Flickering Myth co-editor Oli Davis rang up the directors of Wallace and Gromit spin-off Shaun the Sheep Movie – Mark Burton and Richard Starzak – to talk about their movie’s upcoming release on DVD and Blu-ray, how Aardman studios compares to Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, Nick Park’s next film Early Man and…KY Jelly tears?
Full disclosure: it was a pre-arranged phone call. Oli doesn’t just ring numbers until his favourite animation directors answer. Not this time, anyway.
Check out the audio version for your earholes, or the handy transcription below. We’ve thought of everything.
Oli: I watched the film yesterday when I was sent a DVD as I missed it when it came out and I loved it! It was so charming, and the one thing – I mean, I could Google this to find out the answer but I thought it would be better coming from you, I was so confused: how do you animate water in a stop motion environment? Like tears dripping off people’s faces?
Richard: Ah, tears, well there’s lots of different techniques depending on what kind of water, but tears tends to be done with coloured glycerine, like Bonjela cream, the see-through stuff, like Vaseline. We have been known to use KY Jelly. That’s very useful, too. In some cases we use clingfilm for the services or for water jets, and occasionally, when we want a specific effect we can’t do, there’s one or two we’ve done a bit of CGI on, like lapping water. Anything that interacts with water is very difficult to do in stop frame, but we try to do as much of it in-camera as we can.
Mark: The best example of that is, if you remember the shot at the end of the film where the farmer spits tea at the dog, if you freeze frame it looks like a scene out of Hellraiser…
Richard: Yeah, it’s actually fibre optics. It’s one of those cheap lamps. We just found something that looked really good. Because if you analyse real spit – if you’ve ever done that – and have it slowed down, it’s lots of individual streaks. You can’t see droplets, you just see lines. So we thought we’d try the fibre optic route. That worked really well.
Oli: I’ve never really thought about the whole trial and error side of stop animation. It sounds almost like a foley artist, where they’re just running sand through their hands to see what works best. Is that a big part of it then?
Richard: Oh yeah, what I enjoy about the whole process is problem solving. What’s the best way we can do this? That’s the fun side of it for me and Mark. In one instance, in the restaurant scene, we ran out of cars because they were all being used on other sets. Everything was out in use. So we ended up using a crash helmet as a car that goes past the window. It looks like a Mazda.
Oli: What was the hardest bit to animate, then?
Mark: Technically, there’s an establishing shot where they get to the city, I think it was a record for the most number of characters being animated in one scene. For Aardman anyway. I think it was 42. And this was all done by one animator. The poor guy disappeared onto the set and then we didn’t see him for like a month. He came out with a huge beard and, you know, lost six stone or something. But he animated everything on that shot. So he had to have 42 stories in his head, giving them all little stories of their own to remember where they are. And he has to move each one of them for each second he’s doing it, 24 times a second. That gives you some sense of the scale of it.
And there are other shots that are hard because they’re emotional shots, where you have to convey an idea and it’s about the subtlety of it rather than the scale of it. We needed a sense of what we wanted to convey, because we weren’t using dialogue.
Oli: I’m glad you mentioned the emotional bit of it, because at the end when the farmer reunites with everyone and gets his memory back…there’s a very specific sort of love in that. I was wondering what sort of love that is for you – was it a fatherly love or one between a man and dog as a pet relationship?
Richard: For me it’s quite fatherly. We discussed that quite a lot, actually. Because obviously it’s a farmer, sheep dog and sheep. But we approached the relationship between Shaun and the farmer, which is the main story, as father and son, because that’s what we relate to, and I think that’s what people can relate to.
Mark: I think there definitely is a family metaphor for us. But if you want to see it as a master and animal that also works, because as humans we do get very attached to animals. But the thinking was that it was about a family, where there’s an absent father for part of the film, and then everyone reunites to be happy ever after for the next one.
Oli: On the flip side of the emotional stuff, it’s really funny. You’ve already mentioned the restaurant scene, and specifically the guy playing the piano, that just turned into a silent comedy thing. It’s the same music from a Buster Keaton movie. What were your influences from that silent movie era?
Richard: Well firstly, we’re both fans of that era. But we did watch quite a lot before we started writing. We watched a lot of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, some Laurel and Hardy, and Mark’s favourite, Jacques Tati, which is more akin to Shaun because there’s sounds but no dialogue. So yeah, when I grew up there was Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin on the TV every Saturday, so I’d always watch it and always loved it.
Oli: What do you think the status of silent comedy is today? Obviously we’ve got Shaun here, and The Artist came out a few years ago…
Mark: I think there’s a lot of good physical comedy around. I think what we felt what Shaun had was that it shows you could make a full length feature in the 21st century for a family, for kids, with no dialogue and people will stay with it. Which shows there is still an appetite for that kind of comedy. And we all loved the first half hour of Wall-E…and then forgot the rest of it. There’s something about that medium which is very engaging and really draws you in to. So yeah, I think it’s hopefully it’s in a healthy place.
