Peter Lord interview: Shaun The Sheep, being big in Minsk

Aardman co-founder Peter Lord talks Shaun The Sheep, making family movies, and wearing the same shirt for a long time...

He might have had a small cold when he spoke to us, and he might have been reaching for a box of Lemsip, but Aardman co-founder Peter Lord was on fine form when we got to chat to him last week. He was chatting about Aardman’s latest feature, the lovely Shaun The Sheep: The Movie. But we talked about a lot more than that…

My favourite Tweet on your Twitter feed of late. Can we start there? Someone sent you a picture from China. And it showed the lift in her apartment complex, that had Shaun The Sheep imagery on the hotel’s posters. I think many of us in the UK aren’t aware of just how huge Shaun The Sheep has become outside of the UK, and how he’s become Aardman’s most globally popular character. 

China was a big one for me. It was a completely unknown country to me when I went, I’d never been there before. So you go there, and you’re invisible. You’re one of a mass of tourists.

Then to discover that Shaun The Sheep really counted for a lot. I met some art students from the local animation school in Hangzhaou. And they greeted me with Shaun The Sheep dolls, and had pictures of Shaun on their phones. That was amazing.

Ad – content continues below

Just yesterday, I had an email from somebody who said ‘you’re big in Minsk!’. And then, I’ve seen the photograph of Shaun on TV in a yurt in the middle of Mongolia. So it is amazing, and he gets everywhere!

It’s that visual comedy thing, that’s the big one I think. That’s why he travels so well. I’ll just bring Morph in here. Because with Morph, if you turn the sound off, you know exactly what’s going on. I think it’s the same with Shaun. If you look at the majority of kids’ TV, if you turn the sound off, you wouldn’t know what the hell was going on. You wouldn’t know what they were thinking, and what the emotion was.

With Shaun, you can turn the sound down, and get it completely.

I remember talking to you just before the release of The Pirates! You said that you were sat in a development meeting, and you just started leafing through Gideon Defoe’s book, and started laughing. That it got you at the point, and that’s when it hooked you. But when did the idea of a Shaun The Sheep movie hook you?

I think it’s pretty simple. Somebody, I think it was Richard Starzak, said ‘I’m sure there’s a movie in here’. I didn’t then think ‘bring it on’. But, you know, ‘tell me more’. The simple hook, which I think is great, is that Shaun does something a bit mischievous, but not that bad really. And then it escalates so wildly that he’s dragged into this thing that he didn’t want, and didn’t set out to do it.

Ad – content continues below

He could have set out to go to town. He could have done. We did discuss that as another version of the story, Shaun wants a day out in the city. But what we’ve got is much better because everyone gets it. Everyone, surely, has been there, that you start a little thing, maybe for a bit of fun. And you watch it escalate horrifyingly before you go ‘oh shit, I’ve got a big problem on my hands’. Richard pitched that. There was no Trumper in that pitch, no restaurant. I don’t think [plot spoiler redacted] was in the first pitch either. Just that it escalates, and the sheep have to go to the city.

I think that bit in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum explains Chaos Theory could be done by just showing the first act of the Shaun The Sheep film in there!

Yeah! [Laughs]

How heavily do you get involved personally in the films that you don’t direct yourself?

The self-serving answer is to say ‘oh, I was very involved in the story’!. I was involved in the story, particularly once it was written. You go through the storyboard and the story reel. But at the same time they’re such a good team that had I not been available, I bet they’d have made just as good a movie without me. They’re brilliant.

The two directors, who do all the heavy lifting, and around them, the storyboard artists are hugely important for gags. The editor is very, very important for gags. Ultimately, music too for how the whole film plays. If I’d wisely just gone to a Pacific island and chilled out for two years, they’d have made just as good a film.

Ad – content continues below

You could claim that back on company expenses couldn’t you?

Yeah, yeah!

Can we talk about your Britishness, then, as Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is dripping with UK culture and references. But was there a mild temptation to move away from that? That after Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! didn’t cross over as well as expected in the US, one reaction – had you been a huge conglomerate – may have been to dilute that British flavour. But you’ve gone the other way here.

Yes we have, absolutely. That was quite deliberate.

There was a fork in the path. And one plan would be to play down the Britishness, because it’s a bit of a problem in America. But then it’s funny to say that, because then somebody says what about Harry Potter? James Bond? Some sort of Britishness is fine.

Ad – content continues below

But then there’s a fork in the road where we could have aimed more towards the American market, where there was another approach we could take. And we decided that no, that’d be a dishonest thing to do. And god knows, there are enough American movies out there already. The world doesn’t need any more, there are millions of those! And there aren’t enough British comedies and British family films.

And as you said, that Britishness plays really well in Minsk! We’re big in Belarus, shit hot in Singapore!

What were the other consequences of that choice, to remain so British? Does it mean that Aardman’s feature future is in stop frame? Are you resisting more CG movies, following Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas, or is that still an option for you?

Well, I still have a finished script here which was designed to be CG. And another idea that I was reading a treatment for yesterday, which is also designed to be CG.

