June 21, 2024

The Real Squirrels in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

For his film version in 2005, Tim Burton deployed a surprising approach: real squirrels in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s nut room.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, book cover
First published in 1964

‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ was written by Roald Dahl in 1964. The story concerns Willy Wonka, a secretive chocolatier, and a group of children who win a contest to tour his magical factory.

The best behaved of the children, Charlie Bucket, inherits the factory at the end of the day.

Dahl, a former British intelligence officer, had moved into writing after World War II, starting with short stories and articles. An imaginative teller of tall tales, in 1961 he tried his hand at writing for children, producing ‘James and the Giant Peach’.

‘Charlie’ was his second book for kids, loosely based on Dahl’s own experience touring a chocolate factory when he was a child. It was a huge success on release, and Willy Wonka shortly became an iconic character in popular culture.

Quaker Oats, financiers of the first Wonka film
Financiers of the first Wonka film

In 1971 a film adaptation of the book was produced.

The financing came from Quaker Oats, an American breakfast company looking to branch out into the snack market. They licensed the brand name ‘Wonka’ alongside rights to the book, intending to release a line of chocolate bars with the film.

Dahl was originally enthusiastic about the project and wrote the first draft of the screenplay. But he would subsequently clash with the producers, who pressed for a number of changes.

Seeking to maximise the connection to their chocolate line, Quaker Oats insisted the title be changed to ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’. They also sought to soften the film’s tone.

Dahl’s sensibility was famously macabre, employing black comedy not always considered suitable for children. New writers were brought in to remove some of this edge; the humour was toned down and new, family friendly songs added.

Dahl hated the result. He disowned the completed film, which flopped at the box office (although it did find a following in later years and is now viewed by many as a classic).

The Wonka chocolates were not successful either. Released in several flavours, people complained they had an unusual taste, and they were shortly withdrawn from the market.

After his bad experience working on the movie, Dahl was resistant to further screen adaptations of his work.

Quaker Oats Wonka Chocolate
Wonka/Quaker Oats ‘Chocolaty Caramel Crisp’

Road Dahl died in 1990.

Control of his books then passed to his estate, which revived interest in adapting some of his best-known titles. First among these was ‘Charlie’, which entered a lengthy development phase.

The estate fielded offers but retained final approval of any project.

A number of actors and directors were linked to a new version of Charlie through the 1990s and early 2000s. Gary Ross, director of ‘Pleasantville’, was attached for a time, as was Rob Minkoff, one of the directors of ‘The Lion King’.

Jim Carrey and Tom Shadyac, who had paired up successfully as star and director on ‘Ace Ventura’ and ‘Liar Liar’, were enthusiastic, but were vetoed by the Dahl estate.

In 2004, the project was finally offered to Tim Burton. Burton seemed an ideal fit; his movies were commercially successful while still artistically distinctive, and he had already produced a well-received animated version of ‘James and the Giant Peach’, in 1996.

‘You read the book and it almost seems traumatic and horrible, yet this is a children’s classic. That’s why I like the book: you kind of explore these edgier aspects of childhood.’

 

– Tim Burton, interview ‘IGN’

The film would shoot in England with Burton’s regular leading man, Johnny Depp, as Willy Wonka.

‘Plan B Entertainment’ was the production company. Co-founded by Brad Pitt, Plan B was looking to support auteurs within a commercial framework, so Burton would be given considerable creative freedom.

Burton's largely practical, giant sized Chocolate Room
Burton’s largely practical, giant sized Chocolate Room

Burton’s approach to the film mixed real elements, sets and makeup, with digital effects. One of the key components was Wonka’s factory, which needed to be fantastical: every room holding a different wonder.

Wonka’s ‘great glass elevator’, a see-through box that could move in any direction, was created digitally. While the Oompa Loompa’s, the chocolate makers diminutive workforce, consisted of one actor, Deep Roy, computer-replicated in a hundred different forms.

One of the most impressive practical sets was the ‘Chocolate Room’, where hundreds of thousands of litres of brown liquid stood in for Wonka’s chocolate river.

Another challenge was ‘The Nut Room’:

Everyone crowded around the door.

 

‘Oh look, Grandpa, look!’ cried Charlie.

 

‘Squirrels!’ shouted Veruca Salt.

 

It was an amazing sight. One hundred squirrels were seated upon high stools around a large table.

 

On the table, there were mounds and mounds of walnuts, and the squirrels were all working away like mad, shelling the walnuts at a tremendous speed.

 

‘These squirrels are specially trained for getting the nuts out of walnuts,’ Mr Wonka explained.

 

– ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Chapter 24

Burton decided to create this scene practically as well.

A Grey Squirrel
The Grey Squirrel

Squirrels are a type of small rodent, common in North America, Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. There are a number of species but most share similar traits: they are diminutive, flighty, highly intelligent, and easily distracted.

Training them to perform tasks on cue is a formidable challenge.

‘While squirrels are intelligent, their wild instincts and short attention spans make them difficult to train. It takes immense patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement to achieve even basic results.’

