Great escapists

"Chicken Run" creators Nick Park and Peter Lord talk about animating with emotion, Mel Gibson's patriotic rooster and finding an idea with legs, er, drumsticks.

By Michael Sragow

Published June 22, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

Voluble, expansive Peter Lord, 46, has the scraggly locks and wiry spectacles of a graying student revolutionary, while wispy-voiced Nick Park, 41, is like the unobtrusive boy in class who shyly explains a hilarious private joke. Yet during an interview conducted partly in San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel and partly in a limousine en route to a press conference, they displayed the jovial, unaffected rapport of a successful creative team. Park is the auteur behind three chapters of the puppet animation saga "Wallace and Gromit." The second in the series, "The Wrong Trousers," imported in 1993, did more than any other cartoon to popularize Aardman Animations in this country. Lord co-founded the company 25 years ago and, in 1980, came up with a simple clay character called Morph that inspired a generation of British animators, Park included.

Park and Lord, the directors of "Chicken Run," have unbounded mutual respect. They project a joint awareness of the ironies and absurdities of showbiz and of the hard work and flickering wizardry of animation art.

I'm probably the perfect audience for this film: I think Nick's 1990 short, "Creature Comforts," is a work of genius. And in 1982, when British film magazine Sight and Sound conducted its yearly poll of favorite movies, I was the only critic out of 122 to put the original "The Great Escape" [from 1963] on my list.

Park: It is an amazing film, isn't it?

How did it happen that you combined "The Great Escape" with chickens?

Park: Well, it just seemed to be a marriage that was destined to happen. It came together kind of magically, you know.

But which came first for you, "The Great Escape" or the chickens?

Park: They actually came at exactly the same time. That was what we felt was special about the idea. It wasn't like we went looking for animals that could escape. And we weren't looking for a movie with chickens. Know what I mean? It wouldn't have worked if it was "The Great Escape" with beavers. And it wouldn't have worked if it was "The Sound of Music" with chickens. It wouldn't be quite the same.

For a long time we were looking for ideas because we wanted to make a feature. And Peter and I were sitting and drinking coffee -- pretty much like this, but we were also sketching -- and we just came up on the page with a sketch of a chicken digging its way out of a coop with a spoon. And we thought, "Gosh, this could be something we could run with." It's an idea that has legs, as they say -- or drumsticks. Sorry about that.

That's OK -- puns must be inevitable at this point. Critics are always talking about how you get emotion into your characters. I think you simply take the time to get at the emotion. You show characters reacting to events. Reaction shots are supposed to slow down the action and were thought of as passi 30 years ago. But in "Chicken Run," which is an action movie, you often focus on reactions -- even deadpan ones.

Lord: Yeah, well, the time when you're not animating is often the most valuable, isn't it? Yes, the screen time when nothing's going on. We often had trouble containing our animators and stopping them from doing too much. I think so much of live-action comedy is really based on knowing when to stop, or knowing when to pause and look and give an expression that undermines what you've just said or whatever it might be. And we're great fans of that. We're fans of letting the puppet -- or, i.e., the actor -- really work. This is almost kind of by the way, but I've often thought with animation that the very cleverest animation often lets itself down.

It's wasted effort, you know? I mean, you'll see two animators and one will do something fantastically busy and elaborate. Intellectually you think, "God, that's very clever animation; it's so subtle and difficult to do." And another animator will do the same movement in almost a whole series of stills, and the latter is more effective. The first one's cleverer, but the second one communicates better because you can see what's going on. You can see the face. If characters don't stand still, you can't look at their faces -- you can't see their expressions and then you can't see what they're thinking and feeling and you've lost the moment.

It's interesting: Those of us who followed your earlier work at film festivals had this image of animators who went out with microphones and recorded people in the street and fit animation to real dialogue. Your animators have said that doing puppet films that way helped them rediscover the impact of the smallest human gestures, like a twitch or an involuntary laugh. Since both of you have worked in partnership, in different capacities, on films that draw directly from life as well as these completely fantastical creations, I was wondering how one mode fed into the other? Do you find you have to stimulate one part of your thinking constantly to restimulate the other?

Park: I feel like we're constantly drawing on all these different movie genres or experiences that we've had. We pretend not to go to movies and look at them for that purpose, but movies are in your subconscious. You know, it's a whole culture that we've been brought up on. And I think we are constantly switching, aren't we? I think that's the beauty of this medium: You can constantly switch from a live-action world where characters exist in space, where the world is gritty and characters have gravity, to suddenly be very cartoony. You can constantly set up expectations and break them. I enjoy playing with going from more cartoon traditions to going more toward Hitchcock and then to whatever. That's why it's a beautiful medium.

Lord: And to answer the other part of the question: When we work with actors, we still listen to the voices with much the same ear as for the documentary stuff. I think we tend to choose the most natural takes we can. "Natural" may seem to be a strange word for us to use, but we listen for very natural vocal performances. Just as in the documentaries, we're hoping to hear those gaps and hesitations -- the spaces between words which imply what's going on in the speaker's head. That kind of thing.

