Flickering Myth sat down with the directors of Shaun the Sheep Movie…
Out now in cinemas, Shaun the Sheep makes the leap from TV to the silver screen with Shaun the Sheep Movie (read our review here) and Flickering Myth Deputy Editor Luke Owen caught up with its directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzack, who also wrote the movie. Check out the interview on the Flickering Myth Podcast and read what they had to say below…
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LO: Are we calling the film Shaun the Sheep Movie, or Shaun the Sheep: The Movie?
MB: We thought everyone would call it The Shaun the Sheep Movie, but we ended up getting snowed under by “the”. So it’s Shaun the Sheep Movie. That was actually the first six months of development – just getting the “the” in the right place! (laughs)
LO: You’re both first time feature directors, this is quite a big project to take on?
RS: Well we’ve had experience in the features particularly in the writing side of things. I was working on a feature film with Dreamworks that unfortunately never happened. So, between us, we do have quite a lot of experience. And also, we’ve been part of the Aardman brain trust, so we’ve been involved with Peter [Lord]’s films and Nick [Park]’s films and we’ve given notes on story reels and that sort of thing.
MB: And you’ve directed loads of commercials.
RS: Yeah, outside of features I’ve done commercials.
MB: I mean it’s a different thing working on a feature. And I came in more from the story and writing side, so I’ve had a huge amount of experience on the production floor.
LO: And you worked on Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit
MB: Yes I worked on Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but I first worked on Chicken Run doing additional material. Then on Curse of the Were-Rabbit and then on Madagascar.
LO: How did the story of Shaun the Sheep Movie come together?
RS: From different stages really. I guess the first idea was to take the sheep out of their comfort zone. And what’s the most opposite to a farm – the big city. And we had a lot of fun in the early stages generating silly ideas of what could happen, making ourselves laugh and patting ourselves on the back. And then came the hard bit. And Mark has had more experience than me in this, and that’s creating the structure and to ensure we keep the audience amused throughout.
MB: I think one of the key things when taking something out of a TV show, which were seven minute vignettes, to a movie is to give your characters an emotional life. Which sounds odd when dealing with sheep, but you have to take those characters seriously. And one of the things for us was to take the story seriously and those characters seriously. As if we were making a Scorsese film. So you create an emotional life for them, which then allows you to put the fun in. And if you get that right, the audience is going to root for those characters are laugh more.
LO: So was it a difficult process writing the picture? Because the whole film is dialogue free.
MB: We had a few wobbles…
RS: There weren’t so much concerns, but we were aware that, would this work without dialogue? And I think we did it to prove a point. We did think in the early stages that we’d have some contingency plans in place. Like maybe someone comes out from behind a tree and sings a song to explain what’s happening next.
MB: Or a performance poet.
RS: Or maybe some of the humans talk, that was one of the other options. But I’m glad we stuck to the integrity of the show. I remember watching as a kid, shows from Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera like Quick Draw McGraw and The Flintstones and if one of the voices changed, I felt really let down. Even as a child, I felt like, ‘you’ve ruined this for me!’.
MB: Or like Dallas when the change the whole cast?
RS: (laughs) That’s right!
MB: I don’t think you look something like this and think that a lack of dialogue will be a problem. Actually it was an opportunity as it made us more disciplined in storytelling because there’s that saying that you can watch a good movie with the sound down. So we knew we had to create a story that was interesting enough visually but complex enough that you wouldn’t get bored. It made us work harder.
RS: It also comes from an Aardman tradition. Nick in the early days worked alone and he would sit there and would storyboard the entire film without any dialogue. So you could flip through storyboards like the most fantastic comic you’ve ever seen – there’s no dialogue but you knew exactly what was going on and what the characters were thinking. And I think that’s something we’ve maintained through Shaun the Sheep and the film.
LO: There’s also that tendency in animation today to advertise the voice cast as well, but here you’re selling the film on the character alone.
MB: Which is a luxury really and we’re very lucky because, the reason you have a big voice cast is that you’re trying to sell the film. Studio Canal [who are releasing the movie] were fully behind us. And of course we have Omid Djalili, John Sparks and Justin Fletcher who are great voice artists in this country. And Sean Connelly. And my son actually! A bit of nepotism going on there.
