As Wallace himself might say: oh ’eck. A crisis has descended upon Aardman Animations. The world-renowned stop-motion studio is about to run out of clay.
Ever since its founding in the early 1970s, Aardman has moulded its characters from Lewis Newplast – a modelling material named after one Mr Lewis, an art teacher from Chislehurst who concocted the stuff in his garden shed.
This Plasticine-like substance is an animator’s dream: it’s easy to mould, yet keeps its shape under hot studio lights. But in March this year, the only factory that made it, on the outskirts of Torquay, shut up shop. When its closure was announced, Aardman bought up every last block of Lewis Newplast that remained in the warehouse – enough for just one more film: the new Wallace & Gromit, coming in 2024. After that, until a suitable replacement can be found, or invented, that’s it.
This leaves the beloved animation house in what might be called its hour of knead, yet when I visit Aardman’s premises on the outskirts of Bristol mere days after the bad news broke, it hasn’t noticeably dampened anyone’s creative spirit. In the workshop, a small army of artists are working great rainbow dollops of Newplast into familiar shapes: the cast of Chicken Run, whose second adventure arrives in cinemas and on Netflix next month. Subtitled Dawn of the Nugget, it’s Aardman’s ninth feature and a sequel to its very first – which, 23 years on, remains the most successful stop-motion film ever made.
A few weeks from the completion of the shoot, the place is a hubbub of colour and texture – a cross between Willy Wonka’s Inventing Room and an explosion in a primary-school art cupboard. Pliable character models made from silicone (which Aardman uses in addition to Newplast when reposability is crucial), built over vaguely sinister Terminator-like metal armatures, are being lightly dusted with icing sugar to give them a more doughy matte finish. (The original puppets were all rotisseried – sorry, destroyed – in the Aardman warehouse fire of 2005.)
Elsewhere, walnut shells are being ground in a blender to make fake breadcrumbs – which are in turn also cast in silicone, then stuck onto a model of Mrs Tweedy, the axe-brandishing farmer’s wife of old, who has pivoted since 2000 from baking deep-filled chicken pies to frying crispy fast-food bites. On a nearby table, crumpled kitchen foil and then clingfilm have been wrapped around a cardboard tube to create a muted reflector – which, when turned slowly, mimics the play of sunlight on water. Total cost of materials at Tesco for the last of these pieces of movie magic: £3.60.
These items are then whisked downstairs to a team of 30 animators, who are creating the film frame by painstaking frame on a series of 45 darkened “units”, or miniature sets. On a good day, each worker might personally generate a second of footage: working at full tilt, the studio can turn out about two and a half minutes of movie per week. Over a cup of tea, two animators reminisce about a particularly complex shot that runs for around 30 seconds, and which took the team four and a half months to produce.
Roaming the shop floor is Dawn of the Nugget’s director, Sam Fell – a prodigal son of the studio who returned in 2016 after a spell in Oregon, where he co-directed ParaNorman for the Laika studio.
As a young animator, Fell was mentored by Aardman’s co-founder Peter Lord, who describes him with a chuckle as “the wild man of stop-motion”, when he came knocking in the early 1990s, with the work of avant-garde masters such as Ladislas Starevich and Jiří Trnka under his skin. Fell’s first Aardman film was a two-minute short, in which a man is decapitated by a flying fizzy-drink can, then his missing head replaced with a goldfish.
While Nugget is at the gentle end of the PG-rating scale, it still embraces the medium’s flair for the weird. Here, the Tweedy farm is no longer the Great Escape-like prison camp of the original, but instead a Pleasure Island-like fortress called Fun-Land, styled after vintage Butlin’s postcards, Gerry Anderson’s teatime marionette sci-fi series, and the Ken Adam-designed villain lairs from Connery-era James Bond films. In a paranoid thriller touch, its avian inmates even undergo a brainwashing procedure, after which they happily offer up their necks for the chop.
When Fell came on board as director, both Lord and Nick Park, the creator of Wallace & Gromit, had already fixed the basics of the plot in place. Lord remembers being summoned to Hollywood in 1996 to propose a debut feature to DreamWorks, while he and Park were at the Sundance Film Festival for the American premiere of the third Wallace & Gromit short, A Close Shave. On the flight from Utah, the two ransacked their sketchbooks for ideas, and Park found a drawing of a hen tunnelling out of its coop with a teaspoon. They both thought this was funny, and their pitch – The Great Escape with chickens – spiralled from there.
The new film, Lord explains, “also began with a joke. We were toying with the idea of the chickens breaking into somewhere, rather than out of it. Then someone said ‘Chicken: Impossible’, so that was that.”
Many members of the original voice cast, including Miranda Richardson as Mrs Tweedy, are reprising their roles. But in 2020, the studio was accused of ageism by Julia Sawalha, then 51, who had learnt she would not be returning as Ginger, the heroine of the first.
In fact, Sawalha’s replacement was the 51-year-old Thandiwe Newton: age clearly wasn’t a disqualifying factor. So why were some parts recast?
“If it had been five years since the first film, we would have kept the whole cast, no question,” Fell says. “Those performances were perfect. But it’s almost 25 years later, and we’re telling a very different story, so it would have been crazy not to think afresh.” He asked the casting directors to give him a list of new names for every character – “Not that we were ever going to recast them all, but I was interested to see who would come up.”
As the voice of cocksure rooster Rocky, Mel Gibson – in a very different place, career-wise, two decades ago – has also been replaced. (The role is now played by Zachary Levi, late of the Shazam! superhero films.)
“It’s fair to say that Mel is no longer the blue-eyed movie star he once was,” Fell says diplomatically. “But then Rocky is also a father now, not a playboy. It was always about finding the new best fit.”
We watch some early footage, and the changed vocal cords are barely noticeable. What jumps out instead is the film’s extraordinary tactility – you can’t help but respond to the different textures of each character and object on screen.
“Every other kind of animation is ultimately about copying reality,” Fell says. “It’s either drawings of things in the real world, or replicas in pixels and code. But here, the things we make actually do come to life. Even after so many years, it still feels like a strange kind of black magic.”
He looks over at two chickens, which stare back blankly, with butter-wouldn’t-melt smiles on their beaks. They’re adorable, but also faintly unnerving. You’d better be on your guard, a little voice seems to whisper as you return their empty gaze. You’ve seen with your own eyes that these things can move by themselves.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is in selected cinemas from December 8 and on Netflix from December 15