Richard Starzak & Mark Burton interview: Shaun The Sheep

Aardman, Jason Statham, Whizzer And Chips, Wall-E and more, as we talk Shaun The Sheep with its directors...

A new Aardman movie is always something of a treat. And today, Shaun The Sheep: The Movie lands in UK cinemas. It’s just the fourth stop motion feature the company has made since 2000’s Chicken Run, and what’s more, there’s barely a word of dialogue in this one. We got to chat with its directors, Richard Starzak and Mark Burton, about what on earth they were up to.

And here’s how it went…

I’m a long-time fan of Aardman stuff. Not just for the craft side – I think at the heart of the best of Aardman is very, very strong storytelling. Here, you’ve given yourself a sizeable challenge by telling a story without dialogue. Can you take us through that, and give us an idea of how that makes the screenplay itself look?

Richard: A blank page! [Laughs] I think we just wanted to stay with the integrity of the series. we went dialogue free with the series for practical reasons. Obviously lip sync takes more time and money. But in doing so it became more cinematic, because we had to tell the story in pictures. Where we saved at one end, it became quite expensive at the other, shooting it cinematically!

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We decided to stay with that for the film, and than was a thrill really. To say we’re making a film with no dialogue, how can we make this work? We did have our doubts at some points!

Mark: Also, there was a Tom & Jerry movie back in the 80s, where they gave them voices.

Oh heck, yeah. Do you remember it? They sang!

Mark: Vaguely! But I remember the sheer horror of the idea that [they talked]. the moment you’re sat in your seat and you realise they’re doing that, the film’s finished!

There was a sense in which it felt like that was the big idea for a Shaun The Sheep movie. It had to be like that. We had to make it work.

As for the question about the script, there’s a problem when you write for Hollywood in particular, they only read the dialogue. They call it reading down the middle. They have 10 scripts to read over the weekend, so all the bits that are in block prose, they won’t look at. But that’s the important stuff in the cinema. A cinematic script… they always say that you can watch a good film with the sound down.

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The script itself, to be honest, was probably quite a hard document to read. We’re describing jokes physically which you need to see to enjoy. But for us, it’s technical document. We knew what we were trying to do with it. The real blueprint of the movie though was the story reel.

Richard: As the script was moving to completion, we were then putting it onto storyboards, and getting it onto screen to see what the images looked like. And having sound effects. That was a key part of the writing process as well.

At the point you decided to go this way, that must be quite a daunting and exciting thing though. Even Pixar didn’t do this: Wall-E was a beautiful, near dialogue-free movie for 40 minutes, before turning into another movie that was just alright.

Richard: Everyone thinks that!

It turned into a less interesting film once they started talking. I’ve watched Shaun the TV show, but I’m curious what rules and parameters you put in as to what noises were allowed to be made?

Mark: We had quite a lot of conversations about that. We have the odd ‘no’, but I think when we were working with voice artists, it was very challenging.

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It must have been really hard!

Mark: It is really hard! You take your story seriously and your character seriously, and you say to them, you know, you’re trying to describe Shaun’s emotional state in a couple of bleats. On occasions, we’d say it’s too verbal, take the words out.

What we’d often do is explain the emotional idea, or the iconic idea, and we’d just go ‘say it’. Then ‘now just do that, without the words’, Non-verbal communication is often more powerful than saying the words.

Richard: It could be the most subtle of noises as well. The slightest vocal squeak or grunt. Just an exhale at the right place tells you so much.

Mark: The dialogue-free thing, it was Richard’s big idea really, but it was a challenge for us, and a discipline for us. To tell a story that you can tell with pictures. If it’s too simple, people get bored. If it’s too complicated, they won’t understand. In a way, it was a very exacting discipline.

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I do have to ask the big question, though. When the publicity stills came out, one of the shops in the background read ‘Costly Coffee’. But in the final cut, it’s changed to ‘Gulpa Coffee’. So let’s get to the nub of it: what happened? Was it lawyers, and you consulted them, and they advised going the other way?

