How Aardman Delivered ‘Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas’ During a Pandemic

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In Aardman’s half-hour stop-motion comedy film “Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas,” Timmy the lamb finds himself whisked off on an adventure to the local town, hidden in a large parcel, and thence onward to the house of Ben the farmer, his wife Jin and their daughter Ella. Shaun and the flock must mount a daring rescue. The making of the animated show was also an adventure, producer Richard Beek and director Steve Cox tell Variety.

The film – which airs on TV networks in 17 territories, including the BBC in the U.K., ABC in Australia, France TV and Germany’s WDR, and streams on Netflix in the rest of the world, including the U.S. – had to be produced during the pandemic to a tight schedule and with a limited budget. Executive producers were Mark Burton, Sarah Cox and Carla Shelley.

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The endeavor began in 2018 when Burton and writer Giles Pilbrow began brainstorming ideas for “Shaun the Sheep” specials and came up with some treatments. In 2019, Beek – who had been involved previously – came back on board and was joined by Cox, and the four of them developed the project, which was greenlit in November 2019.

“Steve, Mark, Giles and I really dug into the script for six months. We took it from quite a detailed treatment, but made quite a lot of changes in that period,” Beek says. They made “some quite fundamental changes, especially towards the end of the film,” Cox adds, and then continued to “tweak and adjust right through” to April 2020.

By then, Beek says, “everything was going great guns; we’d got the script into such a great place; really, really solid. People were happy with it internally. Our production partners were happy with it. So we felt like we’d used that six months really, really well. And we’re all ready to start [story] boarding … then COVID hit.”

There followed an eight-week shutdown at Aardman’s studio, but the storyboard and animatic teams quickly switched to working from home. Meanwhile, Beek and the Aardman team made the studio in Bristol as COVID safe as they could, putting up screens between all the desks, and tidying up to create more space. When everyone came back into the studio in the summer a COVID testing regime was in place, with everyone testing twice a week.

Four or five story-board artists were engaged on the project to begin with, which was ramped up a bit later.

“Normally those story-board artists would be in one place with the director. Although they’re just drawing, there’s a lot of communication that goes on, as you’re putting the film together as an animatic,” Beek says. “But we had to re-conceive all that virtually. And it worked pretty well.”

The team produced three versions of the film on storyboards over the rest of that year, and delivered a final version on Dec. 20, 2020. “It was quite a full-on process,” Beek says, adding that there was nothing else to distract them because of the pandemic. “We all threw ourselves into it, heart and soul.”

Ben had been brought into the series in a previous season of the show to provide a counterpoint to The Farmer, its leading human character, who lives at Mossy Bottom Farm with his faithful hound Bitzer, and the less faithful flock of sheep. “We wanted to find a nemesis for The Farmer. Ben isn’t a traditional bad guy. He’s perfect and that’s what’s irritating about him for The Farmer. Everything he does, he does it well, it does it brilliantly,” Beek says. “He’s athletic, good looking, everyone likes him, and The Farmer hates this guy.”

For the special, which they conceived of as a mini-movie, they decided to expand Ben’s world, giving him a family. Cox headed up the character design for Jin and Ella.

“We were very clear that the film didn’t have villains. So we have people who are causing problems for Shaun, but the family couldn’t be the bad guys. Ella couldn’t be the villain of the piece. So it was always quite a delicate balance of making the story work and making it have drama, but not making anyone bad or naughty. It was quite a challenge in scripting and boarding to get that to work,” Beek says.

This lightness in tone is in contrast to Aardman’s best-known show, “Wallace and Gromit,” which “actually has quite a dark edge to it… the fact that the sheep have been made into dog food and things like that,” Beek says. “ ‘Shaun’ always keeps way clear of the kind of darkness that [’Wallace and Gromit’ creator Nick Park] sort of revels in almost. People don’t seem to pick up on how dark [‘Wallace and Gromit’] is sometimes. But ‘Shaun’ is bucolic. It’s silly. It’s like Morecambe and Wise,” he says, referring to the cuddly British comedy double act from the last century.

