Every couple of months over the past year a Learjet has quietly landed at Filton airfield in Bristol. Flying overnight from LA, the occupant has hit the ground running and made his way to a converted banana warehouse in Gas Ferry Road down by the old docks on the River Avon. Jeffrey Katzenberg is one of the triumvirate that runs the DreamWorks studio (with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen). His customary Tinseltown this is not.
The illustrious Katzenberg has been keeping an executive producer's weather eye on Chicken Run, the first feature-length film made by Aardman Animation, creators of the 'cracking toast' and cheese-loving master-and-dog combo Wallace and Gromit. Mere six-inch Plasticine animated models they may be, but this is no Mickey Mouse business: DreamWorks has pounds 150 million committed to Aardman Animation in a 10-year deal.
Aardman is a shining star of the British film industry and one of Bristol's highest-profile companies, employing nearly 300 people. It has even spawned a cluster of other Bristol-based animation studios. Following the success of Wallace and Gromit and director Nick Park's two Oscars, Aardman was subjected to some serious wooing by the major American studios in the mid '90s.
All this is a long way from a kitchen table in Woking. That was where Aardman was founded way back in 1972 by Dave Sproxton and his partner Peter Lord who, inspired by a combination of Terry Gilliam's work on Monty Python and Ray Harryhausen's figures in the legendary Jason and the Argonauts, started making clay animation films whenever Lord's mother wasn't making the dinner. They got their first break working on the deaf children's programme Vision On, creating the character Morph, and really made their name in the industry during the '80s advertising boom making dozens of successful television commercials, including the award-winning 'Creature Comforts' campaign for Heat Electric.
Indeed, for the past 20 years it has been bread-and-butter work in advertising that has provided the revenue to subsidise the rest of the company's activities. During the recession of the early '90s the cost of using Aardman - you can spend anything from pounds 50,000 to a third of a million for a commercial - proved too much for cash-strapped agencies and the scripts dried up. With a new head of commercials, Heather Wright, who has marketed the company's showreel much more strongly, the work is now flowing in. Its billing for the whole of 1999 had already been exceeded by February of this year.
Aardman's success has been completely against the odds. Its chosen medium of 3D stop-frame animation is one of the most arduous cinematographic forms that exist. With a fixed-position camera, the action is created by filming the characters on their miniature sets frame-by-frame. For each separate shot the animators make a small adjustment to each puppet which, when the film moves through a projector at 24 frames per second, creates the illusion of a continuous moving flow. Even when they're really flying on a film, three to four seconds per day is about the maximum they would get into the can. A Grand Day Out, which took Wallace and Gromit to the moon, was Park's graduation project and took six years to complete. Nobody impatient ever got anywhere in 3D clay animation. (Not that the firm is Luddite about new technology. Its new serial Angry Kid, in 25 one-minute episodes, will be launched on the internet this month - www.atomfilms.com).
Aardman is a very wilful and single-minded outfit that was determined to make the films it wanted, rather than chase the market. This made the company something of a mystery to the Americans, who can churn out animated work for the television networks - whether it be The Simpsons or South Park - at an industrial rate. Much of the cheaper, low-quality two-dimensional work is in fact put together in Asia, where the labour rates are low.
Working with Michael Rose, Aardman's head of development, and its ally Jake Eberts of Pathe, it took a long time to thrash out a deal. Few successful animated features have come from any studio other than Disney, but if you get a winner like Toy Story 2 - which has already grossed more than dollars 240 million in the States - then the rewards are rich. 'We had long talks with Disney, but our feeling was that they'd suffocate us,' says Rose. 'We wanted to set up a campus-style operation here and knew that our more subtle, creative ecosystem would be destroyed by transferring it to LA.'
Sproxton was equally gloomy as he went from meeting to meeting. 'We met all the greats and the goods, but in the initial stages the furthest we got were script grunts in the lower echelons who wanted to score points,' he says. 'They were saying: 'Right, can you get us 56 hours of those animals for the networks?' (At Aardman's stately pace this would take decades.) The whole thing was pretty depressing. It's just product to them. They wanted Wallace and Gromit, but we explained that it would take some while to expand their format into a feature-length project. After all, one is non-speaking and one is a complete nerd.
'When we said we were interested in making an escape movie involving chickens, the reaction tended to be: 'More tea, anyone?' As we got further up the ladder we found more understanding and patience. What we wanted was complete control and to maintain our independence. We didn't need to do features financially - Aardman ran quite happily making commercials and short films. Our bottom line was that we didn't want to be taken over and turned into a sweatshop for a Hollywood studio.'
The ideal suitor turned out to be Katzenberg. DreamWorks has a famously flat management structure and Eberts soon got Sproxton and Rose round a table with the ex-Disney man whom Eberts had known for 25 years. A senior DreamWorks producer sent over from LA to see how it was done was mystified but eventually approved, commenting: 'I get it. But I think you think too much. Your company's far too intelligent.'
