EXCLUSIVE: On set of Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas with director Jay Grace
Like any other ’90s kid on this planet, it’s been a dream of mine to see inside Aardman Animations‘ Bristol studios since I first became acquainted with the magic of Wallace and Gromit, in films such as A Grand Day Out, and The Wrong Trousers.
Many years on, I find myself welcomed into the doors of Aardman in the role of a fly-on-the-wall observer, as animators painstakingly stick eyelids and teeth on llamas, and move them a millimetre at a time across a minutely detailed set while a camera crew takes hundreds of thousands of photographs to later dance across our eyes as stop motion animation.
In case you hadn’t already guessed, I had the privilege of visiting the set of Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas, to witness the making of this latest Aardman Christmas special first hand. Over the course of the exclusive visit, I managed to speak with Jay Grace, the director of The Farmer’s Llamas, plus senior modelmaker Anne King, animator Andy Symanowski, and Aardman brand manager Rachael Peacock.
Here’s what the impressively skilled super team had to say about the thirty-minute festive special, which airs this Boxing Day at 6:15pm on BBC One.
Rachael Peacock, Brand Manager:
“The story opens with Shaun and Timmy a little bored on the farm, until they spy Bitzer and The Farmer busily baking in their kitchen, preparing a cake to be entered into a competition at the local country fair. Shaun decides he wants to take the cake away, as he quite fancies it for himself and for the flock to eat. Whilst attempting the cake heist, Shaun actually gets tangled up in The Farmer’s coat, and finds himself on the way to the country fair by accident!
“They arrive at the very beautiful, typically British country fair with all the bunting and stripy tents, and Shaun is absolutely blown away by this magical place – he’s never seen anything so exciting. The Farmer and Bitzer disappear into one of the tents, ready to enter their cake into the competition. Meanwhile, Shaun spies three llamas being paraded around the fair by their handler … Shaun is absolutely gobsmacked – he’s never seen a llama before, so he follows them into the auction tent, and it turns out that the three llamas are actually up for auction. Shaun decides that he’s got to have these new friends on the farm, so he concocts a plan involving a fake hand to get the farmer to bid for them. Before he knows what’s happened, The Farmer has actually won the llamas, and has to take them back to the farm!
“Obviously these are brand new characters to the Shaun the Sheep world, so we’ve had to spend a couple of months developing them, and have done a lot of research into what llamas look like. We’ve got Hector, he’s the leader of the pack, and on his back is a map of Peru. Then we’ve got Raul. You never actually see his eyes, until he’s on the quadbike, and his fringe flicks up and you can see his eyes. He’s actually got a cold for the whole movie. And then Fernando is the one wearing the Peruvian hat and leg warmers – he’s my favourite”.
We basically asked ourselves, ‘what does Christmas look like with llamas’?
“We’re really excited about it, because it’s the first ever thirty minute production we’ve done for Shaun the Sheep. Last Christmas Day, BBC One put on a seven minute Christmas episode of Shaun the Sheep, which had over 2.4 million viewers, so that was a testbed to show that we have got the audience on BBC One … We really see this as a big family event this Christmas. Obviously Aardman is well known for our Christmas scheduling, and BBC has bought all our feature films and has played them all on the channel, so it’s going to be a really good Christmas! We basically asked ourselves, ‘what does Christmas look like with llamas?'”
Anne King, Senior Modelmaker:
“From deciding how a character looks, we then re-sculpt it, and start to make a mould. Here is the mould for one of [the llamas’] heads, and there’s another part of it, which is the skull that sits in the back. As you can see, we basically make every individual piece, tiny little bits, like ears that come off, and the eyes, the nose part on the front, and put it all together like a big jigsaw puzzle.
“We then have to decide what to cover them with, so we have this fur for the llamas, which is a bit like Shaun’s fleece, but we’ve gone for something thicker and a bit more rugged, and it’s had a special treatment so that it doesn’t move too much. We want the fur to stay as immovable as possible when they animate it, because every time the animators put their hand on it to move it, the fur will move slightly. You want people to be looking at how the puppet’s moving, and not how the fur’s moving.
“Once we’ve coated the llamas in fur, we’ve got some legs and arms. We put plasticine in the mould, which is in two parts, then pour a resin on top, and then make a wire armature, and set the wire armature up inside the mould, and pour some of this silicon down through the tube, and it goes up into the mould, and you can feel how squidgy and bendy that becomes. That’s how they animate the arms, and the legs are done in a very similar way”.
