'No one in the U.S. would understand it': Inside the making of Chicken Run
Chicken Run was of a different scale to anything Aardman had contemplated before; in comparison, even the complexities of A Close Shave seemed minuscule.
The crucial Hollywood pitch meeting with Katzenberg and Spielberg had happened in January 1996. The script itself – in the hands of Karey, Peter and Nick – had started evolving later that same year. Yet it would be October 1998 before filming started, though production, including voice casting and set-building, had begun a year previously. Before any footage could be shot, the whole film had to be storyboarded, which meant hundreds of drawings showing each and every scene.
The process of making the film, when it finally started, was a massive and vastly complex undertaking. Every part of the 80,000 sqft was eventually required for some element of the filmmaking process, but, even so, 'By the end of the shoot,' Peter says, 'we were bursting at the seams and actually had to shoot a few scenes at another site.' Visit the set of an Aardman feature film, and it feels as if you're watching a small city busy at work.
At certain points in Chicken Run's production, there were up to thirty sets or units shooting – each with an animator (a dozen of whom had been trained for the project) backed up by camera, lighting and rigging crews. Dave Alex Riddett and Tristan Oliver gave the film the cinematic edge that the directors were looking for. At its peak, the crew consisted of some 200 people; Aardman proudly let it be known that the majority of them were recruited locally. Before every scene, an animator would 'rehearse' it after a visit from Peter or Nick, who would act out each sequence, including movement and facial expressions. (A good example of why two directors work better than just one on animation films.) The animator would then be expected, with everything set up, to shoot each scene in a single take.
It's an extraordinarily intricate and labour-intensive process. To outsiders it is surprising, or indeed incredible, that an animator is happy to have shot six seconds of finished footage in a week; but that is the 'industry norm'. Chicken Run ran for eighty-four minutes – an average length for an animated film – and it took almost eighteen months to shoot.
All this fails to take into account the voice artists, who recorded their lines, mostly in London, again even before any animation had begun. Peter or Nick would direct the actors, but it often happened that re-recording would become necessary as a result of script changes or subtle new developments of certain characters.
Additionally, of course, because this was also a DreamWorks animation film, Jeffrey Katzenberg had to be kept in the loop. He was keen to know the state of production at all times: 'He would fly into Filton every six or eight weeks,' Nick remembers; he'd arrive on his private jet at Bristol's modest Filton airport, bringing his support team with him, so he could visit Aardman and check up on the story reel in person.
Because of Katzenberg's often tempestuous personality, there were those who anticipated his flying visits with trepidation, but David Sproxton was full of admiration for his professionalism and thoroughness: 'Jeffrey was brilliant. He was always right on top of production,' he recalls. 'In some ways, he's like the last of the great Hollywood moguls.' And Peter adds, 'He's the hardest working, most driven person I've ever met. He'd put in a full week's work back in LA, then y to Bristol and back over a weekend, without a rest, and pick up on his productions over there.'
Nick saw the funny side of his Aardman colleagues' reaction to Katzenberg's impending visits: 'It was like he was Mrs Tweedy storming into the chicken coop, trying his best to catch us all out! But in fact, I got on with him rather well. It was new and exciting – and having DreamWorks behind the film, it was a real learning process.' Indeed, Katzenberg would deal with Nick directly: 'He wanted a personal relationship,' he recalls.
'There was a problem in that we wanted Chicken Run to feel as British as we possibly could – and of course Jeffrey wanted to make sure it could be understood by American audiences.'
This difference between the two cultures came to a head when Katzenberg objected to a line in which Mrs Tweedy uses the northern slang word 'wazzock' (meaning a stupid, annoying person) to berate her husband. No one in the US would understand it, Katzenberg argued. Peter and Nick countered that it was clearly an insult – and, besides, it was simply an amusing word in its own right. Having made his point, Katzenberg conceded.
That was how it was between Aardman and DreamWorks: some battles were lost, some were won. But it was always clear that there were two separate factions within this partnership, each with its own distinct agenda and ethos.
Peter, Nick and Karey had by now created a whole cast of characters for Chicken Run, and it was imperative to find the right voice actors to play them.
