who touch the character thousands of times a day; their hand prints rub off and remain, like a small stain that can never be removed. In Park's short films, characters need not even say a word to make an impression. Gromit, Wallace's dog and best friend, is completely mute, but this lump of plasticine has his own personality. He speaks with furrowed brows, with wide eyes, with a shrugging body.

In Chicken Run, Ginger--the chicken obsessed with leading her sisters out of the farm and over the hill, to green grass and blue skies--wears a forlorn look on her expressive face. Her silences are as important as her speeches; even a deaf child could sense her sadness, no doubt a remnant of Lord's earliest work in animation. He believed then, and he believes now, that these lumps of clay are very much alive--his and Park's children, hatched and nurtured for four-plus years and only now being sent out into the world.

"I know that people will look at the technique with part of their brains and come away going, 'That was really cool,'" Lord says. "And I'm sounding a bit evangelical here, but the technique is also important to both of us. This is a hand-made look. Watching the big screen, you're sometimes aware that these characters have fingerprints on them. We haven't totally tried to disguise that. And when you look at the screen, you see sculpting, carving, painting--you see craftsmanship. I fundamentally believe that a piece of handmade furniture or a piece of music played on acoustic instruments is better than something copied and replicated by machines or electronically."

Shortly, the two will begin work on another feature for DreamWorks: an adaptation of Aesop's fable The Tortoise and the Hare. Parks hopes to follow that with a Wallace & Gromit feature. The question, though, is whether the two men are ready to spend another four-plus years making a single film--whether they're ready to go through the birthing process one more grueling time.

"Yeah," Lord says, emphatically. He pauses, then grins. "I mean, not straightaway."

"Now that we've had this experience, it shouldn't take another four and a half years," Park says. "I just want to spend a lot of time daydreaming. I just hope I get a chance to do the right amount of daydreaming, otherwise it won't be good."

"Yeah," Lord says, "preferably in the Caribbean."

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