The world of stop-motion animation is, given the labor-intensive production process, one suited to only the most dedicated practitioners. On Aardman Animations‘ Shaun the Sheep Movie, co-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak shared the workload, combining Burton’s background in comedy writing and Starzak’s experience in animation on Aardman’s previous productions. He accepts freely that “Animation has been what I’ve wanted to do all my life, ever since I was a child. I got into it 30 years ago and it’s always been my thing.” As with many specialists in the field, Starzak “wasn’t qualified as such. I did a fine art degree, but I discovered animation while I was doing that degree. I started to look for work, and Aardman seemed like a good bet.”
Burton, by contrast, admitted being “a little bit of a charlatan in that I can’t draw or animate, although I did have my own kids’ comic when I was a child. A bit like [British children’s comic] The Beano, so I guess it was somewhere in my blood!” Describing his route of entry, Burton remembers working in “TV, as a comedy writer. I worked on a lot of British comedy shows.” Burton’s bulging CV includes the seminal political satire sketch show Spitting Image, as well as Room 101 and the panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks – “and came down to Aardman to help out on Chicken Run, to punch up the script, add gags, and never left the building.”
Burton unhesitatingly describes Starzak as “the brains behind the Shaun the Sheep series. “For a long time, he’d been nursing the idea that maybe we could expand it into a feature idea. I guess we started playing around with it in 2012, to get to the early meeting where we discussed the idea of it.” Two important ideas, continued Burton, were the lack of spoken dialogue which had been established in the TV show, and the push to take the characters “out of their comfort zone on the farm. The city seemed like a nice opposite fit. That was quite simple – then we spent the next year and a half tearing our hair out making the story work!”
The production process began in the summer of 2012, with shooting in earnest taking place largely in 2013 after a preproduction test and development process. The directors describe Aardman’s facility as “a not particularly grand-looking warehouse in Bristol, next to the spandex factory. It’s like we’re the poor neighbors who don’t keep our garden tidy.” The creative team is “mainly freelance. They move around to where the work is. A lot of people who worked on the film also worked on the TV show, and on the previous features.” The starring puppets themselves are, Starzak noted, rarely made out of clay or Plasticine anymore. “Plasticine faces,” he explained, “foam latex bodies and silicone arms and hands, with an armature inside.” Shooting on modern digital stills cameras ensures “it’s a lot more environmentally friendly now. When you used film you needed a lot more light. It was always uncomfortably warm. The whole environment’s changed.” These improvements, apart from making life more comfortable for the animator, also go some way to ensuring the cast don’t melt.
Practicalities aside, the stars of the show are naturally the animators. “Richard can animate,” said Burton. “I can’t anyway… at the beginning of the process I said I should do some animation but I never had the time. But it’s not relevant as a director. You’re in charge of an overview.” Burton and Starzak’s favorite technique was to shoot simple animatics on video. “We’d act out the shots just with each other. There were lots of live-action shots of me and Richard leaping about!”
The non-verbal dialogue, Starzak recalled, was taken “as seriously as when you’re doing anything. We could be doing Apocalypse Now, we take it that seriously.” Inferring meaning without using words required that the cast “find noises that aren’t actually pretend dialogue. They have to find effort noises and things like that which push the story along,” Burton continued. “We had a great cast who rose to the challenge. We had the core TV cast, Justin Fletcher [playing Shaun and Timmy] and John Sparkes [as The Farmer and Bitzer the dog], as well as Omid Djalili [as the villainous Trumper]. As characters you have to take it utterly seriously… real and scary.”
Burton hinted that “Richard’s working on a Shaun 2,” and Starzak himself is happy to confirm that he’s “delighted with the film, first of all. Mark and I are both.” With Starzak already credited on further Shaun-related material, and Burton’s TV comedy involvement continuing, the pair look likely to continue their collaboration into a bright, if woolly, future.