In February 2020, the timelessly beloved Shaun the Sheep embarked on a wild sci-fi adventure that took he and his barnyard friends to new cinematic heights – all from the comfort of one’s Netflix app. Befriending a crash-landed alien and evading the fateful clutches of sinister forces may seem like a big jump up from Shaun’s previous ventures, but the team at Aardman Animations manages to concoct the perfect mixture of new and old to entertain viewers of all ages. Even if you aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of Shaun’s escapades at the barnyard, there’s much to enjoy in Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon.
The directorial debut of duo Will Becher and Richard Phelan, Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon is Aardman Animations’ second feature film based on the hit claymation series by creators Nick Park and Richard Starzak. In addition to its titular lead and his new extraterrestrial friends, the film sees the return of fan favorite characters like Bitzer, Timmy, Shirley, and, of course, the Farmer. Despite coming out over a year ago, Farmaggedon is up for Best Animated Feature at the 2021 Academy Awards – an honor in hot contest between the Aardman team, Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, and Pixar’s Soul and Onward.
To celebrate the film’s Oscar nomination, we were joined by Will Becher, Richard Phelan, and Farmageddon producer Paul Kewley for an exclusive Aardman roundtable. Discussing the process of crafting such an ambitious stop motion film, we received some insight to the inner workings at Aardman Animations as well as the impact of COVID-19 at the studio. We also got a hint at what’s next for good ol’ Shaun the Sheep.
Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. What was it like finding the right story for this particular movie, Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon?
Paul Kewley: It was a challenge, it’s fair to say. The great thing about having already made one of them was that we had a road map in terms of some of the rules about making a non-dialogue film, but we went into this one knowing we wanted to do something kind of high concept. We were very drawn to the idea of aliens and farms (for all the obvious reasons), but we didn’t know what it was going to be about. So we spent a long time trying to figure out how to tell a story about our characters in that world.
How did you kind of approach combining those two in a way that felt new but also kind of familiar and faithful to Shaun the Sheep?
Richard Phelan: We’ve all worked on Shaun the Sheep for quite a long time. We all worked on the first film. So like Paul said, we established rules. We knew what we could do with Shaun, and then it was a case of like, “how can we push him out of his comfort zone [in a way] that still feels believable to the world we’ve created?” Rather than just trying to shoehorn something in, we’ve always kept coming back to the characters. How would it affect them? How would they react to it? So it always felt true to these characters’ stories.
Then we just told the studio that we’re going to try and build a sci fi movie – as ambitious as possible – and so everyone rose to the challenge. There’s a lot of sci-fi fans here, so we’re building huge epic sets and shooting it in a wider aspect ratio to create that sense of scope. Everything just starts to get bigger and bigger as quickly as possible, but always sort of going back to [viewing the film] like it’s Shaun’s adventure – it’s him and his family. How does that feel for them? Whenever we still feel like we’re losing our way, that’s our comfort point to go back to.
It sounds like the process was a bit different here than what Shaun the Sheep has been used to. What was it like – with the new sets, and especially with the alien characters – going through that design process?
Richard Phelan: So the design process, obviously, we’re very used to because it’s [part of] the series as well, like having just the farm. But then it was a case of taking the everyday and making it extraordinary; there’s a secret underground base, but it’s hidden beneath a carwash. It was taking things people would recognize and pushing it in a way they wouldn’t quite imagine, like Lu-la’s home planet, going into outer space, and then [in the film] the farmer gets this crazy idea to build his own theme park to cash in on the whole scenario.
So what does a theme park designed by a sort-of crazy person but built by sheep look like? Most of it was finding the comedy in it and elaborating on that, but then, like I said, everyone just rose to the challenge. The sets are huge, 35 sets running all at once. So you can walk from like an underground base to Farmageddon Tower, to like a sheep barn, to just regular everyday things as well.
What were your some of your inspirations in designing Lu-la and her parents?
Richard Phelan: We went through a very long process, really. She started out like a football covered in fur. As we’re just kicking the story around, we’re just sort of letting it go where it wants to go. Then as it starts, it establishes rules about her character and her powers. We start to hone in and limit those things on her to keep using her as our get-out-of-jail-free card with all the story problems. And with our design team, because Shaun the Sheep has such an iconic silhouette that is recognized around the world by all his fans, we wanted something equally outstanding.
One of our designers [came up with the idea that] her head is like a shape of a classic 1950s flying saucer: like a disc. Then her body looks like a rocket thruster boosting her upwards. Once we had this really beautiful, iconic silhouette, they just went to town adding all these beautiful colors, glitter in her ears, and things like that. Imagine you’ve got a hyperactive child inside this puppet, like, how would she behave? Then they just go to town finding all these different slight nuances of her character.
Richard and Will, you’ve both have had experience working on the television show and on the previous movie. What was the difference between then and now, overseeing the whole process as directors?