It's so difficult to alter a puppet in midproduction. Is it more challenging for puppet animators than computer or cel animators to come up with durable concepts for characters? For example, Jane Horrocks' character -- a chicken who acts like an ostrich, refusing to see evil and viewing the heroic Ginger's time in solitary as "a holiday." Did you have a pattern for that in your mind, or did it emerge partly from listening to Horrocks do those lines?

Lord: Actually, the underlying concept is sort of based on Jane's voice, isn't it? This funny thing about her being quite still. I mean, she's busy because her hands are busy and the face is just as animated, but she's very kind of square-on the whole time -- very square-on and bright, with madly bright eyes.

Ironically bright eyes -- otherwise, she's dim.

Lord: Yes, yes, indeed. An interesting detail is she's got this strange fringe of hair. She doesn't therefore as a result have a brow to play with, so it kind of changes her range of options. In fact, you could say she is the ultimate in limited palettes because her body is massively immobile -- I mean [pat, pat], like this sofa really. All she's got is this body that won't do very much and this head that works best straight on at you.

Park: And that's completely the opposite from what we're often saying, which is that we love clay because it's so flexible, malleable, and we can do all this fleshy, human kind of animation.

That was actually in the back of my mind: Was part of the attraction of chickens that they seem so inexpressive? Did you get drawn to that because it automatically became a challenge to your ingenuity?

Park: We didn't really even look at chickens for very long, because they were so awkward: They twitch all the time, they have eyes on the sides of their heads, they don't have any teeth, their legs bend the wrong way. They were completely the wrong thing to choose for our kind of animation.

But what I'm asking is, was that part of the attraction?

Lord: The fact that they were very awkward to animate wasn't part of the attraction. But the fact that they're so gormless [British slang for slow-witted] -- if I can say chickens are gormless -- was definitely part of the attraction.

So you saw the humor in their being so woebegone.

Lord: Yes, yes.

Park: I remember that we had a lot of discussion at one point as to how human and how chicken are the characters. I think we went quite far off into the human, but in a cartoon way. So they all became very unathletic, middle-aged women. And that's where a lot of the humor comes from. They have generally large shapes, but simple, quite simple, shapes. So they could stand there and have a deadpan look, but say a lot by not doing much. You know what I mean?

Of course. And that must've inspired the workout session, right?

Park: Yeah, the chickens were very restricted in what they could do, especially the bigger ones. So it looks funnier when they are trying to exercise or trying to run or whatever they're trying to do.

Talk about movies bubbling in the back of your mind -- anyone who loves "The Great Escape" can see so many resemblances in "Chicken Run." Some of the fun for you must have been saying, "Well, we'll have to do some kind of Steve McQueen motorcycle scene" or "We'll have to have someone toss a ball against the cooler wall."

Lord: Yes, that's exactly right. I reckon those ideas came up probably in the first hour -- and stayed with us over the next four years. They were always destined to be in there, those ones you mentioned, and Ginger [the chickens' leader] rolling through the underground tunnel on her belly on that truck trolley, which in her case is a roller skate. And that sort of thing where they have to cover up what they're doing -- they spin around secret panels, like what happens when Donald Pleasance's forgers turn themselves into a bird-drawing class. They devise cunning schemes to cover up what they're doing so the guards can't see. Yeah, we knew it would be there from the start.

I thought the way you handled the American character in "Chicken Run," Mel Gibson's Rocky the Rooster, fit into the mythology of Anglo-American relations fostered by movies like "The Great Escape" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" -- these films are always partly about what Yanks give to Brits and vice versa.

Lord: Yes, that's it -- and we're allowed to be completely playful with the whole thing. I don't know what American audiences will make of it, but to us the very fact that he comes flying in there with the stars and the stripes on his back like some demented archangel and then knocks himself out -- and as soon as he wakes up everyone loves him instantly -- that in itself is ironic.

We're a bit tongue-in-cheek about that. And yet, the chickens take it totally seriously.

And of course, the American is the one who has to learn discipline and commitment -- his insouciance and individualism will only get him so far. And the resident rooster, Fowler, an old cock who's straight out of a Hollywood British Empire epic, never fails to remind Rocky of that.

Lord: Yeah, old Fowler became quite a broad caricature.

When I saw the film with a big audience of all ages, there were moments where different segments of the audience acted in different ways. For example, when the chickens are despondent and you hear a harmonica playing mournfully, those of us who are on to your ironic take on war movies start to laugh. But I overheard a few kids asking each other, "Why is everybody laughing?" I don't think it disrupted their enjoyment, but I wonder if that is ever a part of your thinking -- how you can address the issues you want and not turn off one part of the audience or the other?

Park: I think what we're relying on is that there are different layers to the film. Certain things are there if you have the eyes to see them, or the experience to know what we're talking about. But it shouldn't spoil the movie if you don't. We should still be able to grip you in the story.

Lord: Even as you were speaking I was suddenly imagining the whole cinema rocking to two different timbres of laughter -- little "eeeiee-eeeiie" from the kids and "HO-HO-HO," very adult, at different times of the film.

I noticed in an early press release that Jack Rosenthal, best known in this country for his co-writing credit on Barbra Streisand's "Yentl," worked on the film early on.

