We went over to Bristol to watch Shaun The Sheep in production, check out our interview with the animators
Aardman animation have made some of the finest animations in recent years ‘Wallace & Gromit’, ‘Chicken Run’, ‘Flushed Away’, ‘The Pirates’ & Morph to name but a few… so we were very excited to get an invite over to their studio in Bristol for a behind the scenes tour on their latest animation ‘Shaun The Sheep’ which hits Irish cinemas this month.
Aardman’s animation wonderland is secretly tucked away at the back of a non-descript industrial estate, right next door to a Spandex factory. From the outside it looks like a normal warehouse, but inside it’s filled with teams of animators working away on tiny models & life-size film sets.
‘Shaun The Sheep’ uses stop-motion animation technology to create the world of Shaun, the art department showed off 100’s of miniature models, clothes and mouths that are needed to bring the characters to life. Technology such as 3D-printing makes the process of creating the characters a little quicker and easier than earlier techniques that relied mostly on plasticine.
How long from conception to release does it take to make a feature-length stop-motion animated film like ‘Shaun The Sheep’? The production process on Shaun was quicker than a lot of feature animations but even so it’s something like two and a half years. There’s a fair amount of brewing up thinking to be done. I might not be 100% right but the average in Hollywood is about 8 years from the original idea to getting something to screen. We got our script and storyboard relatively quickly, we were still working on the story as we started production.
Every time you start a film you think ‘I know how films are made’ but they’re always different, every time you think you have the formula something changes. A few years ago the remit was that you couldn’t have female protagonists in an animation because boys wouldn’t go see it, then Pixar did ‘Brave’, then ‘Frozen’ came out and became one of the most successful animations of all time. Now its like ‘You’ve got to have female protagonists’, they goalposts are always moving.
The great thing about Shaun is that we already knew the characters and their world, a lot of research time can be spent with a blank piece of paper starting from scratch trying to define the characters, deciding who they are and what they look like.
One of the charms of Shaun is the lack of dialogue. At the early stages of production did you consider adding speech to the movie? It made us nervous, we considered different ways to tell the story, Mark suggested a Minstrel pop out from behind a tree to tell us what’s happening. (LAUGHS). Another idea was songs with lyrics but I’m really glad we stuck to our guns, when the reels started to come together we released we didn’t need dialogue to tell the story. They always say if you’re watching a well-made film you can turn the sound down and still understand what’s going on. So that presented a challenge for us, if you’re telling the story right words don’t add anything, they’re another sound effect, you can tell what the character is doing and what they’re thinking.
So not having dialogue turned out to be an advantage? Funnily enough the lack of dialogue on the series was a good thing when we realized we had to shoot it very cinematically. We had to have the camera in lots of different places, which is practically very difficult to do. A character like ‘Bob The Builder’ can just stand there and use dialogue to say ‘We’re going over to Mrs Miggens to fix her roof‘ and you know what’s going to happen but to put over that kind of information in a seven-minute episode with no dialogue is very difficult. In the early stages I thought Shaun would become a good feature film because already it was quite cinematic. It becomes like a mini film, from an early stage.
Is it true that the Spice Girls helped increase Shaun’s popularity in the early days? Before the TV series Baby Spice was photographed wearing a ‘Shaun The Sheep’ backpack. The backpack was from ‘A Close Shave’ a short that Nick Park had made. We knew he was a popular character but it really dawned on us how popular when that photo came out and all the backpacks sold out, then sold out again. That was probably the moment we thought we should do something with Shaun.
To what extent is CGI used in the movie alongside stop motion animation? I’m not necessarily a purist but I like stop-frame animation, so we do as much as possible. Due to the scale of the sets we use CGI to add in things like sky & little effects. There’s a shot where someone spits out their tea, which we looked at using CGI to create a spray but we ended up using bits of wire from a fiber optic lamps, bought from Argos for £8. It looks great, I’m always satisfied when we can do it on camera.
How do you ensure that the audience is universal and play well to adults as well as children? The market for animation these days is universal, there’s this rather chilling Hollywood phrase ‘Four Quadrant’, I’m not sure exactly what all four of them are but it’s when they try to target a film at all audiences and animated movies usually tick all four boxes.
It’s something that happened over the last few years, not only with Aardman but with movies like ‘Shrek’ and ‘Toy Story’, people in their twenties are going to see those without kids. So you get kids, you get families and you get adults going on their own. The market is as wide as you can make the story appealing. Shaun is something that everyone wanted to watch on television, it’s been a proven guilty pleasure for pensioners, mums & dads and so on. We’ve made a film that makes us laugh, you never approach a film like this and dumb it down to try make a children’s film. So we add jokes that make us laugh. It’s slapstick, it’s an adult story that kids will enjoy.
Shaun was the first series that Aardman made specifically for children but we didn’t change our approach. With ‘Wallace & Gromit’, ‘Morph’, or ‘Creature Comforts’ we never made an effort to make a children’s programme, we just wanted to make ourselves laugh, then if it worked for us then that’s ok. We took the same approach for Shaun even though it was a children’s series and that’s what’s giving it universal appeal.
When we were making the TV series we never thought of it as a children’s show. In the back of our minds we were just making shows that we liked. Occasionally the BBC would come back with changes, like you can’t have a pig with a chainsaw. (Laughs)
Did you have to make many changes for the American version of the TV show? We had to cut down the amount of poop, it was considered too authentic and there was too much of it around. We had to cut the poop out from the American version. They don’t go to toilet in America *Laughs* I have a fantastic list from Disney showing all the timecodes from the episodes with comments saying things like ‘I Can See Poop’. (laughs) We left the poop out after that, it made life easier on the second series.