The tone of the special follows that of the series, created by Richard Starzak, who drew inspiration for the dialogue-free show from the comedy greats of the silent era, such as Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin.

Cox explains how he developed the characters of Jin and Ella. “We were thinking: ‘What kind of family would Ben have, and what kind of character would we need as a foil for Shaun, because we wanted [Ella] not to be a proper villain, but to have proper motivations for getting in Shaun’s way and cause all this trouble. So we thought of an only child who’s probably been a bit spoiled and overlooked and all that kind of stuff.”

Cox adds: “And then for the mom, Jin, we thought Ben would probably need a bit of organizing in his life because he’s probably swanned through life, just being charming, and everything falling in his lap. So his wife would be the brains of the operation and the organizer.”

Ella’s personality was inspired by a real girl. “A friend of mine has a little girl around that age and she’s just a tearaway. In the original treatment, the Ella character was called Lucy and she was a little bit sweet, a little bit cutesy, and not that interesting. So I just thought: This character needs to be a real force of nature; she needs that kind of energy.”

Whereas Ben and Jin are “so neat and prim and proper,” Cox says, for Ella the look started with “a massive mop of hair.” He adds: “I thought: That’s unruly hair. It’s kind of her personality. Her mom is trying to straighten her hair the whole time. So it was based on real life kids. You can’t neaten them up. They explode with life, don’t they?”

Beek adds: “In the series, The Farmer has a niece who screams when she doesn’t get what she wants. And we knew that Ella couldn’t have that element. She couldn’t be a brat. She had to tick over in a way that you sympathized with for the end to pay off properly.”

Cox adds: “You have to love her. You have to really love her.”

There is a chronology to the development of a new character at Aardman. Cox says: “We build into the schedule at the beginning some development time, some testing time. And we usually get in at least one animator: On this occasion, it was Rhodri Lovett, who came in and developed Ella. So we worked closely together to get the very specific look, and the very specific kind of actions and movements that we would need from her. We always try and do that with our lead characters to develop them.”

Beek adds that on “Shaun” TV projects, due to the limited budgets in comparison to feature-length movies, time is of the essence. “On ‘Shaun’ it’s so tricky because you have one bite of every cherry.” Cox did two passes on 2D design on Ella. “We shared those with the Aardman team, the executive team, and also [Mark Burton], the executive producer. And they gave notes on those. Then Steve made his amends to those 2D drawings.”

Once the character’s 2D design is finalized, then it is sculpted in clay. Cox worked with Debbie Smith, the sculptor, and Claire Cohen, the puppet designer, to bring the character into the 3D world. Everyone else then gave their notes, followed by final tweaks, and then it was turned into a puppet for Lovett and Cox to start building the character.

Cohen designed the armature of Ella’s puppet – its metal skeleton – as well as deciding how her hair and clothes were going to look, “making sure that everything that we put in speaks to the characters and the story, that’s what guides those choice,” Beek says.

Ben and Jin’s house is distinctive, and Cox worked closely with the art department on the design, down to the smallest details, such as the type of curtains. “The art director, Andy Brown, was asking: ‘What kind of curtains do you want in here?’ and I said we need them to be ceiling to floor, and then I saw the Nissan Dukkha advert and said: ‘The curtains in that are the kind of plain but sophisticated looking curtains that we want.’ He looked that up, and before we knew it, they were on set.”

Beek adds: “We do a lot of mood boarding and stuff like that. So there was a lot of real examples of what the elements of the house could be. And then Steve and Andy would really dig into the detail of those pieces, like which walls were just concrete, which had a kind of texturing to them… but Steve being the judge of what is right or wrong for the characters. So, yeah, everything was considered.”

Cox says: “I’m a big fan of [Channel 4 TV show] ‘Grand Designs.’ We’re always watching that. I wanted Farmer Ben to have this traditional farmhouse that he’s then just splurged this big extension onto the side, which is still done with class but it’s the old meets the new.”

