The original Chicken Run was Aardman Animations’ breakthrough theatrical hit back in 2000, becoming the highest-grossing stop-motion film ever, earning over $200 million at the box office. It allowed Aardman, which had been around since 1972, to grow and make further features. But the original Chicken Run remained a sacred cow (well, sacred fowl) and it never received a proper sequel. Until now, that is. This December, via Netflix, Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, finally arrives, some 23 years later.
Earlier this year, Nerdist got to tour Aardman Animations’ studios in Bristol, England, and got a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming follow-up to Chicken Run. Making stop-motion films takes double or triple the time it takes to make other animated films, something we became keenly aware of while visiting the studios. We saw just how long and arduous a process this was to just bring one movie to life by the film’s director, Sam Fell (Flushed Away, Paranorman) as well as supervising animator, Ian Whitlock, puppet maker Jimmy Young, DP Charles Copping, Supervising Art Director Matthew Perry, and animator Thiago Calçado. Here are 10 things we learned about Dawn of the Nugget during our Aardman Animations Studio tour.
The Plot of Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget
The original Chicken Run, which featured Julia Sawalha as the chicken Ginger, Mel Gibson as the rooster Rocky, and Miranda Richardson as the villainous Mrs. Tweedy, centered on a group of chickens trapped in an egg farm. One structured like a prisoner of war encampment. In the original, things ended rather hopefully. But as we know, these kinds of happy endings often don’t last. According to Sam Fell, “It’s a lovely, beautiful world, but their peace can’t last forever.”
Fell continued “The peace is shattered when a new road appears on the other side of the lake with these trucks taking chickens to this place called Funland Farms, which doesn’t look too good for chickens. Ginger knows that, although she and her flock may be safe, the rest of chicken-kind is in danger. So, she’s got to do something about it.” For the latest chapter, it’s all about breaking into Funland Farms, where the owners are looking to turn their inhabitants into the latest fast food concoction — chicken nuggets.
The Classic Chicken Run Characters Who Returned for Dawn of the Nugget
Sam Fell explained that we should expect to see the very familiar faces (and beaks) on screen. “Our main characters are back, our hero is Ginger, as she was in the first film, this kind of brave, determined, very clever chicken who masterminded their escape from Tweedy’s farm in the first film. And you remember that she was a great escape artist, and she could have got out there on her own. But she said, ‘No, we’re not going until we can get every chicken out here.’ She’s an idealist, she’s a visionary, and those kinds of themes around freedom and duty to others are at the heart of this movie as they were in the first movie.”
The original film’s male lead character, Rocky, is back too. Fell described him as “a fun-loving and laid-back American rooster, a little less footloose than he was in the first film. Not so much like that kind of playboy, but now he’s settled down, he’s in love with Ginger, and he’s the doting father of their daughter, Molly. She’s amazingly adventurous and curious. She’s a real live-wire. She’s a chick off the old block, really of Ginger, so a real handful.”
Same Characters, New Voice Cast (Mostly)
This time, these classic characters are (mostly) voiced by a new cast. According to Fell, Westworld’s Thandie Newton as Ginger “Brings an amazing strength and vulnerability and the humor to the part, for this next chapter in Ginger’s story. Shazam’s Zachary Levi, [now playing Rocky] he’s so warm, he’s so charming. He’s got some fantastic comic timing. I think he’s the perfect Rocky for our age. And Molly, played by Bella Ramsey, brings all the kind of nuance, pathos, and humor that she brought to The Last of Us, but with less swearing. And she just has a teaspoon this time, not a flick knife.” Miranda Richardson returns from the first film, however, as the villainous Mrs. Tweedy. Some perfect castings you just don’t mess with.
‘60s Culture and James Bond Films Were Big Inspirations
We learned that Dawn of the Nugget has a pretty big time-jump from the first film. Fell explained “We roughly set the original Chicken Run sometime during the ‘50s, in post-war England. Now, it’s several years later. And with a sixties setting, comes a very sixties genre for the film. If the first film was a World War II escape movie, then this is a 007 Bond movie, a Mission Impossible-type break in.”
But a Chicken Run film is only as good as its villain. And Mrs. Tweedy from the original is back, now sporting a swingin’ ‘60s makeover. Of Mrs. Tweedy and her adjustment to a new decade, Fell said “I think she’s like our Cruella de Vil. I think she’s such a rich and wonderful villain. You can see this time she’s received a makeover. She’s got rid of Mr. Tweedy, she’s got a new husband, Dr. Fry, who’s this very clever scientist who actually has a large inheritance. So she’s been using his money to kind of get this makeover. She’s got the beehive, the Nehru jacket. If you could see widely, you’d see she has these lovely Mary Quant boots. We were in the sort of drab, post-war era of the 50s in the first film. And then we just shifted it into the early sixties.”
