Making this movie was a feat of clay


When "Chicken Run," Nick Park and Peter Lord's clay-animated feature, opens in theaters on Friday, there will be two camps of fans. Those who ask, "Who are these guys?" And those who ask, "Where are Wallace and Gromit?"

For the past 10 years, Nick Park and his animated creations, a batty inventor named Wallace and his wise dog, Gromit, have been delighting a select group of filmgoers and video-renters, who have waited eagerly for each of the team's new adventures.

Made under the auspices of Aardman Animations, the British studio co-founded by Lord in 1972, the trilogy of Wallace and Gromit adventures have become beloved favorites of viewers lucky enough to catch them on the odd PBS broadcast or while grazing in select video stores.

It's not that Wallace and Gromit haven't had their share of recognition. In 1990, Park was nominated for an Oscar for best animated short film for "A Grand Day Out," in which the man and his dog traveled to the moon. (Park lost to himself, for the enchanting but Wallace-and-Gromitless "Creature Comforts.") Park and his creations won an Oscar in 1993 for "The Wrong Trousers," in which Wallace and Gromit masterminded a "Topkapi"-esque museum heist. And the team took home the gold again in 1995 for "A Close Shave," in which Wallace fell in love while Gromit was busy foiling a gang of sheep poachers.

Although it's terrific news for Aardman fans that the company has finally produced its first feature-length film, forgive some of us for admitting a sigh of disappointment that Wallace and Gromit are missing from the festivities.

"It was tempting," Park said recently of working with his creations again. "But Peter and I never had worked together on something that needed two of us, and we wanted to start with something that belonged to both of us. We thought that especially for [Aardman's] debut feature film, it would be great if it came from both of us."

Lord and Park came up with "Chicken Run," the story of a plucky chicken named Ginger (voiced in the film by Julia Sawalha of "Absolutely Fabulous") who plots to break herself and fellow egg-layers out of an evil chicken farm. She's abetted in her exploits by a flashy Rhode Island Red named Rocky, voiced by Mel Gibson.

Park, 42, admits that parts of "Chicken Run" were inspired by Penny, a pet chicken his sister kept as a child, but mostly his and Lord's inspiration came from every prison escape movie ever made, from "The Great Escape" to "Stalag 17" and even "The Shawshank Redemption."

Four years in the making, "Chicken Run" bears many of the earmarks of a classic Aardman production: the figures' faces are made of Plasticine, which a team of nearly 30 animators spent years meticulously moving, millimeter by millimeter, frame by frame. (The chickens' bulbous bodies were fashioned out of latex and silicone.) In an era when such films as Toy Story" and "Dinosaur" are constantly upping the ante in a medium that aspires to be ever more life-like, the handmade quality of an Aardman film -- in which a day can be spent creating 10 seconds of film -- is unapologetically rough-hewn.

"The whole essence of what we're doing is handmade," says Lord, 46. "The most important part is the story, but what's also important is the knowledge in the back of the mind of the audience that they're seeing something hand-made with love. I do think that communicates."

"I never thought it would work," Park said of tailoring his old-fashioned work methods to Hollywood's more rationalized mode of production. "I never thought this technique would lend itself to the industrialized process which is needed to get it done. But the animators were really trained ... I don't think you can see the joints."

Park and Lord, as co-directors of "Chicken Run," weren't in charge of manipulating the creatures as much as advising the animators, art directors and camera operators on how to realize their directorial vision most fully.

"In terms of coaching the animators, it felt very hands-on," Park said of the process. In large part, the fact that they could find so many clay-animation artists with whom to work is a credit to Aardman's commitment to Bristol, England, where the company has stayed since its founding.

"I'm very proud of that," Lord says of his company's relationship to its hometown. "It's an important part of the whole process. Four years ago we ran a training course, and we targeted people who were quite recent graduates from college and who showed great promise, and we trained them in a very intensive way. And of that group, I think seven of them became very essential parts of this film."

Even though "Chicken Run" is refreshingly low-tech, audience members who stay for the closing credit sequences will note that there are mentions given to the Computer Film Co. for digital visual effects. One can almost see Gromit's ears closing over his eyes in dismay.

"We're not complete sticks-in-the-mud," insists Park, who explained that computer graphics allowed him and Lord to do "things you can't do with Plasticine or clay, like the flames inside the [chicken pot-pie] oven and the big gravy explosion. Things that are just impossible. And we used digital to clean up images where we'd made mistakes, where something had fallen down or there was a light flickering. We worked with great computer people who have done stuff that lent itself to our style. Of course, they wanted to take all the fingerprints off the puppets, but we wanted to leave them on."

In the course of making "Chicken Run," Aardman Animations signed a four-picture deal with Dreamworks Pictures -- a far cry from the commercials and music videos that have kept the company afloat for nearly 20 years. The team's next project will be a feature-length production of "The Tortoise and the Hare," and Park hopes that their third film will star a certain cheese-loving inventor and his dog.

"You haven't seen the last of Wallace and Gromit," he promises.

We'll hold him to that.

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