Will Becher: The main difference is that when you shoot on a series, it’s an amazing pace. On the series, everything has to happen very quickly, and obviously, the stories are very short, self contained. The studio is well versed in making the series for Shaun, but expanding into a feature involves a huge amount of planning in terms of story. Really, it’s all about trying to get that working over the length of an 18 minute film. So it’s a huge sort of endeavor for film. We had, obviously, the amazing first Shaun to follow, which was really a bit of a masterpiece of filmmaking. So Rich and I took this beast of an idea to take Shaun to outer space, and working with amazing crew, we just chiseled away at it for three years, to get it to the point where we can finish it and share with the world.
And it turned out great. Again, congratulations on your nomination for the Oscar. What was it like getting nominated on your first major outing as directors?
Richard Phelan: I sat working at my desk and had my phone up on it. Got a text and all it said was, “Yeah!!” Something out of a dream. By then, [the nominations had] gone past it, so I rolled back to animation, and then they read out Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon and I had this sort of weird, out of body experience where I almost stood behind myself going, “This isn’t happening.” So I went and got my boardmate to watch this with me, and she went ballistic. But none of us can high five or anything, so it’s a really weird distance celebration of air high-fiving people and thumbs-up to the crew. It’s amazing, but at the same time it’s so frustrating that we can’t celebrate. We’re holding it all in. We’re saving it.
Will Becher: I found it even more surreal because I was literally in a unit with Shaun the Sheep, I was animating him on a shot for this Netflix special we’re doing. I got this news thinking it would happen much later in the day, not really having been prepared for it. That’s when I wrote to Rich, “Who can I tell?” It was an amazing moment going, “Oh, my God!” obviously. You know, we hoped it would be recognized, but it did come out quite a long time ago. And it’s a very strong year for contenders. So it was an amazing moment.
As first time directors, what were some of your biggest surprises being in such a position like this?
Will Becher: Having worked with Shaun for a while, and in my case, I directed on the series and then worked with Nick Park on Early Man, so I have spent quite a while familiarizing myself with the production process and directing the floor. What I hadn’t really experienced was the story and editing processes, so for me, that was the biggest learning curve. Like I said, it’s a very ambitious film from the outset. So we didn’t have much time, we didn’t have a huge amount of resources. Obviously, we’re in Aardman, and the people here are the resources, but we didn’t have a lot of endless money to make this.Wwe just had to be constantly trying to find the most effective way to make the best film we could.
Richard Phelan: We’ve worked with lots of directors at Aardman, and seeing how they approach projects was really helpful in familiarizing ourselves with the process. Obviously, Paul was a fantastic support through the whole thing, who produced the first one as well. It’s really helpful to have someone to talk to about it and go, “How do I approach this? How do I approach that?” as sort of like, mentors and guidance to the whole studio. But then also, everyone on the film is so excited to make it, so it was just a real joy to work with everyone. I come from the story background, so I tend to sit in a room of people who pull stories apart and then reassemble them in different orders constantly for like three or four years.
To sort of walk into a room where people go, “So what is the one thing we’re making?” and you go “Oh!” like that’s a different mindset, a different hat you have to wear. Like “We’re going to build a space ship to look like this.” And then just having the joy of hanging out with the people and seeing what they come up with and create. I’m not an animator, so when we would discuss Lula’s performance, it’s all on the animators to go away and take everything you’ve discussed. We act all out in live-action within a rehearsal, and then the thing they bring back is just really magical, just to see it because she’s about five inches of plasticine, but suddenly she’s alive. It’s an amazing process.
Paul, you’ve had a pretty thorough history at Aardman. Was there anything new or challenging that you found with this film that you hadn’t been presented before?
Paul Kewley: Loads of things were challenging about this thing. We came off the first film, and obviously, it had this fantastic reception. We immediately said, “Let’s make another one.” You know, it’s a bit like scaling Everest. You’ve suddenly got to try and work out what can you do to make a better film, because everybody wants it to be bigger and better. You know, all the kind of cliches about moviemaking. So we launched into that and set ourselves some massive challenges. The scale of this film is a lot bigger than the first. We were working on a very similar budget with the same size crew, yet we were asking them to do more than we did last time.
Then with two new directors, launching into a process and trying to help them through that arduous process is not easy. Because I’ll be sitting there talking to them about story and the overall shape of the film, and then suddenly they’re on the floor thinking about detail. So we had all these factors that made this one different and probably more challenging than the first film, actually. The first one we launched into not knowing what we were doing. This time, I knew some of the problems, but we didn’t know lots of the other problems we were creating for ourselves. So to get to the end and see the film that we made is something I’m very proud of.
This film is now a part Aardman Animations’ legacy, but what was it like working on this movie against all the other past productions that the studio has put out?
