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Immersed in Movies: Richard Starzak Talks Going Silent with Aardman’s ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’

Immersed in Movies: Richard Starzak Talks Going Silent with Aardman's 'Shaun the Sheep Movie'

With Shaun the Sheep Movie, Aardman’s back doing what it does best with the purest form of stop-motion and British whimsy. Summer boredom turns into a wild adventure from the farm to the Big City, as Aardman takes the hit series to the big screen, helmed by Mark Burton (a scribe on the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and Richard (Golly) Starzak (Creature Comforts series 2). And best of all: “It’s an adult film you can take your kids to.”  I spoke to Starzak, who worked on the series, about adapting Shaun into a feature.

Bill Desowitz: Tell us about the the classic silent influence, which is so integral to the storytelling.
Richard Starzak: Yes, we did quite a lot of research. We’re big fans anyway. I’d always based Shaun on Buster Keaton given that he has such a deadpan face. That was our inspiration.
BD: It actually makes it more universal. There are no provincial barriers.
RS: Yes, initially, when we started out making the TV series, we did it without dialogue for practical considerations because adding another layer of animation to make them talk makes it quite expensive for a TV series. So it turned out and has been very successful globally. And the challenge was to write a story that was simple enough to overcome dialogue but be interesting enough so kids wouldn’t get bored. That’s actually a tricky thing and in screenwriting, it’s difficult to write a simple story.
BD: You’ve done a great job because it flows really organically and doesn’t seem episodic. 
RS: Thanks, we worked hard for two years on the script and the boards to get that to work. And we kept the animation simple and as in camera as much as possible.
BD: At the same time, you’ve enlarged the scope.
RS: Yes, we wanted to take the characters out of their comfort zone of the farm and put them in the city. 
BD: Be careful what you wish for…
RS: Yeah, that phrase came up quite a lot. 
BD: And the look of the Big City?
RS: It’s kind of imaginary with elements of Bristol in it and elements of London. It just felt right to have it be called the Big City.
BD: Marvelous sets.
RS: Funnily enough, our production designer [Matt Perry] was an architect so he had a field day making buildings he always wanted to make in miniature. They cover several hundred square yards. Some of the building were like 20-feet tall, nearly all in camera. I love the process of looking through camera and getting tower locks moved around say, “A bit to the left, a bit to the right,” it felt very surreal with a whole city on the move.

BD: What were some of the hardest scenes?
RS: The city ones where you’ve got incredibly wide shots. It makes it very time consuming for the animator to get in and off the set. The chase was great fun. The difficult ones are just a scale size. In one scene where you reveal the city, the sheep come up from the bus station, it had 42 puppets plus cars and motor bikes. It was one animator animating for weeks, just walking from character to character, kind of like a madman talking to the puppets so he’d remember what he was doing.
BD: The restaurant scene is a great cross-section of people.
RS: We tried to get as many ethnicities and shapes and sizes in there as possible. And the singer is loosely based on Tom Jones.
BD: The music takes on greater importance because the movie is silent and very effective. 
RS: Ilan Eshkeri, our composer, came in early and helped us understand what the emotion would be, to lift and explain more what’s happening in the characters’ heads. I just thought we got a really nice balance with the Foo Fighters in there [with “Home”] and Madness [with “House of Fun”]. And Ilan wrote a song that we wanted to feel like a song from the past and you could easily recognize [“Feels Like Summer”].
BD: It sounds like “California Girls.”
RS: Oh, it does, doesn’t it? 
BD: Did you do any tweaking to the sheep to expand their personalities?
RS: Yes, we did actually. If you watch the TV series, the flock size changes from a small bunch to several dozen, so we thought we’d limit the number and dig deeper into their personalities. It’s important you don’t make them too strong otherwise it’s distracting, but we gave them little quirks.
BD: Talking out of the side of their mouths is a funny quirk.
RS: We weren’t going to give them mouths at all and then one of the storyboard artists started to draw mouths just to show what the characters were thinking — whether they were happy or sad — and we tried it out.
BD: Good days? Nightmare days?
RS: No nightmare days. We’re so well tuned at Aardman in stop-frame producing, there weren’t any particular nightmares. It was a bit of a nightmare trying out jokes. We had one gag where there was a guy sitting on the bench in front of the hospital and had his arm in plaster with a cup of coffee in his hand and he couldn’t reach his coffee. We animated it a long time and it just didn’t work. We animated it again and rehearsed it and it was frustrating having to cut it.
And the highlight was when the animator actually improves on what you think you’re gonna get in a shot, and you watch the rushes and realize he’s done a much better job than you and made it funnier.
BD: What’s a good example?
RS: I think the animal sanctuary behind bars, where there’s lots of close-ups. And there’s a moment when Shaun sees Slip [the dog] in the cage and tries to engage Slip and I think he managed to convey empathy for the other character plus the little shrug saying, “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK.” And there were lots of other moments we didn’t expect so we were quite tickled by that scene and Shaun having quite a bit of depth to his character.

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