 

– Dr Julia Miller, wildlife ecologist

American comedian Steve Martin had a more colourful description: ‘Like trying to paint a rainbow on a lightning bolt’.

Burton’s ambitious plan for ‘Charlie’ called for a large number of highly trained squirrels; the director originally wanted 100, all capable of picking up individual nuts from a conveyor belt and pretending to examine them.

He turned to professional training company ‘Birds and Animals Ltd’, who he had worked with on earlier films. Senior trainer Mike Alexander would oversee the squirrel program.

Animal trainer Mike Alexander
Mike Alexander

Alexander quickly realised that 100 squirrels was not realistic and convinced Burton to revise down to a more manageable 40.
Even so, the difficulty of the task was acute.

‘Squirrels are notoriously difficult to handle. Independent and unpredictable, they’re not necessarily good at doing specific, intricate things. They don’t like to sit still. They’re hard to keep in one place.’

 

– Mike Alexander

He assembled a team of four trainers and began sourcing young grey squirrels, the commonest species in England, to work with. Some of the animals came from rescue shelters, and others from private homes.

Alexander and his team tried to forge a bond with the squirrels, to make them feel more at ease. They were all given individual names, and the trainers remained assigned to the same animals throughout.

The first step was to get the squirrels to come out of their cages and sit calmly.

‘We took baby steps. After they were comfortable sitting with us we introduced them to the props. We taught them to pick up a nut and put it into a metal bowl, once they got the idea we could change the bowl to a conveyer belt.’

 

– Mike Alexander

A large volume of treats was required to reward successful behaviour.

Progress was slow. Some of the squirrels showed no interest in the nuts or refused to pick them up; others would not let go of them again, once they had them. Many simply ran away and had to be coaxed back.

A breakthrough came when it was decided to divide the animals into two groups.

As well as sorting nuts, in the film the squirrels had another task. One of the children visiting the factory, Veruca Salt, is so enchanted with the squirrels that she demands to have one; when this is refused by Wonka, she bursts into the nut room and tries to seize one by force.

The squirrels turn on her. Deciding she is a ‘bad nut’, they swarm all over her and push her down a nearby rubbish chute.
Burton wanted this scene, or as much of it as possible, filmed practically as well.

Noting that some of the squirrels were better at sorting nuts than others, Alexander had the less proficient separated and trained for the Veruca-swarming instead. This group were trained to run on cue towards young actress Victoria Winter, playing Veruca.

The idea proved effective, and both groups of squirrels made faster progress.

Real squirrels in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory nut room
Real squirrels in the nut room

Training the squirrels eventually took 19 weeks.

In the film, the nut room is rendered in an eye-catching blue and white, with a spiral pattern leading to the garbage chute in the centre. When the tour arrives, Alexander’s first group of squirrels sit on stools around the room, carefully picking up and examining nuts.

When Veruca enters, they turn their heads quizzically, and look at her; there is a comical zoom in on one squirrel’s eye.

When she tries to pick one up, the second group of squirrels run at her in a pack, knocking her over and eventually forcing her down the chute (you can watch the whole scene here).

Real squirrels in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory nut room
Veruca approaches

The trained animals were augmented by computer generated imagery and 12 animatronics. The close ups and pack-running shots utilise the real squirrels, the CGI and puppets were used for the more complex behaviours, and to fill out the background.

‘Some actions they (the squirrels) are just not physically able to do. For example, throwing nuts over their shoulders. Physiologically, their bodies don’t work that way. Our job was to make the CGI squirrels as realistic as possible and remain absolutely true to their animal nature.’

 

– Nick Davis, visual effects supervisor

The mixture of techniques added to the complexity.

The squirrels that run up Veruca’s body and overwhelm her are CGI. But when she falls over, she had to land on a disguised platform raised off the floor, so she would not land on any real squirrels running around her feet.

Depp and Burton at the Charlie premiere in Los Angeles
Depp and Burton at the Charlie premiere in Los Angeles

Burton was pleased with the nut room sequence and satisfied with the film overall.

It was released in the United States by Disney in July 2005 and became a great financial success. Charlie grossed $56 million in its first weekend, at the time both Johnny Depp’s and the studio’s best ever opening (beating ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’).

It would eventually earn $475 million worldwide.

Despite some changes to the story introduced by Burton, the Dahl estate were happy as well. After the film’s release the novel ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ returned to the best seller list for six months.

Critical reviews were generally positive, although some took exception to Depp’s performance, assuming it to be a bad-taste parody of Michael Jackson. Both Depp and Burton denied the connection.

The film’s production design – sets, costumes and squirrels – were widely praised.

Real squirrel in charlie and the chocolate factory nut room
A squirrel training for the nut room scene

UK law prevents squirrels being returned to the wild once they have been captured.

The forty nut room stars were either returned to their private homes, or adopted by Mike Alexander and his colleagues. Some have appeared in other movies.

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2 thoughts on “The Real Squirrels in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

  1. I am amazed that Charlie beat Pirates at the box office! And that the OG Wonka was originally a flop? Just goes to show box office figures don’t mean ANYTHING

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