Paul Kewley: From a producer sense, it’s kind of great. You know, it’s exciting to work at Aardman. It’s all of the things you would imagine it to be. There’s an amazing group of people in every department. There are people who are brilliant at what they do, but also, you’re trying to stack up against that legacy. You’ve got Nick Park, Peter Lord, Richard Starzak, Mark Burton and all these people we’ve worked with over the years, and you’re like, “Is this good enough? Are we are we stacking up to what they’re doing?” So on one hand it’s brilliant. On the other end, slightly nerve-racking every time you get into one of these things.
Will Becher: From a creative point of view, we’re always trying to push each film. We’re learning techniques every every time we make a feature, so with each new feature we’re trying to do new things and Farmageddon really did push the level in terms of the scale. The largest set we’ve ever had on any feature film was on Farmageddon. We’ve had more set pieces, more chase sequences, more characters, so in every way we took it to the next level. But we also used visual effects more than we had used before and did two scales so we got that sense of really wide screen shots of the farm. So just from a creative point of view, it was definitely competing with and then advancing from what we’ve done before
Richard Phelan: I would say the daunting thing… at the same time, it’s nice we screened the film roughly every three months, the animatic of the film, to our Aardman “brain trust”. So you’re in a room with multiple Oscar winners and Oscar nominees, it is daunting. But then the moment the lights go on, everyone’s trying to encourage you into making the best film possible. No one sits there picking you apart. We do the same thing to all the other directors. We’re making one narrative, and so you’re screening it and everyone’s piles in with their ideas and suggestions. Everyone’s trying to make the best film possible, so it’s a really collaborative process and you feel like everyone is on your side at the studio.
To go back a little bit to Will’s answer there, you mentioned some of the new technologies that that you guys are using to push Aardman and Shaun the Sheep into the future. What were some of those new techniques that you found yourselves incorporating?
Will Becher: The animation process itself is exactly the same as it’s always been, but obviously with the technology advancing really quickly around us, we’re using more and more integrated effects. Digital effects are much easier to use now that we shoot everything digitally. We have these LED lights which we started using more and more, and they’re really tiny. Basically it meant we could create, for example, the UFO which had 200 miniature lights within it. All of them were programmable on our computers, so we had this amazing array of options in terms of creating in-camera stuff that we had never been able to do before.
Richard Phelan: It’s fun at the studio because it’s a real mix of proper old school Hollywood tricks like matte paintings and forced perspective and all that, and then it’s your cutting edge rapid prototyping for vehicles. There’s the mixed blend of CGI to physical models; when the spaceship lifts off, it’s a physical puppet, but the moment it lifts from the ground, it turns into a CG prop. So all the tech work that is done in the research and development is at the forefront of all this. Then there’s lots of things like… I wish I could bring the [directors of photography] in because there’s loads of special grinded lenses that work just for stop motion cameras. It’s cutting edge to them, but if you go outside of the industry it’s just a camera. To a DOP, it’s really fantastic. Like, they come in and go “We’ve had special lenses grinded in Japan!” and you go “Wow!” It’s magical if you know what it is.
Paul Kewley: One of the things that I love about Aardman is that there’s a desire to embrace technology. But also, as a producer, what you don’t want people to do is to just embrace technology for technology’s sake. There’s lots of practical solutions. Lots of old school things that Ray Harryhausen would have done. Aardman are good at doing that, and finding the best way of making something. That’s why we can make films that feel big and epic for relatively controlled budgets. We’re getting a lot for the money we’re spending in terms of scale and spectacle and feel.
Paul, you’re currently producing Chicken Run 2, right? With other Aardman projects that are going on, what’s it like overseeing stop-motion production during COVID-19?
Paul Kewley: I’m not producing Chicken Run 2. I’m on break, but I did have some involvement in the project. I was involved for quite a while. In terms of the process of stop motion production, it’s similar to shooting live-action in that you have lots of miniature units, but I think one of the advantages of that is that you can space people out. I’m not directly involved with any of the productions at the moment, but Will is in the studio right now [in a mask] and there’s been a lot of kind of COVID work and compliance to allow the studio to continue to work. It’s been a challenge. It’s slightly different to the CG world where you can have everybody work at home in terms of the practical production, but it is something that Aardman have found ways to get around and to keep everybody safe and working.
Do you see any of this having like a long term effect on stop motion production?
Paul Kewley: I think anybody will tell you in the process of having a job in general, but any kind of creative role, is that you thrive in that environment where you’re bouncing things off each other, in-person. Whilst it’s doable – story teams can work remotely, producers can sit outside the building, and directors can often work remotely during the story process – I think there’s still going to be a desire to see people in person. There may be a hybridization of things that we’ve learned, and I think CG studios are already doing that anyway. But in the long run, I think it will continue. We’ll end up with people working in studios but possibly with a bit more flexibility.
To finish up, are there any plans to continue to Shaun the Sheep alongside the upcoming Aardman slate?
Will Becher: We’re currently shooting a Shaun the Sheep Christmas special for Netflix, which should be on this year, so the character is very much part of Aardman’s past, present, and future.