Mark Burton, co-writer and co-director of Shaun the Sheep The Movie has had an illustrious screenwriting career so far. Starting out as comedy writer on British TV shows such as Spitting Image, he has since collaborated with Aardman and Dreamworks for over 15 years and has worked on multi-award winning films including Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run. This time and for the first time, he is co-helming Shaun the Sheep the Movie the new Aardman stop frame film based on the TV series of the much loved Aardman character Shaun the Sheep along with Richard Starzak. We talk to him about his directorial debut, what it’s like working with the global superstar Sheep and ridiculous celebrity hairstyle trends.
Just to be clear, I didn’t work on the TV series, I worked for Aardman for 15 years or more. So Richard, the other Director, was the man behind the TV series and I think he felt the TV shows had been running for several series and was very popular around the world, and I think he felt there was more to be mined out of that character and that situation. In a way, I was brought in because of my skill as a screenwriter and having worked with DreamWorks on long form films. I immediately said it’s a great situation and you’ve got to receive it as a work place with that kind of form and character, you know with the boss informing and the workers. And I said we’ve got to set up a family as a style of figure, and I think that gave us a springboard into creating something from which you could then make a film. And that was it really, there just felt like there was more potential in that character.
What was it like directing your first feature and did it help having Golly (Richard ‘Golly’ Starzak – co-writer/director) there with you?
Yeah, it was a pretty steep learning curve, I’ll be honest. I’m not an animator, so in a way this was a great thing because I had to completely trust my crew. Me and Golly discussed the story in detail and we had the story board artist to create a reel for us, so we were pretty clear about what we thought the vision of the film would be, we were on the same page with that. But in terms of the actual shots, you work with the animators, and it’s like working with actors, and you talk through what you want and you do a double run on it and then you trust them to bring in the shot. So, I think it was a great experience, it was a hell of a laugh and really enjoyable!
And really eye-opening from the sounds of things.
Definitely eye-opening. Being a director is a big job and there are all sorts of different levels to it, creative, managerial, providing inspiration during the difficult times. And there always will be difficult times when you’re developing a big animation story, it’s not easy. So you have to have a lot of stamina.
You write comedy for ‘Room 101’ and ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’. How different is that compared to writing for animation?
It’s very different in that the shows that I worked on, ‘Have I got News for You’ and other shows, it’s a training course, if you like, a sort of comedy gym for working on comic timing. For those shows you have a very fast turn around for material; you get to learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t work. So I guess you take that toolbox with you when I started doing animation. So it helped with the comedy side definitely, having said that there’s a whole other area of learning about story and story-telling which doesn’t necessarily apply to those shows. Well, actually, I think you look at a big panel show and there usually is a little story in there, it sounds odd to say, but there’s a very simple idea of two teams and you kind of go from beginning, middle and end basically. But I think in the sense of how people in animation actually tell these stories they need to be very compelling, you talk to anybody in any animation studio and they’ll tell you cracking the story is the hardest thing.
And of course without the dialogue you have to be completely on top of your game consistently. And I personally didn’t feel like I was bored for a second, it flew by.
You didn’t miss the dialogue?
No, no, not at all. If anything I kind of quite like that there wasn’t any dialogue.
Yeah, I think that what happened was the same thing. We set out with this idea of making a full length feature without dialogue and we talked about Wall-E, in which the first half hour is dialogue free, but people still think that was the best bit.
Yeah, same with the ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’.
Yeah, exactly. I think after a short period your brain just adapts to that.
And you kind of pay more attention.
Yeah, and what becomes important is non-verbal communication which in a way is a more powerful form of communication, you could argue. So yeah we played around with it and we knew we had to find a story that was simple, but it had to be profound enough that you stayed engaged, so it wasn’t easy.
As we all know, children are pretty much the toughest critics when it comes to this kind of thing, you know keeping their concentration. Am I right in saying that you have children?
I have children of my own, but they’re grown up children.
And did they grow up on Aardman? Were they your Guinea-pigs throughout?
