Peter Lord and longtime collaborator David Sproxton founded Aardman Animations together in 1972 and have presided over it ever since, gradually building it into a mini-empire for model animation. A large part of that growth can be credited to director Nick Park, who was hired as a part-time animator in 1985 while working on his student film, A Grand Day Out. The first in an immensely popular series featuring a cheese-loving inventor named Wallace and his sophisticated dog Gromit, A Grand Day Out was one of two Park films to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Short in 1990; the other, Creature Comforts, earned him a well-deserved Oscar. He won two more with the successive entries in the Wallace & Gromit series, 1993's The Wrong Trousers and 1995's A Close Shave. Aardman's success in the animation world was again confirmed the next year, when Lord received his second Oscar nomination for the dialogue-free Wat's Pig. After a long resistance to Hollywood, Aardman signed a five-picture deal with Dreamworks for a reported $250 million. Co-directed by Park and Lord, their first feature-length project, Chicken Run, is a wonderfully elaborate goof on The Great Escape with Mel Gibson providing the voice of a brash American rooster who aids a flock of chickens in their plan to fly the coop. Park and Lord recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about Chicken Run, the animation process, and Aardman's future.
Peter Lord: When we first started it, I suppose we were ambitious to do well. But I would have never dreamt anything like our success now, because the world of animation was so different back then. My ambition simply was to make money out of animation and make a career out of it. That was really as far as we ever hoped to go. There were only two of us at the time, myself and Dave Sproxton, and I never thought I'd ever walk into a studio with lots of people and lots of stuff, with a marketing department and a human-resources department. [Laughs.] I just thought we'd make films and bring in just enough to continue doing so. In Britain at the time, we were making five-minute shorts for kids, and doing a series like that was about as far as we'd imagined it would go.
O: Was there a unified idea about what kind of animation would be coming out of Aardman?
PL: Since it was just the two of us, it was really simple. Back in those days, the ambitions were very modest. But then we discovered Plasticine animation and found out how fun it was and how expressive it was. So, as the company became financially viable and started growing, I got to be ambitious and have this image of a whole stable of artists doing a range of projects. Not necessarily unified, though, because I thought we could be a home for all kinds of animators with different styles and visions.
O: [to Nick Park] When you were finishing A Grand Day Out, you were working part-time at Aardman. In what capacity?
Nick Park: I was working on whatever Aardman had, really. At first, it was a Channel 4 film called Babylon, which hasn't really seen the light of day for a long time. [Laughs.] Also, we were starting to get more into commercials, which I really enjoyed doing. Then there was this little character called Morph that Pete created that used to be our bread and butter back in the early days, sort of the British equivalent of Gumby. Morph is a little actor, really, that performs on this artist's desk, and I used to help out with that sometimes. We had him play around with pencils and paints and that kind of thing. He was really great fun to do. And then, the video for [Peter Gabriel's] "Sledgehammer" came along and I was one of the people who worked on that. But it was a great arrangement for me, because I was able to finish my own college film [A Grand Day Out] at the same time. It took me seven years to finally complete it.
O: They were pleased enough with the film to give you the degree?
NP: Yeah, they did. I think they did, anyway. [Laughs.] I went back something like eight or nine years after I started the course. I was the longest-running student at the National Film & Television School.
PL: And all your teachers had died by then, right? [Laughs.]
O: Considering the very subtle changes you need to make for expressions in 3-D animation, how do you assure that the animation remains consistent in a project as large as Chicken Run?
NP: That's one of the biggest challenges. Three or four years ago, I would have never thought this could work. As Pete said, Aardman has been this umbrella for people to work, but everybody has always been very individual and kept their own style. So, for a project like this one, the animators are asked to work in one style. But at the end of A Close Shave, we started to perfect a technique that was going to help lots of different people work in the same style and save a lot of time sculpting in front of the camera, as well. For Wallace, we pre-made these mouths to express each vowel and each consonant. I think we ended up with a set of about 20 mouths that were pressed out of Plasticine molds. We used this technique extensively on Chicken Run, where we had all these sets of beaks with teeth in them. And that helped keep the chickens looking the same. But I remember starting A Close Shave: There were more animators than ever working on that one, and they were all put through Wallace & Gromit lessons, where they learned how to move the brows and the eyes and the mouths. We did that even more on Chicken Run. Every Monday night, we had workshops so everyone would handle the characters in the same way.
O: What was the division of labor between the two of you throughout the shooting?
NP: We split the movie pretty much in two. This was made easy by the fact that we both originated the story idea together and kicked it around for about a year. We had our pet scenes we wanted to do, but after that, we did roughly alternate scenes.
PL: I think it divided into something like 25 scenes a piece, maybe more. One scene might be 30 seconds and another might be four minutes. We kind of reckoned that any slight differences in our approach–which, God knows, were inevitable–would be covered up by the differences in the mood of the scenes we were shooting.
