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Immersed in Movies: Revisiting ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ with Directors Mark Burton & Richard Starzak

Immersed in Movies: Revisiting 'Shaun the Sheep Movie' with Directors Mark Burton & Richard Starzak

This week’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack arrival of Shaun the Sheep Movie from Lionsgate offered another opportunity to speak with directors Mark Burton & Richard Starzak about Aardman’s Oscar contender, which has racked up $100 million internationally and sparked a sequel from Studiocanal. Stop-motion without dialogue and exploring good vs. bad parenting during its rollicking adventure provided lots of new tricks, even for Aardman.

Bill Desowitz: You seem so much freer now that you’re no longer tied to American studios.
Mark Burton: We learned a lot from those relationships, but what was interesting this time around was Studiocanal said to us that they don’t make films — they’re hiring us to make it.
BD: And a movie with no dialogue, no less.
MB: I think the first thing an American studio would’ve said was no way. To their credit, Studiocanal got behind the idea from the start.
BD: And it worked to your advantage because there are no provincial barriers.
Richard Starzak: Having that pressure taken away to be successful here with America being part of the financial model was a great relief. Studiocanal has been very hands off, which has been good. We have our own braintrust and have a safe space where we can discuss our projects and not take it personally. 
BD: Shaun is a simple story: summer boredom, the farm’s in a rut, the sheep try and break free and it becomes their worst nightmare. But they come back with freshness and renewal.
RS: That’s exactly what it is. We kinda had that idea pretty early, but to execute it…
MB: Yeah, I think the best films are very simple ideas that are held together, which is difficult.
BD: Along with your Shaun cast, your little dog steals the movie and you’ve got a nice villain, who’s very familiar.
RS: We were inspired by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and that structure’s very simple with this great running gag about a villain trying to catch him. So we thought we’d put Trumber in that mold.
BD: And the farmer becoming a popular hairdresser is brilliant.
MB: It made us laugh because essentially that’s what he is with the sheep. The idea of his becoming a heterosexual hairdresser is something we hung on to.

Let’s talk about the prison-like animal shelter sequence.
MB: The world is naturalistic and the absurdity is the sheep being in that world, and so we thought if you were going to have an animal coming into a rescue center, it would be like San Quentin to the animals. That was the comic backdrop. That gave us the idea of having all these scary-looking dogs and lots of prison tropes. And that led to the Hannibal Lecter gag. And then we introduce the Slip dog character, which is another silent movie trope. And we have this one moment, a thematic thing, where the couple arrive looking for a new pet, and all the animals are on their best behavior.
We were working on that sequence, but we knew it wasn’t plot but it would be a nice moment to have… all these animals that just want to be adopted. Because there’s an underlying theme if you want to reach in and find it about good parenting and bad parenting, and taking our families for granted. So we kept it in there and that leads into the farmer and how his life gets better, Shaun’s life gets worse.
BD: And you cleverly use animation for humor and emotion.
RS: One of our best animators does really good close-up work. And one of my favorite shots in there is a really simple shot where Shaun sees Slip and Slip’s just been rejected. And Shaun shrugs and looks at him and it’s empathy, it’s sadness, it’s we’re in the same boat. It’s so many things done with that little bit of animation of the eyes and it’s one of the best bits in the film.
BD: And then there’s a payoff at the end when Slip shows Shaun that he’s going to be fine with his new owner. You think they’re going to adopt Slip on the farm.
MB: We had a big debate about that. But in the end we thought it was a story about Slip wanting to find a parent and a family, so it didn’t feel like the farm was the right kind of ending for that.
The other bit in the prison sequence that’s one of our favorites is the one about the gag about the staring pit bull. There are two things: one is that there’s no animation in those shots — the dog doesn’t move at all, it’s a still. And we use that shot in five different places and it’s where we juxtapose the shot is where we got the laugh. That’s what was fascinating. 
And the second thing, going back to the subtlety of the animation, the real laugh is in the way bits of the dog reacts at the staring dog. The thing about not being able to look and trying to look through your fingers. And there’s a great bit of behavioral comedy, which is done by the animator and we worked really hard on that, Bitzer, trying not to look at the dog. So sometimes it was nice to do observation jokes.
RS: I find it so satisfying where there’s a shot with no animation and it still gets a laugh. We have a moment when Bitzer goes into the kennel. The camera would just stay on the kennel and you’d hear him internally going down the stairs, opening doors, and we carried that on for as long as possible. It required very little animation but gets so many laughs. It really works.

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