Tom Beasley chats to Will Becher – one of the co-directors of the ace new animated comedy A Shaun the Sheep: Movie Farmageddon…
Cinema’s most adorable stop-motion ovine hero is back in cinemas this week with A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon. Aardman Animation has once again delivered a lovingly crafted tale for the silent sheep, complete with slapstick, delightfully British humour and, this time around, a bagful of references to the best sci-fi movies ever made.
That’s right; Shaun is going sci-fi. Farmageddon sees the fragile equilibrium of life on the farm disrupted by the arrival of an alien, who desperately wants to get home to her own kind. However, there are shady government types on the trail of their new friend, not to mention the fact that the farmer wants to use the surging interest in all things space to open a theme park on his land.
The movie is a raucous delight, co-directed by Richard Phelan and Will Becher, that will keep audiences of all age totally satisfied. Becher hopped on the phone with Flickering Myth to discuss the pain-staking animation process, the joy of being able to reference favourite movies and the progress of Aardman’s next sequel: Chicken Run 2.
Obviously, these stop-motion projects take a very long time. How long has Farmageddon been in your life?
Well the initial conversation started almost straight after the first film. We have been in production for about the last three years. We tend to have about a year of just working on the script and storyboarding before getting the other crew in to start building everything that we need. Then, it has been about a year of actually shooting the film with a crew of about 120.
It’s a huge undertaking and I think one of the things that’s particularly lovely about Aardman is the genuine love and affection you can see in every frame.
It’s a lovely environment to work in as a director. We’re very lucky in that we can walk around and see this amazing sets where we can find angles to put our camera. If something doesn’t fit, the crew can build it. It’s quite magical really to see it.
You’ve done some episodes of the Shaun TV show. Was there a big difference between the show and the film?
I’d say there was. On the series, we tend to work quite quickly, so actually you don’t really have time to stop. If something goes slightly wrong, you have to work around it. And also, in terms of the way we shoot it, we don’t tend to review thing from the shooting script in the edit. On the feature film, every time we do a shot, we’ll go up to edit and cut it in and see it in the film there and then. So we’re sort of directing a film and editing it at the same time, which just steps everything up a level.
But it means our working day is much longer and the pressure is much higher because, in a seven-minute episode, you can go fairly surface level but, on a film, you really have to work hard to build it as a whole. I think that’s the biggest challenge is trying to tell a story like this and make it not just fun, but to try and make it deeper.
This is the first time Aardman has done a feature-length sequel. Why was Shaun the one to get that treatment?
I think there’s always been a desire, with all of the Aaardman characters, to tell more stories. I think all the directors would like to do more with them. But I think the sheer success of Shaun over the years has meant he has become such a global star. I guess that’s the thing. It’s all based on the idea. They wouldn’t greenlight anything until we had a really solid idea of what it would be.
How much fun were the sci-fi elements in this story?
I think everyone in the studio was giddy with excitement about being able to put in all of our childhood references. There have been so many amazing sci-fi films in every decade, so we’ve gone back as far as the 50s and 60s and then all of the way up to the present day. Anyone from the studio might come up with an idea and if it works, then we’re going to use it in the film. It’s quite layered in a way and there are loads of background gags.
There are tonnes of those references in the film. Given you’re making it for a young audience who might not have seen all of these films, how do you strike the balance there?
Well in a way, like all projects at Aardman, we always focus on the story at the heart of it. There were a few references that were too obscure or didn’t really connect in any way and we had to take them out because they felt a bit stuffed in. But really we weren’t thinking too much about who would and wouldn’t get them. We were just working on the idea that they helped give it that sci-fi feel – particularly with the musical references, like that score from 2001: A Space Odyssey which just feels so well-suited to space and that scale and grandeur. Whenever we felt they worked for us, we put them in the film.
Were there any jokes you particularly loved that had to go?
There were one or two. We actually did quite a complicated shot right at the end of the shoot that involved lots of the characters in Hazmat suits. We had to cut it out in the end because it slightly stopped the flow, but it was sad because it took a lot of work and a lot of the team spent evenings designing elements of it. Ultimately, we always go back to the fact that the story is the most important thing.
One of the other things I love about this film and Aardman in general is that they are quintessentially British. There’s a great joke in this film about sorting recycling and numerous jokes about tea drinking. Do you think about how the films will travel outside of the UK?
We do occasionally, but mostly when we come up with the ideas for what’s going to happen in the film, we are often just sitting around in a group telling stories about things that have happened to us or to our kids and people we know. So I think everything is grounded in our culture. The only thing we have struggled with sometimes is how to communicate effectively. Obviously, we try to do that without words but there are occasions where we have a bit of text and really that’s the only time we start thinking about audiences and international audiences.
What we’ve found is that the more personal we make the stories and the jokes, somehow the more universal they feel. If we try and reach out to America, we’ll get it wrong because we’ll make a wrong cultural reference or something. It’s very much based on what we know.
On that note, you’ve worked with Laika as well. What are the differences or similarities across the different countries and different territories?
Strangely, it was quite familiar. When I walked into Laika, it’s an amazing and huge studio in Portland, Oregon in the US. It felt very familiar because actually the way it has set up is almost a sort of copy in a way. I think some of the guys who began the company had worked on Curse of the Were-Rabbit, so there was a familiarity to the actual structure of it. And on top of that, there was a lot of British crew working there. The animation industry is really small and a lot of animators will travel around.
Then just from a creative point of view, Laika is incredibly advanced and they have always been at the cutting edge of everything. Each film seems to get more impressive in terms of the 3D printing and the visual effects. So I think that was the thing that struck me the most.
It’s really good to hear that there’s as much love and affection for stop-motion over there. Before I let you go, I’d be kicking myself if I had someone from Aardman on the phone and didn’t ask about the status of the Chicken Run sequel?
Well all I can tell you is that there were a lot of chickens being made towards the end of our film. We have a model-making team and, at one point, it was just full of sheep, but slowly over the course of the following weeks it became overrun with chickens. So there is definitely an intention there and it was announced they are in pre-production on a sequel.
It’s very exciting! Chicken Run was one of the defining films of my childhood.
It’s the first film I ever worked on at Aardman. It has affected so many people. Just talking to journalists around the world, everyone is very excited by the prospect of a follow-up. Watch this space. That’s all I’ll say.
Are you working on anything else at Aardman at the moment? Are you doing more with Shaun?
Yes! There are more ideas for Shaun. We’re thinking about other ideas, but it’s all dependent really on how this film does around the world and whether there’s an audience for it. But alongside that, there’s some other feature films in development and I’ve got a few personal projects. One day, I’d love to direct a feature with characters I’ve created.
Thank you so much, Will Becher!
Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is set for release on October 18th.