‘Farmageddon’ Directors Will Becher & Richard Phelan on Shaun the Sheep’s Sci-Fi Adventure

     February 8, 2020

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In the latest Saturday Mourning Cartoons interview, we chat with Will Becher and Richard Phelan, the directors of Aardman Animation’s A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon. The follow-up film to the acclaimed stop-motion animation studio’s 2015 hit Shaun the Sheep Movie finds the title character goofing around Mossy Bottom Farm with his pals until an outer-space visitor crashes their party. What comes next is an out-of-this-world adventure that takes Shaun off the farm, out of the quiet town Mossingham, and further than he ever thought possible. The family-friendly adventure arrives on Netflix February 14th, and to celebrate that fact, Becher and Phelan walked us through Aardman’s first-ever sci-fi film.

The duo talked about their experience in the animation industry and how it led them to direct this franchise’s space-faring sequel, which is absolutely packed full of Easter eggs and nods to classic sci-fi titles. They also revealed how the creation of Lu-La came about, her early designs that didn’t make the final cut, the challenge of designing a spaceship in stop-motion animation, and how the cast communicated the story without any spoken dialogue. Plus, they tease what’s up next for Aardman, including more of Shaun the Sheep and Chicken Run 2 (which, yes, we can confirm, will include chickens).

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Follow along with the transcript below:

Now both of you have worked in animation industry for some time, but I believe this is the first feature film, as director, for both of you. So, can you talk about how that opportunity came about?

Will Becher: We’ve both been at Aardman for quite a few years, but also worked independently, outside of that. We both have a filmmaking background, so both going to unis to make our own films. And I think, with that in mind, I started out in the animation department and have always focused on character and performance. But I’ve always tried to make short films in between projects at Aardman. So I guess, maybe four years ago or so, I spoke to Nick Park about directing, and got a job on Shaun the Sheep series five as episode director. And then after that I worked with Nick on Early Man, as his animation director, alongsides Merlin Crossingham. And then the opportunity for this came up, when the producers, Paul Kewley and Carla [Shelley], had asked whether I would direct it with Rich, together, because I think they saw that Rich had his background in storyboard and script writing across a number of series, and also the first feature, as a story artist, and meant that we’d fit together quite well. So, with that story understanding and with the animation floor experience, that’s how it came about.

Richard Phelan: Yeah, yeah. Similar. So, I went to the National Film School in the UK, where I directed short animation films. And so my graduation film was seen by Aardman, so they brought me in as a story artist. And then I worked as a story artist at Aardman on Shaun the Sheep miniseries at that, and a writer, and then the head of story. And so when they said like, “Would you like to direct?” The producer, Paul Kewley asked us, and so yeah, I jumped at the chance. It’s a dream come true.

When exactly did the idea for Farmageddon come about? How did this sequel come up?

Will Becher: So we literally, as the first film was coming to an end, we started to have brainstorm meetings about what we could do next with Shaun the Sheep. And so, in the first film he left the farm, he’s gone on an adventure to find The Farmer. And then we thought, “What could we bring to the farm that’d be more fun?” And so we talked around a lot of different ideas, like they discover something buried on the farm, or something escapes from the farm and then someone said … it was actually Richard Starzak, that created Shaun the Sheep, “What if an alien crashed on the farm.” And then everyone just lit up, because we realized we’d never made a sci-fi film at Aardman. And we could sort of have loads of fun with crop circles and UFOs and secret government organizations and robots. It just sort of snowballed from there, really. And so, three years of hard work of sort of writing and story process and then actual shooting, and then Farmageddon was born. But in that initial meeting we were just talking about ideas. And Nick Park was there, and he just lit up, and he just went, “You guys could call it Farmageddon,” and everyone laughed. I’m sure we wrote that down, and then it just stuck because it was so funny.

So speaking about bringing the alien character Lu-La to the farm, what was the maybe conversation process for what the character was going to look like, what their backstory was going to be, what kind of powers they would have … What was the process like in creating this character?

