Peter Lord and Nick Park have been colleagues at the Aardman Animation studio in Bristol, England, for more than 15 years. Their first actual collaboration is also the studio’s first feature-length production, the clever and uproarious escape farce “Chicken Run,” which opens Friday and could emerge as the summer’s sneakiest hit.
The clay-animation puppets designed by the Aardman team must run for their lives. These inmates are hens at an extremely shabby chicken farm operated by a couple, the Tweedys. The poultry is forced to take desperate measures to elude the consequences of an infernal chicken-pie machine installed by the fuming and greedy Mrs. Tweedy to liquidate the inventory and sell the miserable property.
A gritty hen called Ginger, an incorrigible runaway, has failed at several escape schemes. Everything is riding on her last one, including bucolic happiness with a rooster called Rocky, who blunders onto the farm but hesitates to play a liberator’s role.
Mr. Park and Mr. Lord, an amusing odd couple in person, have been spending several days talking about “Chicken Run” to members of the press from a corner office on the 22nd floor at DreamWorks Pictures. Mr. Lord, rumpled, bearded and longhaired, does most of the talking, in a jovial voice that recalls John Cleese. Mr. Park is trim, cleanshaven, shorthaired, shy and soft-spoken.
The entire enterprise traces its beginning to Mr. Lord and school friend David Sproxton, who also became keen on animation in his early teens. Their earliest home-made shorts attracted some attention. BBC paid them “about 15 pounds” to telecast a Lord-Sproxton effort using cutouts and chalk drawings.
The two professionalized the partnership in 1972. Aardman, the name of one of their animated characters, was incorporated formally in 1976. After another decade, Mr. Park was recruited out of film school. He gave the young company its first beloved characters, Wallace & Gromit, introduced in the comedy short “A Grand Day Out.” The project had begun in college in 1985. Mr. Park completed the film at Aardman about five years later.
Colleagues and fans had been anticipating an Aardman feature, but the men responsible took a cautious approach. “There was almost nothing that we took seriously,” Mr. Lord says. “Having said that, we did look over lots and lots of ideas.
“For example, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who’s our executive mentor at DreamWorks, was very high on a children’s book called ‘Schreck.’ It’s now being done by another company in San Francisco, but nothing in it quite caught our eye. One idea we rather liked was about an aardvark in the big city. I still think it’s promising, and Aardman would naturally be partial to an aardvark protagonist.”
Mr. Park says, “When an idea is good, it screams to be made… . We came up with this idea, really without premeditation.”
Mr. Lord thinks the idea screamed at them for a deceptively simple reason. “This may sound funny,” he says, “but it worked so well because it was a one-joke idea. Nick had done this drawing of a chicken digging with a spoon. As far as we know, it just sort of welled up out of his imagination, but it rather suggested, among many things, a prison inmate in a war movie trying to tunnel out of the camp. That blossomed into ‘Let’s do “The Great Escape” with chickens.’ We haven’t done that at all, actually, but it was a very productive starting point.”
The big advantage was that the premise seemed to sell itself. “When we pitched the idea, people could easily see its potential as we had, but under the impression that we’d do a lot of ‘Great Escape’ parody,” Mr. Lord says. “Eventually, we tossed it off in a few seconds during the prologue and went on to emphasize other things, including ideas lifted from other adventure movies. But it really got the ball rolling.”
Jake Eberts, a producer and packager who was active in prestige productions during the 1980s and early 1990s, was an Aardman fan and had offered his services in getting a feature off the ground. “He funded the script development, which took us a couple of years,” Mr. Lord says. “He’s a wonderful, charming man, very straight and honest and all that. Nick and I did a bit of ill-conceived writing during that stage.”
Mr. Lord adds: “We didn’t actually write a screenplay. That isn’t quite our field. We tried working with an English screenplay writer, but oddly enough, the chemistry wasn’t there. Jake, who was an executive producer on ‘James and the Giant Peach,’ put us in touch with an American, Karey Kirkpatrick, who had worked on that and on ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ for Disney. Karey turned out to be very compatible, so the three of us spent a long time, quite luxurious actually, completing the script.”
Aardman has a four-picture deal with DreamWorks. The second project is a new version of “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
A logical question: Is a Wallace & Gromit feature in the works? Mr. Park, who invented the characters and won Academy Awards for their second and third offerings, “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave,” confirms that patience will be rewarded.
“I have an idea in my head for a Wallace & Gromit feature,” he says, “but it will come later I think as our third feature. We wanted to start with a fresh idea, a clean slate for the first one. Also something that we both shared, equally. Wallace & Gromit have quite a bit of baggage in some respects, but there aren’t a lot of characters in their world yet, and only one of the main characters does any talking. So it takes some thought and care to get them beyond the short or featurette format.”
They keep Bristol as a base of operations because “we had one contact with the BBC originally, and he got us one job. It was produced in London but recorded in Bristol,” Mr. Lord says. “My family came from Bristol but had left. We still had family and friends there in some abundance. And most important, David’s girlfriend lived there. So, on those fine principles, we settled in Bristol.”
Mr. Park chimes in: “It’s become an industry. When we’re at peak production periods, we seem to be employing half of Bristol. But it’s still so cut off from other parts of the industry that it feels rather small and intimate.”
Aardman became self-supporting when Mr. Lord and Mr. Sproxton demonstrated that Plasticine characters could be very effective in commercials and music videos.
“We’ve struck a balance that works in Britain commercial work mixed with short films,” Mr. Lord says. “Wallace & Gromit became our flagship characters, of course, and it was a jolly good move to recruit Nick. We also do weird stuff, edgy stuff with young directors to keep us lively. It’s been a very successful small company with its own culture and economy.”
He also believes the company’s methods remain a mystery to the public and much of the conventional film industry. “People who should know better still imagine that Aardman consists of Nick and I, or often just Nick, sitting in the corner of a room, cutting out chicken puppets,” Mr. Lord says. “I’m so pleased, as proud as anything, that we’ve managed to take the company from really nothing to this point.”