Back in the summer of 2000, a small group of diminutive, handcrafted clay chickens broke out of a coop and made cinema history.
British stop-motion animation pioneers Aardman were already renowned for their Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit short films, but Chicken Run was their first feature. It was such an ambitious project that it required the construction of an entire studio at Aardman’s base in Bristol to house the sets, while academies were set up to train animators.
But it paid off. The film — co-directed by Aardman co-founder Peter Lord and Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park and now considered a beloved classic — earned north of $227 million, becoming the most successful stop-motion animated feature of all time, a record it holds to this day. Although it didn’t win the Oscar for best animated feature, this was only because that category literally didn’t exist at the time, with Chicken Run’s absence from the awards considered such an egregious ‘fowl’-up (sorry) that AMPAS introduced it the following year (when it was won by Shrek).
And now, almost a quarter of a century on, a Chicken Run sequel is ready to hatch. Twenty-three years may be only around 20 months in chicken years, but it’s still an exceptionally long time, even in the painfully slow world of stop-motion. But with the backing of Netflix, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget — first announced in 2018 — is set to bow at the BFI London Film Festival, one of a number of major world premieres that also include Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence, Daniel Kaluuya’s directorial debut, The Kitchen, and Starve Acre from Daniel Kokotajlo.
In the first Chicken Run, the flock — led by the brave Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha), alongside the not-quite-so-brave rooster Rocky (Mel Gibson) — were breaking out of Mrs. Tweedy’s farm in a poultry parody of Escape to Victory. In Dawn of the Nugget — with Thandiwe Newton and Zachary Levi replacing Sawalha and Gibson, respectively, and Bella Ramsey voicing their plucky daughter, Molly — this time they’re breaking in: into a dastardly chicken nugget-making factory, Mrs. Tweedy having reemerged as a chic, ’60s-era Bond villain and fast food mastermind.
The sequel — which involved a crew of about 350 people, with 45 units working simultaneously at the peak of production — also comes with a new director, Sam Fell. A longtime Aardman collaborator, Fell previously directed Laika’s ParaNorman and Aardman’s Flushed Away (the studio’s first — and last — all-CGI feature). He was also an animator on the first Chicken Run, but, as he admits, was involved in just one scene (with one key characteristic).
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget’s premiere on Oct. 14, Fell discussed the terrifying temptation of being offered Aardman’s “shiny jewel,” the words of encouragement Nick Park gave him in the Aardman dinner line, and why COVID restrictions meant that even the model chickens had to be quarantined.
When did you hear that Aardman was working on a sequel, and how did you get involved?
It was so long ago! I think it was around 2017. I’d been away doing different things, but I knew Aardman and had kept in touch. And I met Peter Lord at an event at 10 Downing St. It was kind of an Aardman anniversary event that became a wider celebration of animation. But we got chatting, and he said they had things on their plate and would love to do something with [me]. So we met again soon after, and they had a bunch of projects. All good ones. But their shiny jewel was the next Chicken Run. And it just gave me such a weird feeling, because it’s kind of scary, but super tempting at the same time. What a prospect. But I also knew how important it was for the studio and what a milestone it was — their first feature, their most successful and most beloved. So a mixture of fear and desire led me to say, “You know what, I think I’d like to take a crack at that.”
How fully-formed was it when you joined?
They had a script draft and a couple of bits of artwork. The strapline — “this time they’re breaking in” — they had and a story about the chickens now breaking into this big factory farm. It’s set in the 60s, having moved on from the 1950s, so we’re into the era of more industrialised production and bigger scale. It has changed quite a bit since then. It was a father son story about Rocky and Ginger, they had a kid — a boy — and the villain was different. The whole thing was different, but the starting point was really asking, why are they breaking in?
Is it true that you actually worked on the first film?
Yes! I did one shot. It was being made in the late 90s and I was already a director by then. I’d been an animator for Aardman, starting in the early 90s, but I’d started to direct commercials and short films and series for them. The opportunity came up to be an animator on this feature, but to me it just looked like I’d be animating every day for 18 months. And I was more interested in directing. But in the crunch, they’d got to the point where it was all hands on deck and they needed as many bodies as they could. Also, I was not great at animating clay. Not because I couldn’t animate it, but because I couldn’t keep it clean. Any bit of dirt or grease that is within you seems to just come up onto the puppet. The faces were about as big as your thumb and when they’re blown up onto a big screen, any tiny mark shows. And for some reason I just could not keep their faces clean. So I wasn’t cut out for it. But my shot was Rocky on a tricycle cycling away from the camera over the hill. And you only see the back of his head!
Given the time difference between films, how did you start researching and developing the sequel? There was a fire at Aardman in 2005 that destroyed a lot of their old material. Were the notes and models from the original still around?
The fire destroyed most of the models and designs. There were two boxes that had somehow been saved, and you’d open them and there’d be things like a leg and half a mold and a bit of paper with some scribbles on it. But Aardman’s head of animation was a hoarder, so we went into his attic and he had some boxes. But the thing that informed us the most was the “making of” book from the first film! We ended up looking at a lot of the photos in that.
When the sequel was first announced it was with StudioCanal. When and how did Netflix get involved and how did that impact the project?
