Dawn of the Nugget: the inside (s)coop

In 2000, Aardman Animation’s groundbreaking film Chicken Run changed the course of stop-motion animation forever. Some 23 years later, we caught up with Aardman as they crack open the creative process behind its sequel, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, ahead of its release on Netflix on 15 December. Words by Isabelle Blakeney.

Aardman Animations is at the heart of Bristol’s creative fabric. The studio, founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton in 1972, has produced beloved household characters such as Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and Morph, and in 2000 they released their first feature-length film Chicken Run.

The film was a smash hit, instantly becoming the highest-grossing animated feature film at that time (and remains the highest-grossing stop-animation film ever) and propelled Aardman to international acclaim. Now, 23 years later, they’ve teamed up with Netflix and are readying up for the release of the sequel, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, to hit TV screens on 15 December.

So after all this time, how did the idea for Dawn of the Nugget come about? Well, DreamWorks unsurprisingly asked the original creators, Peter Lord and Nick Park, about it almost immediately afterwards. However…

“We were both utterly unprepared for this idea” said Lord. “We hadn’t thought about it! So we just sort of sat there open-mouthed and said ‘we haven’t got an idea. And we’re not ready for it, because we’re so exhausted!’”

But they could never quite get the idea of a sequel out of their heads. And so, in 2018, they started working on a pitch. That’s when they landed on the premise of: ‘This time… they’re breaking in!’

Picking up about a decade after the original film left off, the story begins with Ginger, the plucky protagonist of the first film, Rocky, the American rogue, and their 11 year old daughter Molly, living happily on Chicken Island with the rest of the escaped hens. Molly, who has inherited all of the charm and courage of her parents, decides to venture off the island and explore the world for herself. But when she gets there, she runs into a spot of trouble that forces Ginger to abandon her peaceful life and re-engage with her rebellious nature…

Twenty years later, the new film retains all of the charm and appeal that made the original so popular, but takes on some big changes to reflect the technological developments over the last two decades.

Sam Fell, director of Dawn of the Nugget who animated a sequence in the original film, said “There’s a continuity at Aardman that I think is quite a phenomenon. They have a strong foundation, so people can spend their whole lives making some great work there. There’s something really wonderful about it. Everyone is completely invested in these characters. Dawn of the Nugget is a major milestone for the studio, and because Chicken Run was such a massive film for them, this is like handling the family silver.”

The unique legacy that Chicken Run has left means that altering the beloved techniques must be done with the utmost care. One of the biggest changes in the production of Dawn of the Nugget was the introduction of artificial intelligence.

According to animation supervisor Ian Whitlock (who started out as an assistant animator in the original film), “we could not have made this film back in 2000. There’s just no way! Chicken Run was a tight story, set in one location, whereas this film is so much broader. The island alone that they start on is huge. I mean, the opening shot panning across the island took over six months to complete from the initial brief, to preparing and shooting!”

Matthew Perry, the supervising art director, continued: “There are so many chickens in this film that we realised it would not be feasible without going for CGI backup. It would take too long. We don’t have a studio big enough to do it either! So we decided that when a background chicken is under a third of the screen in height, it would be CGI.”

Additional Sequence Director Suzy Fagan Parr added: “Using new and traditional technologies has allowed us to tell a much bigger and more complex story. Aardman has such a large back catalogue of experience now, so we know what method will give us the best effect, and it’s not always the most cutting-edge or newest tech. We use a lot of ‘in camera’ special effects too which give our productions a textural quality, and evidence of the human hand is something we always strive to show.

“Stop motion and digitally created animation are very different methods and both have pros and cons. The positives of working with physical models is that there is a spontaneity to the performance of the characters, and it is often possible to sense the personality of the individual animators behind them, which is magical. This is largely to do with the fact that we don’t have multiple opportunities to correct the animation – which, if you’re having a bad day, can be a drawback too.

“Some of the sequences had hundreds of characters in the background – all beautifully animated by a small team of CGI animators, but where this happened, the foreground, stop motion elements of the shot would be shot against green screen – then the two ‘plates’ would be comped together later. This was a highlight of the process; to see our stop motion animation blend so well with the CG and for the first time, we really did operate as one animation department.

“All of the CG animation in this film looks like stop-motion, whereas even a few years ago the difference would have been really obvious. I think the texture and the handmade quality still really come through. It wouldn’t be progress if that aspect was lost!” And it’s exactly that handmade aspect that the team are sure to preserve. Whilst the studio switched to silicone for the puppets’ arms, they’ve continued to make the heads out of clay.

Parr explains: “The greatest benefit of working in clay is that it is completely malleable and keeps its shape really well, so it can be positioned into any shape you want. So, for example, by manipulating the clay frame by frame, the face can be posed into an infinite number of expressions. Other materials are either more restricted in the animation or way more costly if using bespoke printed facial expressions for example It has also become Aardman’s trademark and so our work has become instantly recognisable.”

Nick Park, creator of Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep and executive producer on Dawn of the Nugget, agreed: “That’s our USP. Our identity. And the stop-motion creates a kind of humour, and a charm as well. We think of the animators as actors who are breathing life into these clay puppets, teasing and nudging and sculpting them in quite subtle and nuanced ways. And with that, there’s a humanity and an observational humour that comes through. It’s all to do with the fact that you’re not pressing buttons. You’re in touch with the puppet itself.”

It’s not just through animation that Aardman is exploring new pathways. With new decades come new actors, and so when considering the cast Fell decided that he wanted to take a fresh look:

“It was a new genre and a new world with new characters and was going to have its own feeling, so we asked a casting director to suggest some new ideas. Much as I revere the first film I always felt from the very beginning that this wouldn’t just be a homage to the original film and that a new film would evolve from the first.”

And so a new cast was born. Resourceful Ginger, protagonist of the original film and previously voiced by Julia Sawalha, is voiced by Thandiwe Newton with Zachary Levi joining the cast as Rocky, taking over from Mel Gibson.

Bella Ramsey, voicing Rocky and Ginger’s smart, stubborn and adventurous 11-year-old daughter Molly, is who Fell describes as “perhaps the movie’s biggest coup”. The young actor shot to fame with their roles in Game of Thrones and the Last of Us, and this year starred in the second series of Jimmy McGovern’s Time.

“We were so lucky to catch this young actor at the perfect moment to play a strong–willed rebellious child” continued Fell. “I’m so happy we got to be a part of Bella’s journey.”

New additions include David Bradley as Fowler, Romesh Ranganathan and Daniel Mays coming on as Nick and Fetcher, and Josie Sedgwick-Davies as Molly’s friend Frizzle. Imelda Staunton, Lynn Ferguson and Jane Horrocks return as Mac, Bunty and Babs, and Miranda Richardson reprises her role as the evil chicken farmer Mrs Tweedy.

So as Aardman hatches its latest feathered endeavour, the studio once again solidifies itself as an international creative powerhouse, all from its studios right here in Bristol. And what better place for it?

“Bristol is where co-founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton founded Aardman and so it stands to reason that this is where it all started,” says Parr.

“As Aardman has grown, it has attracted other creative industries to the area too, which can all support each other and so it gathers momentum over the years and a talent base has formed here.”

From what we’ve seen so far, that’s certainly true. Dawn of the Nugget is a classic Aardman delight, and we can’t wait.

• Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget is in select cinemas on
8 December and on Netflix on 15 December