Chicken Run 2 might be on the horizon – the follow up to the box office smash that became the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film in history — but UK animation studio Aardman hasn’t forgotten about some of the other much-loved stop-motion characters in its roster. Following success with the Shaun the Sheep TV series, and a subsequent feature film, the Oscar-winning stop-motion specialists behind Wallace and Gromit have seen fit to make a second Shaun movie. And this time around, Shaun is going intergalactic.
In A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, Shaun befriends an alien named Lu-la who finds herself stranded on Earth. As the town goes alien crazy, Farmer John attempts to cash in by putting on an alien-themed show called Farmageddon, and Shaun sets about attempting to find a way to get his new friend home.
Fandom visited the set of the charmingly bonkers British animation and learned a thing or two about how Aardman creates its own brand of movie magic.
Part of what’s so appealing about stop-frame animation is its hand-crafted nature. Where, with CGI animation, it’s largely about polished, jaw-dropping, lifelike visual effects, with stop motion, it’s about celebrating the handmade. And so visible thumbprints within the modelling clay used to create the characters are prized.
While characters aren’t made entirely of clay – they are frequently comprised in large part of silicone – it is possible to retain the ‘thumbed’ look, despite silicone’s “limitations”.
“You can sculpt clay to whatever you actually want it to be,” says animator and puppet maker Will Harding, on the benefits of clay over silicone.
But because everything is initially sculpted in clay at the development stage, they’re able to carry the thumb-printed look through to the silicone puppets.
“Within the [original] sculpt, there will be thumbprints,” says Harding. “So, we try and leave those. With the head of the Farmer, which is actually hard [silicone], there will be thumbprints within the original sculpt that should still come through. So there’s always elements of thumbiness in everything, which gives it a nice feel. It just shows that it’s actually physically made, rather than just CGed.”
Lu-la is a new Aardman character we defy you not to fall in love with. The dear little pink and purple alien makes a charming double act with Shaun. As we’ve already established, the film’s puppets are largely made of a combination of silicone and clay, but Harding breaks down where it’s important to use clay, and where silicone works best.
“All of the emotion, all of the expressions come from the head. So that’s why we try to keep an element of clay within all of the characters that have expressions, just so we can manipulate and maneuver them,” says Harding. “All of the elements are designed to be taken off and replaced midshot. So let’s say if something breaks on set, we need to be able to quickly take it off, replace it, so that it can go straight back on set.
“With Lu-la, she’s got a completely plasticine head, she’s got removable mouths. So, those are just kind of smudged in by the animator on the shot. He will have a boxed set of 12-15 different mouths — even though she doesn’t actually talk, she makes a lot of weird googling sounds. Those can be easily taken off, swapped over, and then just popped back on again.”
Lu-la’s body, on the other hand, is made of silicone: “Lu-la does a lot of squashing and stretching as she just moves, and if it was clay, every time the animator would grab it they’d have to resculpt it. So this is why we use silicone, just because it’s nice and stretchy.”
Many of Aardman’s characters come equipped with a Terminator inside them. Kind of. Underneath the silicone and clay is a fully functioning metal endoskeleton.
“Inside Lu-la, there’s a full armature,” says Harding. “The armatures depend on how complicated the character is and what it needs to do.”
Farmer John in Farmageddon has exactly the same armature as Trumper (the villain from the first film) for example, with ball and socket joints. “But some of the other characters have slightly smaller joints depending on the size of the character. So it depends on the weight of the character, to determine how much armature you need,” explains Harding.
Lula’s armature is relatively simple, in contrast.
“Simpler than a human character but still complicated enough that you can squash and stretch and move every which way that she needs to move,” says Harding. “All the human characters, they’re all ball and socket armature joints, which allow the character to move and hold that position, wherever it needs to be held. They’re all generally tensioned to the specification of the animator. The animator will be, like: ‘I am doing a throwing or a punching movement’, or something like that, so they’d want the arms slightly looser.”
“All the characters go through something called an MOT; so, basically, we produce a lovely clean, crisp puppet and give it to [the key animators] and they try to break it for us,” explains Harding. “They really push all the characters to their limits … they want to make sure that it can do all the movement it has to do. And then they give us a long list of things that they want changed, or suggestions that they think would improve the design. So then we go back, decide whether we can actually do those within the time, and then make adjustments, then go into mass production. Because there are multiples of all the characters. Before we actually start reproducing, we need to make sure that that one is actually good enough to last on the studio floor.”
On the day of the set visit, Head of Animation Grant Maisey is actually carrying out tests on the Mech Suit you see in the film – a big mechanical exoskeleton of sorts.
“Anything that we make, we have to test it,” he says. “Just to make sure everything works nicely and we can get everything that’s required out of it … It’s just trying to make sure the leg action works nicely. It’s been designed in a steam engine way, so you can actually get the longer strides, because with little legs like [it has], you don’t want it walking around on tippy-toe. It’s not going to give you the anger and the danger that you want with it.”
“The main part of my job,” says Maisey, “is really making sure that [with] any new characters we’ve got the characterization right.”
Which means filming himself – often with one of the film’s two directors – acting out scenes to give the animators some useful material to build on.
“It’s timing and energy that you’re after,” he explains. “Because there’s no dialogue, [with] the comedy it’s really important that it hits the beats just so, and the only way you can do that is by actually filming yourself. You make an ass of yourself on numerous occasions … We do three or four different versions, because sometimes there would be something that I’d do randomly which Rich [Phelan, director] liked. And it’s finding those little things; it’s finding those things that make you laugh. They may be quite absurd little things, or even it’s just a little pause, like the bit at the end [of one particular sequence] where I gave the tree a dirty look. I could see Rich in the corner. He was laughing his head off.”