The ground floor of Ben’s house has a certain “austerity” to it, but upstairs is different. Cox comments: “We decided the color palette downstairs in the house would be quite cold, quite muted. But then when you go upstairs you’ll notice there’s a slight warming because that’s where Ella’s bedroom is and all the fun stuff happens. So cold, concrete hard surfaces downstairs, and upstairs you get her lovely, rich, cosy room, and all the corridors are all slightly warmer.”

Out of all the sequences in the film, Cox singles out its ski chase as the one that gave him the most satisfaction. It was “so exciting; with loads of gags; lots of fun stuff.”

“We knew it was going to be very difficult to do because there are a lot of shots in quick succession,” he says. “Big vistas, lots of huge sets, which are used for just the one shot as the sleigh was flying through.”

When he storyboarded it with artist Andy James the sequence totaled 10 minutes … far too long; so it was a case of “whittling this thing down to get all those fun chase things in, and all the story beats we needed, into something very short. I think it was two minutes in the end.”

Tom Howe, the film’s composer, came on board very early, before the team had the first animatic ready. Cox says they were looking for the score to be “epic,” “cinematic” and “Christmassy.” It was recorded with an orchestra at London’s Abbey Road studios in one day in July 2021, about four weeks after the end of shoot.

German broadcaster WDR was Aardman’s main production partner on the special, having been on board with the “Shaun” series since the beginning, and contractually could deliver notes at every stage of production. But Aardman also shared the work as it progressed with BBC and Netflix. “Our thinking was the more we shared it and heard what people thought the better,” Beek says. “We’d use that feedback to improve it.”

He adds: “Sometimes it’s not the nicest experience getting your homework marked every time you do anything. But we shared at treatment stage, script stage; every animatic was shared. We held back very little.

“And we would do packages of all the shots as they were coming in off the floor. Because we were working to such a tight deadline, what we didn’t want was a problem that we couldn’t fix, or couldn’t fix in a way that would please us.”

The development of the special took six months up to the start of the shoot, which is typical for “Shaun” projects. “It’s quite a furious process; it’s not as considered as some of the other work we do. But that’s part of its energy,” Beek says.

“It works at a pace. I would say almost double the speed of any of the other features or style work that we do at Aardman,” he says.

“When we did the first [season of ‘Shaun’], we made a choice that we wouldn’t rehearse any of the shots. We would treat it more like a traditional children’s TV show, where you just go straight to the shot you want,” he says.

This speed is driven by financial considerations, but despite this TV style approach to production, the aesthetic is cinematic, Beek says.

Cox, who directed season six of “Shaun the Sheep,” adds: “We can only achieve that because the crew are well versed in ‘Shaun.’ I directed them [in season six], so I’d worked with them closely. And that was really useful. Everybody who animates Shaun knows exactly how to move him, how he works. And the same with the art department. They know exactly how to dress the farmhouse, what paints to use, all this sort of stuff. So we’ve done it so many times in the past that we can hit the ground running. It’s something we are used to. If it was a brand new product, we wouldn’t be able to do it with that kind of speed.”

Beek adds: “All the things that are economies about ‘Shaun’ are also part of what makes it ‘Shaun.’ I think if we were to overthink ‘Shaun,’ and to start rehearsing all the shots, maybe it would lose its spontaneity and energy.” It was stressful, but, Cox says: “It is great when it works. You’re going 100 miles an hour, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got this great product, great shots are coming in, and everything looks fantastic.

“As we were going through the process, before we even start shooting actually, we knew that the story was in good shape. We knew that we’d done a lot of prep work, and we’d got some good gags in there. So when it came to the shoot, everything was so tight … the storyboards, the animatic… we knew that all we needed to do was use the skills of the crew to fill in the gaps, do the animation. And it should be a good film. And having that at the very beginning of the shoot meant that the crew were on board, were excited, and wanted to work hard. They wanted to do their very best.”

They shot for 21 weeks – starting in mid-January 2021, and wrapping in early June, with 15 animators employed, and a total crew of around 60, as well as those working on the post-production, the color grading, and the score. The film had to be delivered by the first week of September; it launched on Netflix on Dec. 3.

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