The thing about making a stop-motion animated film is that it’s such as long, slow process, and the whole world changes while you’re making it. From my point of view, I make my films in about three years, and that’s kind of what I was planning. But this one took six years. And actually the best part of the first two years was, for me, a process of finding my feet and finding the film I wanted to make. But it took such a long time and the world changed and studios moved on. But we also hit a bit of a creative pause and the film just didn’t feel right — the father-son story didn’t feel right for these times. I thought the story should be about Ginger, because she’s such a great hero and she was ahead of her time. So I wanted to tell the next chapter in her story. So you had to slow right down and get back into the scripts. And at that period Netflix I think were already making Robin Robin with Aardman and were moving into animation and seemed to have such a good understand of animation. They were just the perfect partner and arrived just in time as I reconfigured the story to be about Ginger.
The shoot actually started during COVID. From the outside, stop-motion animation doesn’t seem like a job requiring a big team. Was the production hit by the pandemic and lockdown restrictions?
It really was. The first wave came when we were doing storyboarding and design, so that was kind of OK, as we were working remotely. But the second wave hit when we were on the studio floor. And yes, the animator ultimately ends up on their own, but to set that animator there, you’ve got a lighting crew, riggers… it’s very interactive. There are groups of people working on things together. So everybody was masked up and we had the distance rule. And once the puppets were made, because they’d been made by hand, they had to go into quarantine [at a time when all touched surfaces were treated as potential COVID transmitters]. There was a puppet quarantine area with UV lights. Babs the chicken had to go into quarantine for 10 days, or three weeks, whatever it was. So it all slowed us down.
In the time since the first Chicken Run have there been any major technological advances in stop-motion, or are you using mostly the exact same methods?
At its heart it’s the same thing that people have been doing for 100 years. It’s the same old conjuring trick – moving things a little bit and playing it back. But a hell of a lot has changed. We have green screens and rather than having these giant canvases we can drop things in digitally. In the original Chicken Run, I watch it very closely now and can see chicken wire when the chickens jump in the air. But now we just have them on a big gizmo and paint that out digitally.
What was behind the decision to bring back some of the cast, but replace some of the key voices? Julia Sawalha was upset that she wouldn’t be returning as Ginger.
Going back to that temptation to make this thing and the nervously and apprehension about making it right, as much as I absolutely adore the first film, which I think is a masterpiece, I didn’t feel like I wanted to make a carbon copy. I didn’t want to be too precious around it. So in those first two years I started to make my own decisions and felt, casting wise, we’re 23 years later. It’s a long time. It’s almost a reboot to be honest. It’s a new director and a new era. And I just started thinking, were all those casting decisions made in the late 90s still the best for the roles now. It’s a very personal creative process and I felt in some cases it didn’t quite fit anymore. Sometimes I felt it should stay the same. Ultimately I felt like this film has evolved since the first film, the world has turned on its axis and things have changed.
What went into the decision to replace Mel Gibson?
Mel was a fabulous choice for Rocky when he was this playboy rooster. He was a movie star and Rocky was a movie star. It was perfect. But now Rocky’s more vulnerable. He’s a first-time father. It’s more Ginger’s movie, so his role is different.
We obviously live in very different times than in 2000, but since casting Zachary Levi as Rocky he’s sparked headlines for a tweet that was viewed as anti-vax. Were you ever concerned about his off-screen activities?
No, not really. I must admit I don’t watch social media too closely. I’ve got bigger fish to fry. But Zachary has got a great voice and great sense of humor. He brings Rocky to life in a great way.
How involved have Nick Park and Peter Lord been? Did they have to give this their approval?
I had access to them throughout and went to them with every milestone of the film script. They were very helpful, but they were also very clear that it was my film. Aardman is very much a filmmaker-driven place — it’s run by filmmakers. One day early on, I met Nick in the dinner queue and was like, “Oh sorry, I feel bad that I’ve taken your puppets.” And he said, “It’s OK, Sam, you’ve got it.” He’s the humblest, nicest man. And that’s how I was able to make Chicken Run 2 my own without losing the heart of the original — I had the confidence to bridge those two worlds.
Stop-motion has just had another major moment thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which won the Oscar earlier this year. That must have given the production a boost.
Del Toro actually came to the studio. But stop-motion will never die. To be honest, it’s just a really good way to make stuff that looks really good. And it still competes with any other modern technology. We already knew half the people working on Pinocchio. [Cinematographer] Frank Passingham was the DP on Pirates! and worked on the first Chicken Run. So it’s all our people and, in fact, when they finished on Pinocchio, they sent them over to us. They travel around the world working on stop-motion projects.
For Chicken Run aficionados, if you were to watch the first film followed by Dawn of the Nugget, aside from the video quality, would there be much noticeable difference? Does one flow into the next?
Yeah, I would recommend it. I think it’d be great to watch them both because the story does flow and I think act one of our movie feels like the world of Chicken Run and then it evolves into the bigger movie that it becomes. The first is The Great Escape, but now we’re entering a bigger, Mission Impossible, Bond-esque movie. So yeah, I think it does carry from one to the other. Which it no mean feat for two films that are 23 years apart.
If this is more of a reboot, is there any talk of doing more Chicken Runs?
I do feel like there is a universe of chickens. There’s a very universal story about these small creatures living in this big and dangerous world, which I think connects to us humans. And they’re this little band of underdogs … underchickens? But imagine living in a world where people find you delicious! So yeah, we’ve definitely been thinking of more stories. Hopefully it won’t take us as long, although I’m not promising.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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