Peter Lord and Nick Park have been working together for fifteen
years now, ever since Park, a film student finishing his first
animated film starring what have become his most famous
characters Wallace and Gromit, joined the Aardman Animations
studio in Bristol. Lord was already there; he’d co-founded
the enterprise in 1972 with David Sproxton. Both have since
earned enthusiastic recognition for their work: Lord was twice
nominated (in 1992 and 1996) for the Academy Award for Best
Animated Short, and Park has won the Oscar three times (in
1990, 1993 and 1995).

Now the two men have collaborated as directors (with Sproxton
serving as their co-producer) on Aardman’s first feature film,
“Chicken Run,” made in association with DreamWorks Pictures
and Pathe. From the first inklings of the story idea to the
finished product, the picture took some four-and-a-half years
to make; the time-consuming model animation technique in
which Aardman specializes (a sophisticated sort of claymation),
along with the complexity of many of the scenes, in which
numerous figures were involved simultaneously in elaborate
sets, meant that only an average of ten seconds a day could
be accomplished in the new studio built for the project. (The
actual amount varied from about twenty seconds a week at the
beginning, when twelve units were operating, to perhaps ninety
a week toward the end, when the number of units had grown to

Lord and Park visited Dallas recently to talk about their
picture, which will hatch, so to speak, in theatres beginning
on June 21. The duo seemed an oddly complementary pair, with
Park lean and soft-spoken and Lord burlier and more ebullient.
But they had a shared enthusiasm for their craft, often
building upon what the other said about their pet project,
the tale of some poultry, scrambling to survive in the prison
camp-like atmosphere of a Yorkshire egg farm in the 1950s, who
undertake to escape to freedom. The leader of the effort is
idealistic, voluble Ginger (Julia Sawalha, of “Absolutely
Fabulous”), whose failed attempts always wind her in the
solitary confinement of a coal bin; but her dreams are
energized by the arrival of Rocky (Mel Gibson), an American
rooster who claims the ability to fly. Ginger blackmails him
into teaching her and her companions the skill so that they
can simply fly the coop; the scheme is complicated, however,
by the fact that Rocky isn’t all he claims, and a plan by
the villainous owners of the farm (Miranda Richardson as the
cold-as-ice Mrs. Tweedy and Tony Haygarth as her bumbling
husband) to change from egg production to the baking of
chicken-pot pies. Will the poultry become pastry? Or will
these unlikely heroes make a successful break?

“We’d been searching around for ideas [for a feature] for a
long time,” Park explained about the genesis of “Chicken Run.”
“And there was this sketch in my sketchbook of a chicken
digging out of a coop.” The drawing brought to mind the old
Steve McQueen picture “The Great Escape,” which both men loved.
“We were brought up on that movie,” Park continued. “It was
on every holiday, along with ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The Sound
of Music.’ Every boy watched ‘The Great Escape.’ It was a
marriage of two ideas that came together at just the right
point. It hit us, at the same time, really–we could do an
escape movie with chickens.”

“It wouldn’t have done with any other animals,” Lord added.
“Not least because chicken huts looked just like the barracks
in ‘Stalag 17’ or ‘The Great Escape.’ It was that image, the
perfection of that match, that seemed so amusing. And knowing
that chickens were so unheroic, proverbially unheroic animals,
it was really funny to take them and make them our stars.”

“We didn’t want to remake ‘The Great Escape’ for a moment,”
Lord quickly added. “What we wanted to do was to capture some
of the spirit of that film, some of the way it made us feel
when we were kids.”

Moreover, Park jumped in, “It [‘The Great Escape’] was one
of those movies that hasn’t come round again yet. No one’s
remade it. It a genre that hasn’t already been cribbed.”

But getting the idea for the plot was only the beginning of
a long process for Lord and Park, which included working with
writer Karey Kirkpatrick to turn the notion into a finished
script, assembling designers and animators to stage the action
painstakingly in their new studio, choosing the voice talent
who could bring the many characters to life, and making sure
that the completed picture had a style and tone all its own.
The pair aimed at the feel of one of the brilliant Ealing
live-action comedies of the 1950s which are still recognized
as classics. “We grew up on the Ealing comedies,” Lord said.
“There’s something about the atmosphere in them that’s unique.
But I don’t really know what it is, except there’s something
about those quite benign eccentrics–very English eccentrics–
that was fun to play with.” The result is an animated movie
with a flock of rich, colorful animal figures, including not
only hens and roosters, all of them with quite individual
quirks, but a couple of shifty rats as well. And the careful
attention to the sets, backgrounds and lighting gives the movie
a distinctive visual appearance, too. “That’s part of what
we love about this [model animation] technique,” Park remarked.
“It’s three-dimensional, and you can light it and do your
camerawork just like a live-action movie, but in miniature.”

The directors interviewed a great many British performers for
the leading roles before settling on their eventual choices.
But they had always had Gibson in mind for Rocky. “We actually
designed Rocky, before we cast him, as Mel Gibson,” Park
noted. “One thing that inspired us is that we were watching
‘Maverick,’ and that’s kind of what gave us the idea of using
him. It was very similar in that he was a lovable rogue.” In
fact, after designing Rocky the pair extracted a line from
“Maverick” and animated it to see if Gibson’s voice matched
the puppet they’d designed. “And it worked really well,” Park
said. “That’s what decided it for us.”

Now, after nearly half a decade’s work, Lord and Park can revel
in what’s a culmination of sorts of the fascination in model
animation they’ve both had since their youth. Park commented,
somewhat wistfully: “I think my earliest memory, actually,
is sitting out in the garden in a hole that we’d dug making
clay worms with my friend.” And Lord noted that the
special-effects master Ray Harryhausen probably influenced
him more than any other person. “I can remember thinking,
when I was about twelve and saw ‘Jason and the Argonauts,’
‘Wow, that’s what filmmaking is all about.” Now together
they’ve shaped Aardman into a major force in model animation,
and with “Chicken Run,” moved it from shorts, videos and
commercial work firmly into the feature marketplace.

And fans will rehoice to know that it’s only the beginning.
In October, 1999, Aardman signed an agreement with DreamWorks
to make four additional features in their new studio. The
next is a projected version of “The Tortoise and the Hare,”
and the third might just star Wallace and Gromit. And the
one after that? Well, at four-and-a-half years a pop, that’s
quite a ways down the road.