Toy story

The creators of Chicken Run find soul in a lump of clay.

Nick Park speaks so softly that the tape recorder barely registers him at all. His is a whisper of a voice, the sound of a man who has spent years in isolation talking to no one but himself. Transcribing an interview with him is like trying to decipher a manís private thoughts. Perhaps that is because for the past 30 years, Park has been holed up in a bedroom and, later, a studio, posing tiny plasticine puppets in front of a movie camera, bringing inanimate creations to life a millimeter at a time. The man must have the patience of the dead.

Park has spent years creating minutesí worth of movies, short and feature-length: Two pages of a script can take up to five months to film. For so many of those years, Park has worked alone with only his creations to keep him company: a man named Wallace, his faithful and insecure dog named Gromit, and, now, a farmís worth of chickens dying to escape their dreary confines. And though they speak on screen, itís quite the chore to turn them into conversationalists.

It is then left to Peter Lord to speak up, to postulate and proselytize while his partner sips his late-afternoon tea. Lord was Parkís inspiration: When Nick was a child growing up in Lancashire, England, it was Peterís clay-animated characters on the BBC that inspired him to pursue this solitary life. In 1972, Lord co-founded the Bristol, England-based Aardman Animations studio, creating animated programming for deaf children. At the time, Aardman was a sanctuary for animators wanting to create intelligent, thoughtful fare for adults and their children. But theirs was a cottage industry, and the cottage had only one small room. Now, 28 years later, Aardman is in business with Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffenís film company, DreamWorks, which is releasing Park and Lordís Chicken Run this week. The cottage has become a mansion.

The meat of it: Nick Park (left, holding a model of Rocky the Rooster) and Peter Lord begin work on Chicken Run.
The meat of it: Nick Park (left, holding a model of Rocky the Rooster) and Peter Lord begin work on Chicken Run.

"But weíre still a rare breed, actually," Park says. "I started making films as a hobby at age 12. I used to see Peteís work on the BBC, and it was the only clay animation that was on there. It was a little character called Morph, who was a sort of Gumby meets Marcel Marceau."

Park, sitting next to his partner in a suite at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, casts a sideways glance at Lord, as though this is the first time he has tossed out this description in front of his partner. Lord raises his eyebrows, tightens his lips into whatís either a smile or a grimace, and then begins to laugh. They both do.

"It was a fantastic lesson, because Morph was a sprightly little chap who metamorphoses, and what was always magic and holds people to it was heís not only a little man, but itís clay," Park says. "Itís a thing you played with every day of your childhood. Itís plasticine, but itís living, and itís magically changing shape. Itís pure magic, because you see this thing, and heís actually walking and breathing. He has a soul, and itís just absolutely mesmerizing."

It was only a matter of time before Nick Park and Peter Lord welcomed Hollywood to Bristol. In 1990, Parkís first Wallace & Gromit film--A Grand Day Out, which Park began in 1985 while he was a student at the National Film and Television School in England--was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short Film; his next two shorts starring the dog and his invention-loving master, 1993ís The Wrong Trousers and 1995ís A Close Shave, won Oscars. But the courtship with Hollywood has been a long process. Katzenberg tried to woo the duo when he was head of Disney, but they believed their films were too personal for a big studio, and they were not interested in making compromises. They felt features would be too "tacky," Lord says.

But Chicken Run compromises nothing. The tale of a group of chickens trying to escape their prison-camp-like farm before theyíre turned into pot-pie stuffing is at once bleak and joyous. Itís The Great Escape with feathered females, Stalag 17 with a rooster (Rocky, voiced by Mel Gibson) instead of William Holden. In the film, one chicken is taken to slaughter because she doesnít produce enough eggs. Her execution is more than hinted at: An axeís shadow and a loud thunk signal her demise. A few minutes later, her carcass is seen on the farmerís dinner table, plucked to the bones. Itís a rather daring move for fare being pushed on children: Rarely has animation been so willing to feel real.

"That is the heart of the thing," says Lord. "It is quite bleak for children. No, itís austere in a certain way. The reason I donít think itís bleak is because I think ultimately you feel great coming out of the movie; you feel uplifted. But it has its...Yes, there is death. Thereís a dark side to it. Thereís a sinister side to it. I suspect that if DreamWorks had been making it alone, had it been their movie, they wouldnít have made it so much that way. They would have made it softer all around, less sharp edges. But much of this is reflected in the books of Roald Dahl, and I think thatís the sort of place weíre coming from. Dahl makes these stories that contain violence and savagery, which are for adults, but I think kids like that, and I think itís good for them. I think it makes for a good story, and a happy ending is only worth having if youíve been somewhere really bad on the way there."

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