There Were No Physical References From the Original Chicken Run to Work From
A huge monkey wrench thrown at the production actually happened almost two decades ago, one that caused them to have no physical assets at all to refer back to from the first film. According to puppet maker Jimmy Young, “We didn’t have any reference to the first film. There was a fire at our warehouse, [back in 2005] so a lot of the molds were lost.” As for the chickens that we did have, because they were 20 years old, they’d crumbled away, and disintegrated. The team was using behind-the-scenes books from the first film and references from the film to look at all the colors and all that.” What we saw of the film on the tour really made it look like they designed and produced everything with every reference on hand, making it even more impressive.
Dawn of the Nugget Mixes Classic Stop Motion Techniques With Modern VFX Methods
Even though Aardman is still doing animation the old-fashioned (and painstakingly slow) way, that doesn’t mean they haven’t incorporated modern advances. While touring the studio, Animation Supervisor Ian Whitlock told us “For us at Aardman, we pride ourselves on the fact that there’s a real hand-built feeling about all of it, and we’d like to keep that going. So even when we have set extensions as VFX extensions, all their textures are coming from things that we’ve actually made.” One large chicken village set, for example, took two full years to build.
“We use a lot of technology, but the essence is in painting and things like that. It’s really traditional, still. All these chickens get hand-painted. It’ll take about three days to paint each one, but then you have something like where we’re trying to replicate the very first film, and all the detailing. We’ll scan the puppet and then we’ll start our 3D build within that. We’re using 3D engineering software to build the armatures, the skeletons inside, and then we’re using other software too.”
Aardman Studios Has “Puppet Hospitals”
When you make a production with this many actors made of clay and wire, there are bound to be some “injuries.” According to Dawn of the Nugget puppet maker Jimmy Young, “As the film is progressing, we’re continuously making puppets. And not only are we continuously making puppets and supplying the floor, we have our “puppet hospitals.” Because animators break things, and they’re a bit dirty, and they’ll just come back all trashed. So we have to either repress heads or fix slices or cuts or rigging, and things like that, and then put the puppets back out again. It’s a continuous thing. Even if we’ve got a few weeks left, we’re continuously doing that right until the very end.”
The Director Stopped Eating Meat Because of the Film
When asked if making a movie from the chicken’s POV made it so eating chicken was difficult, Sam Fell didn’t mince words. “I stopped eating chicken, and I stopped eating meat entirely during [the making of Chicken Run]” he said. “So, I did look into industrial farming, I kind of looked into it just for design purposes, and the idea of production, and it kind of got to me a bit, and put me off. Plus, I think the chickens are my heroes. So now I can’t eat chicken. And I’m always at the canteen with the chicken on the menu.”
Dawn of the Nugget Is as Much a Reboot as a Sequel
With so much fidelity to the original film, we had to wonder, was there ever any thought to bring the original voice cast back? We asked Sam Fell, who took over from the original’s Peter Lord and Nick Park, if they ever considered the original cast (besides Richardson). He said he wanted to make the film his own. And that meant new voice actors for familiar characters.
For Fell “Coming in new, I kind of want to make my own film in a way. Like I said, I love the first film. It was brilliant and perfectly cast, and I have no lack of respect for it. So I come in and I want to take a fresh look at it. The casting decisions made for the first one they probably made in 1997, and ’98. All based on where those actors were then, and what those characters were. It’s like a quarter of a century ago. So it’s as much a reboot in a way as a sequel. If they set it five years later, it’d be more like a straight sequel.”
A Third Chicken Run Film Is Possible
With Dawn of the Nugget on the horizon, we asked if a third installment was on the table already. Fell answered “There’s a really good third if anybody ever wanted to do that. But we’ll see. We’ll see if people love this. It’s a bit pretentious to call it a universe, but yeah, it’s a universe of chickens because the stakes are so high. It is like life and death. So yeah, I think there is a good father-son story there actually. There is a good, the world of roosters and the way roosters work story. It was interesting.” If there is a third Chicken Run, here’s hoping it’s not two decades between sequels if it happens.
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget drops on Netflix on December 15.