RS: I did a bit as well.
MB: But of course, the big name apart from Shaun is Aardman. And I think that’s a great advantage for us because people know Aardman. But it’s also a great responsibility for us as we have to live up to the Aardman name.
RS: I feel like I should stick up for the voice artists too. Because Omid and Justin Fletcher and John Sparks all have comic bones and great comic timing. And we really need that. We couldn’t just have anyone grunting! You know, it’s those slight exhales and things like that which really sell the characters.
LO: How did conversations go with people like Omid Djalili where you bring them in and tell them, ‘you’re not actually speaking – we’re just getting you to say gibberish!’
MB: (laughs) It’s a bit embarrassing when you say to someone, ‘do you want to do a big movie’ and they say, ‘sounds great what am I doing?’ and you reply, ‘grunt a bit.’ (laughs) But Omid was up for it and he’s got a fantastic range. He’s got a great big voice and little tiny things. And it’s as I said earlier. We brought them in and said, ‘we’re taking these characters very seriously’. And it was fun because we took them seriously.
RS: We saw him at the slapstick festival presenting a film and he just went into a bit of his routine and you just realise that he can sound incredibly angry and incredibly sinister, really big and really intimate. And that’s just what we needed.
LO: So, Shaun the Sheep started as a character in Wallace & Gromit: A Close Shave, then got his own show and a movie – what is it about this character that people love?
RS: I think it’s a number of things. Firstly his design. I think Nick came up with a brilliant design, it’s almost Japanese minimalist of a face and eyes and you can instantly recognise his silhouette. Which is important in the animation industry. There’s the fact that there’s no dialogue – that makes it incredibly popular. It was done initially for practical reasons because lip syncing is very expensive. Which then made the episodes very popular globally. And, it’s also that 10-year old kid pushing the boundaries and, he’s an underdog. He’s in a good position in the farm hierarchy and he’s got something to push against. All of those things added together have made him successful.
MB: I think for me, because I didn’t work on the show, was Shaun always getting one up on the humans. He’s got this secret world where they think he’s a sheep, but he’s really smarter than they are. And I think kids see that as an allegory to their relationships with adults. They love to see him get one up on the adults.
LO: It’s a difficult balancing act to get family jokes right. A lot of movies write jokes for kids and jokes for adults, but Shaun the Sheep Movie gets that balance just right.
MB: Well we hope so!
RS: Instinctively, that’s what we’ve always done at Aardman. Funnily enough, Aardman has been going nearly forty years and Shaun the Sheep was their first children’s series, which not many people realise. Everything else was family orientated. Even with Morph, I was struck with how they made shorts that were… funny shorts. They weren’t aimed at children, they were just slapstick comedy. We just made Morph to make ourselves laugh and that’s stretched to all the other shows like Creature Comforts, Wallace and Gromit etc. If we thought it was funny, then that was okay. As you said, people often think we’re writing children’s jokes and adult jokes when really we’re just writing jokes. And sometimes we’ll write a joke where we think only a small number of people will get that and those get pushed to one side.
MB: And I think, as adults, we love slapstick humour, silly jokes, fart jokes and things like that and we often think we’re not allowed to laugh at those. Having the advantage of being a sort of silent movie, I mean it’s not literally a silent movie, but it allowed us to do these big slapstick jokes which I think everyone enjoys.
LO: So, lastly, what is the future for Shaun the Sheep?
MB: Hopefully pretty rosy?
RS: Yeah, we’re working on a series at the moment which is another 20 episodes. There’s a Christmas special and who knows – I’m hoping there will be a sequel.
LO: Is there any future for Wallace and Gromit?
MB: I think that’s up to Nick Park, but Wallace and Gromit are alive and well so never say never.
RS: They’re alive and well in Preston having a cup of tea.
MB: Eating Wendslydale in some tea shop somewhere. They’ll be back.
Shaun the Sheep Movie is out now in cinemas.