O: What would a typical day on the set be like?
PL: Like hell. [Laughs.] Imagine you're in Dante's Inferno and you have some idea. No, actually, it was mainly pleasure. Nick and I would arrive in the morning, and the first thing we'd do is watch the dailies from the previous day, see what they look like projected and then try to cut them into the reel. That was often the worst part of the day, because then you'd have to go through the agonizing decision as to whether the scenes you shot were good enough to keep. And if they weren't good enough, you had to negotiate to get them reshot, which always caused great dismay amongst the whole production, because a reshoot is some days' work lost. So the first part of the day was always very stressful. Then, once you got past that stretch, you had to go down to the studio floor and spend the morning directing the sets. At worst, there would be 15 sets each to worry about, and to be honest, you didn't have to work with all of them every day, but you'd easily visit 10 or so. One set may be in the middle of a shot, so there isn't terribly much to say. Another may be just starting a shot, so there's everything to say–about the performance, lighting, camera moves, set dressing, everything. Some may be rehearsing, some may be going for the final takes, some may be just doing blocking, and some you'd get to and they hadn't even started. So all the things that film directors do, Nick and I would do, but all overlapping. For example, you could be looking after two sets at the same time, and two different animators are working on two shots that have to be cut together. Sometimes the second shot would be starting before the first shot, and keeping track of all that would get really mind-boggling. Then, in the afternoon, we'd work on selecting voice takes from the actors, who had done maybe 30 takes of a line, and try to edit the picture from there.
O: Considering the amount of planning that goes into each shot, is it difficult to add little individual touches as you go along?
NP: [Plasticine animation] is a technique that's perfect for improvisation. It's usually a contradictory thing when you speak of animation to talk of improv, but with this technique, it happens, and I think it's because it's really a performance in front of the camera. You have your camera, you have your puppet, and your animator knows the intention of the shot, but there are so many ways you can carry it out. So it's like any other performance. You may know you've got to keep the shot within three seconds, and it may take you a whole day to do, say, a second and a half, but you have so many opportunities throughout that day to change your mind on how the shot goes. And ideas come to you, because you've got all that time. With drawn animation, it's like you're creating a more sophisticated flip-book, so you've got to look through your drawings and keep going back and adjusting. And with computers, you can keep changing the animation and layering it. You don't have that chance here. Here, you've got a puppet and you're just working forward, and if it doesn't quite deliver, you start again from the beginning. You really live in the moment, like an actor would on a stage. Each day is a singular performance.
O: How does the stop-motion process figure into how you conceive a character?
PL: It does affect it in a certain way. The conventional answer to that would be to say that our chickens were totally crazy, because in stop-motion, one of the things you have to fight is gravity. Our characters are basically standing on a table on their own two feet. So if a student came to me, I would say, "Young man, give your character big feet. Very big feet and thick legs and a little body." [Laughs.] Because that would be easier to animate. And our chickens have huge, round bodies and little thin legs and these spindly four-toed feet, which don't lie flat. So we defied the conventional wisdom of stop-frame animation. With Plasticine animation, you've got specific rules, because Plasticine is flexible modeling material which you can damage with ease. The chickens have textured and colored feather patterns on them and feathery bottoms, but you couldn't touch them, because every time you did, they'd all squidge together. So the puppets had to be built in a special way to allow us to touch them and move them around while still keeping their structural integrity. But the important part is the face, because that's where all the acting takes place. And that's actually technically quite simple, because it's just Plasticine. There are lots of different ways of designing that, but we've kind of developed this style with the eyes right together in the middle and a big wide mouth, just because that plays well. People find that incredibly funny for some reason. Just the still image makes them laugh, so we have to go along with that.
O: What are your feelings on the Internet as a pipeline for Aardman shorts?
PL: We just started with it. We've got a character called Angry Kid that we put on Atom Films. It was almost targeted for that kind of distribution, really. We had a young guy at work named Darren Walsh who had this idea for Angry Kid, and he just wanted to do one-minute films, nothing more. That's very hard to sell for conventional TV, so we thought we'd try it on the Internet. For us, it's an interesting experiment, but the big question is, in two years, will it have paid off financially? I'm not quite sure how the money will work out.
O: Are the two of you going to continue working on shorts, or is it just features from here?
NP: Well, Aardman has a deal to do four more features for Dreamworks. There's one on the way we're working on right now, tentatively called The Tortoise And The Hare, and then we've got a Wallace & Gromit feature after that. So we have those features, but I still think we're always going to be quite eclectic and do different things at the same time. While Chicken Run was being made, we were still doing kids' shows and TV commercials.
PL: The nice thing about shorts is that you're hoping the next great idea is going to come up that way. It's like a training ground where animators can learn to be directors and learn graphic styles and that kind of thing. Plus, in the short form, if you have a bad idea, at least it doesn't take up a lot of screen time. [Laughs.]