“We need things to be very moveable, but we also need them to be very, very controlled”
“Inside we have to make the puppets really strong. For the llamas we’ve used wire for the legs, but for the neck and body we’ve used an armature, which is really another word for a skeleton. We have these joints inside which are called ball and socket joints, as there’s a ball there, a socket, and a bolt to tighten or loosen it. We need things to be very moveable, but we also need them to be very, very controlled, so that we don’t get any wobbling around on set.
“It’s quite heavy, as it’s made out of steel and resin. We use a lot of foam latex, as well, which is really soft and bendy. That’s made by whisking up latex in a mixer, and then putting it into a mould, and then it’s baked in the oven.
“The heads usually come off quite easily, and we have a mouth replacement system, where the mouth can be taken on and off, as we have a set of different mouths for the puppets. We have some different hands, too, as it’s quite difficult for them to sculpt the hands into say a nice fist. So they can swap over using this set of hands.
“We’ve also used a set of crowd characters for Llamas … This guy’s been in the [Shaun the Sheep] series a bit as a pizza delivery man, and now he’s coming in as a farm hand. He’s got wellies on here, and some nice jeans, a white coat and a flat cap. He’s been recast in different roles quite often, as he’s a bit of a character and we like to reuse him! A bit of a man of all jobs. So that’s a bit of an outline of how we work with the puppets”.
TVDaily: I think Shaun The Sheep’s lack of dialogue has really helped its huge international appeal. Was this a conscious decision?
Jay Grace, Director:
“Where Shaun originated in the Close Shave film, he was much more like a real sheep; he didn’t get up on two legs, for example. When the early series was developed, his character needed to do a little bit more, but there was always that kind of divide between what The Farmer could see, and what the audience could see. Shaun and the flock are actually very active when The Farmer isn’t looking.
“The whole silent thing was something that Golly [series director Richard Starzak] in particular was interested in, because he loves silent comedy, but also because Shaun is a sheep, it was important to retain that element. Once you start adding dialogue, the drama becomes something else, and Shaun was always really about the slapstick, and the mischief that animals get up to when their owners aren’t looking. So I think that’s where it came from, and as you say, it does make it much more easily transferrable for different markets. It’s a real challenge, though, trying to tell a story with no dialogue. You have different concepts which you take for granted which are only possible with dialogue. It’s so much harder to do when you can’t even use signage or anything like that”.
You get so much from the figures’ faces alone, though.
“Well that’s the other funny thing about Shaun; their faces are actually very limited compared to what you would have with an Aardman plasticine puppet like Wallace or Gromit, who’ve got the brow, which you can move around and get a lot of expression. With the sheep they have solid heads, so you can change the shape of the mouth or the angle of the eyelids, but that’s all you have! It’s amazing what the animators manage to get from them”.
What had you worked on before The Farmer’s Llamas?
“I’m a bit of an Aardman lifer; I’ve been here pretty much since I left college. I started my career as a modelmaker way back in the mid-90s, and when Aardman wanted to make Chicken Run, they wanted to train people up. I was always interested in being an animator, so I was lucky enough to get trained up to work on it, and I basically worked on the films from there: Chicken Run, Creature Comforts, Loaf and Death, Pirates… We’ve been developing other things in the meantime as well.
“I’ve been really lucky and had some really great opportunities here. It’s just great fun, and I love doing it. Actually, being on the directing side of it is a very different set of skills, with different rewards, because you don’t physically do the animation anymore. You get your enjoyment through other people fulfilling your vision. Sometimes I think ‘I’d quite like to do that shot!’, but I have to let it go!”
So you haven’t done any of the animation on The Farmer’s Llamas?
“Well I did the early development tests last year, when the team working on it was just me! So that was with an early looking llama, and I did that when we were trying to work out how so build the puppets, and how they were going to move, and trying to establish a look for them. So I did that, but no, since we’ve been shooting I spend my days walking from person to person, asking them to do things”.
How many people have been working on this project?
We have about ten animators, and then there’s the art department crew and the camera crew, so I think in all there are about fifty people working on it. It’s a great team, and they’ve all just finished working on the [Shaun the Sheep] feature film, so they’re really geared up to animating sheep! I think the llamas have been a refreshing break for them. They’re a little bit different, but they’re just sheep with long necks, really. And very long legs”.
Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas
airs Boxing Day at 6:15pm on BBC One.