Will Becher: Yeah, it was a real challenge, because Shaun is so well known and so iconic in his design. And we did spend a long time working with lots of different designs and drawings, until we ended up with the Lu-La that you see now. But it was a great sort of open brief for the art department and model making, just to have a go at designing all sorts of different aliens. But we knew from a story point of view, we wanted to bring someone into the world that Shaun would instantly like. We wanted her to be likable to him. And then over the course of the film he discovers that she’s quite different to what he imagined. So we spent a lot of time talking about all those attributes. We wanted to make her bright and colorful. We wanted her to have these intergalactic sort of alien powers, and as with everything, we spent a time just refining and honing the look of her.

One of our story artists, actually Ash Boddy, drew her outline in the end by drawing a UFO, Roswell style UFO for a head, and the rocket thrust underneath became a body. And it was great, because it was a very classic, very simple shape. We had some earlier designs that were really complicated. And so once we landed on that, it was a case just then of embellishing and building up and eventually getting our animation team, they got their hands on her and she came to life. Yeah.

Was there anything that the animation team was like, “I don’t know how we’re going to animate this.” Was there anything that was particularly challenging or difficult? And then on top of that, did you have any ideas for Lu-La that didn’t make it to the screen?

Richard Phelan: Well, early on the idea was that she would have these sort of Hulk-out moments where she could transform huge. So basically, because what Shaun doesn’t realize early on is that she’s maybe younger than he is, he thinks that they’re contemporaries, and so she’s having these sort of temper tantrums, but he just thinks she’s got this sort of Hulk-like power. And then it just became, there’s no way we could actually build the transformation moments in stop-motion. And also we realized we didn’t need it. We just needed her to be incredibly manic and sort of zany, and that would give us the same sort of feeling. And at one point we had a … she used to walk on these giant tentacles as well. We realized we would never be able to frame them in the same shot. She’d be like eight foot in the air and he wouldn’t.

And so sometimes it’s just the considerations of the story and like having these two feel like they’re against the world, like they’ve become this really well-bonded pair. And so we wanted to sort of keep that going. And so we would give her every power we could think of in order to help the story, and then strip them away and go, “Does that really help us or does that just get us out of a jam that we’re in?” And so we want them to get out of jams through their ingenuity and their cleverness rather than just go, “Lu-La has another power that can get us out of her problems.” Yeah, it’s nice. We wanted them more, Lu-La has powers that would get them into trouble. That’s sort of the remit that we would work through.

Will Becher: Oh definitely. Yeah. And we had like practical, technical things as well. Like the fact that her ears were going to light up when she lifts objects off the ground. And that was something that we did some initial tests just to see if we could do them in camera, but it was quite quickly apparent it was never going to look or feel the way we really wanted it to. So we embraced the sort of CG elements of lighting and volumetrics and things to make it feel genuine when it was happening. We wanted to keep it … in a way it’s lo-fi. It’s a science-fiction film, but it’s a Shaun version of a science-fiction film, so we couldn’t go too spectacular with it. But with those elements on her, we did want it to feel for Shaun like these things are actually happening. So we’ve got this great animation team who will do literally any test we throw at them. But the lights inside her ears were one thing we realized we had to reach outside of a studio.

So speaking about that, were there any new tools or techniques that you developed, or third-party help with computer generated elements, anything that you used on Farmageddon that you wish you had on previous movies? Are they just sort of Aardman’s pushing the boundaries of what is possible?

Richard Phelan: Yeah, I guess we were always sort of like, every film is sort of an iterative process of going, “How can we push things further?” So we had previs on this film, but we’ve had previs since the first Chicken Run movie. It’s just got much more sort of smooth and easy to use. And so, and then digital set extensions, so the art department build as much as possible. But then we would have CG elements, or we’ve actually sort of reached back to the history of filmmaking and we’d have actual matte paintings instead. So, just as long as the illusion held up, and the audience was immersed, every trick in the book we would use. We would build miniatures of one location, but have large puppets in front that were closer or further away from camera, things like that. We use 3D printing for a lot of the vehicles and props.