But I’ve also got three… four! Four possible stop motion movie projects as well. And we’re a relatively small company. We’re not huge like Pixar or DreamWorks, so we can’t take too much on. So I think probably, I should phrase it that the stop motion films should take precedence. Because it’s what we do, isn’t it? I’m not stupid: I know the audience isn’t as huge as it is for a massive CG extravaganza, but it’s what we do. It’s a lovely audience, a loyal audience, an enthusiastic audience. And we’re kind of pioneering. The technology is old, and yet we have this pioneering instinct to say to the world, look at this, this is really good, this is really valuable.

I think it’s often forgotten with Aardman that there’s a comparison drawn with Laika, but Laika has a rich benefactor behind it. 

Ad – content continues below

Practically, it’s a huge difference. We are completely independent in every way. Which is great, I love that. But it has its challenges. We don’t have somebody around the corner with deep pockets. But it’s a struggle we relish!

To be fair, you’re also the only major animation company in the world actively impacted by the traffic on the M5…

[Laughs] Exactly, exactly…!

Has partnering with a European distributor changed the scale of the films you’re looking to make too? Presumably if you were going down the CG road again, you’re likely to need a big American partner. And Aardman has tried that with Sony and DreamWorks in the past, and it’s little secret there were ups and downs there. Studio Canal seems a little bit of a more natural fit though?

Yeah, it is. We’re very happy with Studio Canal, and it’s lovely working with a European company. You’re right. I think everyone feels that it’s a natural, obvious for us. They’ve been great. I can say no more! We are very much hoping to do another one with them, he says cautiously.

And yet, you know, I wouldn’t mind going with another American studio. I wouldn’t at all. I think freedom is exciting for us. The ability to make our own destiny. To make deals wherever we want in the world, film by film.

Ad – content continues below

If an idea came up that was for some reason was a natural fit for America, and I don’t know what it is, but I could see us working with an American studio.

So do you have an idea as to when you’d like the next Aardman film to be released? Are you thinking that far ahead at the moment?

Oh yes. But I can’t give you a very clear answer! I think it’ll be 2017 or 2018. I’m not exactly sure. There are two projects, jostling around at the start line, like thoroughbreds! Waiting for the starting gun to fire. I don’t know which one will get there first there.

Are you tempted to direct one of them yourself?

That’s a tricky question, isn’t it? I think I will direct again, but of the two films I’ve mentioned, I wouldn’t do either of these. But as I’ve said before, there’s a big slate of interesting things.

It’s interesting because directing is the best job in the world, a lovely job. But it’s very all-consuming. And I have quite enjoyed, between you and me, the freedom I’ve had since The Pirates! to travel, and engage myself in a variety of projects.

Ad – content continues below

I went around Aardman when you were making The Pirates!, and in all the reference footage you shot, you had the same shirt on. And then you walked around the corner, and it was still the same shirt. I figured it was a man who hadn’t been home for a long time!

Oh dear, oh dear! Yeah, that was legendary!

What are the animated films, outside of Aardman, that are impressing you at the moment? It seems a lot of animated features are being caught up in an expensive technological arms race, to the point where a DreamWorks film that makes $400m is causing them to shut down a studio.

I know. I hate that.

It’s tragic. But can you give up some uplift here? Are there any animated films that have particularly charmed you this part year?

Ad – content continues below

Yeah. There’s an Irish film, Song Of The Sea, that’s absolutely lovely. A beautiful looking film. I love its spirit and heart.

I have to say that with a lot of these fabulous things these days, you’re really impressed. You’re jaw-droppingly impressed, and amused. But I’m tired of these blockbusters. They’re wearing. That’s why I referred to a very low budget Irish film.

But I did think How To Train Your Dragon 2 was very lovely. That’s really good-hearted. Looks amazing.

What I liked with How To Train Your Dragon 2, it looked amazing, yet I got a sense that the animation came last. That before they started putting too much visually on computer, they got their story and characters right. And I don’t get that sense too often at the moment.

Maybe they do. It did feel very, very sensitive. An intelligent sequel, not something where they’ve rehashing the same thing. Good story is everything.

One last thing. Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is really universal. But what’s often forgotten about the Aardman output, you’ve gone into all sorts of niches with your animated work. Some of the Angry Kid stuff, for instance, or Wat’s Pig. But when it comes to feature material, though, is the family always going to be your target audience?

Ad – content continues below

Ah, that’s a good question. There’s two different answers.

One is, luckily we do love making films for family audiences. There’s nothing forced about that at all. And I will make the comparison to Pixar. I always feel that Pixar’s super-strength has been that they make films they want to make. Wonderfully, cosy, golden-lit Middle America, that’s who they are. And that gives them great strength.

In the same way, ours is a cosy Whizzer & Chips England. That family audience? I used to distrust the expression ‘family film’. I thought it always used to mean ‘we’re just trying to get the biggest audience possible’. I’m ashamed of that thought, now. Because now I know that something literally the whole family can enjoy – grandparents, parents and kids – to be able to go together and all enjoy it, is a priceless thing. That is just marvellous, a great thing.

That’s one answer. The other answer is also, I would like to make an animated movie for young adults. That would be an interesting thing to do, an interesting challenge, and I believe it could be done. But economically that’s a hard sell!

Peter Lord, thank you very much…!

Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is in cinemas now.

Ad – content continues below