For his first major big screen outing, the UK’s most beloved sheep decides that he’s fed up with the humdrum everyday life on his Mossy Bottom farm and opts for a day off. Shaun and the rest of his flock devise an elaborate scheme that goes awry, leading to a decidedly less than restful day of nothingness while they track down their beloved farmer and caretaker who has ended up in the big city with a case of amnesia. Don’t ask. It would take too long to explain.
Just as Shaun’s big plans don’t amount to a day off, his filmmaker benefactors, writer/directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, can relate to their wooly protagonists. It’s hard work to make Shaun’s lack of hard work look so good. It’s especially hard when Shaun — and the rest of the lovingly animated film’s cast — never utters a word.
Burton and Starzak have been tasked with shepherding Shaun to the big screen in Shaun the Sheep Movie (in Canadian theatres nationwide on Wednesday, August 5, 2015), a formidable gig considering that the wide-eyed, lovable little bugger is the second most lucrative creation for stop motion animation powerhouse Aardman behind the equally beloved (and equally bumbling) Wallace and Gromit. Star of his own television series in the UK, Shaun was an endearing institution that everyone at Aardman agreed was due for his own feature length treatment.
“I’ve been with Shaun since the outset,” Burton said via phone last week when asked how he got attached to the latest Aardman project. “I helped devise the series, and I directed and wrote a bunch of the shows. I always thought there was scope for making longer form stories, and I always liked the idea of a Shaun movie and the challenge of making an entire film without dialogue.”
It wasn’t a case where we had the script and we started the animation process directly from that. We were constantly revising the script, story, and character designs right up to when we began animating the film. In fact, the last major changes to the story came and were made about a week before the final shot was finished.
For his part, Starzak, who worked previously with Aardman on Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, was asked to help flesh out the story.
“My background is actually in comedy writing,” Starzak says of his collaborations with the animation studio. “Mark and I had worked together here and there. I had more experience as a writer, and Richard had a lot more experience as a director.”
But considering how Shaun’s adventures include hardly any dialogue or verbalization outside of a handful of grunts, mumbles, and barnyard noises here and there, what does a script to such a stripped down, almost silent animated comedy look like?
“The writing down of the story was only one part of the storytelling process,” Starzak explains with a bit of a chuckle. “We visualized a lot of what was happening. The actual script, as you can imagine, was kind of an intense read. I tried to give it a flourish and make it a bit more readable, but it was almost more of a technical document to let everyone know the structure of the story, the detail of the jokes, and the peak of each scene.”
The lack of concrete dialogue left a lot of room for constant improvement and refinement of the overall story, according to Starzak.
“The details were constantly being changed, updated and revised. It wasn’t a case where we had the script and we started the animation process directly from that. We were constantly revising the script, story, and character designs right up to when we began animating the film. In fact, the last major changes to the story came and were made about a week before the final shot was finished.”
The revising Starzak and Burton speak of includes a lot of tinkering with some of the film’s major slapstick set-pieces, including a memorable sequence involving Shaun and his friends dressing up like humans for an ill fated fancy lunch in the big city. Clearly inspired by the classic comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy, Starzak sees the madcap lunacy of the scene as a “loadstone” moment in the film, and one that Burton admits nearly got cut from the film because it has little to do with the main story. At any rate, Burton and audiences alike are glad that the scene remains intact. It also required the minds at Aardman to do some outside the box thinking in terms of how to stage it.
Buster Keaton has always been a model for Shaun from day one and even in the creation of the series. Like Buster, Shaun’s face doesn’t move very much. There’s a picture of Buster on the studio door to remind us that it’s fine to have a blank expression. That’s part of the joke.
“That was a very complex sequence,” Starzak says. ” We set the idea that we were going to have this big set piece in the middle of the story, this homage to slapstick comedy. The only thing that I can say about scenes like that is that they’re a lot of hard work. We talked about it a lot. It went through many, many iterations, and we even did something experimental, which is that we worked with real actors to work on the physical comedy. We went to The Bristol Vic, which is a famous theatre, and worked with some of the actors there. There were a few jokes from that session that made it into the final scene. But a lot of something like that comes together in the edit and in working on the timing. By the end of trying to set it all up, you kind of hate it, but once you set about animating it, then it all comes back to life again.”
But setting the madcap antics and high spots aside, how hard is it to animate a character like Shaun, one that essentially has a blank expression on his face most of the time? What are the challenges of getting viewers to respond and sympathize with that? According to Burton, it’s all in the eyes.
“Shaun carries the story, so we always have to know what’s going on in his head,” Burton says of crafting his hero. “We had to be real careful with his performance, and all the characters, really. There were some shots that we had to re-do three or four times just to be sure we had the right eye movements. The eyes are the most important thing, which is what a lot of method actors would say to you. You communicate mainly with your eyes, and then with your body language. I’ve done a lot of research into what the eyes do to access information from the brain. You can find diagrams on the internet of where your eyes go when they’re trying to access information. Looking up in two or three different positions are different accessing cues. If you look up, you’re probably trying to remember something. It’s a short cut for method acting, really. Great actors will study things like that, and we really used those as our guidelines here.”
As for Shaun’s particular brand of silent comedy, one influence rang louder than most.
“Buster Keaton has always been a model for Shaun from day one and even in the creation of the series,” Burton proudly states.”Like Buster, Shaun’s face doesn’t move very much. There’s a picture of Buster on the studio door to remind us that it’s fine to have a blank expression. That’s part of the joke.”