Aardman Animations lends its artistry and wit to the full-length stop-motion feature CHICKEN RUN, a farmyard adventure about a group of plucky chickens who attempt a great escape.

Compared with ordinary filmmakers, who point their camera at something moving and shoot it, animators have made life extremely difficult for themselves, inventing incredibly elaborate and tortuous ways to create moving images," says Peter Lord, a co-founder of Aardman Animations, in the book Cracking Animation. "Instead of capturing something that is already moving, we painstakingly create each one of the still pictures needed to imitate movement in real life."

For Aardman, the pain has paid off. Short films by the company, which is based in Bristol, England, have been nominated for Academy Awards five times (winning three), and two of its Wallace and Gromit shorts, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, have won more than 80 additional awards. Aardman productions have also received a raft of BAFTA nominations and awards, including a Special Award for Original Contribution to Television.

Aardman was founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972, and its Bristol headquarters was established in 1976. The two were joined by Nick Park in 1985; all three now act as directors of the company. Early commissions from BBC Television enabled Aardman to develop Park’s Wallace and Gromit characters, which he introduced to great acclaim in A Grand Day Out in 1989. The short was nominated for an Academy Award, but Park ended up losing to himself: his Creature Comforts took home the prize that year. But Wallace and Gromit soon had their day two years in a row, in fact. Their escapades in The Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1994) earned Park two more Academy Awards. Small wonder Lord has called the inimitable inventor and his faithful dog the "crown jewels" of the company.

Aardman’s elegant and imaginative stop-motion, 3-D puppet animation, which utilizes Plasticine modeling clay, has become an instantly recognizable style. The studio’s approach features precise lip-syncing and subtle facial expressions, as well as meticulously lit 35mm cinematography. The unusual demands of the art form require the studio to pay constant attention to technical developments that might suit its needs. "We want to keep up with the advances that have been made in live-action filmmaking," says Tom Barnes, Aardman’s technical director. "At the same time, we need to take a slightly different path, because as we become more and more of a specialized animation company, we have to build and adapt equipment to suit our methods which, although similar to [those used in] live-action filmmaking, are not entirely the same."

Aardman productions, which include television commercials, music videos and title sequences, reflect both an irrepressible sense of fun and serious craftsmanship. Chicken Run, co-directed by Lord and Park, is the studio’s first full-length feature. The picture’s plot pays homage to classic escape movies such as The Great Escape, Stalag 17 and The Wooden Horse; the twist is that the potential escapees are chickens, and the hero is a circus rooster who, after being fired from a cannon, accidentally lands in the chickens’ compound. The action takes place on a sinister farm in Yorkshire, England, during the 1950s, a setting that provides great cinematic scope and ample opportunity for Aardman’s artists to exploit their penchant for allusions and puns. The film also benefits from a distinguished cast of voices, including those of Mel Gibson (as Rocky the Rooster), Miranda Richardson (as the evil Mrs. Tweedy, who runs the farm with an iron hand) and Julia Sawalha (as Ginger, the hen agitating for a mass escape).

By its very nature, of course, animation is painstaking work it’s as if the whole process of filmmaking is deconstructed and then rebuilt layer by layer, starting with the voice soundtrack and the all-important storyboard. Park says he finds the initial drawing of a scene to be "the creative moment," though unlike cartoons and like live action the drawings are simply a means to an end. Complex 3-D animation of the puppets must follow, but the nexus of the entire film hinges on the voice tracks, one of the most difficult tasks for any actor to accomplish. Lord explains, "Although we go through the whole story with the actors at the outset, it is difficult for them initially, as they get very little sense of ’performance.’ We started out optimistically, doing our big [audio] recordings for Chicken Run up front and thinking that that was it for the shoot knowing it wasn’t, but hoping it might be. What we did not know was that making an animated film somewhat in the American mold would involve constantly revisiting and revising the script, which meant going back to the actors, sometimes months later, to get them to do new lines."

As co-directors, Lord and Park had to ensure that the actors didn’t imagine themselves voicing a cartoon, but rather acting for the cinema. Weeks later, their performance would be completed by the animators, who would imbue the 3-D characters with the proper facial expressions. Park adds that the actors’ voice-overs require considerable subtlety, "because much of our [animation] work depends on equally subtle nuances, such as eyebrows that don’t have to move much, which in turn is more like live action."

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