After working behind the scenes on 2015’s Oscar nominated Shaun the Sheep Movie, Will Becher and Richard Phelan jumped at the chance to make their feature directorial debut with A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, introducing gorgeous new characters and environments into a classic stop-motion world.
Produced by British studio Aardman Animations, and distributed in the U.S. by Netflix, Farmageddon picks up with Shaun the Sheep—a beloved character first introduced in 1995—as he and his farmyard pals encounter an alien named Lu-La, looking to get her home before she’s discovered by forces that would bring her harm.
With characters carefully crafted by hand in clay and plasticine—and 3D printing employed in the fabrication of more solid parts—the latest Shaun film comprised “an almost insane level of detail,” Phelan says. And while both Becher and Phelan had taken on above-the-line roles in the past on Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep TV series, transitioning to feature directing would be a major challenge.
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Below, Farmageddon‘s directors break down the process of crafting a “high concept” sequel chockablock with sci-fi homages, also touching on the enduring resonance of Shaun the Sheep , and the projects Aardman is taking on next.
DEADLINE: How did Farmageddon come about? And what excited you about directing it?
RICHARD PHELAN: As the first film was wrapping up, we all got together to discuss ideas for a sequel. We noticed that the first film was a very low-concept family adventure, and then we talked about really high-concept ideas, and realized that Aardman had never made a sci-fi film before. Isolated farmsteads are part of sci-fi lore, so it’d be really fun to have Shaun the Sheep meet an alien, and go on a big adventure with it.
Then, it was the same meeting that Nick Park was there, and his eyes lit up. He said, “You could call it Farmageddon,” so everyone laughed and just wrote it down—and then about 12 months later, after a lot of wrangling in the story department, the script was ready to roll. So, we were just super excited to take Shaun on such a big idea, to really expand everything, open up the aspect ratio and make the farm bigger.
WILL BECHER: Rich and I had both worked at Aardman for 10 years or so at that point, and it was just a really exciting prospect for us to take on the mantle that had been set up by Nick Park, and then developed further by Richard Starzak.
DEADLINE: Why do you think Shaun the Sheep continues to resonate as a character, 25 years after his creation? What do you personally love about him?
BECHER: I think everyone at Aardman realized very soon after [the short film] A Close Shave, way back, that Shaun was something special. He did make this huge impact, even though he had a fairly small part in A Close Shave, and at Aardman, he’s just developed over the years, with his series.
He’s become one of Aardman’s favorite characters to work with, and I think it’s also the fact that he’s a silent film star. He looks very simple, but actually, he’s a very classic, iconic design, so straight away, just with the outline of his face and his hair, you know who it is. Really, that’s part of his appeal, the fact that he translates across the world, to all these different cultures. Everyone finds humor in the fact that this is a little sheep that lives on a farm in England, but really, is like a little boy who wants to have adventures, and have fun with his mates.
DEADLINE: What were some of the earliest creative decisions you made, in expanding Shaun’s world?
PHELAN: For this film, we decided to shoot in a much wider aspect ratio because we wanted to create this vast-expanse feel to the story. A lot of the early testing was, how could we build sets, without having to knock down walls at the studio. Because some of the sets were huge.
Then, [there was] just the idea of creating a character that could fit into this iconic lineup. So, we spent a long time designing Lu-La, and making her feel like someone that, when Shaun met her, he’d immediately be drawn to her, and want to hang out with her. [That] was sort of the brief we’d hand to designers, that everything about her is ‘Shaun-plus.’ So, she’s just as cheeky, she’s got as much love for fun and everything like that, but at the heart of both of them, there’s this warmth and friendliness. They’re so approachable, and just hang out with each other, so it’s a really nice sort of friendship to build on.
The moment we said sci-fi, we started to go, “What if there were secret organizations, and underground bases, and going into outer space, across the universe?” So, it just kept growing and growing. Everyone at the studio is a big sci-fi fan, so they were just keen to add their own take on it, which was really good to see.
DEADLINE: The film is packed with a diverse assortment of sci-fi references. Where did those come from?
PHELAN: It was a huge collaborative approach. The script has sci-fi references in it, and then the story artists would add their own favorites. Then, the art department and the designers would see things and go, “I’ve got an idea.” So, there’s references to H.G. Wells and 2001. The nice thing is, because there’s such a broad age range at the studio, the references go from classic 1950s—like The Day the Earth Stood Still—right up to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Everyone’s love of sci-fi is fed into the story.