It’s all about creating something the animators can use as a blueprint, says Maisey. “Any chance that you can to give the animator the best chance. It’s giving them the right information and the time … and comedic beats. By doing that, fingers crossed, they nail it the first time. And then we can move onto the next one and repeat the process all again.”
We’re talking about the underground base that serves as the headquarters of the Ministry of Alien Detection, or MAD, in the film. The sheer scale of it is ambitious. But they pull it off.
“It’s probably the biggest interior set we’ve ever made when it’s all together up to the top [of the unit we’re visiting],” says the film’s designer, Matt Sanders. “It’s a bit like a James Bond lair. It does have a nod to Ken Adam‘s Bond movies. On top of that, it’s a huge space to fill up.”
Sanders says that there are other complications associated with this particular set, aside from the issues its sheer size creates. For the first time, Aardman used an LED lighting system on the computers within the base. “So that’s going on in there as well as the normal animation which can take such a long time to sort out.”
For Sanders and his team, it’s important that things look as real as possible – which is a challenge on a set of this scale.
“On the floor, there’s a slight sheen like it’s polished concrete. We’ve gone through and plastered the floors, gone over again and again and polished and smoothed off,” he says. “On the walls and the concrete … we’ve literally knocked and brushed away as if forklift trucks have scraped past. Our job in the art department is to make it really feel like these pieces belong there. If you don’t do that, it looks very model-y. Especially when you have a camera low down in a shot, you can make it look absolutely convincing that it’s a real world. Sometimes you can’t tell it’s not a real set. Things always look model-y when you bring the camera higher. It’s the same when you take a drone shot of a town — it can look like a model. So we try to get away from having the camera high.”
The set has also played host to a spaceship, which was quite an undertaking. “We’ve had huge rigs — the spaceship comes through a hole in the ceiling, comes down and lands in the floor, so we have all sorts of mechanics that go on.”
And if you want to know how long a set like this takes to build, Sanders says, “There’s at least a man-year, maybe a man-year and a half. So if one person set off and had a free year and a half, they would probably get this and all the props made. It’s quite an extraordinary amount of work.”
“There is nothing [about which] we can go: ‘Oh, we can pick up 500 of those down at Aldi’,” says Animation Head, Grant Maisey.
Every single prop, model, puppet and set that you see on screen has been made from scratch. This means that the artists can sneak in their own references and jokes pretty easily where they want to. Leading to some inventive names for the items on the shelves of the supermarket Lu-la and Shaun cause havoc in. Look closely and you might be able to spot a few more.
“Everything is made bespoke [for our stop-motion films]. Everything you see is made,” adds Maisey. “There is nothing bought off a shelf. It has to be, because of the scale that we’re working to … even the glasses in Pirates! — the actual glasses that they’re drinking out of — we had a man who blew the glass for those. Because you can’t buy the glasses to the right scale. So we’re using lots of different craftsmen and women across the board for all different manner of things [on this production].”
Designer Matt Sanders says the task for the art department on the film is mammoth.
“We have 35, 45 shooting units in the studio,” he says. “Unlike ‘real’ film, nothing exists — we have to build absolutely everything. So mock-ups, models — everything — is made. For us, the logistics are huge. We’ve got so many sets that everything is coming on and off units [constantly]. So if a director says, ‘It would be really good to have this’, someone has to go and make everything before they can carry on with the shot. This goes on all the time.”
Farmageddon’s antagonist is a character who has always been obsessed with aliens. And because she’s never seen them, she’s bitter and single-minded as a result. Producer Paul Kewley admits that this particular character is based on a certain former British Prime Minister.
“The new antagonist, Agent Red … is a bit like Theresa May but with better suits,” he reveals. “She’s on a mission to catch aliens … she’s a lot of fun and she’s got a [robot] sidekick called Mugg1n5, who is kind of like a long-suffering sidekick. He’s a bit like a civil servant, really — that kind of sniveling sidekick who has to come good in the end.”
But a Theresa May-alike isn’t the only Easter Egg buried within Farmageddon. One half of the directing duo, Rich Phelan, says that the Aardman animation team are all fans of classic science fiction and all had a go at weaving in some reference or other.
“Hunting for sci-fi references, we’ve gone everywhere — all the sci-fi books, Ray Harryhausen and the old ’50s B-movies,” says Phelan. “And then from my own age range, that sort of John Carpenter, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg [spread]. And then they’ve got references to Christopher Nolan films, and Arrival … everyone’s [been] geeking out a bit.
There’s a lot of things, especially in the underground base in the background. There’s so much being built based on people’s different passions for science fiction which is lovely to see. We’ve tapped into a rich vein of nerds running through the building.”
But they have to be careful with what they refer to, and how they do it.
“You want to reference something, you don’t want to rip something off,” says Maisey. “And the other thing is, you can’t get everything in that you want. It would have been lovely to get a couple of Star Wars references in, but then you might as well go straight to the courts and hand over your money straight away.”
One character is wearing the same colour puffer jacket as Michael J Fox in Back to the Future, while there’s also a sly reference to Area 51.
“When Bitzer [the dog] is doing a runner and he runs into a room and it’s a canteen,” says Maisey. “And there’s a microwave going round, and the mashed potato was Devil’s Tower [from Close Encounters of the Third Kind]. So you can have a lot of fun with it, but you’ve just got to be incredibly careful with how you present it and what you’re trying to do with it. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons. It’s a homage.”
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon hits screens in the UK on October 18, in the US on December 13 and in Australia on January 9, 2020.