07/24/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Eating a chicken dinner in front of Nick Park carries an element of risk. As the meal arrives, the English animator behind the clay animation sensation Chicken Run begins to reminisce about Clara and Martha, the pet chickens he kept as a child. "They used to come into the house and lie on the porch in the sun," he says. And did he mention he once worked in a factory where birds were plucked and slaughtered? "It was horrendous," he says, wide-eyed, between bites of lamb at a restaurant in his hometown, Bristol, England. Noticing his companion's untouched entrée, Park retrenches. "Well, um," he stammers, "enjoy your meal."
If he seems preoccupied with poultry, there's a reason. As the director of the Oscar-winning animated shorts about Wallace and Gromit—a muddleheaded, cheese-loving inventor and his long-suffering mutt—Park, 41, is already a household name in his native land. Now, with Chicken Run, which has made $63 million so far, he's in fine feather on this side of the Atlantic too. "He's a bright, wonderful talent," says veteran animator Chuck Jones, 87, who created such icons as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. "He has the courage to approach characters differently, just as we did in the 1930s."
And with little change in technique. Aside from some brief computerized sequences, Park and the movie's codirector, Peter Lord, brought their 9-to-12-in. silicone-and-Plasticine chickens to life the old-fashioned way: by shooting one frame of film, stopping the camera, making minute adjustments in the models, then shooting another frame—a process repeated up to 24 times for each second of action. During one memorable marathon session, 28 animators working on separate sets spent an entire day creating what amounts to only 10 seconds of film. From start to finish, the movie—a rollicking tale of heroic chickens, destined to become pie filling, who band together to defy their fate—took 3½ years to make. "You have to be patient," says Park. "If this was the Middle Ages, we'd all be illuminating manuscripts in monasteries."
In fact, the monastic life might have suited the soft-spoken filmmaker just fine. The third of five children of Roger, 74, a retired photographer, and Celia, 70, a retired seamstress, Park grew up in the northern England industrial town of Preston. A timid tot, he barely spoke until age 4. When he finally did pipe up, recalls his dad, "he was still very quiet but had an uncanny sense of humor." Park's creative epiphany occurred a few years later when Roger bought a Bell & Howell movie camera for family trips. Enthralled by its stop-action feature, Nick spent hours in the attic and garden shed making crude animated films. "We thought it was just this odd kind of hobby," says his sister Janet Stefan, 39.
At 15, Park won a BBC animation competition. After college he studied at London's National Film and Television School. There he met Peter Lord, one of the founders of the Aardman animation studio, which specialized in clay characters like Park's student creations, Wallace and Gromit. "It was so exciting to find somebody doing the same thing, and doing it so terribly well," says Lord, who offered Park a job in 1985. Five years later, Park's first major project, Creature Comforts, a short comparing city life to a zoo, won an Oscar for best animated short film, thrusting the shy Park into the glare of Hollywood. "I was almost sick with nerves," he recalls. "Just delirious."
These days, Park, who lives alone in a 150-year-old cottage, would still rather stroll in the countryside with his girlfriend, microbiologist Lizzie Darley, 31, than take a meeting in Tinseltown. But with two more Oscars (for the Wallace and Gromit shorts, 1993's The Wrong Trousers and 1995's A Close Shave), a hit movie and a contract with DreamWorks for three more films, Park doesn't have to bang a drum to get his films noticed. "I used to dream that one day my characters might be known, like Disney," he says. "I wouldn't swap it for anything."