A History of Clay Animation

Nick Park and Peter Lord’s latest creation is like a goose that laid a golden egg. Except the goose is actually a hen and it’s made of clay. Well, the egg is clay. But it’s becoming clear: These feats of clay are worth millions.

Chicken Run has become the first feature-length work of clay animation to fill movie theaters, grossing $17.5 million its first weekend and over $45 million in the two weeks since.

That’s a lot of Play-doh.

But the success begs the questions: Why hasn’t clay animation been tried more often? And why did two previous attempts at full-length clay features stall at the box office?

For one thing, clay does not fit the model of the Hollywood dream factory. In “traditional” animation, like Aladdin or Bugs Bunny cartoons, the images are painted on clear celluloid sheets, known as “cel” animation, one frame at a time. This type of animation can be broken down infinitely into tiny tasks: Thousands of workers crank out cels simultaneously, with the movie assembled by a director at the end.

Stop-motion animation is closer to a handmade art form.“That’s why clay was marginalized,” says Michael Frierson, author of the 1994 book Clay Animation: American Highlights, 1908 to the Present. “Cel animation and the Hollywood cartoon didn’t become the dominant form because it’s better. Hollywood prefers it because it keeps costs down.

“It’s like an assembly line,” says Frierson of “traditional” cartoons. “But in clay, it’s not that at all. It’s one or two animators working in front of a camera.”

In the case of Chicken Run, the two animators are Lord, a founder of the very British Aardman Studios, and Park, who made good with his short Wallace and Gromit films for the BBC after being invited to join Aardman in 1985. Featuring Wallace, a cheese-loving inventor, and Gromit, the trusty dog that bears the brunt of his buffoonery, the film noir-ish Wrong Trousers (1993) and A Close Shave (1995) were Oscar winners that built an audience — which is now showing up for Chicken Run.

But the difference between short films and a full-length feature is apparently as enormous an undertaking as the cheese-inspired journey to the moon that Wallace and Gromit made in their debut, A Grand Day Out (1992).

“It’s been a real lesson,” Park says. “I think shooting something that’s longer than a half-hour TV short is just a completely different ball game from making a feature-length movie. How to keep an audience in their seats and wanting to know what happens next, for 80 minutes, is a challenge we never had before.”

A Century-Old Art

Clay animation has a rich history that reaches back to 1897, when a pliable, oil-based modeling clay called “plasticine” was invented. While not all of Chicken Run is done in 100 percent clay, Aardman stays close to traditions that have evolved over more than a century. The characters begin as clay and then are molded into armatures with latex coverings.

The earliest surviving use of the technique is The Sculptor’s Nightmare, a spoof on the 1908 presidential election. In the final reel of the film, a slab of clay on a pedestal comes to life, metamorphosing into a bust of Teddy Roosevelt. Mack Sennet and D.W. Griffith, two important pioneers of early cinema, appear in the live-action portion of the film.

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