Will Becher: The funny thing about Aardman is it’s like we’re pushing technology, as Rich says, every film we do, we push technology. But at the same time, and in the same studio, we’ve got the most lo-fi solutions to things you can imagine. So our production boards, you know, they’re not using high end computers to run the schedule. They’re literally using pictures from the storyboards pinned together with bits of elastic band to show where the animator’s going.

Richard Phelan: Yeah. There’s like … we needed to show that something was on fire off camera, so the DP, he stuck like an old brown bottle over a light and had it rotate. Because the way the light just bounces to it, it creates that sort of like … that almost fireside glow. And so you go, “Well it works. We don’t need to sort of reinvent the wheel and find this really expensive CG solution, if we just stick bottles in front of lamps.”

Will Becher: Yeah, he’s got so many jam jars you wouldn’t believe it.

Did you guys discover you had to create new approaches for things that were set in space to take things away from gravity, away from Earth?

Will Becher: Yeah. And the spaceship itself was really complicated for us, because it’s a physical thing that exists, and it took a long time to build and design. But within it, inside it there are so many individually positioned LED lights. So LEDs is something we’re using more and more on each film. And actually that has been really useful. We can get tiny lights in front of the characters so they feel like they’re in this UFO with a million buttons, all different. But it did also make it more complex, and the scales of it were really hard to work with at first.

Richard Phelan: Yeah. So like the dashboard, like every button that kind of compressed, it could glow and turn off, and of course there are hundreds of buttons to this, hundreds of wires underneath the dashboard, and like inside all that the animator’s got to climb in as well. So it’s really complex. And then we use previs a lot for the space sequences, just to sort of figure out the timing and the movement of things sooner. Certain elements are CG, but then they built … like they built the International Space Station. The astronauts are all stop-motion puppets. So they knew how long it would be on camera for, and how it would have to move gently, and sort of where the CG elements would be so that the eyelines could work. But at the same time it’s just sort of like huge art departments sort of coming together to build these amazing sets as well. So it’s a wonderful mix of the traditional and then stuff like CG technology.

I would imagine you guys had a blast just coming up with the little Easter eggs from sci-fi movie history. Do you guys have a favorite kind of Easter egg or nod to a sci-fi classic in there?

Will Becher: There are tons. I mean, there are literally tons. Nearly every scene and every shot has something in it. Because not only do we love sci-fi and the story team loves sci-fi, but everyone in every department has added ideas and sci-fi jokes. So the art department constantly thinking of puns and things that they can put in books. You know, I love this, there’s a certain point in the film, there’s a flashback for one of the characters, and you see them in a classroom. And in that classroom there’s about three or four different sci-fi gags that most people never ever see, but they just make us laugh. And so they go into the film.

Richard Phelan: Yeah, I have a similar one. In the underground base there’s a canteen where all the hazmats eat, and there’s like a notice board on the wall, and it’s Logan’s Running Club.

I think I missed that one.

Richard Phelan: It’s great. Everyone’s just going, “My favorite film is this. Can we sneak it in?”

Right.

Richard Phelan: Yeah. We’ve had a few we couldn’t get in, but mostly we’ve been good. But the best thing is the art department, they have added pretty much every box or packet in the supermarket is a reference to a sci-fi film. And it’s one of those things where you just have to sort of pause it, and just see they’ve come up with every single one. So it’s just been such an … otherwise or we just argue about what the funniest one is, like the mechanic shop at the start of the film is called HG Wheels.

Right.

Richard Phelan: Like we talked through being a Star Trek reference to Scotty, or like the best engineers in the universe, like all of these different things. So there’s loads of debate as to what the funniest sci-fi reference is as well.

