A silent movie starring sheep: Aardman’s new film

Shaun the Sheep. Picture: Contributed
Shaun the Sheep. Picture: Contributed
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SHAUN the Sheep has been given a new fleece of life in an Aardman film inspired by Jacques Tati

AS YOU enter Aardman’s studio area, you can’t miss the 1950s science fiction movie poster of a woman towering over a tiny cityscape and figures, with a car in her left hand. You probably know the image and the film, but a wag has rebadged it, so the legend now reads “Attack Of The 50 Foot Set Dresser”.

Behind the scenes on Shaun The Sheep. Picture: Contributed

Behind the scenes on Shaun The Sheep. Picture: Contributed

Aardman contains a multitude of worlds, all of them scaled down to dolls house proportions, and administered by deft fingers and thumbs. Britain’s most famous animation studio is based in Bristol, employing 300 people in studios across the city, but the company began 30 years ago in a back room.

Back then, recalls Peter Lord, “there was The Magic Roundabout, but not much else”. Co-founders Lord and partner David Sproxton got their break creating Morph, an orange Plasticine pal for Tony Hart, who kept them in green for a few years while the company developed a reputation for ads, shorts and Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer video. Aardman won its first Oscar in 1990 for the Nick Park-directed Creature Comforts, snatching victory from the first Wallace and Gromit film, A Grand Day Out, also directed by Park. It took another decade for the company to move into feature films like Chicken Run, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!

Shaun The Sheep Movie is being filmed at Aardman’s Aztec West property. It’s an industrial estate off the M5, and if the outside looks like a warehouse, that’s because it used to be a storage facility for Fisher-Price toys. Only when you check into reception do you clock a giant Shaun grazing peacefully next to the receptionist.

Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave in 1995, where he was fleeced by one of Wallace’s inventions and immediately named Shaun, because Aardman never knowingly duck a pun. Aardman’s groanworthy wordplay is as distinctive as their handmade figurines with coathanger mouths. Remarkably, in an industry that leans towards globalisation, the company’s storytelling remains thirled to a distinctively British world of chunky cars, terms of endearment like “old sausage” and a penchant for Wensleydale, a cheese that was on the brink of vanishing until Wallace extolled its virtues and sent sales through the roof. When Aardman entered a partnership with the US studio Dreamworks, they steadfastly resisted modifying their conversations about marrows, and mild rebukes such as “stupid norbert”.

“I love the scene,” said Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg when he was shown a few minutes of Chicken Run, “but I literally couldn’t understand one line of dialogue.”

Unsurprisingly, that relationship broke up. “We have no regrets,” says Richard “Golly” Starzack (born Goleszowski), Aardman’s creative director. “I think we learnt a lot, and the films did very well in America.”

“They certainly didn’t win all the battles either,” adds Lord, thoughtfully. “There’s a ‘bugger’ in Chicken Run that slipped through.”

There are no language difficulties with Shaun The Sheep Movie, because when Starzack began his push to direct the fluffy farm animal in a spin-off TV show, he was keen that the ovine oeuvre should be wordless, though not silent. When the series was green-lit, Starzack posted a picture of the great stonefaced movie star Buster Keaton on the studio wall. “I grew up watching these kinds of films: our goal was a modern day silent movie, starring a flock of sheep,” he says. Shaun’s animators also watched Jacques Tati films, to study how he used sound effects as a character in the story. Wall-E is another influence: “The first 30 minutes has no humans talking at all, yet everyone said it was the best part of the film.”

Visually funny, engaging and simplistic, Shaun The Sheep became a global hit with 140 episodes of the TV show sold to 170 territories. The Middle East has a mind-boggling hit stage show, while a Japanese Shaun app has sold millions; Baranek Shaun, as he is known in Poland, is universally liked. Ironically, he is marginally less popular in the UK, partly because his main gambolling ground is fenced off at children’s channel CBBC. Nevertheless, Aardman believe Shaun has legs and have now decided he can make the leap from seven minutes to an 85-minute movie.

On the wall leading into Aardman’s windowless basement, there is a drawing of Shaun – by now, you’ll gather that inspirational posters are as important to Aardman as Wurlitzers are to “Feathers” McGraw. This one is headed “Shots Until The End Of The Film!”, and today “501” is scrawled on his fleece.

The floor is divided into sections, each housing a miniature film unit. A dozen Shaun models are used, so he can be filmed in different scenes at the same time. Shaun’s farm is there in all its verdant glory, but there are also hints that the residents of Mossy Bottom Farm are about to hit the Big City, or at least a reasonably sized market town. Poke your head round a door and there’s a high street, with a cafe, laundrette, a mobile phone shop (Sir Chat’alot) and a hairdressers called Barber Black Sheep. Further down is a town hall lined with tonsured trees. Next door, several model-makers put the finishing touches to the interior of a fancy restaurant, with mini MasterChef meals at the tables, including a rack of lamb, and crayfish arranged in a crispy tower. Aardman’s in-house glassblower created the teeny wineglasses, although the heat from the studio lights means drinks have to be sealed into the glass, to prevent discolouring and evaporation. A scaled-down parquet floor took two weeks to lay, just like the real thing.

The bodies of the puppets are made from resilient silicon but the faces and hands are fashioned from Plasticine, which is more malleable and expressive. So great is Aardman’s commitment to Plasticine that, since the demise of the last UK manufacturer, they have mixed their own patented recipe in an old chewing-gum machine.

Bitzer the dog is heavier than you might think, because his Plasticine is wrapped around an “armature” – a metal skeleton. Nearby are decapitated heads and multiple hands and mouths, to change his emotions. Like many film stars, Bitzer, Shaun and the cast require careful handling. Animators have to wash their hands constantly to keep the models clean and, after testing all the options, the models get wiped down with Asda’s babywipes.

Sculpting and manipulating the characters is a direct, intimate process: literally, the artist’s fingerprints are all over their work. On a good day they capture two seconds of usable film. I watch an animator making a minuscule adjustment to a Plasticine eyebrow. Does this kind of detail drive him mad?

“Most animators are a little OCD,” he says. “I’ve been doing this job for 18 years and it’s not about patience, it’s about concentration. Even when I’m at home I think about performance and how to nail movement. I’m always watching people. And pigeons.”

On departure, I’m given a box of Official Shaun Plasticine so I can make my own sheep with curly hair and lopsided mouth. To be honest, my modelling skills stop at thick-based ashtrays. “Well I certainly hope you don’t immediately put it on eBay,” says Aardman’s head of communications, sternly. “You should wait until the film comes out, it will go for more then.”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• Shaun the Sheep debuts at the Glasgow Youth Film Festival on Wednesday, and is on general release from Friday