The English animation studio Aardman has long been at the forefront of stop-motion, not only in terms of technical proficiency but also in their distinctive British wit and charm. Their new “Shaun the Sheep Movie” carries on that tradition, as well as carrying over a world shown over several seasons of the TV show. It’s also, like the show, completely dialogue-free — a rarity in animation, and film in general. “Shaun”’s directors, Richard Starzak and Mark Burton, talk to Metro about the difficulties of making a film without talking, what their job titles really mean in the world of stop-motion and how the eyes are the windows to the brain.
Did you have much in the way of pushback when it came to making a film without any dialogue?
Richard Starzak: Not really. “Shaun” the TV show didn’t have any dialogue. But it scared us, I have to say. We worried if we didn’t have dialogue children might run out of patience after awhile. As we started to put the storyboard reels together we became really confident that it was going to work.
Mark Burton: There’s a fine line between keeping it nice and simple, so you understand the narrative, and being so simple that you just get bored. We tried to create a strong emotional story, and we made sure that at any point you knew what was going on in the characters’ heads. If you understand what a character is thinking and what the problems are, you don’t need words. You can get it all from non-verbal communication.
RS: I do say the best movies you can watch with the sound turned down.
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Plus animating speaking, I imagine, is difficult.
MB: Yes. It adds another level to the animation and slows the whole process down. The original idea of having no dialogue was a financial one, but it’s actually helped us globally.
So much of the communication in the film, and in other Aardmans, is in the facial expressions, and especially in the eyes.
RS: I directed the “Creature Comforts” TV series, and we did a lot of research into Method acting, such as what your eyes do when you’re speaking — because your eyes can betray whether you’re telling the truth or not, or whether you doubt what you’re saying, whether you’re trying to remember something while you’re speaking. We put that into use in “Shaun.” How we used the eyes was very important. There is a universal language of where your eyes are — whether you’re looking down, up, or left or right. There’s a universal language in how we use our eyes to access our brains.
Though sometimes the expressions are just blank, allowing one to project emotions onto them.
MB: I always had a picture of Buster Keaton pinned to the wall during the TV series, to remind people that Shaun doesn’t need big facial expressions. If the story’s been told well, you’ll know what he’s thinking.
Can you talk about the sound design, which is often not thought about with movies but which becomes very noticeable when there’s no dialogue.
MB: Actually a lot of what we were doing was taking sound away. For example, Richard and I most hated when the sound people put lots of expressions on the sheep. Having nothing said creates a space for you to reach in and find out what’s going on. There were occasions where we had lots of great sounds — set pieces like the caravan chase. Other times we let the space sit there and give the audience a rest.
Has technology made stop-motion easier, especially compared to back in the day when it was on film?
RS: It’s gotten a lot easier in the sense that you can actually see what you’re doing now. When I started out as a stop-frame animator 20, 25 years ago, you’re kind of working blind. You didn’t know what the shot was going to look like till you got it back from processing. Shooting digitally has made life a lot easier, because you can see it immediately. The animator can see the current frame he’s working on compared to the previous one. And the camera’s a lot smaller now. As a result we use a lot less light than when we shot on film. That’s made things more environmentally friendly as well.
Stop-motion tends to be made with different groups all shooting at once. It sounds like being a director in stop-motion is kind of like being a foreman in a factory.
MB: We had 20 units running at any one time. The actual logistics of organizing is like a factory. It’s highly complex and highly organized. Everyone has walkie-talkies; it’s all about saving time. You’re making decisions all the time. The animators are like our actors and they’re waiting to be briefed. But it’s shot all out of order. You could walks into Unit 2 and it’s a bit of the story from the end, then walk into Unit 3 and it’s a story from the middle. You have to carry the whole film in your head and know what your characters are doing. You brain is pretty much maxed out. But it’s a great feeling to work.