Do you guys know if you have plans for behind-the-scenes featurettes or Easter egg guides or anything like that on the ultimate home release?

Richard Phelan: On the Blu-ray there’s a “Making of Farmageddon“, but I don’t know what they’ve cut together. Because we had some really great camera people throughout who were filming all the time, other things, like they’ve shot these beautiful sort of making-ofs where the sets are being constructed, all the animators, time lapse photography. We can see the animators sort of like flitting here and there whilst the puppets are alive, and so hopefully, yeah, there’s going to be a spot the references as well.

Will Becher: Yeah. Yeah. There’s loads of great footage, and it is amazing to see the scales. When you get a human, when you get one of the crew standing next to one of these sets, you realize how enormous and amazing it all is. So hopefully, yeah, hopefully everyone will get to see the behind the scenes that we’ve shot.

Absolutely. And like I mentioned, this is coming out on Netflix in just a few days for us here in the States. But since it’s been out in theaters for a little while, how has the reception been to the movie so far?

Will Becher: Well really, from the first test screening we had, we were understandably nervous, having been given this huge character, Shaun the Sheep, to make a second film with. And that first test screening was a sort of pivotal moment for us, because we’d spent about two years working on this new character Lu-La. And she got a great … she got a very warm and very genuine response in front of that audience. And from that moment on, we felt like we’d made the right kind of choices. And we’ve seen it now in different countries. You know, we did a tour, and we’ve been and seen the premiere in France and been to … where else have we been to?

Richard Phelan: Been to Japan and everywhere.

Will Becher: Japan, lots of countries, and what’s really lovely is that it is a film that connects with people from different cultures, but also people of different ages. And one of the best screenings we had, I think, was these teenagers in Italy who just loved it. It’s quite a hard audience, teenage, but they really, really loved it, so it’s been good. Yeah.

That’s great. What do you guys see as the future for the character of Shaun the Sheep, since you’ve been with the character for quite some time now?

Richard Phelan: Well, we’re still working on Shaun Adventures at the moment in the studio. Nothing I can talk about just yet. But he’s not going away. He’s not going anywhere. Yeah.

Will Becher: Yeah. There’s always more ideas, and so we’ll keep plugging away.

Richard Phelan: Yeah.

Good answer. What do you hope to see for maybe the future of Aardman Animation in the years to come?

Richard Phelan: Well I really, we’ve got some fantastic projects coming up. I don’t know what I can talk about or not, but we’ve got something that’s … looks totally new and totally fresh, different from everything done before, and I’ve seen them building the sets and I’ve seen the test. It looks amazing, and it’s so exciting. Everyone on the crew is excited because it’s like we’re just seeing how far we can push stop-motion in new directions with the look and design, and then at the same time, sort of like firm fan-favorites.

Chicken Run 2 is in development right now, and that’s sort of like … that’s powering ahead and the story is still shaping up really well. And so we’ve got this nice mix of things happening right now in the studio, which everyone’s really excited about.

Is there anything you can tease about Chicken Run 2?

Richard Phelan: It has chickens in it.

Nice.

Richard Phelan: I don’t think we can say anything just yet. It’s just Sam Fell is working on it. And it’s really exciting. It’s just, it’s got some fan favorites from the first film in it, but I can’t say much more than that.

Fair enough. Shaun the Sheep is known for not having traditional dialogue. What was your process like in the voice recording booth and in the story-breaking process, knowing you can’t rely on dialogue to carry these scenes?

