MACAU, Dec 10 — In an age where movie studios stress on jargon like “photorealistic” and “hyperrealism” to underline the technological advancements in animation, the Shaun the Sheep franchise opts for a different route.
The most known brand from the British equivalent of Disney, Dreamworks or Pixar in Aardman Animations is hitting the screens again for a second outing, and it looks set to be another hit.
So just how has the sheep and its friends managed to gain a foothold in the animated market with its ‘low-tech’ approach of clay animation?
Producer Paul Kewley and senior model maker and animator Jim Parkyn from Aardman Animations speaks to Malay Mail before the A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon’s gala screening at the 4th International Film Festival and Awards Macao (IFFAM).
For Parkyn, the answer is simple.
While many have been critical of the Hollywood tide of hyperrealistic animation which desperately attempts to imitate what’s real ― claymation in all its simplicity, wields an advantage.
“It’s not real because of its definite style, that suspension of belief is immediately gone because you’re in this world.
“We keep things funny and keep fingerprints and we keep marks in and that enables you to enter in to that world and everything is forgiven.”
For Kewley, Shaun’s success is simply being relatable.
“When Nick (Parker) did the original design of Shaun, he hit on something really interesting.
“When Richard took the character and created the TV show, what he did brilliantly was to create the character we all wanted to be,”
Shaun, he said, “is the kid who loves to do the wrong thing but does it with the knowledge of what he’s doing.
“He’s a bit cheeky and full of life and enjoys himself and that family dynamics is universally recognisable. We all see ourselves in Shaun.”
The success of Shaun and the sheer lovability of the character however, while understandable, could never have been predicted by Aardman.
“I think we were surprised that the six minutes on screen suddenly spawned footstools and backpacks and it was the must have accessory for years,” laughed Parkyn.
“If you talk to Nick he would never have expected Shaun the character to become what he’s become.
“Shaun is Aardman’s biggest character globally, and I think that’s really interesting because that lack of dialogue, that ability to transcend, race and culture and everything is the reason why the series and films travels.”
Shaun the Sheep began as a spin-off of the Wallace and Gromit franchise by Aardman.
From being initially featured in the 1995 short film A Close Shave to seven-minute episodes broadcast in 180 countries, Shaun’s first feature-length film in Shaun the Sheep Movie release in 2015 even earned an Oscar nomination.
And now A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is here, with a new addition ― in a visitor from another planet in Lu-La.
Kewley said the alien theme was an idea they landed on straight off the back of the first film.
“We talked about what’s the next idea. And we landed on the alien genre very quickly.
“Richard Starzak, one of the directors of the first film and creator of the first series was set on this, so we came up with a character quite quickly.”
Figuring out how Lu-La would look like however took a longer time.
“The way she was designed was her head was designed to look like a UFO, kind of like a 50s UFO and a beam of light coming out from below her, and that was the inspiration for her character.”
For Parkyn, it was good character design ― simply because he didn’t have to worry about feet.
“Lady Tottington is a basis for Lulu because again the dress, she had no legs, but you give the impression of anatomy inside, being able to squash and stretch to make her move is brilliant.”
While it may look like child’s play, making the characters itself is an expensive and complex process.
“You spend thousands of pounds making it look like plasticine,” laughed Parkyn.
Yes, folks, the characters are not entirely made out of clay, or plasticine.
Call it screen magic ― Parkyn reveals that the characters are made up of a combination of hard resin and silicone for the arms and legs and ears.
“The head is plasticine, and of course it starts with a plasticine mould to make the cast.”
And how do they get Shaun’s luxurious fleece, to look like fleece?
“We use... fleece, it is a synthetic fleece,” reveals Parkyn.
“Over the years, we’ve kind of worked on how to make the films as efficient as you can,” added Kewley.
“A lot of the process the model makers go through is how to make these things robust, to be able to do what we need them to do and keep the process moving.”
Parkyn said with a lot of characters, especially Shaun travelling from movie to movie, “we can use the core armature, but everything is easily off and on so we can remove the arms and legs and if anything breaks they can be changed.
For the most expressive parts of a lot of puppets like the farmer, Lula and Bitzer to a degree, will have plasticine mouth replacements and facial pieces so animators can sculpt through.”
One of the successes of Shaun however are the voice actors who bring the characters to life.
Kewley says surprising there is a big pool of British voice talents who can offer a varied ability of bleating expressively enough to tell a story and Parkyn noted that while it may seem an easy task, it took a certain calibre of a voice actor to be able to emote, simply through bleating.
So claymation isn’t dead?
“It’s surprisingly big, there are quite a few movies in production around the world, the streaming platforms have suddenly jumped on stop frame films so for people like Jim and his colleagues there’s an amazing demand for animators and model makers and so on,” said Kewley.
Parkyn agrees, and while many may have the perception that stop motion animation using clay is out of vogue versus the ultrarealistic computer animations, “It’s never been so good for stop motion.”
A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon opens in Malaysian cinemas on Thursday, December 12.
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