Is it hard for Nick to leave his creation in someone else’s care? He admits to being very hands-on. “I find letting go of things quite hard really. It’s tough for me. But in the hands of Golly and now with this Radio Times award… it says everything.”
Although there are noises and sounds in the film, they promise not a word of dialogue – or cheating of any kind. Executive producer Peter Lord says there’ll be “no subtitles… no cards like in a silent movie. There were perhaps five or six times when we desperately wished we could use some words, but people have been incredibly attentive and ingenious to make it work.”
Nick Park explains the film is all seen from Shaun’s point of view. “It’s a bit like that Gary Larson cartoon. When the humans aren’t looking, the cows are all having conversations, smoking or whatever. Then as soon as the humans come, they start eating grass. It’s that sort of feel. The humans are always unaware of what the sheep are up to.” So much so that some publicity material, in which Shaun and his friends are seen standing on two legs next to the farmer, will have to be done again.
Before my tour, I’m treated to several minutes of footage that’s already completed. It’s fast-moving, inventive and funny. Though it turns out, I wasn’t paying close enough attention. The animation starts with thumbnail sketches from the director or designer, then model makers bring the figures to three-dimensional life. A workshop is littered with characters – many are missing mouths and jaws. It’s a sign of progress, says Nick.
“Once upon a time we’d just have had a fully Plasticine face and the animator would’ve had to animate every vowel. If Wallace was saying window or something like that he would have had to go from an ‘oo’ to an ‘ee then an ‘oo’. That’s a lot of work in front of the camera.” So now the characters have jawless faces, which can be quickly filled in with the contents of a box containing dozens of expressions, labelled with words like closed, smile, closed neutral, pouty, oooo, oh, vacant and ‘high grumpy’.
Another time saver is that, unlike actors who tend to want to rest between takes, there are about a dozen Shauns… all working simultaneously in different scenes. Does Equity know about this? We pass through what seems to be Santa’s workshop. Rows of people finessing intricate details on what appear to be brightly coloured wooden toys. In fact they’re far more complex than dead trees.
One of Santa’s helpers is stooped over a tiny pair of gloves – about the size of a 10p coin. The process involves spraying the tiny gloves with icing sugar, then putting them in the oven, baking them, cooling them and spraying them again. To make five pairs takes two days. He must make 30 pairs. And he’s surrounded by others doing equally pernickety things: “Lots of very crafty people,” says Nick.
Unassuming and polite he may be, but like Alfred Hitchcock before him, Nick Park is getting in front of the camera this time. Well, a tiny likeness of him does. “I get a cameo appearance. Not sure how flattered I am,” he laughs. “You saw it in that clip. [Actually I missed it!] It was very quick. When the caravan was on its way into town, it went through a field and there was a birdwatcher in a hide. That was me. I love birdwatching. The caravan knocks the hide away and leaves me there and birds come and attack me.” Truly Hitchcockian.
In the War Room, where everyone gathers for a meeting once a day, it’s possible to see the entire film schedule from day one last January to the expected final day, many months later. On giant boards that flip like those poster racks in shops, the work of all 30 units filming scenes is plotted day by day.
It’s delightfully low-tech, with colour-coded elastic bands and bright sticky labels to designate every aspect of the production. While most films are shot out of sequence, Shaun began at the beginning and will end at the end. “It’s part of the economy of it,” explains Nick, “because it’s very costly and time-consuming to re-rig. This film takes place all in one day. It’s like 24. With sheep.”
The vast space on the studio floor is divided with black drapes into about 30 sets where tall people loom over tiny figures and landscapes. Art director Matt Perry says the animators are like 50ft giants on set. A video screen on one set shows footage of director Golly pretending to fight a colleague. Humans acting out scenes helps the animators get a feel for how to get the timing right for the characters.
Eight seconds of footage can take a week here on the studio floor but it doesn’t destroy the charm of the characters for Loyd Price, the head of animation. “The wonderful thing is you’re actually seeing a performance come to life frame by frame. People say, ‘Oh he’s happy,’ or ‘Ooh he’s sad.’ But really it’s a lump of Plasticine and metal and that’s the thing that gives you the buzz… when it comes to life. Animating is like acting but in slow motion.”
Behind another black curtain lurks a hospital scene in which a man is about to be operated on. Always a concerning time but, as Nick explains, this is extra worrying as Bitzer the dog is conducting the procedure. “The farmer gets carted off in an ambulance and Bitzer goes into town looking for him at the hospital. He’s obviously a dog so he’s not allowed in the hospital, so
he dons a surgeon’s outfit and he’s mistaken for a surgeon. This is a very funny bit where the patient sees a tail sticking out under his gown just before he’s given the anaesthetic.”
On another set a giant street scene (60 x 40ft) makes the characters on set seem even smaller. There are shops with joke names, though not a branch of Costly Coffee. Nick loved the joke but Matt says, “We’ve had to change it to Gulpa Coffee because Costly was too… sensitive. Legal issues!”
Finally, a chance to meet the director Golly: the tinderbox-dry wit who co-wrote the screenplay. How’s the film going, Golly? “It’s as big an adrenaline rush as you can get in animation, ” he replies.
As for who will go to see the film, Golly says Shaun has a broad demographic. “It’s really surprised me how so many different age groups like it. I get letters from little old ladies and kids and everything in between. They want to tell you how much it’s a part of their lives. I had a letter from Germany where a lady had a cut-out of Shaun as a best man at her wedding.”
Well, at least she didn’t marry it. “There’s a big appetite for Shaun globally so I’m looking forward to who knows – a sequel… another series? Shaun the Opera?” I suggest Shaun at the Proms, following a successful gig there by Wallace & Gromit. Quick as a flash, Golly suggests, “Bleathoven?”
Which brings us back, finally, to the pair who gave Shaun his first four legs-up in showbusiness. How are Wallace & Gromit, I ask Nick Park, and when will we see them again? What do you make of this enigmatic answer…
“Ah well, that’s a big question actually – hopefully not too long. They’re on the back burner at the moment with all this going on. I’m developing another film but it’s not Wallace & Gromit. They’re always there. I’m always doodling them and thinking of ideas. They never go away.”
Watch the trailer for the Shaun the Sheep film, in cinemas from Friday 6th February