Interview: “Shaun the Sheep” Co-Writer/Director Richard Starzak

Posted on November 23, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Copyright 2015 Lionsgate
Copyright 2015 Lionsgate

Richard Starzak and Mark Burton wrote and directed the adorable “Shaun the Sheep,” and it was a lot of fun to talk to him about making a stop-motion animation movie with no words. The DVD/Blu-Ray, which will be available November 24, 2015, has a behind-the-scenes featurette showing Starzak and Burton acting out some of the movements for the animators “to get the timing right for comedy” and working with actor Justin Fletcher on recording some of the non-verbal sounds. The idea of having the mouths of the sheep go off to the side of their snouts came from one of the storyboard artists “just to indicate that the character was smiling and we thought it was funny so we kept it there. Some people think it looks very strange and some people kind of don’t worry about it.”

The vehicles in the film are as individual as the human and animal characters. “We tried to give everything a bit of personality.”

It is a painstaking, very slow process to move each of the characters very slightly, take a picture, and then move it again. “We aim for about two seconds per animator a day so in a week we’re expected to do about ten seconds on average. That’s times sixteen animators so it would be two or three minutes of animation during the week…We use mainly the live action video to time how long we need for any particular shot. It’s a bit of jigsaw puzzle. You have to fit the film into a certain amount of time but it’s kind of trial and error. We shoot and then we might adjust them after we have shot them, we might take the odd frame out here and there, we’ll double up the odd frame so it is constantly being reassessed. I suppose the film ended up a few minutes longer than we intended but that’s fine; the timing was worthwhile so we were happy with that.”

Working without dialogue was liberating. “Strangely, yes, it makes life in some ways more difficult but also really focuses you on the story. We kind of have a lot of evidence particularly when children watch the film, they really concentrate on the film as they do on the television episodes because it requires all the attention but they get more immersed in it as a result. So I found it very liberating because it’s a very pure way of making a film. It’s very cinematic. I can’t wait to make another one really, I love the idea of not using dialogue.”

One of the challenges is directing the voice talent on recording the various sounds that the characters make. “They are noises but they are still very crucial to get the right tone so it’s a question of the voice talent that we use actually understanding and getting the tone right so they can watch and understand how to enhance and how to make any shot or movement more understandable. It’s a lot of trial and error. And it’s very strange standing there saying, ‘Can you put a little more despair into that squeak?’ or ‘Can you make that squeak slightly lighter?'” It’s a process but we get there in the end. We put up the storyboards against a temporary track of grunts and squeaks and then we invite the voice artist to lay down some sounds for us and after the process is finished we refine them and we get them in again to see if they can improve on what we’ve already got.”

Starzak was influenced by silent film masters like Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. “When I first started the series I always had Buster Keaton in mind because there is not a lot that you can do with Shaun’s face. He has just got eyes and occasionally a mouth but there’s not a lot to express with so I’ve got a picture of Buster Keaton on the door on the way into the studio to remind people what we’re trying to do. We watched a lot of funny comedies. Jacques Tati films are very clever in including a lot of ideas in the same shot and playing out the shots obviously with sounds but no dialogue which is kind of what we were aiming for.”

The most complicated scene in the film takes place in a restaurant, where the sheep are disguised as humans. “It’s almost a comedy of manners. We had to stage four characters sitting around the table then there was another table with two characters plus there was the waitress and the maître d’ and everything was quite complicated. The most fun thing to do was the hospital scene.”

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Animation Behind the Scenes Directors Interview Writers

Shaun the Sheep

Posted on August 6, 2015 at 5:07 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild comic peril and mayhem, animal control officer, memory loss
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 7, 2015
Date Released to DVD: November 23, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B013H99VXC
Copyright 2015 Lionsgate
Copyright 2015 Lionsgate

“Shaun the Sheep is another adorably quirky animated film from Aardman, the folks behind “Wallace and Gromit” and “Chicken Run.” it is a wordless pleasure about a flock of sheep who have an adventure when they get bored with their idyllic but monotonous life on the farm and visit the big city. But they miss their farmer. And when they are ready to go home, the farmer is not there. They had accidentally transported him to the big city, where he got amnesia and now cannot remember who he is or where he lives.  Only the sheep can save the day.

Aardman films are made with sculpted figures shifted just one tiny movement at the time, and so lovingly hand-crafted that the audience can glimpse fingerprints on the characters. In a week, an animator may produce two or three seconds of film. And yet their movements are as fluid and intricately choreographed as a Jackie Chan stunt. And their faces are as expressive as any Oscar-winning actor.

That is especially important in this film because it is wordless. It is not silent — there are sound effects and a musical score and several well-chosen songs play on the soundtrack. Occasionally we hear a murmured mumble, a low-key British version of the adults’ muted horn sounds in the Charlie Brown shows. The kids in the audience with me loved it, laughing wildly, especially at a few potty jokes and some slapstick pratfalls. Don’t tell them, but children — and their families — will benefit from having to up their observational skills to stay on top of what is happening.

As Shaun and the flock dress up as humans to search for the increasingly bewildered farmer and evade the increasingly frenzied animal control officer and his electrified pinching grasper, their adventures are funny, exciting, and even poignant. The settings are witty and captivating, with some sly satire popping up to keep things brisk. It’s (forgive me) shear delight.

Parents should know that this film includes some bodily function humor (guy on toilet, sheep manure) and cartoon-style peril, head injury and memory loss.

Family discussion: Why did the sheep miss the farmer? Why was the haircut so popular?

If you like this, try: “The Wallace & Gromit” films, the “Shaun” television series, and “Chicken Run.”

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Animation Based on a television show DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Shaun the Sheep: Sheep on the Loose

Posted on June 8, 2009 at 8:00 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: NR
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some comic peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to DVD: June 9, 2009
Amazon.com ASIN: B0021FP322

The latest Shaun the Sheep movie is “Sheep on the Loose” The people who created “Wallace and Gromit” are behind this wonderful new series about a sheep who does not follow the flock — but sometimes gets the flock to follow him. And you never know who and what will turn out to be animated. Witty and imaginative, these DVDs are a delight for the whole family.

The first person to send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with “Sheep” in the subject line will get a new Shaun DVD. Good luck!

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