Shaun the Sheep’s global domination will be complete this year. Following Shaun the Sheep the movie raking in £56 million at the box office worldwide, a forthcoming one-off special, Shaun the Sheep: The Farmers Llamas, is the highlight of the Christmas schedules.
“I suppose it is a bit of a tradition to sit down with the family at Christmas and watch an Aardman film…” Aardman animator Richard ‘Golly’ Starzak nods. “So Christmas legally belongs to Aardman. We’ve bought it and it cost us a fortune…”
In The Farmer’s Llamas the wily sheep bluffs his dim-witted farmer master into bidding for three llamas at a county fair. Once they show up at the farm, however, they cause such chaotic destructive mayhem that Shaun has to carefully remove them – high speed chases, careful rooftop scrambles and dangerous falls ensue.
“The Farmer’s Llama’s are Hector, Fernando and Raul,” director Jay Grace explains. “They’re sociopaths really, they’re not purposefully trying to do any harm, they’re just big and clumsy and they create a mess.” He pauses. “Although technically no-one really farms llamas, so they’re alpacas. But calling it the Farmer’s Alpacas is not really as funny, is it? Basically think of them as sheep on steroids.”
On set, in Aardman’s sprawling warehouse studio on the outskirts of Bristol, the beasts seem as safe as children’s toys – partly because they’re less than six inches high. In a world of CGI, Aardman still practise the old tradition of stop frame – build and shoot a scene with models, move the model slightly, shoot another couple of frames and so on. That means incredibly slow shots – with roughly 16 sets on the go at any one time and each set producing around two seconds of footage per day.
Shaun himself began as little more than two seconds of Aardman footage. He first appeared in 1995’s A Close Shave – Gromit was wrongly imprisoned for sheep-rustling, and Shaun, using an angle grinder to cut the bars of his cell, sprung him from jail. A Close Shave went on to win an Oscar and Aardman found that Shaun merchandise was outselling the Wallace and Gromit merchandise worldwide. Starzak began working on a fresh life for the scamp – resulting in a series of shorts on CBBC back in 2007.
“We started off with Shaun as a cool hero sheep with a girlfriend, a cashpoint card and a bicycle – but it didn’t seem like a series,” Starzak explains. “I took it back to fundamentals – sheep are told what to do by sheepdogs and the sheepdog’s told what to do by the farmer. There’s so much potential for conflict there and we realised that Shaun is basically a ten-year-old boy pushing the boundaries as far as he can. He’s the character who’ll press a button that says ‘do not press’.”
The first series of seven-minute episodes – with Shaun punking a well-meaning, if slightly officious sheepdog named Bitzer – was an instant global hit. 140 episodes later Shaun is on air in over 180 countries including Japan, China, Indonesia, the Middle East, the USA, Germany and Holland. He’s become the most successful animated character in Aardman’s history, even eclipsing his parent duo Wallace and Gromit.
A full 45-minute Shaun the Sheep live show launched in Cairo last year, and is currently touring Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia and half a dozen Asian countries. There’s also a 20-minute version, aimed at shopping malls that’s played successfully in Jakarta, Beijing and Tokyo. And following Shaun’s movie success this summer, a sequel is already in the pipeline.
“I constantly get letters from China and Germany – none of them realise Shaun is English, they all think he comes from their country so I’m slightly embarrassed by the whole thing but it’s absolutely delightful,” says Starzak. “I think people identify with the show because it’s basically a family relationship, All the best animation seems to be about families, whether it’s Family Guy, Simpsons or American Dad. It means you can parody high drama movies – with characters falling off the roof and crashing through walls – but on a tiny, domestic scale.”
Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas is on BBC1 at 6:10pm