Look for nods to classic sci-fi films in Shaun the Sheep’s latest romp
Woolly hero Shaun the Sheep, one of British studio Aardman Animations’ most popular creations, has charmed the academy once more with the sequel to 2015’s Oscar-nominated “Shaun the Sheep Movie.”
Released on Netflix in early 2020, “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” is this year’s surprise finalist for the animated feature award and the only one representing the laborious stop-motion technique. The wacky saga sees the clever sheep, who walks upright, and his goofy flock engaged in extraterrestrial shenanigans to help a mischievous alien named Lu-La return to her planet.
For codirectors Will Becher and Richard Phelan, who have long histories working on Shaun’s TV series and the original film, this was a welcome chance to helm their first major project. “I’ve got an animation background, and Rich’s got a story background. Together we worked quite well as a team to bounce off each other with our respective skills,” Becher said via Zoom from England. Throughout production, the duo divided the movie’s numerous sequences for each to oversee and later joined forces to edit.
Since the previous story hinged on a simple premise — Shaun goes to the city to save the farmer — the artists envisioned a follow-up that would take the action to greater heights with a high concept that could still work with their hilarious livestock. Farmsteads, they thought, are inherently isolated settings that lend themselves to UFO sightings, and so the notion of a sci-fi hommage rang ideal.
Early in their brainstorming sessions, which began just after the first movie wrapped, four-time Oscar-winner Nick Park, the man behind “Wallace and Gromit,” brilliantly suggested they title the new escapade “Farmageddon,” an apocalyptic play on words.
“Sci-fi genre worked quite well in a lot of ways, because we have essentially a silent film. A lot of it is quite sparse; there’s normally not much dialogue in it,” noted Becher. Nonverbal humor is inherent to Shaun’s universe; the challenge now was in conveying a more elaborate, intergalactic plot relying solely on visual components, including sight gags galore, and the inflections of each bleat and bark (Bitzer the dog is a key character).
Steven Spielberg’s filmography and the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” are among the long list of references that get a nod in Aardman’s absurdist style here. Long-running homegrown series “Doctor Who” also gets its due — a standout joke shows the emblematic TARDIS as a portable toilet. One of their proudest tips of the hat is to the eerie signs in Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed “Arrival,” one of which cleverly takes the form of a pizza stain in “Farmageddon.”
Exponentially more energetic than Shaun, whimsical Lu-La was conceived in bright candy colors and glitter in her floppy ears to convey her ebullient personality. Since Shaun has an unmistakably identifiable shape, the goal was to give Lu-La just as classic a silhouette. “Her design is actually based on old classic 1950s UFOs. Her head is disk-shaped, and then her body looks like a beam of light or a rocket thrust lifting her off the ground,” said Phelan.
Aardman prides itself the tangible quality of the studio’s craftsmanship, thus in “Farmageddon” computer animation was employed judiciously only to embellish the more fantastical scenes or to create certain environmental elements. All CG visual effects, whether they were flames or water, have a “chunky look” to match the texture and aesthetic of the figures and spaces. The team aims for balance between classic and modern approaches.
“There’s a great appreciation for the history of filmmaking in that we try to find techniques and tricks to do it all in camera: forced perspective or building miniature sets. But at the same time we also build things in CGI when necessary,” said Phelan. For example, the imposing spaceship existed as a physical set while on the ground, but once the narrative required it to take off, it was replaced with a digital double.
“Farmageddon,” which required four years and a team of about 200 people to complete, also features the largest set Aardman has ever built: an underground base for secret agents investigating Lu-La’s visit. The massive set was the length of an Olympic swimming pool.
“One of the most joyous things about working in a company like Aardman is that after working on storyboards for months or years, one day we walk into the studio and see this thing that has been in our heads for so long created in a real physical space and with the most amazing details. It’s so immersive that it feels like a live-action-film set,” said Becher.
In a world where most animated features use computer-generated visuals, with the occasional hand-drawn oddity, stop-motion continues to captivate. In its physicality, one can sense the human artistry that imbues life into the adorable characters. Though the protagonists are essentially 8 inches of clay, on screen they exude a great range of emotions.
Thinking about why their beloved fictional friend Shaun — who will return this holiday season with the Christmas special “A Winter’s Tale From Shaun the Sheep” — has remained a global favorite, the filmmakers noted the appeal of Shaun’s relatable simplicity.
“There’s something very innocent about him, and yet he is also cheeky. Everyone loves that,” said Becher. Furthermore, his wordless ovine antics allow him to tickle fans across borders and languages without dubbing or subtitling his enthusiastic baas. “Sheep sounds work well around the world,” Phelan concluded.
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