BECHER: Also, we watched quite a lot, early on, of the films that we grew up watching in the ’80s. There’s a lot of Steven Spielberg. There were certain really iconic sci-fi shots that we [wanted to reference].
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the scale of Farmageddon’s sets?
BECHER: I think four Olympic swimming pools is the scale of our studio, so it’s a big space. The largest set on this film, the underground base, was larger than any other set on any other Aardman film in history. Then, [the smallest] set, I guess, was our combine harvester, which was literally the size of a miniature combine. It was tiny.
DEADLINE: How did your team work to bring the Ministry of Alien Detections’ underground base to life?
BECHER: It starts with the concept art. We worked with a guy called Aurélien [Predal] who’s just a fantastic concept artist. Rich, early on, was briefing Aurélien based on the very-early-stage story panel, and then from that color image that gave a sense of the feeling of the underground base, it went to the art department.
We’ve got a team in-house who design everything on paper, so everything has an architectural drawing, to scale. Everything’s planned out, and then built in mock-up form, and Rich and I get a good look at it, physically, seeing it for the first time in a 3D space, but like a small-scale version.
Then, once we’re all signed up and happy with it, the art department spends months creating it for real, with all sorts of materials. It’s meant to be inside a cave, so they’ve got huge sheets of polystyrene that they carve and then paint. It’s just an incredible thing to see happening.
PHELAN: What’s really great is the scale of it all, because there are meetings when they go, “This is what dynamited rock will look like in polystyrene and poured concrete.” Then, you go on set and they’ve built little vending machines, and there’s little meeting boards, where they’ve stuck up “Singles Night” or dance club memos, and they’re the size of postage stamps. So, they get right down to the smallest details, but then making it feel everyday is always really fun.
DEADLINE: Which other sets did you particularly enjoy creating?
PHELAN: The alien spaceship was a really magical thing that they built, with hundreds of lights, all computer controlled. It’s just really breathtaking when you see it start to come together, and all the testing for it. I suppose the other great set, which was partly animated, was the building of Farmageddon, the theme park. It took weeks and weeks to do it, and it was amazing, when it was all done. The craftsmanship is just out of this world.
DEADLINE: How did you navigate the learning curve of making your first feature? What were you most concerned about, heading into the project?
BECHER: I’ve directed some series of Shaun, but it’s nothing like being involved in a feature like Farmageddon. And because the first Shaun film was so successful, as well, we didn’t want to try and make a sequel for the sake of a sequel. We felt like it had to stand on its own and be quite different, in a way, so it felt like a massive challenge.
PHELAN: The good thing is, lots of the directors at Aardman, we’ve worked with on their features before. There’s a great sense of trust, where every director screens their films, and welcomes notes from all departments. So, we’ve been used to giving notes to those directors, and then being on the receiving end of that, having the support of Nick Park and Peter Lord and Richard Starzak, [who were] encouraging us to push it in the direction we wanted to take it. The producer Paul Kewley has always tried to support our ideas. But at the same time, going from managing one department to an entire feature film is always a huge leap.
DEADLINE: From what I understand, crafting an entire feature without dialogue was another notable hurdle.
PHELAN: The lack of dialogue is always a challenge in Shaun the Sheep. We questioned that a lot in the first film, and then in this one, adding a new character who, again, can’t guide the audience through their dialogue.
So, I remember our very first test screening, it’s a packed cinema house, and it’s when Lu-La appears on camera for the first time. She steps out of the shadows, and I remember all the kids went really quiet—and then as soon as they see her, you felt this audible gasp, like they just fell in love with her straight away. It was such a magical moment. I turned to Will and was like, “Yes, it worked!”
But it was such a relief because we’d been working on it for four years and you go, “What if they don’t like her?” [Laughs] There’s no way of knowing that until this day, and also once we get to that point, there’s not much we can do to change what we’ve done. It was a challenge, and terrifying, but the moment it works, you go, “Ok, it’s working. I feel really confident in it.”
DEADLINE: What’s next for Aardman Animations?
PHELAN: Chicken Run 2 is on the way. I don’t know how much more I can say about it, except we’re all really excited at the studio. It’s looking amazing, and we really hope everyone’s looking forward to it, out in the world. We’re just really excited to be working on it, to be back with the old gang.
Then, Shaun the Sheep is off for new adventures, as well, but I don’t know how much I can talk about that, either. We’re always thinking of new ideas, and so there’s loads going on at the studio.
I think the next thing is a special called Robin Robin, which is being shot right now on the studio floor, and looks magical. It’s really different to everything Aardman’s done before, so everyone’s really stoked about it.
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