[laughs] Interesting question. Well, I had children fairly young, I remember my children when they were young, you may call me a bad parent, they enjoyed watching ‘Spitting Image’, so I had a lot of ‘Spitting Image’ tapes in the attic and they’d go and dig them out and I’d have to take them off them (because I worked on ‘Spitting Image’ in the very early days). I think they always enjoyed animation, I would talk to them about it, but I think what my children particularly like is comedy and from a very young age they were really into that and The Simpsons. So I guess, yeah, maybe I used them as a bit of a pyrometer for comedy. But in terms of animation I think one of the golden rules of being in, what they now call the ‘family space’, is that you don’t dumb down, you create a story and material that makes you laugh and feel whatever. And obviously you’re conscious that it will be watched by young people, but I don’t think there’s any sense that I’d go to my kids and say ‘oh what would make you kids interested?’
Yeah, you don’t want to neglect the older demographic, so to speak. So on the flip-side of things, do you take some traits for the characters from your family and friends?
Well we’re having trouble that one of our characters looks like Ed Milliband! But I think it’s just a coincidence, if you make a puppet people are going to say ‘that one looks like Ed Milliband, that one looks like…’. But I think what you certainly do as a writer/director is that you, not necessarily your own family, but you observe the world around you and I’m constantly – to be honest – I’m quite nosey, on a bus or on a train, I’m always looking at people. And I think Golly was the same, Golly was a brilliant character designer, I mean he can draw and I don’t draw, but would often come in and say “I’ve seen this person in Tesco,” and he’d start sketching it and after he’d finished it would be a new character created. I will say though, actually, that my son is a doctor and there was a character in the film that was a junior doctor and I couldn’t resist it, and my son is also quite a skilled voice artist so I asked him to come and do the voice for the junior doctor. So maybe I use my family in that way.
It’s nice to be able to correlate life to the big screen.
Yeah, so I suppose the junior doctor is based on a real character, but generally what you do is create composite characters out of different sorts of people.
So am I right in saying that you find yourself relating to the Farmer?
That’s right. I think I’ve said before. I don’t know why of all people a grumpy middle aged man I would relate to, but I seem to!
And in the Aardman story of your life which Aardman character would play you?
Well, if it wasn’t the Farmer, I guess – oh that’s an interesting question – well, I’m not sure I’m a Wallace, maybe more of a Gromit, I can imagine myself sometimes to be a bit of a worrier.
I think it’s only a good thing if you can compare yourself to Wallace and Gromit!
Yeah, that’s not a bad thing. I haven’t got any tank tops though!
So the next question is a bit of a different one, in the movie there are lots of hairstyle trends – what’s the most ridiculous hairstyle you’ve had, or do you think a famous person out there has had that you can’t understand why they’ve gone for it?
Well we’ve always felt that Shaun’s hairstyle was a bit like Grace Jones. People in music, you probably don’t remember you were too young, but called The Seagulls, but their hair was all sticking out in bizarre angles, this was back in the 80s. And of course the wonderful Human League singer, where he basically seemed to have half a hair cut and I don’t know if you’ve seen a picture of him in the 80s with his hair like that. He had one side of his head long and the other side short. And sadly for me my days of having hair has gone so I can only wistfully think about it!
Finally, ‘The Curse of the Were Rabbit’ won a host of awards in 2006, including a BAFTA and Oscar for best animated film. Do you have a favourite animated film you’d like to win as the Oscars or BAFTAs this year and do you have similar hopes for Shaun next year?
Generally, what you want is to create a film that people like and want to see, that’s the most important thing by a mile, so an award would be the cherry on the icing, but we’re much more interested in the people themselves and the cinema audience going and enjoying the film. In terms of this year, that’s a tricky one, I think the ‘Lego Movie’ was great, and I think that’s been left out. I did like aspects of ‘Box Trolls’. I think the other one is ‘Big Hero 6’, which I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment on that one. I was looking forward to this year, there’s going to be some great animation coming out and I’m really looking forward to the Pixar movie and so there’s going to be a bumper year!