'From very early on we had created Ginger as the passionate one, the ringleader who wants to free her fellow chickens,' Peter says. 'We even referred to her as Miss X, after Richard Attenborough's role in The Great Escape – he was Bartlett, the master organiser of the escape known as "Big X". Quite how she evolved, I can't tell you – because creating characters from scratch is a great mystery. Stories build characters, and characters lead to narrative – they're irresistibly linked. Ginger was the strong, visionary one, surrounded by a crowd of comic eccentrics, and it was difficult to find her. But Karey was very influential in giving her dimension until we had a voice to work with – when, of course, she really took off.'
Julia Sawalha, already famous for playing Jennifer Saunders' sensible daughter Saffy in TV's Absolutely Fabulous, was chosen as the voice of Ginger. 'We loved her youthfulness and vulnerability and intensity,' says Peter. Jane Horrocks, star of the film Little Voice, was recruited as the dim-witted chick Babs, and used her native Lancashire accent to great effect. The versatile, sought-after Imelda Staunton played the pragmatic, slightly fearful chicken Bunty.
Karey had originally created a pair of twin chickens, but they never made it to the final script: their places were taken by Fetcher and Nick, a pair of unscrupulous rats played by Phil Daniels and Timothy Spall.
The role of the one remaining male chicken in the coop, Fowler, went to Benjamin Whitrow, who played him to the hilt as a 'frightfully English' RAF veteran ('644 Squadron, poultry division!') who disapproves of Rocky and, indeed, of Americans in general: 'Always showing up late for every war. Overpaid, oversexed, and over here!' (This last phrase was in common usage in Britain during the Second World War; Peter had passed it to Karey, who found it amusing and immediately incorporated it into the script.) David had given Karey a list of RAF slang from the period, and some examples of servicemen's wartime banter.
'Casting Rocky Rhodes was crucial, but we didn't realise at the time quite how important it would be,' Peter recalls. 'From the earliest outline, we'd had a chicken living wild and free outside the fence, while our heroes were cooped up inside – the Lone Free Ranger, as he came to be called. In those early versions, the Ginger character met him, but we had no idea how they came together. We knew Rocky was bloke and we knew the chicken farm was basically full of women. We thought maybe he could be a foreigner and talked about making him Irish, but the idea of making him American proved to be a really terrific story idea. The great thing that I didn't realise at first is that it meant American audiences could see the film through his eyes. As soon as he arrives he's making jokes about it: "And what brings you to England, Mr Rhodes?" "Why, all the beautiful English chicks, of course." It meant there would be an American viewpoint in the film, one that fitted in organically and inspired a lot of comedy. Between Rocky and Ginger there's this incredible chemistry. There was already a battle of the sexes; and now we could add a cultural divide as well.'
Of course, if The Great Escape was even loosely the template for Chicken Run, it followed that Rocky had to be a strong, watchable character – preferably with a touch of Steve McQueen-style charisma – so Peter and Nick tossed around the names of big Hollywood stars who might provide his voice.
Nick remembers: 'It was built into the script very early on that Rocky was an outsider, so it felt fitting when Mel Gibson was suggested. He wasn't just your average Hollywood star.' Indeed, though he often played American characters, Gibson was Australian – which made him an outsider of sorts. It helped that he was handsome, dashing – and in his four Lethal Weapon cop movies, all of them hits, he had shown a air for fast-paced, funny repartee with his screen partner Danny Glover. He'd certainly be needing that on Chicken Run . . .
When Peter and Nick were in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards, for which Peter's short Wat's Pig had been nominated, Jake Eberts had arranged for Gibson to call Peter and invite them to join him at an offbeat location – a cigar club on the top floor of a building on Rodeo Drive, right in the heart of affluent Beverly Hills. It turned out Mel Gibson had a weakness for large Cuban cigars.
He and his producer met them and they all chatted amiably, though it wasn't quite clear why the invitation had been issued. It turned out that Mel's children were great Wallace and Gromit fans, which gave Peter and Nick the leeway to pitch the role of Rocky to him at a later date.
Eventually, the deal was done, and Peter felt reassured whenever he listened to Mel talking: 'His voice was full of colour and character, dark and light. It was a dream for an animation director.'
