An Inside Look at Chicken Run
(Production - The Making of Chicken Run)
By Joe Tracy





DreamWorks has struggled with its animated films, each one (ANTZ, Prince of Egypt, and The Road to El Dorado) performing less than desired and each one with a "PG" rating. That is bound to change, however, with the release of Chicken Run, a "G" rated family film that follows the adventures of talking chickens trying to escape their "prison."

To bring Chicken Run to life, the talented team at Aardman Animations was contracted by DreamWorks for the chicken adventure.

"I've been a fan of Aardman's for close to 16 years," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, executive producer of Chicken Run and an owner of DreamWorks. "Their style is like nothing else in the world. It's just brilliant animation that we've loved in shorts like Wallace & Gromit. But what's exciting about Chicken Run is that we had the chance to really blow out the size and scale, while embracing the incredible detail and intimacy of characters that are uniquely Aardman."

In 1972, Peter Lord and David Sproxton founded Aardman Animations. The company is headquartered in Bristol, England. Until Chicken Run, the focus of Aardman Animations has been animated shorts and TV commercials. Three of Aardman's animated shorts have won Academy Awards for "Best Animated Short." This includes "Creature Comforts," "The Wrong Trousers," and "A Close Shave."

Aardman Animations is best known for their Wallace & Gromit characters. Wallace is the human inventor always creating inventions that fall prey to Murphy's Law. His dog, Gromit, is both intelligent and sensitive. Gromit may not be able to speak with his mouth, but his body language communicates his feelings effectively.

Animated shorts and commercials are one thing, but doing a major feature film is another as Aardman would find out with Chicken Run.

"Moving from shorts and commercials to feature films was a huge leap for us," says Aardman's Michael Rose, an executive producer of Chicken Run. "We always knew we wanted to work in partnership with Hollywood, but waited to find arrangements which would guarantee the distinct creativity and independence of our studio. We feel we had that on this film, which allowed us to bring the best of Hollywood to Bristol, England."

Even though the leap was huge, it was only a matter of time. According to Lord, who also serves as the film's director/producer, "Ever since the first Oscar, people have approached us about doing a feature film. I'm sure other companies might have rushed in faster and, heaven knows we've had story ideas and scripts offered to us. But we were waiting for just the right thing, so it stayed on the back burner."

But in order to have an animated film, you need to start with characters and a story. It was director Nick Park's concept that chickens be the central characters in Chicken Run.

"I've always found chickens to be funny, but we've put them in a dramatic setting, living an appalling life trapped and put upon by humans," says Park. "When you first see them, you might think, 'Oh well, they're just chickens,' but then you realize that chickens are people just like everyone else."

Now the question was how others would react to chickens as the centralized characters. It didn't take long for Nick Park to find out.

"Nick's pitch was an escape movie with chickens, which had immediate appeal, says Sproxton, serving as Producer on Chicken Run. "It had great comedic possibilities, with chickens devising escape planes, tunneling for freedom and such, and it presented a situation with which the audience can empathize."

Once the idea was secured, screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick was brought in to create the final script. Kirkpatrick's former writing credits include The Rescuers Down Under, James and the Giant Peach, Honey We Shrunk Ourselves, and The Little Vampire. It was Kirkpatrick who suggested to the team that Rocky be the lead Chicken. And Kirkpatrick had big plans for Rocky…

"It occurred to me that if Rocky's relationship with the leader of the hens, Ginger, was to be somewhat cantankerous, then it might be interesting to introduce an element of culture clash," says Kirkpatrick. "I thought it would work better if this brash, arrogant rooster was a cocky American."

And who better to give a "cocky American" voice than Mel Gibson, who voiced John Smith in Pocahontas?

"We must have listened to every conceivable American actor for the role, because we wanted a certain presence as well as a voice," says Park. "Mel was a pretty irresistible choice."

Lord agreed to the concept, adding, "Apart from being funny, Mel brought a kind of self-deprecating touch to the role that makes Rocky incredibly charming. I mean, an essential part of the plot is that this foreigner comes into the farm and sweeps everyone off their feet, which of course Mel can do. But we also wanted that sort of self-aware, slightly ironic edge in his performance."

