Shaun The Sheep Movie is about to be released on DVD and Blu-ray after a baa-rilliant reception on the big screen. In many ways the original farm heroes saga, its story follows Shaun and the gang as they head into the big city to rescue their gibberish-speaking custodian, the Farmer.
The film was praised for its echoing of old school slapstick comedy and hopes are high for a follow up. So while the gears of the studios whirr in contemplation over that, we sat down with writer/directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton for a good old bleat…
Richard: That was the big challenge. That’s why I think me and Mark work as well together. Mark’s had much experience of writing feature scripts and we had to find a story that could sustain that long. We had to dig deeper into the characters, a lot deeper than we do in the series. The series could be quite surface, you know, one of the episodes could be just the characters getting stuck together with a tube of glue. We had to think of a bigger story for this…
You needed a bigger tube of glue almost.
Mark: Massive tube of glue!
Richard: A tube of emotional glue…
Mark: The other thing was taking characters out of their comfort zone, take them into a few worlds, so we took them into the big city.
I use this word in inverted commas, but what was an “average” day like on the set?
Richard: Me and Mark got together at 8 in the morning, and we’d go through all the shots we’d be shooting that day with our production team. Make sure everyone knows what’s happening… and then we’d go onto the studio floor, see the progress of the shots. We treat the animators like actors, so we brief them on the set, tell them what we want. We want to know what the character’s thinking. We go through all the detail when everything’s set up and lit, like a live action shoot. But at the same time we’re also having to deal with music, with editing, any other story issues that come up… the day lasts from 8 till 8 at night.
Mark: And weekends as well.
Richard: And a few weekends. So it’s a very intense time really.
Mark: It’s not really a 9 – 5 job. You’re very involved and engaged in everything. Like all directors we’ll say we’re power mad and trying to keep an eye on all aspects of the film, right up to the marketing really.
Richard: Omid was great because he’s a comedy star, he’s been in some Hollywood movies… and we wanted him to grunt and make some noises!
Mark: He rose to the challenge because he got the point, which was that it’s not really about the dialogue in that sense, it’s about non-verbal communication. So he brought a lot to the character of the baddie, Trumper. He was totally up for it, and not just in terms of being funny. He’d have that range where he’d go from these very small little verbal things we could use, right up to big, Omid-type screaming. But he could bring a level of subtlety to it.
That’s what he brought, and I think John Sparkes (Absolutely) – who obviously works on the series – and Justin Fletcher (Mr Tumble)… they kind of rose to the challenge. Like a big Hollywood movie we were were going to take these characters’ emotions very seriously, so the comedy worked and the emotion worked… we stretched them out. It was a slightly bizarre process sometimes as you can imagine, but ultimately it was quite a rewarding and illuminating one.
Talking of dramatic intrigue, how did Nick Park’s cameo appearance come about?
Richard: The joke came about first I think. We had the idea of the bird spotter, the twitcher, getting revealed and attacked by the birds he’s spying on. He’s a bit of a voyeur. Then we remembered that Nick Park’s a very keen bird spotter.
Mark: He had a great sense of humour about it.
Richard: The story went through lots of iterations, but it was quite meticulously-planned so we knew what we’d be doing…
Mark: There’s a little bit of begging and bartering that goes on. Obviously we’ve got a production crew working to tight deadlines. So sometimes when we’d want to do a shot at the end, maybe we weren’t quite happy with it, or if we wanted to see more characters… to be fair, what’s great about the Aardman team is that they’ve done it for so long they can accommodate that. It was very rare you’d get told “no”! A bit of chin stroking sometimes, a bit of “hmm”. But they always try to facilitate the directors.
Richard: What was interesting with the city was that the size of the sets, and the size of the shots, were kind of prescribed by the physical size of the space. We were in this crazy warehouse down on the outskirts of Bristol, where the production is done. And sometimes the camera would hit the ceiling! That’s as far as it goes. It’s like, you want to get a nice, big, swooping top shot and we literally hit the sky, so that’s it. But that’s okay, you kind of work into that…
Why do you prefer working with stop motion animation? I like it, but it seems quite laborious compared to CGI…
Richard: I don’t know whether it is any more laborious. I think you have to go through all the same processes as other forms of animation. I just love the way it feels, the way you engage with it. It’s visceral, you go down on the sets, you’ve got real sets, real props, real lighting cameramen up ladders… it’s great, like doing live action very slowly. I think the audience likes to know that the things are real. The exhibitions are very popular as well, we’ve got one in France at the moment and it’s very successful. People love to see that stuff.
Mark: I think the audience gets more out of that. I mean, we love CGI, don’t get us wrong, you can press a button and have huge crowds and great big swooping shots of giant cities and everything, and you can’t do that in stop-motion, you’ve got to think about it another way. But that can also be quite empowering!
What are the pair of you working on next? Shaun The Sheep was a spin off from Wallace & Gromit – are there any characters in the movie you think could have their own spin off…?
Richard: Slip the dog has proved to be very popular…
Mark: It would be nice to do some more Shaun The Sheeps, if possible.
Richard: There could well be a sequel. We’re planning for it just in case! The signs are good, I’m currently working on a Shaun The Sheep half hour, called The Farmer’s Llamas, which I’m overseeing. That’s going to be out at Christmas and will be fairly global…
Mark: You may know Nick Park’s working on a new movie. I think he’s unveiling it at Cannes.
This turned out to be Early Man, a prehistoric tale and another collaboration with StudioCanal. Here’s the teaser poster…
This interview appeared on The Hollywood News.