Will Becher: Yeah, we worked with Mark Burton, who co-wrote the first film with Richard Starzak. He was our writer on this, and Paul Kewley the producer. We’d often sit in a room together debating and talking about a story. And a lot of that was about finding the best scenarios. And it was tricky in a way, because we have three narratives at one point. The story breaks into different directions. So we spent a long time working on those different parts, but always, always thinking about comedy and also emotions. So why we care about Lu-La and Shaun in the first place. And that was our core, sort of. We spent all our time on that, really. And then the story team, we relied on them heavily. We test everything in story. We’d do multiple versions of sequences over and over again to try and get across without words. And we test that story sequence on people in the company. Like the founders of the company and Nick Park, they would come in every few months and watch the reel, and give us a sense of whether they felt it was working, whether we were getting those important beats across. And then we would get into the animation side of things, and we’d act everything out with the animators. And again, that’s really like trying to find the best way of selling a particular joke or an emotion or the way a character’s thinking.

Constantly, just finessing all the time and always questioning and sort of pitching to each other about, I think maybe it would be clearer this way, or I think this idea in the story isn’t fitting in here. It’s confusing. So you know, we’d move things around quite a lot, and our editor, Sim [Evan Jones], was just brilliant at seeing the whole, working with those three different stories and weaving them. He was invaluable for that process. What about the actors?

Richard Phelan: Justin and John, who are the voices of Shaun and Bitzer and The Farmer, they are sort of the masters of it. And so they would watch the animatic and we would discuss the emotions that Shaun and Bitzer and The Farmer are going through. So they would then bring all of this warmth and comedy to all the baas and sort of like the nonsense speak that The Farmer does. And then we had a new actress, Amalia [Vitale], and she just brought this amazing warmth to Lu-La, and she did this sort of like, it sounds like Lu-La’s talking to herself, like she’s a little kid. And so everything to her is exciting and interesting. But then there’s this sort of mischievous element to the way she sort of giggles, like she’s always looking for fun, and she’s essentially Shaun magnified. So she’s more fun-loving than he is, and she pushes the boundaries even further. Like he has a line in the sand for him that he won’t cross, and she doesn’t even know what that means. And so he’s forever trying to reel her back in.

And so Amalia was just having to bring that to life, and then bring all these, everything, all of elements coming together, and then screening it is sort of like … it’s a constant refining process, I think. Even once we’ve begun shooting, we’re still re-boarding scenes that the animators haven’t got to so we can start to go, “Is that clear? Could it be clearer? Will an audience understand this?” It’s always … we’re constantly testing because there’s no dialogue. Sorry, yeah, there’s no spoken dialogue. But also I think sometimes it’s the boarding process is so crucial for Shaun the Sheep, where every nuance and inflection is boarded to test, so that then when we test it with the animators we’ll perform it all, and then we’ll add, we’ll plus that in the live action video, and then they can plus that again in the animation. And so it’s a constant sort of refining and then plussing process.

And then like you said, sometimes you don’t even need spoken dialogue at all. Like I could watch that mini-mart scene with the soda, the sugar rush, over and over again.

Richard Phelan: And that’s it. It’s just like it’s the looks to camera or just the looks to each other and you go, “I know exactly what they’re thinking.” That’s the magic of it.

Will Becher: It’s funny actually, because the more dialogue you put in actually, the more off-putting it is. In a way we sometimes try to strip it out because you’re not being carried by words. We’re not selling this story with someone telling you what to think. It’s all about the acting, and it’s all about the situations they’re in, yeah.

Cool. And my last question for you guys today, what’s up next for the both of you that you can actually talk about? Do you have any other sort of side projects or any passion projects you’re working on?

Will Becher: Well, yeah, I’ve got a couple of ideas for films of different lengths. So I’m currently developing those, and there’s a couple of projects here that I’m also involved with.

Richard Phelan: Yeah. I’m working on some projects here at Aardman. Annoyingly I can’t talk about them.

The diplomatic approach. I appreciate it. Fair enough. Well, thank you guys so much for your time today. I’m looking forward to the release of Farmageddon here in the States on Netflix for everyone to check out, and looking forward, obviously, to more from the both of you and Aardman as well. So thanks again for your time.

Richard Phelan: Thank you very much.

Will Becher: Thanks, Dave.

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