Oli: It certainly does draw you in. You almost find yourself filling in the blanks of the dialogue.
Mark: We were kind of worried at the beginning whether people would stay with it or zone out or whatever, and then we sort of watched it with music on it as an early assembly and after a while you forget that there isn’t any dialogue. Because in a way, we watch films, probably without realising it, that when we enjoy them the most is when we’re in the heads of the characters. It doesn’t matter if they’re speaking or not speaking, verbal communication or non-verbal communication, if we know what’s going on in their heads and what they’re thinking, we’re engaged with that story. And I think that’s a key thing.
Oli: Almost similar to a subtitled film, after a while you forget you’re reading a film; you’re in there with the characters. Of course, you keep making the separation between silence and non-verbal, because obviously this is non-verbal, how on earth do you direct the voice cast? “I want a bit more of a quizzical [nonsensical mumbo jumbo]?”
Richard: That’s very good. I’m sure you could do it.
Mark: Rule No.1 was that we’ll take this story and these characters very seriously. And if Shaun’s upset, he’s upset and we want to hear that. And if they’re scared , they’re scared. We didn’t dumb it down. There wasn’t the case of just making funny noises. We talked to the voice actors as actors, as they would be for any other film. Sometimes they would get a bit verbal and we’d say, give us the same thing, just take the words out. It was a slightly bizarre experience for them, I think, but there’s some really subtle vocal expressions that we were able to capture that really help the storytelling.
Oli: All the expressions you completely understand what the characters are trying to get at. In the larger scale of animation houses, I think of Disney, Pixar and Ghibli, and I also think of Aardman. What is it that Aardman brings to the table that those others don’t? What’s unique about Aardman?
Richard: Ah, oh, what’s unique? I think without a doubt Nick Park’s been the big influencing factor of the studio. But myself and Nick and the company owners Peter Lord and Dave Sproxton, we’re all of the same generation so we’ve all had the same influences. It’s a mixture of British things like comics and Carry On films, and what have you, but it’s also American things like American comedies and cartoonists. So it’s a melting pot of ideas, but they’re all important to all of us. I wouldn’t say it’s a house style, but you can definitely say we’re all influenced by the same sorts of things. And in the end we just all want to make people laugh, really.
Oli: You say there isn’t a house style, but there definitely is a house style for the animation. I guess you’re all tied to that Wallace and Gromit style because Shaun’s a spin-off, but when you look at Pirates and Chicken Run, they’ve all got that same style. Is that an intentional thing that you set out at the start, or is there any discussion about making it appear different?
Mark: Err, no. I would say if you saw Peter Lord’s early shorts that Pirates looks more like them than it does Wallace and Gromit. Nick’s films definitely look like Nick’s films and Pete’s definitely look like Pete’s. Yes, Shaun is a spin-off of Wallace and Gromit, but I think it’s sort of found its own place.
Oli: I would say it’s softer. That everything seems to be more round and lovely and cutesy. In a good way.
Richard: It’s funny because we occasionally talk about the differences and Nick likes everything chunkier and rounded in his films, you know all the props and cars and everything. I suppose Shaun’s a little more contemporary. Nick’s films tend to feel like they’re set in the 40, 50s, 60s. Shaun isn’t quite in the same space. But obviously all the same people work on these films. The same propmakers, the same animators, so it’s obviously going to have similarities.
Mark: It’s not a conscious decision to have a house style. There’s no bible that says you have to animate in this way and you have to do it that way. It’s more that the Aardman style has grown up from the people that have been there and has developed in the way how they like to do it. If you compare it with Laika, there’s a very different feel to it. Or even if you compare it to Tim Burton and other kinds of stop-frame you can see there’s a big space between those. But I think that within Aardman people think they have their own style, and it may be that if you’re outside that it kind of feels like it’s very similar.
Oli: So what’s next for Aardman? Going by IMDb, I can’t see any upcoming movies for the studio.
Mark: No-one’s told us! Nick Park is making a movie. He’s making a movie [Early Man] with Studio Canal which was just announced at Cannes…
Richard: …probably as we speak…
Mark: …and they’re working hard on it now. There’s a half hour Shaun the Sheep special coming out for Christmas.
Richard: Yeah, I’m working across that now. And we’ve got fingers crossed for a Shaun sequel. We’ve got lots of other films in development as well at different stages, so things are looking good really.
Mark: Yeah, I think Aardman will still be here in the next few years.
Oli: Well long may it reign!
Shaun the Sheep Movie is out on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 1st.