Music

Sheep Thrills: Aardman on bringing Shaun the Sheep to the big screen

Shaun the Sheep is on the brink of stardom, and politicians want to cosy up to Aardman Animations. It’s all a long way from Morph...

Twenty years ago on the outskirts of Bristol a lamb was born. But this was no ordinary sheep. Back in 1995 Shaun the Sheep appeared for only six minutes in the third Wallace and Gromit short, A Close Shave, yet his impact was so great he has since starred in his own TV show – sold to 170 territories around the world – and his first feature film is released this week.

“We’re all a bit astounded,” says Shaun’s creator and clay-modelling maestro Nick Park. “After we’d done The Wrong Trousers we gravitated towards sheep rustling and wool. I was drawing sheep all the time and finding them attractive… I was attracted to the idea of funny sheep,” he clarifies.

“The idea of an innocent young sheep coming to stay with Wallace and Gromit like a refugee. We came up with the name at the same time. ‘Shaun’ was pretty automatic – a corny play on ‘shorn’. If it made us laugh it went in. That’s our metre, really, for all the projects.”

Park is softly spoken and incredibly modest despite the huge cultural impact he and Aardman Animations have had, especially with Claymation superstars Wallace and Gromit. The pair have their own ride at Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, appear in Japanese adverts and have become (reluctant) players in British political discourse. Ed Miliband’s likeness to Wallace is oft noted. Miliband has taken comparisons in good grace. “I am not from central casting,” he commented last year. “You can find people who are more square-jawed, more chiselled, look less like Wallace.”

It continued a couple of weeks ago when a rumour grew online that Labour party wonks, keen to take advantage of the connection, proposed a campaign ad around Ed’s now quietly forgotten policy of a Big Six energy company price freeze. It is alleged they suggested an Aardman-designed Ed Miliband/Wallace hybrid using a freeze ray to keep energy bills under control. We asked Labour if this crazy rumour was true but at the time of going to print no one had returned our calls.

One reason for the studio’s cultural impact is that it stands alone. While the rest of the film industry has been falling over itself to harness the power of CGI, Aardman has been working at a slower pace – a much slower pace – one painstaking stop motion frame at a time. Park admits this meticulous method has unintended but beneficial consequences.

I started Wallace and Gromit at college and at first I wanted to be very ambitious

Some of their most popular characters – Gromit, the sinister penguin from The Wrong Trousers and Shaun the Sheep – have in common the sound of silence. But Park admits this is because of practical rather than artistic reasons.

“I started Wallace and Gromit at college and at first I wanted to be very ambitious,” he says. “Gromit was going to be very agile and dextrous, leaping around the place, but when I came to do the first shot I found it so difficult that I just moved his eyebrows. That’s where I found him. Suddenly he could say everything just by tweaking his eyebrows. You use economy as a strength.”

The strength is tested to the limit in Shaun the Sheep’s feature-length debut, where Shaun and his friends on Mossy Bottom Farm go on an adventure to the city. The little lamb may have reached all corners of the world but at the same time he has never left his home in Bristol.

Aardman’s ‘dream factory’ is situated in the mystical-sounding Aztec West, an industrial estate outside the city. The floor space downstairs is filled with multiple production units, where 16 to 25 scenes are worked on simultaneously by animators. On Shaun’s film there was a target of three seconds of footage a day, two-and-a-half minutes per week, and the film was completed in nine months.

The film’s co-directors, Aardman “lifer” Richard ‘Golly’ Starzak and Mark Burton, who began his career on Spitting Image, would rotate around each unit like A&E doctors, keeping track of each scene. “I wanted to do a silent comedy and Shaun seemed perfect,” says Golly. “In our business lip synch is a huge expense because you have to do more animation. Having them not talk is practical. It’s nice to have restrictions.

“I love the challenge of trying to tell a story with no dialogue. It forces you to tell a story cinematically, purely through how the picture is composed. There was a lot of fear at the start. Was it possible? It might be possible but would the audience get bored?