Mel was clearly on board, and the only drawback – not a fatal one, as it turned out – was that he would not be able to voice his lines in London with the rest of the cast. He would be filming in Canada at that point, so he would need to be recorded in Vancouver. Shooting outside America helped get around the strict rules and rates of the US Screen Actors' Guild, which Aardman could barely afford and which Katzenberg did not want to pay.
To voice Ginger's one-on-one scenes with Rocky, Julia Sawalha was own out to Canada's west coast to join him. All too often in animation, actors are recorded separately from each other, thus losing the natural chemistry of their interaction. Peter and Nick felt it was crucial to have their two leads in the same room together.
Unfortunately, there was yet another snag. When Peter and Nick flew into Vancouver to meet Mel, they were waved through immigration without a second glance. But Julia, arriving from London, was not so lucky: she was held by customs officers, shepherded into a side room and asked what she, being English, was doing in Canada: 'We've got plenty of actors in Canada. Why are you coming in to record?' Nick tried to tell a customs official that he really wanted Julia Sawalha specifically in their film, but they still held her for a whole hour. Not the most relaxing introduction to Canada, especially after a long flight.
Yet, in the end, everything turned out well, and both Mel and Julia adjusted to the fact that animation directors require multiple takes of each voiced line to give them a variety of choices later on. 'Let's be honest, neither of us had worked in much depth with actors,' Peter remembers, 'considering which, Mel and Julia were extraordinarily patient and tolerant.'
Back at Aztec West, work continued remorselessly. Making a full-length animated film, they all discovered, is an exhausting process for everyone involved. But for month after month the two directors especially were put through an experience that was wearing in its own unique way. 'What does a director do?' Peter asks rhetorically. 'He answers a question every five seconds – all day, every day.' It's an intense level of non-stop decision-making that can easily induce migraines.
Shooting had begun in October 1998 and it was now April 2000 – just a few weeks away from the world premiere in Los Angeles on 23 June. The end was near, but it had been a long, hard haul.
David recalls: 'And just as we were finishing up on production, Jeffrey Katzenberg asked us: "So what have you got planned for the next movie?" Of course, we hadn't got anything planned.' (At this point, The Tortoise and the Hare was in development, but there was nothing definite for Aardman to announce.)
This seemed to be a tactic of Katzenberg's – always to appear to be thinking a step or two ahead of his creative partners, in much the same vein as: 'So, guys, when can we see the script?' If nothing else, it certainly kept them alert and on edge.
The truth was, most people at Aardman had been so consumed with the making of the company's first feature-length film that there hadn't been time for strategic future planning meetings to think beyond it. But this point would soon be addressed.
And, in a sense, Chicken Run wasn't quite over even then.
First, it had to be promoted – seemingly to the whole world. DreamWorks, like any other Hollywood studio, wanted millions and millions of people around the globe to know that this film was about to be released.
The filmmakers and some of the lead voice actors hit the road and did dozens of media interviews in various countries – several major cities in North America, as well as London, Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Paris and Stockholm. Journalists and TV crews would be own into these locations from other countries to ask questions about the film at press junkets.
Typically, every reporter has just five minutes to re questions at them, then he or she is ushered out and another immediately steps in and continues the salvo of questions. Predictably, many of the questions are more or less identical, which is handy, because in giving answers, there is no time for thought or contemplation – and certainly not complexity. It's all strictly business: stick to a few brief, memorable phrases, and repeat them to every questioner. And remember, without fail, to mention the name of the film.
After one such session in LA when Nick and Peter were punch-drunk after a score of interviews, they were astonished when the next interviewer appeared in full rooster costume. After a brief 'hola', he gave a five-minute monologue in Spanish and departed, smiling and clearly satisfied. 'Nick turned to me, deadpan: 'Were we just interviewed by a chicken?'
For his part, Peter tried to escape the junkets and wander off to explore each new city, if only for an hour or so, while Nick's method was to retire to his hotel room between batches of interview sessions each day and 'stare inanely at the ceiling, as my brain was so frazzled'.
But then, in fairness, Chicken Run would be opening in almost fifty territories across the world in the months to come. Movie fans in all those countries needed to be made aware of that fact. And a certain Hollywood studio needed to make its money back.
Excerpt from the new book:
A Grand Success!: The Aardman Journey, One Frame at a Time
By Peter Lord and David Sproxton
Published by Abrams Press
© 2019 Aardman Animations Ltd.