Claymation Dreams, Chicken Run, and Animal Liberation

When I was in middle school, I wanted to be a claymation artist. For those who don’t know, claymation is a form of stop-motion animation, which uses clay, as its name suggests. The medium requires a painstaking process of photographing clay models, moving them imperceptibly, and repeating this over and over.

Perhaps this is a reflection of my interests, but I think claymation was having a moment in the 1990s, when I grew up. Just the commercial for Nightmare Before Christmas scared me out of my mind. A few years later, I loved playing ClayFighter 63⅓ with my friends. And a few years after that, I surreptitiously enjoyed episodes of Celebrity Death Match with my older cousins.

But, without a doubt, my biggest inspiration was Wallace and Gromit, which, at that point, was a series comprised of three short films. It centers on a British inventor of Rube Goldberg-like contraptions and his anthropomorphic dog. Together, they have a variety of adventures, involving a trip to outer space, a diamond-stealing lodger, and a love interest who is rustling sheep.

The most ambitious claymation project I completed was also my first. It was a short — less than two minutes long — called Golf: The Gentleman’s Game. Two golfers get in a fight and beat each other senseless to the sound of classical music. It was definitely an amateur affair. The movements are jerky and the shadows change drastically because I used natural light.

But, when I premiered it for my school, the juvenile humor was a big hit. That was an important moment for me. I dreamed of larger projects, and made some smaller ones, without costumed figures and sets, but they never topped my first effort. I thought it was lost to time, but my mother recently found a copy on an old VHS tape that I want to digitize.

I still appreciate claymation as an art form, even if I no longer struggle to create it. I was thrilled when my children became interested in Tumble Leaf, a beautifully-crafted stop-motion show, which, unfortunately, ended after four seasons. Despite my love for Wallace and Gromit, the Aardman Animations title that I return to most is their 2000 feature-length offering, Chicken Run.

The movie follows chickens escaping certain death on a farm, taking inspiration from classic prisoner-of-war films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. I don’t think directors Peter Lord and Nick Park set out to create a movie with animal-rights themes. Rather, I imagine they chose a premise and the themes were an inevitable result.

Ironically, I wasn’t a huge fan of the film when it first came out. Obviously, it’s a children’s movie with anthropomorphized, talking animals, but I think I viewed its compassionate perspective on nonhumans and slaughter as sentimental. By that point, I had been socialized into speciesism, having participated in at least one chicken harvest, as it euphemistically was called. I’ve written about that experience in more depth elsewhere.

Suffice to say, it wasn’t until I was an adult, after I’d become interested in animal liberation, that I revisited Chicken Run and understood it to be the masterpiece it is. I wrote an article in 2017 for Splice Today naming the title — along with Noah, White God, The Plague Dogs, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes — one of the best narrative films with animal-rights themes. I think that take holds up.

A sequel to Chicken Run is slated for release next year on Netflix. I understand why Mel Gibson isn’t returning, given his behavior through the intervening decades, but I’m not sure why Aardman Animations isn’t bringing back Julia Sawalha. That said, I’m sure Thandie Newton will be fantastic. I’m familiar with her from Westworld, among other things.

Part of what made the first film so enjoyable is that while it’s hilarious, the humor generally isn’t about the birds plight, which the movie takes surprisingly seriously. Again, I think this was incidental, rather than the result of any ideological commitment. But I hope the sequel can accomplish something similar. Who knows? Perhaps cultivated meat, the subject of my blog, SlaughterFreeAmerica.Substack.com, could play a role in the story.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town.