Mark: Basically!

Richard: It was deemed ‘too close’ to Costa.

Mark: So we made it a more generic coffee gag. It was a judgement call in the end, it wasn’t like Costa asked us to. It’s a shame. But we got away with a few others!

It’s interesting. People look at Shaun The Sheep and ostensibly there’s an assumption that it has to aim very young. But go right through the Aardman catalogue, and the tips of the hat span generations. In this one, you seem to go from Silence Of The Lambs to Andy Capp through to Buster Keaton. So what was the working mechanic there? What did you pull back on? Presumably, if it works it’s in?

Mark: Yeah, if it works it’s in, but we make that judgement per joke really.

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Richard: It’s not as if we’re specifically thinking of jokes for adults and jokes for children. We think of jokes, and occasionally we’ll think of an adult one, but it’ll detract from the story. People will say ‘I don’t understand that, what’s going on’. So if that happened, we probably wouldn’t use it. There’s the occasional joke that kids won’t get, but it if doesn’t interfere and it’s fun, then that’s fine.

Mark: What’s the Andy Capp reference? That’s mystified me!

Ha! There’s a moment near the end of the film where your character jumps up and clicks his heels, Andy Capp-style.

Mark: Ah! Well that’s interesting!

Well I’ve got to tell you a trivia fact about Andy Capp. Back in another part of my life I worked for IPC Magazines, doing storylines for the likes of Whizzer And Chips.

I was a Whizz-Kid rather than a Chip-Ite.

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Mark: Ah, were you? Well, one of the first things the editor said to me… I was working on Buster’s Diary [which was in Buster comic] and the editor said to me that Buster can’t have a dad. I said why’s that? And he said because his dad is Andy Capp.

Is that right?

Mark: Yeah. Buster was a spin-off from Andy Capp.

Okay, you win. If you’re working on Whizzer & Chips though, which side was more popular?

Mark: It’s a good question. But I just wrote the storylines, so I’d write the scripts! So I was never part of the editorial team there, so I can’t really tell you! But I do have old comic annuals on my shelf that I like to caress!

This has taken a brilliant turn.

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Mark: What’s interesting about it is that we often get asked what the Aardman thing is. I grew up reading a lot of comics. Not the Marvel comics…

I could never afford the Marvel ones. So I was reading Buster, Roy Of The Rovers, Whizzer And Chips

Mark: Yeah, they were great, but they were a little bit too po-faced for me. Whereas I loved, you know, Bash Street Kids, that sort of stuff. You talk to Nick Park… We had a thing growing up where we shared the same comic taste I suppose. Then there was TV, Morecambe And Wise, that sort of thing.

Richard: It’s a great British thing, isn’t it? The British comics are still there, but they’re very different now. The Beano and The Dandy were very middle class though, and read by kids whose parents had Land Rovers! [Laughs] Whizzer And Chips was much more working class!

Mark: Now look what you’ve done!

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I’ve looked at lots of processes for different animation companies. Disney, for instance, will regularly be putting up the full rough film every few weeks, and judging what works and what doesn’t. But how do you judge whether a joke has worked in stop motion? How effectively, and quickly, can you make that call?

Richard: We rehearse everything in live action. Me and Mark get in front of a camera. We time it out there. We record it several times to try and get the joke working, and then it goes to animation. And because it’s a linear process, we keep an eye on it. We might ask the animator to go back a few frames and extend something, or take something out. Just to get the timing as good as possible. Constantly trying to make each shot timed well.

It’s a constant, ongoing process the timing, just to get it working, and to get the jokes working.

How have the processes changed? How, now that Aardman uses 3D printing on many of its models, do you stop it all looking too perfect? How do you keep edges to it?

Richard: Actually, we haven’t used any 3D printing on this one at all! The mouths tend to be all plasticine.

