Don’t eat the mala! How Aardman Studios create cinema magic one step at a time

It takes four days to produce six seconds of film, dozens of directors to finish one movie, and the stars will only wash with baby wipes. Yet Aardman Animations is still the best in the business

This week, Donald Clarke is counting jokes in 'Shaun The Sheep Movie', while Tara Brady looks at 'Selma', one of the first major movie biopics of Martin Luther King Jr. And why was the release of 'Jupiter Ascending' delayed? Video: Niamh Guckian

 

Deep in Isambard Kingdom Brunel country, on the outskirts of Bristol, lies a place that ought to have been called “the real happiest place on Earth”, if a certain older family-oriented imprint hadn’t got there first. Aardman Animations, that fine fashioner of clay, has been producing films from this otherwise anonymous 30,000sq ft of industrial space since 1997’s Chicken Run.

When I visit, it is working its way through the film version of TV hit Shaun the Sheep. It operates out of the corner block of an industrial estate that is mostly used for, well, industrial things. It used to be a warehouse for Fisher Price toys.

It’s only when you walk into reception and see various familiar screen characters staring down from the walls – Wallace and Gromit, the motley stars of The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! – that you’re finally convinced this isn’t where they keep scaffolding and formwork.

Except it kind of is: inside the boxy building lies a labyrinth of elaborate sets replete with a flurry of electricians and lighting folk. Look here: there’s a lobster tank in that restaurant; comic potential ahoy. Look there: there’s grime around the bus station and a peeling poster for a John Cooper Clarke gig. The attention to detail is swoon-making, especially when one considers the size of the lot and the onscreen cast. Standing at around 20cm, the models are just about the right height to storm Barbie’s Dream House and kick her bony ass to the curb. It is exceedingly difficult to stop yourself from playing with them. Must. Keep. Hands. In. Pockets.

It takes up to three months to build the first model of any given character and can cost anything up to £14,000 to complete.

A squadron of model-makers and puppet-makers beaver away on eyeballs and jackets and handbags. Having tested every option on the market, they use Asda-brand toilet-training baby wipes to keep the clay models clean. Every accessory requires expertise: a glassblower was drafted in to create tiny wine glasses.

Super-director

It requires four days to produce six seconds of film, so many scenes are shot simultaneously. “It can be mind-boggling for the directors,” says Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, “But with 20 or 25 animators working on each section, they combine all their skills to turn into one super-director.”

Lord and David Sproxton created the Aardman imprint in 1972 to fashion animated sequences for Vision On, a BBC series for deaf children.

“At the time there was very little stop-motion,” recalls Lord. “There was The Magic Roundabout. And not much more.”

Morph, a simple, comical Plasticine character, debuted on the same channel in 1977, as part of Tony Hart’s art programme. Prone to changing dimensions and speaking only in gobbledygook, the little ball of orange clay was a smash hit.

His mostly silent adventures would pave the way for the lovely gloop of Aardman heroes including the straight-talking zoo inmates of Creature Comforts and Rex the Runt.“There are hardly any feature animation studios in the world. But here we are, still existing after all this time,” says Peter Lord.

Equivalent ruminant

It’s odd to visit a film set and not speak with any of the stars. But when all the dialogue reads “Baa” or “Woof”, that’s probably inevitable. If Aardman is the little studio that could, then Shaun the Sheep is its equivalent ruminant. Shaun first took a bow in director Nick Park’s Academy Award-winning short, A Close Shave, the third film in the Wallace and Gromit sequence.

The brave crop-topped lamb would soon adorn school-folders and greeting cards. And then there was Shaun the Bag, as worn by Baby Spice Emma Bunton at the height of the Spice Girls’ powers.

“The minute she stepped out of a car wearing that bag our phones started ringing,” recalls Arthur Sheriff, Aardman’s head of communications. “After that, there was no stopping Shaun.”

The sheep was soon taken under the wing of Richard “Golly” Goleszowski (or Richard Starzak as he is often known). Golly joined Aardman in 1983 from film school: he was Lord and Sproxton’s first employee.

He had worked on many of Aardman’s much-loved creations – including Rex the Runt and the Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel – when he had the idea to place Shaun in a farm, as the most mischief-prone sheep in a flock overseen by a myopic farmer and Blitzer, the beleaguered sheepdog. Inspired by the silent comedy of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, Golly’s Shaun would prove a world-beater.

Shaun the Sheep’s show debuted on BBC in 2007. Four series and 140 episodes later, the series has sold in more than 170 territories. Shaun has five million followers on Facebook and has inspired a hit stage-show in the Middle East. In Japan, 40 million people use his digital message app.

Shaun gets around. No wonder he’s a spin-off worthy enough to generate his own spin-off: Timmy Time, the adventures of Shaun’s even littler woolly chum has been on TV since 2009. And no wonder Shaun is finally getting his own movie film, starring some 42 puppets, seven cars and one moped. The new film brings Shaun and the flock to the Big City in search of their now amnesiac boss. There will be shenanigans.

Having existing models to work around has ensured that Shaun the Sheep: The Movie is a comparatively easy shoot for the Aardman community.

“It’s a much faster turnaround than usual,” says Golly, who is co-directing the film with Madagascar writer Mark Burton. “We have references.”

But it’s still a hell of a thing to see the team at work on a fully-fitted farm set in an age when they could easily switch to low-cost digital.

“We don’t differentiate between stop-motion and clay-mation,” explains Lord. “What we love is handmade animation. We’re proud of the human touch. It’s not perfect. But perfect doesn’t always mean good.”

Shaun the Sheep: The Movie opens February 2nd, 2015

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