Shaun the Sheep made his debut in 1995 as a supporting character in Nick Park’s Oscar-winning short, Wallace & Gromit. He then became a TV sensation, and in 2015, Aardman Animations partnered with Studiocanal and Lionsgate to deliver a full-length theatrical feature.
Mark Burton and Richard Starzak (pictured L-R) co-wrote and co-directed the film in which Shaun and his wooly mates leave their quiet farm — unbeknownst to the farmer — for a day in the big city. The stop-motion film represents three years of development, production and post. Thirty-three units, shooting with 58 cameras, were employed to produce the feature, which had 80,000 storyboards. The production made use of 157 human character and 197 sheep — 21 of which were for Shaun. Aardman averaged two and a half minutes of animation per week.
Post spoke with Mark Burton, who collaborated with Aardman on both
Chicken Run and
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit. Here, he discusses the filmmaking process and the state of feature animation.
You’ve worked with Aardman in the past, but never as a director, correct?
Burton: “Not really, if I’m honest. I’ve been a writer and a producer, and very hands-on. I’ve been involved in process, so I knew that to a certain extent. But actually I haven’t had any experience with directing, and I guess with Aardman, the great advantage is you have a fantastic crew there.”
Did the film turn out the way you initially envisioned?
Burton: “That’s an interesting question…Me and my co-director, Richard Starzak, we kind of had a vision of what we wanted...The big idea of course from the outset was: there would be no dialogue. I felt that we wanted to create simple but profound story, with real emotion in it and lots of slapstick comedy. We were inspired by the silent movie stars of old. So in that sense, that was the bigger vision.
“I think in the actual process itself, so many people contribute. One of the most important things as a director is to let people contribute and maintain control of that contribution — make sure it serves your larger purpose.”
Is the goal to establish a franchise?
Burton: “Aardman itself hasn’t hugely gotten into the franchise business…I think there is talk about making second Shaun the Sheep Movie. I think Richard Starzak is probably going to be involved in directing that. I am moving on to other things.
“The whole franchise thing is another conversation. The advantage, you’ve seen with Minions recently. You have this enormous audience that wants to come and see your film. At the same time, you have to take the story and characters to new places. And that can be a challenge I think.”
Do you think about awards recognition?
Burton: “Speaking frankly, I think last year we definitely had an opportunity to be in that, with respect to Boxtrolls. This year, there seems to be an enormous amount of very high quality animation that is out there...We’re not counting our chickens — or sheep — by any means. At end of day though, me and Richard have always felt that the big honor for us was to be received so well by the audience.”
What’s the state of feature animation?
Burton: “It’s interesting…There’s a lot of affection for Shawn the Sheep around the world. It did well enough that everyone was very happy at the end of it. It’s not a billion dollar movie, but if you look at this year particularly, there’s a lot of smaller independent animated movies out there, and that’s good for the industry really. I think if they can make their money back and everyone gets paid, they’ll be more intent on making those.”
Can smaller-budget films be made?
Burton: “You can work with a skeleton crew — it just takes a lot longer. An example of that is a Chinese movie called The Monkey King. It was a huge movie in China and has some international play. I think the director did a lot of the work himself with a smaller crew, but you spend years and years doing it.”
How much man-power did you have at your disposal?
Burton: “If you compare it to the previous Aardman movie, which is Pirates…we probably had half the crew they had. We had a year a half to develop the story and a year to do the actual filming and post production after that.”
What’s next for you?
Burton: “I do more film writing now…I’m sort of involved in a number of projects. There’s also stuff going on at Aardman. There’s a new Nick Park film that’s going into production, so I am doing consultancy work on that. I am working with Studiocanal on another project. I am also developing bits and pieces. I am pretty busy at the moment, mainly as a writer, not as a director.”