Mark: It was used on Pirates a lot though.

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Was that a conscious choice then? Or is that the heritage of Shaun The Sheep at work?

Richard: I think it’s Shaun heritage, plus it wasn’t really needed. Because there’s so much dialogue in Pirates, and other Aardman films, that to get through that dialogue with plasticine mouths would have taken forever. So it was almost like it had to be that way.

I do like the subtlety of plasticine, and how you can make tiny incremental changes to mouths. I prefer that myself.

The last few years for Aardman in particular had had challenges, and I don’t think that’s much of a secret. Both Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! did very well in the UK, but not so well overseas. How oblivious are you to that when you’re making a film such as this one?

Richard: We should say that the film hasn’t come out, so people haven’t paid to see it yet!

But the one thing I would say is that in a way, the film is a slight reaction to that. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing. But there was a sense of let’s make a smaller film. A film that was going to be lower budget, a smaller crew, although not smaller in terms of ideas. There was a bit of a retrenchment there though.

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And then we didn’t have an American studio. Studio Canal stepped up and were great, and said that we want to make this with you. I think that gave us a little bit of freedom. In fact the story about Aardman’s relationship with American studios tends to be that it was all bad, but that’s not the case at all. There were a lot of positive things that came out of the relationship with DreamWorks and Sony. But having a bit more freedom, to not worry about Middle America, was quite liberating I think.

One of the things about the big feature animations that come out of DreamWorks and Pixar and Disney is they need to be big. They have to be big in all senses, to fill that American space. I think Pirates had to do that, and I think Arthur Christmas had to do that. And I think it was a struggle.

But for us, I think we didn’t have to worry about that. We had a little bit more creative freedom to do our own thing.

I’m the kind of nerd who sits through end credits, and I noted that you included a message about the charity Headway in there. One of the main plot points in the film involves a bash on the head, of course. Were you consulting Headway?

Mark: No. It’s one of those things where I do a lot of work for charity, but I don’t like to talk about that! But I actually do volunteer for Headway.

If you’re going to do a silent comedy, gags about getting bumped on the head are par for the course. But the old days when you had people getting banged on the head every five minutes? Well, we live in a modern world. So I guess we came up with the storyline, and we ran with it. But we wanted to treat it emotionally not just as a gag. As we were coming into the process, I was thinking that this is interesting, because I’ve got this other side of me where I’m off working with people who have had head injuries. And I thought this would be an advantage for Headway to get involved. At the end, just to say to people there’s another side to this.

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It wasn’t meant to be a big deal, it was just an opportunity. Headway were delighted to be involved, and we had a screening for them the other day.

Richard: To Mark’s credit, when we were working on the story ‘he bangs his head, he loses his memory, hahaha’ – we laughed and Mark went a bit quiet. Then when it became quite entrenched in the story, he mentioned that he belonged to a head injuries charity. Oh great! Thanks for letting us know!

Mark: There was nothing didactic about it. There was a big debate: the obvious joke is that he gets banged on the head once, he gets banged on the head a second time, and he comes back. We thought you know what? That’s just a bit obvious. So that’s why we went down a different route [spoiler redacted]

You did a much better job of dealing with it than Nativity 3.

Richard: That’s very kind [laughs]

It’s not the best compliment you’ll have all day, granted…

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Mark: I’m going to nurse that comment to my grave!

Final question then: what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

Richard: You first.

Mark: No, after you.

[Pause]

Mark: Mine hasn’t been made yet. It’s an odd thing to say, but my daughter is obsessed with Jason Statham films. She’s not actually making films, but she keeps coming up with great storylines for Jason Statham. And there’s one involving an allotment. I can’t tell you the whole story, it’d give it away!

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All I can say is it’s a lot better than Nativity 3!

Richard: I’ll say Allotment 2!

Richard and Mark, thank you very much!

Shaun The Sheep: The Movie is out in UK cinemas on February 6th.