There’s something alien lurking in deepest, darkest Bristol. FilmInk has travelled to the home of Aardman Animations, the beloved British company that brought us Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run and Early Man. The reason? Shaun the Sheep. The mischievous ovine – along with his flock, the short-sighted Farmer and his dog Bitzer – is back for a second feature-length ‘claymatian’ adventure.
As Aardman co-founder Peter Lord puts it, conjuring a follow-up to 2015’s clay-animated Shaun The Sheep Movie was something of a no-brainer. “Quite early on we thought about doing a sequel. Quite early on in the production of the last one, I think everyone thought, ‘This is a fun place to play.’ And also, frankly, it’s common sense.” Well, when your first film took over $106 million worldwide, it’s easy to see what he means.
While the first film took Shaun away from Mossy Bottom Farm and into the local town, this latest effort is, frankly, out of this world. A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon sees the adorable extraterrestrial Lu-La crash land in nearby Mossingham Forest, and soon Shaun is trying to help her get back to her home planet. With all this alien activity, meanwhile, the Farmer decides to open his own U.F.O theme park, ‘Farmageddon’, built on the cheap by Bitzer.
“As the first film was ending, we had a big brainstorm – where could we go next?” remembers Richard Phelan, who co-directs with Will Becher. “What we really wanted to do was bring the adventure to the farm; that was our main jumping off point. And then it was, ‘What could we bring to the farm?’ And there were strange things [suggested], like stone circles, and then it was bringing something from space. That was the genesis of the idea.”
It was during one of those early meetings that the title came into being; no prizes, though, for guessing who dreamt it up. “I think it was Nick Park who said, ‘What if it was called ‘Farmageddon?’” remembers Phelan, referring to Aardman’s favourite son, the man behind Wallace & Gromit. “We all just laughed and went ‘We’ve got the title!’ It was a classic Nick Park – when his eyes lit up with this brilliant pun!”
Taking over from Richard Starzak, who directed the first Shaun the Sheep movie, Phelan and Becher are making their feature film directorial debut here, though both are Aardman stalwarts and Shaun experts. Becher was an animator and director on the original Shaun the Sheep TV series (which began in 2006, some years after Shaun first appeared in Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave); Phelan worked on the same show as a writer and storyboard artist.
For both, it was the chance to interact with a genre they worshipped. “Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Stanley Kubrick and more modern things like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and then John Carpenter and Paul Verhoeven…all this growing up, I loved,” says Phelan. “So, funnelling it all through Shaun’s universe is great fun.” Yes, there is even a nod to Verhoeven’s RoboCop, with a ‘mech suit’ that looks suspiciously like ED-209.
A guided tour around the Aardman studio allows FilmInk to closely inspect some of the thirty units that are in operation during the shoot – including the set for Mossingham glimpsed in the prologue, when Lu-La first arrives. In a small row of shops, alongside a local fast food emporium, there is an auto-repair shop called ‘H.G. Wheels’ – a classic Aardman pun, nodding to War of the Worlds author H.G. Wells.
“Like all the Aardman films that have come before, there are so many opportunities for visual gags,” says Becher, “and all the crew feed into it as well.” The art department’s walls are covered in possible jokes, each one funnier than the last. “That’s the thing – everyone tries to top everyone else so it escalates,” says Becher. “And if you don’t get a joke in, you do try and find a way of using it somewhere else.”
With the shoot moving into its nine month, the scale of the operation is hugely impressive. One room contains the headquarters of MAD – the Ministry of Alien Detection – who are the de facto villains in the story, as they try and hunt down Lu-La. A giant underground bunker, like a lair in a James Bond film, it has staircases, silos, ladders, fork lift trucks, robot cranes and men in yellow Hazmat suits.
Though this is the biggest interior set ever built for an Aardman movie, there is more to come. “I really can’t wait to get into Lu-La’s spaceship,” says Phelan. “We’ve talked about it for so long. There are holograms, cloaking devices, warp speeds, all these things that are so spectacular. But then also the villains – what’s in the base? – is so exciting. I can’t wait to get the spaceship in the base, because there are huge story pieces to play with.”
Sending Shaun into outer space? Well, why not? “We’re being slightly selfish by taking the whole universe for our backdrop!” laughs Becher. “The first one was the big city, this one is the universe. I don’t know where we could go from there! He’s always such a fun character to work with and we’ve both worked with him for a long time over the series and the films. He always returns true to character. There’s always that bit of him that just is spontaneous and wants to push buttons.”
It’s why pairing Shaun with a character like Lu-La works perfectly. “She’s more mischievous than him,” says Phelan. “More cheeky and fun, so he absolutely falls in love with her. She’s the dream version of him. She’s just him turned up to the max.” Adds Becher, “She has an innocence about the world, which allows us to push lots of boundaries that Shaun would normally be a bit hesitant to push. It’s a nice dynamic that we’re exploring, different to his other interactions with the flock and Bitzer.”
While Bitzer is usually the ‘older brother’ figure, forced to be the responsible one, this time it’s flipped on its head. “Shaun had to become that person, which he has no skills for whatsoever,” says Phelan. “He’s just used to having fun. He meets someone [Lu-La] who just takes things way too far and so he realises he has to be responsible in some way; he has to understand what Bitzer does for him to make sure that he doesn’t blow the farm up.”
As ever, Shaun The Sheep is dialogue-free – just bleats, barks and human grunts. “With a TV series where nobody spoke…to turn that into a movie was quite frightening first time around, and quite difficult, quite difficult,” Lord emphasises. “Every idea you have to act out in mime, and that’s fine ninety-six percent of the time. But the other four percent are things you really wish you could just say but you can’t, so that’s a big challenge.”
Still, crossing the language barrier like this has ensured Shaun’s popularity everywhere from the Middle East to Japan. “I think it really helps him to travel overseas,” Lord continues. “In a weird way, I get the impression that different countries think he is theirs, which is kind of odd because he doesn’t look much like he’s from Japan and the Farmer doesn’t look very Japanese.” What about America? “It’s hard to break the States,” he concedes, “but he definitely has a loyal sheepy following.”
That might increase however, with Farmageddon set to makes its bow on Netflix in the U.S. There’s every chance Shaun will finally crack the American market. The scale should certainly appeal to a nation used to big-screen spectacle. “It is an amazingly ambitious project,” concludes Becher. “We’ve redesigned the look of the Shaun world and made it a bit more cinematic.” So there you have it: boldly going where no sheep has gone before. You’d be baa-my to miss it.
A Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon opens in cinemas on January 9