Co-directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton bring our favorite sheep and his cheeky hijinks to the big screen in their new stop-motion film.
There’s something inherently satisfying about watching stop-motion animation. Something almost visceral, that palpable feeling you’re watching something you and a few friends could create if you had a proper camera and actual talent. This is animation you can wrap your head around – grab your old Stretch Armstrong and a camera, pose, click, move, pose, click, move. Intuitively, you understand the inherent complexity and difficulty of the process. But additionally, you can close your eyes and imagine how it was actually created. And for the most part, you’d be right.
Thankfully for audiences, four-time Oscar-winning studio Aardman Animations, and not you, is making stop-motion films. For all animation fans, stop-motion fans in particular, Aardman’s wonderful new feature, Shaun the Sheep Movie is about to hit theatres. Based on their hugely popular Shaun the Sheep TV series, Shaun the Sheep Movie is a funny and touching fish-out-of-water tale of a simple idea to escape daily farm life doldrums that goes awry.
I recently spoke to the film’s co-writers and co-directors, Richard Starzak and Mark Burton, who shared their insights on the “shear” difficulty of finding the right story and setting for their iconic sheep’s theatrical debut.
Dan Sarto: Shaun the Sheep has been a successful TV show for many years. But feature films are a very different animal. What went into the decision to make a movie?
Richard Starzak: When I devised the series, initially we decided not to use dialogue because of financial reasons. It's expensive to do lip sync for talking characters. What this meant, and I didn't realize it at the time, was we had to shoot the episodes very cinematically. We couldn't simplify the cinematography like you normally can in a children's series. We had to shoot each one like a mini-movie. It became apparent quite soon to me that...from the early stages I wanted to make a longer form Shaun the Sheep. As time went on, we kind of pressurized the studio, asking, “Is it time for a Shaun the Sheep movie yet? Eventually they kind of agreed.
Mark Burton: Yeah, the idea to make a film came about because the series became so successful globally it just seemed the right thing to do. But it's quite an exciting challenge to work with no dialogue.
DS: As co-writers and co-directors, I'm assuming all the film’s ideas start with you two. How did the story for the film come about?
MB: There were a few false starts. We played around with a number of different stories. But in the end, Richard and I felt we wanted to tell a simple story really, not necessarily what you might call a high concept story, because all this high concept was being told from the point of view of a sheep. That's where we came up with the idea of taking the sheep into the city. We felt that would be a fun canvas to explore. We meet them in their natural habitat that we’ve seen in the series and then get them into the city.
Having come up with what sort of happens in the movie on the first day [of writing], you say, "We can do this," and, "No, that's great. That sounds great. We're done." Then over the next 18 months, you're tearing your hair out trying to make that idea work. It was actually very difficult to tell that story. We wanted to have space in the story to explore comic routines and set pieces. But we also wanted it to be emotional and have some touching elements. And we needed to tell it without dialogue in a way where it wouldn't get boring.
DS: Though your characters do grunt and mumble a bit, essentially, like in a lot of animation, they’re giving pantomime performances. How difficult is that to sustain over the course of a full feature film?
RS: I think the story had to be simple and clear enough to be able to tell it properly. We did try things in the early stages of writing. But if ideas definitely needed dialogue, we pulled back. We tried other things out that were understandable but then allowed you to make it very visual. The humor's very visual, very slapstick.
MB: Clearly, I think it's also an emotional story. Key moments of emotion are not always verbal. I'm not saying you can't have them without words but a lot of things are said with gestures and the eyes. The other big important factor is that when you're telling a story, the audience needs to know what's going on in the heads of the characters at all times. Sometimes, all we need to do is capture a reaction shot since you know what that character is thinking just because of the way you've established the story. We were influenced and inspired by Nick Park in the way he works with Gromit [a lead character in Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit films]. You capture a shot of Gromit, he hasn't even got a mouth and he just kind of blinks and you go, "God, Gromit's really worried about that invention going wrong!"
Actually, I think the idea that somehow you must have a lot more movement and a lot more physicality to express emotion like this just isn’t true. I think it's the other way. I think sometimes some of the most powerful moments are very subtle. Often when working with an animator we’ll say, "Do less. Do a lot less."
DS: How long did the film take to make overall? How big was your crew?
RS: I think the most animators we had onboard at any one time was 20. The production period where we were actually physically doing animation was probably about 10 months. We had around 20 different sets on the go. Understand, it's like live-action miniatures where each set is behind black drapes and each set is being dressed, lit and prepared. Mark and I, we had half the sets each. It's like walking onto a live-action set. We would treat our animators like actors. We'd brief the animators, we'd brief the cameramen...the cameraman would step through the shot. We would talk about the emotions involved, what the characters were thinking. We would rehearse it in front of the video camera to analyze what we needed from the shot.
