Richard ‘Golly’ Starzak joined Aardman back in 1983 and has worked on projects including Sledgehammer for Peter Gabriel and Morph as well as written and directed the Rex the Runt TV series, multi-award winning Robbie the Reindeer and Creature Comforts for the Studio. Currently Creative Director of the Broadcast and Development department at Aardman, we talk to the filmmaker about co-writing and co-directing Shaun the Sheep Movie with Mark Burton and how digital filmmaking might have saved the art of stop frame animation.
Well, actually we were thinking that even in the first series the structure of the show kind of made the series sort of punch above its weight, you know; there’s an emotional relationship between the characters so we thought we could tell longer form stories. That was the initial idea, I think, and since then it’s been at the back of my mind for like three series. And then probably about four or five years ago I started saying “We’ve got to make a film we’ve got to make a film!” so eventually everyone agreed with me.
You’ve championed Shaun since the beginning, what drew you to him out of all the Wallace and Gromit and Aardman characters specifically?
Well, Shaun was in development while I was working on a Creature Comforts series – do you remember Creature Comforts?
Yes of course!
I was working on that but after it finished I was asked to make a pilot for Shaun, for a TV series that had been written by somebody else and I kind of just thought that I would direct a pilot for them and that would be it. I didn’t have much creative involvement in it and it struck me about half way through as I was making an animatic (when you story board it and put it up on the screen) that it wasn’t working particularly well because Shaun was kind of an heroic figure in the set up. He had a girlfriend, he had a bike, he had a cashpoint card, he could use internet cafs, he’d take his girlfriend to the cinema and I thought actually there’s no reason for him to be a sheep, you know, this could be anybody. So I talked to the people in broadcast at the time and said “I don’t think this is right. Can I have a go?” And they said yes, they agreed with me. And I kind of went back to basics and thought about sheep, what do they do? And, well, they eat grass, their job is to eat grass. I was kind of inspired by a cartoon; I think there was a Warner Bros cartoon where a wolf and some sheep clock in like a job. There’s a clocking in clock and the wolf and the sheep say ‘good morning’ to each other and as soon as they’ve clocked in the wolf starts chasing the sheep because that’s his job and at the end of the day they all go home and are friends again. If the idea is of sheep eating grass as a job then a sheepdog would be good as a foreman in the workplace who makes sure that they go into the field and come back into the barn again. And then the Farmer came a little bit later but it was kind of a hierarchy, which meant that Shaun had restrictions and I think if you give a character restrictions then you can develop stories. If there aren’t any restrictions, if he’s got a cashpoint machine, a girlfriend, then there’s nowhere to go really, it’s just all a bit dull but if he’s fighting against something it makes for more interesting stories.
In the Movie, Shaun gets into a bit of a rut and decides to have a day off which results in the Farmer being taken away from Mossy Bottom Farm. Is that what inspired you to take the adventure to the Big City? Because he’s very much in a rigid schedule in his world?
Yes, I co-wrote the script and co-directed with Mark Burton who’s very experienced and we decided that if we are going to make a film we need to take the sheep off the farm and have some excitement somewhere. So our original idea was like – I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember but – there’s a Cliff Richard film called Summer Holiday where they all get on a bus and drive around Europe. It was that kind of idea at first then we thought no what’s the most opposite to a farm that is plausible and it’s obviously a big city so we thought we’ve got to end up in a big city. Then we plotted on how to get there really.
You’ve talked about how in the initial pilot, Shaun had a credit card and a girlfriend, was it important to bring a modern angle to the Flock by introducing them to the wider world with the social media storyline as well?
Well, it wasn’t a conscious thing like hey let’s be hip, it’s just like, it’s the modern world you know, we just thought it would be quite funny if the Farmer was an instant success. And I think it’s true in the modern world that you can do something that goes viral and you become incredibly famous for a short amount of time. So we thought we’d use that as a funny thing that would happen to the Farmer because when we had the idea of the Farmer shearing sheep and then becoming a famous hairdresser, we couldn’t stop laughing for about ten minutes so we thought that’s good! And how does he become famous? Well, obviously through social media because that’s the only way he can become successful so quickly. So we just set it in the modern world really we didn’t want to make Shaun hip and cool.
Is there a ridiculous hairstyle that you’ve had or that a famous person has had that you just can’t understand why it’s done so well for them?
Well, funnily enough, on Google I found that people like Bette Lynch off Coronation Street, in the years gone by sometime in the late 70’s and 80’s had a Shaun haircut. I think it was the idea that mentally that’s how Farmer cut hair and so, it was a recognisable Shaun cut really. But funnily enough when we were making the film it became a very popular cut with footballers, that shaved sides and flattop, sort of topknot thing. But, personally, haircuts, no I’ve had some terrible ones in my time, but I haven’t got any hair left now, so!
You have said you are very fond of Bitzer, why is that? And in the Aardman story of your life, which Aardman character would play you?
