We catch up with Aardman Animation’s co-founder, to talk their latest film…

As SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE hits the big screen, Aardman Animation’s co-founder Peter Lord talks to Paul Byrne about keeping it small, hating Hollywood and woolly thinking.

Ah, so this is how Comic Book Guy feels. I’ve just reminded Peter Lord that his sweet Aardman Animation creation SHAUN THE SHEEP bizarrely changed horses and courses not long after it took over our TV screens back in 2007.

As the Farmer and his faithful dog Blitzer (both voiced by John Sparkes) continued their battle of wits with the wily Shaun (voiced by Justin Fletcher) down on Mossy Bottom Farm, without warning or a howdy-doody, their look changed. Suddenly, the Farmer had a removable chin. All the better to animate him, my dear, I’m sure, but dang, it looked ugly. And isn’t there a rule about messing with icons?

“Ah, you noticed that,” smiles Lord, co-founder of Aardman Animation way, way back in 1972 (yes, 1972). “We had a director who convinced us that this would be a very wise move. And it wasn’t. Still amazed that we fell for it, so to speak, but we soon abandoned that particular ship.
“I wonder if we should go back and just CGI those episodes…?”

It’s part of the charm of Aardman that, despite the multi-million-dollar movies, the worldwide franchises and all that lovely merchandising, it’s still a relatively small operation. Aardman still have that very human touch, not only with the claymation that brought us the likes of WALLACE & GROMIT, MORPH and SHAUN THE SHEEP, but also in how they run their small Bristol-based studio. And as any fool will tell you, humans make mistakes. Such as messing with a perfectly formed creation. Or making an entirely CGI- created feature film that merely apes the look of your trademark claymation – more of which later. First, a little history.

The dunked biscuit of animation, Aardman is a card-carrying, cardigan-wearing, caressing, cuddly wonder, their cosy brand of ee-by-gum Ealing comedy embracing Bennett, Hancock, LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE and a 1950s everyday English life that always feels warm, familiar and knowingly rose-tinted. Masters of stop-motion claymation, Aardman first broke through in the mid-1970s with MORPH, a plasticine man so basic that even a child could mould him. Shortly after, the Oscar-winning CREATURE COMFORTS – everyday conversations reanimated through the mouths of zoo animals – and the chart-topping, multiple-award-winning video for Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit SLEDGEHAMMER put Aardman firmly on the map. Four years later, and new arrival Nick Park finally finished his 24-minute short A GRAND DAY OUT, which introduced the world to the cheese-loving bachelor, Wallace, and his trusty mutt, Gromit. The next two Wallace & Gromit shorts – 1993’s THE WRONG TROUSERS and 1995’s A CLOSE SHAVE- also bagged Oscars for Aardman.

Unsurprisingly, with all those shiny Oscars under their rope belts, Hollywood came knocking, DreamWorks co-financing and distributing Aardman’s first feature, CHICKEN RUN (2000), followed five years later by arguably Aardman’s finest full-length outing, WALLACE & GROMIT: CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT. DreamWorks weren’t happy with the box-office on WERE-RABBIT though, and just before the release of Aardman’s next outing, the computer-animated feature FLUSHED AWAY (2006), the partnership was dissolved. The fact that FLUSHED AWAY was both a critical and a commercial flop didn’t help. And neither did the fire on October 10th 2005, at a storage facility used by Aardman, destroying over 30 years of awards along with props, models and scenery.

A new deal with Sony in April 2007 resulted in 2011’s computer-animated ARTHUR CHRISTMAS and 2012’s stop-motion feature THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS, neither quite hitting the mark as much as Wallace & Gromit’s much-heralded return with the 2008 short, A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH. “Yeah, not many people liked FLUSHED AWAY,” says Lord when I bring up the 2006 flop, “but I watched it again recently, and the thing is, I like it.” Part of the problem must have been, I suggest, the fact that here was the new home of stop-motion claymation making a computer-generated movie that aped clay-mation. It was all a bit Monkees.

“That was definitely the perception,” says Lord, “but we were keen to try new things. We always are. And if that means falling flat sometimes, or not connecting with a big audience, that’s just the price you have to pay. No artist gets it right every single time, and it’s always fascinating to me when, years later, you look back and realise the commercial flops are often artistic triumphs. But that’s a whole line of thought that could take up hours of discussion…”

For now, let us rejoice in the silent comedy magic of Shaun The Sheep, an 11- year old woolly wonder that was inspired by the likes of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, and who has helped many a student wile away a very pleasant and chuckle-filled afternoon. For his big-screen debut, Shaun and his fellow Mossy Bottom Farm co-horts head to the big city, their beloved and not-so- bright farmer having woken up in hospital suffering from amnesia. “We have a deep affection for Shaun, and the rest of the Mossy Bottom Farm gang, so, we had always planned on making a feature film,” says Lord. “The trick was, with silent comedy, you really have to be smart about how you tell your story. And how you deliver a punchline. With dialogue, it’s so easy to literally tell people when to laugh. With silent comedy, you have to deliver all of that in a look, in a series of images that lead you to that punchline. A challenge, but great fun. Especially when, as people, you have to act it out before you go anywhere near actually shooting the scene.”

Comedy is all about timing, and given that it takes Aardman Animation four days to shoot six seconds, their comic timing can be broken down into milliseconds. Which makes it much harder to get right, right? “It can, if you haven’t thought it through right down to the millisecond,” smiles Lord. “You have to know how long to sit on an expression, or a scene, to get the maximum effect. Too long, and it’s flat; too short, and you’ve missed the moment. It’s not like you can casually set the scene up again and do another take straight away. So, preparation is key. Making sure the end product feels spontaneous and true is the goal.”

With two directors (newcomer Richard Starzack and DreamWorks refugee Mark Burton, the latter having first worked with Lord and co. on 2000’s CHICKEN RUN) overseeing 25 animators, 58 cameras, across 33 units, and all working from 79,237 storyboards, that feature, in total, 1,589 baas (yes, they counted ‘em), Shaun The Sheep is major undertaking for Aardman. Having a world that already existed, and a set of characters that were already created (each Aardman creation takes 3 months and £14,000 to make), helped enormously. “We just had to come up with funny stuff for these guys to do,” laughs Lord. “And there’s a joy in that, because you know the humour, you know these characters, and it’s therefore very easy to see the movie playing out in your head. Actually, that’s something that we should really consider putting on the DVD, although it may ruin the magic a little for the younger fans – just our having to act out these scenes before they’re animated, to get that comic timing right, to see if they play true. Once it got us laughing, we knew we were on the right track.

“And there was a hell of a lot of laughing when it came to making this movie…”

Shaun The Sheep hits Irish screens on February 6th 2015

Words: Paul Byrne