Latest Shaun adventure is out of this world

Claymation meets science fiction in this enchanting film, writes Esther McCarthy.

Latest Shaun adventure is out of this world

Claymation meets science fiction in this enchanting film, writes Esther McCarthy.

Just when you thought the magic-makers at Aardman Studios couldn’t surpass themselves, up they pop with a sequel as inventive as it is enchanting. Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon sees our hero set out to help an alien, LuLa, who’s crash-landed to Earth and can’t find her way home.

There are echoes of ET, Arrival and even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddity in the mix, but Farmageddon remains a true original. For animators and directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan, it’s all about story — a story that’s been three-and-a-half years in the making.

“As the first film was coming to an end, we had a big roundtable meeting to see where could we take Shaun next,” said Phelan. “We discussed a few ideas and somebody said: ‘How about an alien?’ We all laughed, and then Nick (Aardman founder Nick Park) went: ‘You could call it Farmageddon’. We thought that was brilliant and that we’d just work from there.”

For all involved in the studio, the prospect of making a genre film in science fiction for the first time was exciting, but they were under no illusions it would bring challenges.

“We all lit up because we realised we’d never done one,” said Phelan. “There’s so much richness to draw from the sci-fi genre. Everyone in the studio is such a fan of the little nods and winks to everyone’s favourite films growing up. It crossed from very early HG Wells right up to something like Arrival, or Interstellar.

" From the off we wanted a lot of our favourites. It’s about trying to capture how they made us feel when we very first saw them and to give that to a new audience. It was about a love letter to our own childhoods.”

A painstaking amount of work goes into such a claymation feature, a form of stop-motion animation in which objects are manipulated frame by frame.

A day’s production delivers just one and a half seconds of finished footage per day, says Becher, adding that all of the models are designed and built. Shaun, for the record, is about the size of a large mug and would fit on the palm of an adult hand. “In all, a feature-length movie takes more than three years to make from the pre-production and planning stages,” said Becher.

In the lengthy development stages, the duo would show storyboards and ideas to Park and other senior Aardman executives, which proved an inspiration.

“We would be able to use them as a springboard, to pitch different ideas to them,” said Phelan. “And then they themselves would throw in extra ideas and jokes. It builds to a much stronger film if you have that kind of brain trust.

There’s two-and-a-half years planning, then the production lasts roughly a year. The two-and-a-half years beforehand involves the storyboarding and the editors will start to build the animatic. At the same time all the designers are beginning to build the puppets, particularly Lula.

“All the sets will begin construction and then there’s this army of coordinators who figure out how we’re going to do this all in time. Once we hit full production there’s about 130 people. There are about 30 units in the studio.

"We’ll walk about 10 miles a day walking around the lots, talking to all the different animators, set dressers and art directors, cinematographers, just to keep the whole thing running.”

Like the first film, this is also expected to be a box-office hit as Shaun’s appeal spans different nations and generations.

“When we talk of stories for Shaun the Sheep we generally tell stories about our own lives, little anecdotes,” said Phelan. “We find that the more personal these stories are, the more universal they become. There’s an honesty, people see themselves or they see their friends and family in these characters.

"There’s something in the fact that, like Charlie Chaplin or Mr Bean, because they don’t talk, people just always assume that they are from where they are, which I think is wonderful.

“Shaun is really impulsive and curious but then he’s got this heart of gold where he will try and make amends or he’ll try and put things right. He makes mistakes which I think is a really appealing trait.”

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddonis in cinemas on Friday

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