They finally signed the deal, with an escalating 'back end' effect. If the films do well, Aardman's share of profits goes up each time. Finally, by 1997 they were ready to embark on Chicken Run with an agreed budget of pounds 30 million. (The last Wallace and Gromit outing, A Close Shave, cost pounds 1.4 million.) Once a script was worked out with help from writers Jack Rosenthal and American Karey Kirkpatrick, who had worked on James and the Giant Peach, they could get on with recording the dialogue. Aardman always records the voices first and everything then has to be meticulously lip-synched. An early talent signing was Mel Gibson, who provides the voice for the hero chicken Rocky, a handsome Rhode Island Red, aka the Lone Free Ranger. Other chickens are played by Jane Horrocks, Imelda Staunton and Julia Sawalha.
The plot is about a bunch of miserable hens inside a farm/ POW camp who are constantly trying and failing to escape their miserable incarceration before they wind up fried, filleted or fricasseed. Rocky will make a Steve McQueen Great Escape-style break for freedom over the farm fence on a motorcycle.
The first thing Aardman needed was more space. The company has rented another 30,000-square-foot warehouse in a business park over the other side of Bristol, which it has now filled with a crew of 160 people. Many are local. Although actual filming began in October 1998, the production had started a full year earlier. This included three months where the co-directors Park and Lord spent many hours watching chickens and how they move.
One of the first problems Aardman knew it would be up against was a simple skill shortage. 'Right from the beginning we knew we'd need at least a dozen key animators to work with Nick and Pete,' says Sproxton. Together with the University of Western England's media faculty, they established a six-month course. Ten animators graduated from this and eight are working on the movie.
The company is more cost-effective than American animation studios. Aardman pays between pounds 600 and pounds 1,000 a week, depending on the grade of animator, whereas US wages are 30% higher. It was also aided by the fact that Universal had closed an animation studio in London, which left a flood of talent on Wardour Street.
When MT visited the new site, things were tense. The film was entering the final stretch. Each of the 30 separate sets was working flat out. With a release date of late June, only 70 minutes of the 84-minute film had been finished. In an attempt to incentivise his workforce to reach their targets, Katzenberg had just offered to pay for the whole crew's lunches for the following week if they got the target of 90 seconds in the can.
The whole process had reached an industrial level. Co-directors Park and Lord, both of whom looked completely bushed, had strict daily schedules to adhere to, rotating around the sets supervising different scenes from storyboards pasted on the walls. Stifling a yawn, Park admitted he found it hard to step back and watch other people doing what he had always done - actually moving the clay.
Back at Gas Ferry Road Liz Keynes, the head of merchandising and licensing, was no less pushed as she put the final touches to all her Chicken Run-related deals. Merchandising is vital to subsidise animated projects and is a key income stream for Aardman. Wallace and Gromit have sold six million videos worldwide, been converted into fridge magnets and 'Knit kits', been tattooed onto M&S boxer shorts and even launched their own brand of Wensleydale cheese, which is still selling nicely in the supermarkets.
Aardman earns about pounds 1 million a year from its licensing, much the same as it nets from making commercials. Neither Sproxton, Park nor Lord have got rich yet, though. They are forever buying new equipment and have recently established a computer animation section for the company. 'We've always ploughed most of the money straight back into the business,' says Sproxton, 'rather than run around in Porsches or fast yachts.' Park drives a small Peugeot and lived in modest rented rooms until he bought a place in Clifton near the zoo recently.
Together with DreamWorks, the company has done Chicken Run deals with Burger King in the States, British Airways, Stoneygate eggs, London Transport, a leading cereal manufacturer, even a blancmange maker. However, the licensing industry is in a state of shock at the moment with the failure of the last Star Wars film to drag parents out to the shops. Vast numbers of mugs and assorted paraphernalia are now being remaindered and the publisher Dorling Kindersley took a terrible hit when it vastly overestimated the number of books it could shift. The error made it vulnerable and media group Pearson moved in with a pounds 311 million agreed bid.
'The character market is very crowded and competitive,' says Keynes. 'Our answer is a very strong creative resource. It's vital to create strong product differentiation and make sure each item has a real fitness of purpose and durability. Viewers, especially children, have a real relationship with the characters, and you cannot afford to confuse or distress them. It's brand building, not brand exploitation.' Aardman is very choosy about what it will allow itself to be associated with and many products are rejected. Until recently, Park approved every single Wallace and Gromit item himself. 'They've now trained me up to be their eyes and ears,' Keynes says.
The whole enterprise is undoubtedly a big risk for Aardman in terms of its reputation, and DreamWorks in terms of its money. The animated feature market is a fickle one, but the early footage that MT was shown looks tremendously good. The history of animation is full of high-stakes gambles. Sixty years ago when Walt Disney took the plunge and set out to create his studio's first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they all said he was mad and should stick to the safer option of his Oscar-winning shorts starring Mickey Mouse. Everyone down in Bristol (and Jeffrey Katzenberg 6,000 miles away) is praying that Chicken Run is not greeted with headlines that include the epithet 'turkey'.