On Shaun the Sheep Movie, their first feature film as directors, Mark Burton and Richard Starzak quickly found a rapport and rhythm that took them through the three-year process. Burton had extensive experience as a writer of high-profile animated films, including Gnomeo & Juliet, while Starzak had directed extensively for TV, including 33 episodes of Aardman Animation’s Shaun the Sheep series. Here, Burton and Starzak delve into their marathon collaborative process, the division of labor between the co-writer-directors, and the challenges of making a stop-motion animated comedy with no dialogue.
What is the process for you as co-writer-directors? Where do you find the separation of duties?
Richard Starzak: There was no real separation until production. We worked on the script equally, although Mark had more screenwriting experience.
Mark Burton: I tended to generate the pages more but we would write the story together. There were periods when I went in to edit and Richard went down on the floor, which is when we started shooting for a short time. After that, we just divided the film in half, basically. Every day we’d start hideously early—it was about an 8:30 start. We’d spend the first hour of the day just talking through the shots that were coming up. We’d go and shoot separately—separate crews and everything—and then come back together again for the rushes. Occasionally, we would critique each other’s shots.
How did you decide who was going to write each scene?
Burton: We had a traffic light system, which is, “Red light means we have to work together on it. Green light you can go ahead and do it,” and by the time we got to the second half of the movie, we were much more relaxed about it.
The entire film took three years to mount, and this was Mark’s first feature as a director. At what point in the process would you say you found your rhythm in working together?
Starzak: It was a 10-month shoot. I think a month or two in, we had an easy rhythm. There’s a yin and yang element to it, but I think we both equally contributed to the script. Mark held on to the story structure to make sure we didn’t waiver from what we were trying to do. It’s quite easy, once you’re inside, to lose sight of the story you were trying to tell.
Burton: Yeah. I’ve been through that process a bit more than Rich has. He’s very much involved with the visual character design, creating the series. It’s his baby, really.
How many people are on set on any given day?
Starzak: We had between 16 and 20 units, so 16 to 20 shots were being done each day. The amount of people must have been about 150 in production—that’s just on the studio floor. It was quite exhilarating. We joke about it being the closest we get to an adrenaline rush. But it was pressured. It’s quite cathedral-like on the floor. It’s very quiet and everyone’s working, but it’s very intense.
And how many frames per second did you shoot and what’s a typical output per day for an animator?
Starzak: It kind of varies between 12 or 25 movements, or frames, per second and so that per animator we were expecting them to do about two plus seconds a day. Again that’s quite fast, but we had the advantage of no dialogue so we could work a bit faster.
Not having dialogue was a decision partly based on the cost of production. What does a script for a film like this look like?
Starzak: The script looked like a treatment. It describes everything in detail so it’s quite a dense document, not necessarily a pleasant read. It was as good as it could be but it’s just very dryly described.
Burton: It was definitely a production document. What we do is sync with a real animatic, which where your story artists will draw and you’ll do a real basic version of the movie. I always kept the script up to date with that, to get a sense. What the script will tell you is big macro things about structure and length and so on, but in terms of how things are playing, it’s really all on the reel. That’s what counts because that’s where you watch a movie. Sometimes a page of script will turn into five minutes of film time. Once we’re into production, the script is less important.
The film’s humor is reminiscent of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin—the greats of silent comedy. Without dialogue to go off of, how do you gain the confidence that the material is going to translate?
Starzak: Hopefully we’ve got comedy instincts, but we also did rehearse it live action, myself and Mark in front of a camera.
Burton: It’s a trial and error exploration, in terms of how it all hangs together. That’s something we fought with all the way through. You’re constantly watching the film. All animation directors say the same thing. What you do is you sort of throw the film up and you’re constantly watching it in very basic form. If stuff is working on the animatic, then you have a good sense that it should work when you actually animate. With us, it’s a little bit different than, say, what Pixar did with DreamWorks, in that there’s a huge link between the drawing and the actual animation. That’s almost like a rehearsal. Then we go down on the floor. All the sets are real.
What was it like working with the actors on the film? For a film with no dialogue, there is a surprisingly large cast list.
Burton: We said to them, “You’ve got to take the emotional story deadly seriously. We know it’s sheep. It’s a big comedy and it’s kind of absurd, but for the purposes of this process, you could be doing Bridges of Madison County.” And they rose to that challenge. The side effect of that is that hopefully, the emotion in the story is quite real, but also it makes the comedy funnier because you buy into the emotional lives of the characters, and so when things go wrong comedically, you’re laughing more.
Now that computer imaging technology has come so far, what is it that continues to draw you back to the medium of stop-motion animation?
Burton: I like the physicality— that it really exists. It’s something that sits on a surface that’s a real thing and you should see the people swarm the stage when you get the puppets out. They love to know that they physically exist. CGI, you can tweak everything at one time. But there’s something about the relationship between the puppets and the sets. They’re interacting with the environment.
The animation is incredibly smooth. How did you go about achieving that?
Starzak: What we try for is a kind of naturalism, so we don’t test the laws of physics too much like Warner Brothers does with squashing, stretching, splatting and characters flying and falling off cliffs. We try and time it so the form happens like it would in the real world. But we’ve just got experienced animators that have learned their craft. Some of them have been at Aardman Animations for 20 or 25 years.
Burton: When we were writing the production, we could watch a shot and you could just see which animator had done it. They always put their own essence or mannerism into it. It’s amazing.
To see a clip from Shaun the Sheep movie, click play below:
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