It didn't take long to convince Gibson to voice Rocky as he has been a longtime fan of Aardman Animations films and he isn't shy to talk about his admiration for Aardman's work.

"I've been an admirer of theirs ever since they began making the Wallace & Gromit series," says Gibson. "My kids love them too. They're hilarious and witty and there's so much artistry involved... Quite honestly, I thought the concept of this was pretty funny and I loved the character. Rocky starts out with a rather high opinion of himself. He is very self-centered, but he learns to give to the other chickens, and that's when he becomes a hero. It's a classic journey for all heroes."

Forget Eggs, Chickens are Born at Aardman
In the past decade, the animation industry has been refined with new techniques, most related to computers. But Chicken Run doesn't use traditional or computerized animation techniques. It is mostly a stop-motion (clay animation) production, which involves a lot of "live action" miniature sets. And stop-motion has seen few new advances over the past decade.

"The sets are three dimensional," says Sproxton. "They have real textures and you almost feel like you can step into them. I think the audience enjoys that tangibility, and as kids we all wanted our dolls or action figures to come to life and speak, so the puppets have that added appeal."

Aardman model makers made two scales of each chicken called "A-scale" chickens and "B-scale" chickens. The A-scale chickens were the larger ones and were used in scenes that required interaction. Meanwhile the B-scale chickens, the smaller ones, were used for distance perspective and to make the human characters appear much larger.

The puppets were made with what is called "Aardman Mix," which is really a blend of Plasticine, except with a higher duration. For color a converted chewing gum machine was used to blend each desired color.

In Chicken Run, audiences will notice that nearly every chicken wears some sort of scarf or necklace. While this method served well to help identify each chicken, it served a more important purpose of hiding the seams from where the heads of the chickens detach. Each chicken had up to 60 different beaks to properly recreate vowel and consonant sounds for realistic talking. Like the chickens, the humans had a series of detachable mouths to properly recreate speech patterns.

You can't have chickens without feathers and this created an interesting challenge for the artists.

"We realized you can't do feathers in Plasticine," says Lord. Careful attention was given to the style of the feathers with each one being hand-painted. Artists sometimes spent all day just painting the feathers of one chicken.

According to DreamWorks, the chickens were made as follows:

1) Molds were made from the Plasticine sculptures in order to cast latex skins.
2) The skins were then fitted over silicone body shapes, which housed the skeletal armatures that allowed the figures to be manipulated.
3) The armature was reinforced to compensate for the weight of the detachable Plasticine wings and heads. 4) The chickens were built in two scales - A-scale and B-scale.
5) Colors were specially blended for each chicken.
6) Feathers were individually hand-painted.
7) The chickens were dressed to strategically hid seams.

Bringing the Chickens to Life
Chicken Run supervising animator Loyd Price had 40 animators working with him to bring the chickens to life. The animation team was split in two with a director for each team.

The process of animating the chickens is highly time consuming. Consider that one second of film requires 24 frames. Aardman had to shoot one frame at a time with the chickens being animated in each frame for smooth movement. So for just 10 seconds of film, Aardman had to worry about 240 individual frames. One minute of film is 1,440 frames long.

Besides worrying about smooth animation coming from each concurrent frame, Aardman also had to pay close attention to lighting, synchronization, speed, camera control, shadows, etc. One scene could take weeks to accomplish.

"We worked out all the camera moves in advance, says Alex Riddett, supervising director of photography for Chicken Run. "Camera moves are now controlled by computer, so the animators could block for the camera and know exactly where it was going to be at any given point."

How meticulous is the process? Well if one mistake is made, in most cases the entire scene has to be scrapped or reshot.

"Looking at it from the outside, it must seem like the most bizarre, arcane process," says Sproxton. "Unless you've been a part of it for a long time, it's hard to understand. Even I find it difficult to explain why it works. It just does…and people have developed a real affinity for the style. It's a great world for those who can suspend their disbelief."

DreamWorks has complete confidence in Aardman's work and style as is shown by the five-picture deal DreamWorks signed with the company. DreamWorks Katzenberg is one of the big supporters of the style.

"Aardman's style of storytelling is somewhere between fantasy and reality," says Katzenberg. "Clearly it's not real life, it's done with a big wink, but it invites us as an audience to travel into a world that they alone are able to create."


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