“You realise verbal communication is just one form of communication,” Burton adds. “They always say you can watch a good film with the sound down. Words can be important but you can also create a very satisfying story without using dialogue. Fifty years of silent movies at the beginning of film history shows that.”

The film-makers would watch an old silent film once a week for inspiration – classics from Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Jacques Tati. “Did we look at lots of silent comedies and steal their jokes? Maybe occasionally,” admits Burton. “If you create a good story with great characters then the audience will reach in and find the emotion, you don’t need to spoon-feed them. In the film we push Shaun through the wringer quite a bit as a character. He goes through quite an emotional journey, especially for a sheep.”

“There’s a very Buster Keaton thing about Shaun,” Golly says. “He has quite a blank face, he’s deadpan most of the time.”

Strangely enough, Shaun the Sheep will not be the only ‘silent’ animated comedy released this year, with the Despicable Me spin-off Minions similarly dialogue free. This follows on from Pixar’s Wall-E, which has no dialogue for much of its running time, and The Artist, which swept the Oscars in 2012.

Why the resurgence in silent films? “Animators tend to think very visually first and foremost,” says Golly. “When we were starting Shaun we thought it was a great selling point to say we’re doing a modern-day silent movie. Then The Artist came out. We were slightly pissed off it had beaten us to it.”

But Shaun the Sheep is not a silent film, rather a slapstick comedy without dialogue – not human dialogue anyway. There are plenty of animal noises, with Shaun’s baas provided by Justin Fletcher, better known to the nation’s toddlers as CBeebies’ Mr Tumble.

“Being a voice actor for a sheep sounds like a thankless task,” says Burton. “But we take the characters very seriously. We would have quite intense conversations with Justin, asking if he could give us a bleat that tells us Shaun is feeling anxious. Rather than saying, ‘Come on guys, it’s only a sheep’, he was up for it and really stretched the character.”

“That’s another reason why Shaun is popular globally,” Golly says. “The stories are understandable, there are no redubs or subtitles to get in the way. It’s pure visual comedy.”

Burton adds: “Shaun is very British but there is a universal nature to him. He is hugely successful in places you might not expect, like Indonesia and Iraq. Films that are generic and trying to be all things to everyone are forgettable. You don’t get a sense of what the film-makers think about the world. At the end of the day, Shaun the Sheep is a silly, sweet family film but even so you still put a lot of your heart into it. Quite a lot of your heart, actually.”

In the studio at the moment, animators are working on the fifth series of Shaun’s TV series as well as adverts, which are Aardman’s bread and butter. Upstairs are production offices and writing rooms. Nick Park’s den contains Wallace and Gromit memorabilia but it is another glittering figure, standing slightly taller than his own creations, that catches the eye – one of Park’s several Academy Awards.

“I don’t know where they all are – I haven’t counted them recently!” he giggles. His four awards put him on a par with Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and John Ford. “Does it? Really? Wow. There are a couple in the conference room downstairs, one here… I like to keep them here at work because everybody contributed to winning them.”

Besides the look and style of the animation, there is a very specific Aardman tone. Is that the secret to their success? Is there a company philosophy? He answers slowly, almost sculpting the words as he speaks.

“I think there is… There is something that is always very innocent and simple but at the same time an edge of subversion, an absurdity. There’s something that’s gentle but a bit self-mocking. We can be cute but never too cute, knowing but never cynical. It’s an instinctual thing, hard to sum up in words.”

Instead, Park will let his work do the talking. Our interview interrupted his storyboarding with a team of five artists on a still classified project. I wonder, is it another… “It’s not Wallace and Gromit,” he says.

“Everyone I meet asks if I’m working on a new project and they automatically go, ‘Is it Wallace and Gromit?’ When I say no, they lose interest. But I’m always thinking about them. Part of me would love to satisfy that demand. And I will.” Cracking.

Shaun the Sheep is in cinemas now

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