Bitzer I like because there was a TV series called Porridge years ago with Ronnie Barker and there was a character called Mr. Barrowclough who was a prison warden who liked to be friends with the prisoners; he wanted to be liked by them but also had a job to do and I thought that’s Bitzer’s role really, he wants to be part of the Flock but he’s got a job to do as well. So I liked that about him, it makes him an interesting character, as a foil for Shaun. An Aardman character to play me, oh blimey. I did a series called Rex the Runt a long time ago and I am very close to Bad Bob because I’m a big fan of sausages, so yeh, Bad Bob!
Will there be another movie? And will new character Slip the orphan dog feature in the next film or TV series?
I think Slip might make a return. I’d love to make another feature. We are just tentatively talking about ideas for a sequel in case StudioCanal are interested and in case the world’s interested, so yeah, I’d love to do that, it’s been the best three years of my life! I loved making the film, it was just fantastic and the outpouring of people loving it, I can’t explain it it’s a bit surreal to be honest.
Do you think there might be a possibility of Shaun growing older as his audience does? One day, there might be Mrs. Shaun the Sheep, as you say there was a girlfriend in the initial pilot? Do you think he’ll have his own Flock?
I think not because I think like all the classic characters, they don’t age. It’s like with Daffy Duck or Bart Simpson, they stay the same so Shaun’s already about 20 years old and he’d have big horns and a very deep voice but I think we’ll keep him where he is.
My 5 year old nephew absolutely loved the film but obviously wasn’t afraid of the Silence of the Lambs reference because it didn’t have a scary relevance for him whereas the adults found it incredibly funny. Is it tricky to have jokes in these films for adults that are not comprehensible on the same level to children?
Well, what we always do is we never think let’s think of gags for children let’s think of gags for adults, we just think of gags really. We examine each one saying, if there’s an adult gag that would throw the story or would confuse the kids. I think that there were lots of gags we thought of that we didn’t have in, sort of grown up gags. You know the cat makes that weird sort of noise at Shaun as he walks past, the Hannibal Lecter noise, I mean kids still laugh at that, they probably don’t know why they are laughing it’s just a weird thing to happen, so that’s okay so long as we don’t exclude anyone that’s the key thing with jokes.
Stop frame is such a traditional type of animation – are there ways in which technology can help or are the methods essentially the same as they were when you started out?
They are basically the same although all the techniques have become very refined with replacement mouths; we used to sculpt mouth shapes on the puppet on set but now we can take them off and pop new ones on and they’re all held in place with these micro magnets and it’s all very clever and very sophisticated but basically the same thing. The technology has changed in that obviously we shoot digitally now which makes life a lot easier. You know, we used to live with dread in shooting a shot that was like two seconds long. You’d unload the camera put it in the can give it to a courier who would drive down from Bristol to Technicolor and then it would be processed, they’d wait, sleep in the van pick it up three hours later and then bring it back for first thing in the morning. Then we’d have to watch it and if there was a camera fault or anything it would be such a waste of time and money but with digital technology it’s fantastic. I think digital technology might have hugely sort of saved stop frame from becoming archaic because it just means we can make it for a lot less money than we used to because the whole film processing thing was just crazy.
Finally, why do you think Shaun has been such a success?
I’m not sure – there are circumstances that have happened which have made him a success but really – if I knew, if there was an answer, I think I’d be a very rich man, which I’m not! But it’s the fact that there’s no dialogue, we initially had no dialogue because for the TV series it was more economical to make a TV series without dialogue because the lip sync takes a lot longer and therefore costs more money. So we did it silent but in doing so we made it very understandable and popular globally which wasn’t the initial intention. We weren’t trying to make something which was going to be international we were just trying to make something that would work well and without words a lot of the episodes are like little mini movies anyway; they are shot very cinematically – you have to tell a story through images and that’s global.
And actually, I’m getting a bit geeky here if you don’t mind, but I’ve got a big thing about acting and the eyes: we universally use our eyes to access different parts of our brains, that’s universal as well, so if you look up to your left or to your right you’re thinking visually, you’re constructing visual images or thinking of visual images and if you look down you’re thinking conceptually of phone numbers or things that happen to you and again that’s universal. So, if we get that right and the animators study that a lot and I’ve studied it quite a lot, it’s called eye accessing cues (actually if you look up eye accessing cues on Google you’ll see loads of images to illustrate what I mean) it’s an acting short cut and it just means that universally you know what the character is thinking just by where his eyes are. It’s true in Japan just as it is anywhere else you know. So, that and he’s a loveable character obviously. It’s not all geekiness! He’s a very attractive character and I think kids relate to the fact that he’s sort of like a 10 year old kid pushing the boundaries. I think that’s what people like and slapstick is a universal thing as well, people like slapstick comedy you know. Mr. Bean’s been very successful globally and I think there’s some element of that, it’s a truth as well.
Shaun the Sheep Movie is released on February 6th, and you can read our review here.