Lord: He did -- he helped Nick and I to get going -- but I don't think any of it is in the final film.

What did you need to get going?

Lord: I think we needed discipline mainly, because we had such an elaborate story, or stories. We didn't know it at the time. We just thought, "Feature film -- gosh, you can put in lots of ideas." And it would've run for three hours or something.

Which is close to what "The Great Escape" ran, actually.

Lord: Well, 80 minutes is very short, but that's what animated features seem to need to be. Nor did we lack for themes; if anything, we had too many themes. We kind of knew that in a feature you have responsibility to have important themes, great set pieces, climaxes, but we went totally mad. When [credited screenwriter] Karey Kirkpatrick came onboard he helped to focus us.

Park: I think we always had the basic theme of Ginger being the leader who wouldn't let her chickens be eaten ...

Lord: And Rocky being the outsider who comes in and messes everything up in a sense.

Park: I think what Karey saw was that we needed a story that would allow us to be ourselves, allow us to breathe and play with what we do best: the character work and the gags and that sort of thing.

Lord: I remember we had three stories entwined, and we had to take off two of them and acknowledge that one was enough for a movie.

Park: We were picking around in many genres, and we finally had to stick to the escape-movie genre, fun movies about guys up to jolly old larks, trying to get out of their school, really. Whereas we had been exploring the hierarchical system inside the prison, and the "Stalag 17" element of finding the one who would double-cross the others, and so on.

Lord: The trouble was, we looked at "The Shawshank Redemption" -- Ginger was to have been like Tim Robbins in that movie at one point, where she came in from somewhere else and made life bearable for the other chickens. And the "Stalag 17" element was suspecting one of the chickens of being a traitor. And all this was quite apart from the scene we had with the parrot.

What scene with what parrot?

Park: The Tweedys [the chicken-farm owners] in one version had a parrot. Rocky somehow got confused with the parrot, and ended up trapped in their household disguised as a parrot. And the Tweedys kept feeding him nuts.

Lord: And the real parrot was tied up in the knife drawer.

In terms of directing the actors, are you both in the room when you're guiding their vocal performances?

Lord: We had to be pragmatic about it. We started both being there -- that was the ideal -- but then, as we went along, everything got crazier and crazier, and we had to split up. It was on a random basis, like who's this busy that day and would want to do the recording session. Yes, and that was odd because we weren't experienced with actors -- we are now, but not then.

Actors are professionals; they do it the whole time. And I assume that because [of that], there is a whole way of talking to them. I'm sure that a good director knows how to bully, cajole, seduce -- you know, charm, whatever it is. We don't know how actors think, so it was difficult.

But isn't the clichi that animators actually act out their characters all the time?

Park: That's right.

Lord: But the joke is that animators are often frustrated actors, or else they're like introverted actors. They do have all the same instincts: They want to show off, but often they are inept at showing off. Like one of the guys, Dave Osmand, for example, who did a lot of the very strong, most charming stuff in the film. He'd say he was a very good actor. But he hated taking part in the acting workshops we had early on -- hated them, resented doing it. If the camera was turning, he could not tolerate it. He actually was a very good actor, but not the man for the job.

Did the professional actors respond in part to their knowledge of your work in the past and also to what you were able to show them of the visual life of this movie?

Park: It became easier when we were able to show them puppets of the characters. I thought that maybe helped to some degree. But they didn't know how those puppets were going to move. Once we got some footage shot, we made sure we showed it before the next recording session -- and that inspired them. I think they got more of a handle on what we were doing then. Because I think they had no concept of what this was, and they couldn't have, you know, because there wasn't much of it around. Especially for Mel: I mean, he was fairly familiar with our work, but the British people were more familiar with our work.

Well, the actresses who are veterans of "Ab Fab," Julie Sawalha and Jane Horrocks, effortlessly seem to get a bent tone. They're both, in different ways, one step off the ground yet full of conviction. Was it harder for Mel? I mean, he is wonderfully effective in the film.

Lord: I think so, yeah. The first session, the first day, it was a slow start. And it may have been because of something we said to him. Because we did keep saying, "We don't want exaggerated, over-the-top character performances; that's not what we want. We want believable performances."

But that was like saying, "Remember, it's not just your voice; you will have a face as well, so you don't have to do it all with the voice because the face will do the other half of it." For whatever reason, his first day was laid-back, chesty and not very energetic. But as he went along, he was great!

Park: Definitely. And he was our first choice. It's funny, we were never pressured to have a big American star. We weren't even thinking we needed one. But it became attractive that we could work with someone like that. Because we could approach him, and work with a big star, it was like, "Well, if we can, why don't we try?"

He was a heavy cigar smoker when we started. And then he gave it up. So his voice suddenly changed after the first session or two.

Lord: We had to rerecord some stuff -- for several different reasons, really, but that was one of them.

So students of the films of Mel Gibson will note that in 1999 there was a sudden change in his vocal quality! Anyhow, in the context of the film, it works for Rocky to be played by a big star.

Park: It's nice the way he was so happy to spoof himself in this movie. He had a great sense of fun.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

MORE FROM Michael Sragow

Related Topics ------------------------------------------