It's like a live-action crew. We had two directors of photography. We have the electricians, the lighting guys. We had the set, the art director and set directors to make sure all the sets worked. It's quite a big team to set up each shot. The last people to arrive are the animators and directors who talk through the shot with the lighting and cameramen.
DS: How long did you spend in pre-production? I'm guessing that a lot of the art direction and design had already been done because you've been producing the series since 2007. How much time did it take to setup, fabricate all the puppets and get all the sets built so that you could actually start to animate?
MB: Well, the whole process from start to finish was about three years. That was including say 10 months when we were actually in production. [We did] A few months post-production. The rest of the time was really all the design work. Yes, we had a certain head start in that there were sets existing for the farm and for what we call "Hero Puppets," the main characters. But there's a lot of work when you're doing stop-frame animation. If you’re doing stop-frame, there's a lot of testing work that needs to be done when you create a new puppet. We had less of that because even though we had some new characters, we had some that already existed. But having said that, it was our intention from the very start not to just do an extended episode.
Everything was in contention in terms of what sets we had, how they looked and the new world we created. The world of the city, we wanted that to feel like it was from the Shaun idiom but at the same time, feel very much like a whole brand new canvas you hadn't seen before. The art director pretty much had to design this from scratch. Luckily, he trained as an architect so he loved it. He was designing and building the city while at the same time, we were still working on the story. We couldn't always say to him exactly what sets we needed. There was a certain amount of improvising going on until the story settled down and we actually knew what parts of the city we needed. We knew we needed some establishing shots and we wanted to put our elements into those. That part of the process was a little quicker than normal but you're still talking about a year and a half.
DS: Because there's no dialogue, did you still use any 3D printers on the production?
RS: We did the film without [3D printers]. We didn’t see the need necessarily. 3D printing was used in films like Aardman’s last film The Pirates! and the Laika films, but that’s usually because there's so much dialogue involved and there's so much work to do to sculpt the different mouth shapes to print them out. We didn't need that really so our puppets are really atypical in comparison.
DS: Looking back, what were the biggest challenges for you on this film?
RS: Initially, it was the writing, getting the story to work. That was difficult. There were points in the writing where we wished the characters could just say something. That was probably the most difficult part. I think once we were on the studio floor, we knew exactly what we were doing putting all the reels together.
MB: The next challenge was that from the start, we wanted to do as much as possible in-camera. We sort of kept away from CGI because that was our preference. We had intentionally wanted to create what felt like a movie. Not a big episode. There's a certain amount of physical limitation just in terms of the actual space. You have these motion cameras. They would hit the ceiling and you’d say, “Well that's as big as your establishing shot's going to be," because unless there’s a story on top of the building, you can’t go any higher. The set can’t be any bigger. There was a certain amount of challenge in terms of bringing that world to life.
But actually, in both cases, the production challenge and the challenge of creating a story without dialogue were liberating as well. You kind of say, "Well, these are the parameters within which we have to work. Let’s just get on with it." At the end of the day, it was actually a more fulfilling way of doing it.
DS: Describe your working dynamic as co-directors. Did you just divide and conquer? Or did you each have specific areas you focused on based on skill or preference?
RS: The writing process, we both co-wrote. We would have very healthy disagreements and arguments about things. Our producer would come in and act as a referee, breaking us apart and then pulling us together on point again. That was okay. I think once we were on the studio floor, by then, we both knew in detail the story we were trying to tell. So, we could split into two and take on half the production each. It wasn't always half. It varied from time to time. We would talk about our shots in the morning before we went on the studio floor and then meet again at the end of the day to see the rushes and look at each other's work.
MB: Filmmaking is not an exact science. You’d end up multitasking a lot. So we would be working on, say, shooting material in the day, separately, then coming together in the evenings to work on maybe the edit, the music or talk about story elements. Quite a lot of times we would just work on punching up the humor. We would have our separate tasks and then there'd be tasks where we would come together. It’s almost like you’d wear a different hat. You have your production hat which is the job of shooting the film. Then you'd have to take a step back and think about the film in a larger way. That was when we worked together really.
DS: Last question. From your perspective, for an audience, what is it that makes stop-motion so magical? What is it about this medium in particular that is just so very, very cool to watch?
RS: That's a great question. When you watch an animated film, you suspend your disbelief. But maybe, when you watch a stop-frame film, it reminds you more that it needs these puppets - real moving puppets. It reminds you more of the technique…
MB: …Because it's real…
RS: …Yeah. You kind of know they exist, they’re real puppets that have a real surface. I know kids in particular love that. Whenever we have an exhibition, they're very popular because kids want to touch the puppets.
DS: Do you think it's also because they can relate to the fact that they themselves play with action figures and dolls? That everybody has done that at one point in their life? Like you can feel how the film is made?
RS: That's exactly right. CGI is a lot more obscure. You don't know the techniques involved on the screen. Kids can watch a stop-frame film and think, “I could do that. I know how that’s done.” I think it's the tangibility of it all.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.