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CHICKEN RUN: Directors Nick Park and Peter Lord

The directing duo hope their first feature film will keep stop-motion alive in the 21st Century.

By Mike Lyons     June 22, 2000

Directors Nick Park and Peter Lord want everyone to know that stop-motion animation is alive and well, and living in the 21st-century, thank you very much. In a summer that has seen the computer generated, high-tech thrills of Disney's DINOSAUR and TITAN, A.E., their film, CHICKEN RUN, is scoring some big points for those who favor their animated action with a little more handcrafting.
The film tells the tale of Ginger (voice of actress Julie Sawahla) a chicken who, with the help of an American rooster named Rocky (Mel Gibson), leads her poultry pals in an all-out escape from the coups of evil farmer, Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson), before they become pot pies. The film is a rare commodity among animated features, in that it is accomplished through the medium of stop-motion animation. It's rare because this is an arduous, time-consuming process, in which three-dimensional figures are moved fractions of an inch while each of their successive movements are photographed frame-by-frame.
The studio behind the film is England's Aardman Animations Ltd, which has become one of the leading stop-motion studios in the world. Since their inception in 1972, their short subjects and commercial work have developed quite a following, as well as a few Oscars and numerous nominations. CHICKEN RUN (which is being distributed by DreamWorks) is the studio's first foray into the feature length realm. Park and Lord, who co-directed the film, have been at the forefront of Aardman's success. Lord, who founded the studio with David Sproxton, earned Oscar nominations for his shorts, ADAM and WAT'S PIG. Park has created two of animation's greatest personalities, Wallace and Gromit, who appeared in A GRAND DAY OUT and the Oscar winning shorts, THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE.

Recently, Park and Lord took some time out to discuss CHICKEN RUN, their unique style of filmmaking, and other forms of 'fowl play.'

FANDOM: MANY PEOPLE HAVE ALREADY COMPARED 'CHICKEN RUN' TO 'THE GREAT ESCAPE'...IF THAT FILM HAD BEEN CAST WITH POULTRY. TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW THE IDEA FOR 'CHICKEN RUN' CAME ABOUT.

NICK PARK: Well, just like you said, actually. We had grown up on films like THE GREAT ESCAPE and STALAG 17. We started talking about them and sketched away and then one day this little drawing appeared in a sketchbook. It was a chicken digging its way out of a coup, and we thought, 'That's the perfect movie.'

PETER LORD: People have asked us 'Why chickens?' As if we had originally thought, 'Hey, let's make a film with chickens!' It was actually, as Nick said, just a one-line gag, like a comic from the New Yorker. We felt immediately that it had the substance that we needed for a story.

AFTER SO MANY YEARS OF WORKING IN SHORT SUBJECTS AND COMMERCIALS, WAS CREATING A STORY FOR A FEATURE LENGTH FORMAT A NEW DESCIPLINE THAT YOU HAD TO LEARN?

N.P.: It was a completely new ball game. That was our biggest challenge - fashioning a story that could hold an audience for eighty minutes. The other films we've made, like the WALLACE AND GROMITs, they were little feature films within themselves, but they were only thirty minutes. So, this was quite a step up.

P.L.: The one thing that we discovered, that surprised me, is how little you need for a feature film. When Nick and I first wrote it, we came up with a series of ideas that would have made for a three-hour epic. We thought that's what you needed. But, what surprised us is how many ideas we would wind up throwing away. We were deceived into thinking that everything would be huge. Getting the right balance between story, character, visual action and the timing was the real challenge.

YOU JUST BROUGHT UP CHARACTERS. TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE TWO LEADS OF 'CHICKEN RUN' - GINGER & ROCKY.

P.L.: Ginger, the female lead, was our starting point. It took us a long time to 'get' Ginger, because she is the heart and soul of the film. She's the emotional leader. She's a chicken with a vision! [laughs] Then, Rocky comes in, almost miraculously, as the answer to her prayers. Rocky is a rooster - and a dashing and handsome one at that. He comes in like this dazzling vision and seems to be an answer to everyone's prayers. It turns out that he has, literally actually, feet of clay.

ROCKY, GINGER AND THE OTHER CHICKENS ARE UP AGAINST MRS. TWEEDY, THE EVIL CHICKEN FARMER. VILLAINS ARE IMPORTANT TO ALL FILMS, BUT EXPECIALLY TO ANIMATED FILMS. TELL ME ABOUT THE VILLIAN OF 'CHICKEN RUN.'

N.P.: She's kind of the Gestapo on the farm. We didn't want to paint her too literally like a Nazi commandant, but that essentially is what she is. She's very foreboding and no one wants to go near her. In fact, her husband, Mr. Tweedy, is afraid of her.

P.L.: That's where the film is a bit like STALAG 17. In that film, you have the ruthless commandant and then you have the bungling sergeant. Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy are rather on those lines.

ANIMATORS WHO WORK IN THE TRADITIONAL REALM, OF PENCIL AND PAPER AND PEN AND INK, WILL ACTUALLY ACT THINGS OUT, MOVE AROUND, LOOK INTO A MIRROR, IN ORDER TO CONVEY ACTING IN THEIR CHARACTERS. WILL YOU DO THAT AS WELL IN STOP-MOTION?

P.L.: Yes, we do just that, actually. We did something else on this film, which was new for us. Nick and I and the animators would often rehearse on video and use that as inspiration. I don't want to say that we copied it, because I hate that idea. But, we did use it as inspiration on timing and subtle details. Some of the emotional effects that we wanted to get, such as when an idea flits across someone's face - that's a very subtle thing to get and we found it much easier to get it by recording it than by talking and theorizing about it. Because, I do think that characterization should be your number one thing.

STOP-MOTION IS AN INCREDIBLY TIME-CONSUMING PROCESS. HOW MUCH OF 'CHICKEN RUN,' IN TERMS OF TIME, WERE YOU COMPLETING EACH WEEK, WHILE THE FILM WAS IN PRODUCTION?

N.P.: Well, with thirty animators working on staff, we were producing about ninety seconds per week. And that was a good week! Also, because we were shooting in a wider-screen format, it meant that you could never have a single chicken head shot. There were always, at least, twenty chickens in the background, that had to be animated. But hopefully, with the details that we've put in, the film should stand up to many viewings.

THERE WERE PROBABLY MANY DIFFICULT SCENES TO ACCOMPLISH, BUT IS THERE ANY PARTICULAR SEQUENCE IN 'CHICKEN RUN' THAT YOU REMEMBER AS BEING A REAL HEADACHE?

N.P.: Any scene with chickens in it.

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