How famed Aardman studio brings Shaun the Sheep to life with 'thumbiness'

To see how the models of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon come alive, I visit the Aardman, home of Wallace and Gromit.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Shaun the Sheep is baa-ck in new movie Farmageddon.


When you think of a film set, you think of hustle and bustle, noise and activity. Lights, cameras and action. So the biggest surprise when you walk onto the set of Aardman's new Shaun the Sheep movie is the silence.

The hush is because Aardman's films starring beloved characters like Shaun the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit are made using stop-motion animation. Shaun and his friends are real physical models placed on physical sets and photographed over and over, with the photos combined to create the illusion of dynamic movement. When the music and sound effects are dubbed in afterward, the result is always a hilarious slapstick adventure -- and new movie Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon is no exception, complete with added references to classic sci-fi movies for older viewers.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is in theaters now, and Netflix has picked up rights to it. Earlier this year, I visited Aardman studios in Bristol, England, to learn the techniques behind films like 2015's Shaun the Sheep Movie, 2000's Chicken Run and 2005's Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Each stop-motion character is born in the Aardman workshops. Model makers work at desks piled high with tools, from soldering irons to hair dryers to the omnipresent magnifying glasses and lamps so they can see what they're doing.

The characters are made from different substances, depending on what they're required to do in each shot. The main material is modeling clay, complete with visible fingerprints which are left in to give the models a bit of life -- a quality Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park calls "thumbiness."

In Farmageddon, Shaun encounters the cute pink alien Lula -- even more curious and mischievous than the cheeky sheep -- whose body is made out of silicone so it stretch and squash more fluidly. The human models are rounded off with foam latex clothes, while the sheep are covered in curly fur. Every element can be swapped out, so in the workshops you see boxes full of heads, eyes, arms and other body parts. There are 22 different models of Shaun himself, with racks of different fur balls on the walls.


Aardman's model makers and animators bring Shaun and his flock to life with stop-motion.


Underneath all the models is a highly articulated metal skeleton, known as an armature, so the characters can be moved into different positions. The naked aluminum skeleton is a bit of a weird sight, like some kind of sheep-shaped Terminator. But it gives the models much-needed sturdiness so the characters can be posed for each shot and then adjusted for the next frame, over and over again. 

Shaun the Sheep and his buddies are born in the Aardman workshops. 

Shooting happens in the hangarlike studio, divided into individual workspaces varying in size up to 40 feet by 30 feet. The sets for each film are built from various materials, including vacuum-formed plastic and the gypsum-based material Jesmonite, though common elements such as trees are stockpiled and reused from previous productions. Farmageddon involved 27 animators working on 34 sets. 

Sets are placed on waist-high platforms divided into movable blocks that can be slid out of the way so animators can get in and make changes. Each set is lit and then photographed with a Canon EOS-1D X dSLR still camera, using customized lenses to focus in on the models. The animator keeps track of progress with a monitor on wheels that can move around to show how the shot looks, as well as another monitor screen that shows the storyboard for the scene being worked on.


Behind the scenes of Farmageddon.


Computer-generated imagery is used to extend some of the backgrounds, but everything is made for real if possible: a cornfield is made from teddy bear fur, for example, while a flying saucer is based on a fidget spinner.

Apart from the background hum of machinery, the sets are eerily quiet. But the process does demand bursts of frenetic activity from the animators, who film themselves acting out the scenes they're working on to get a sense of how the characters should move. For the comic robot MUGG-1NS, for example, an animator sat on a wheeled office chair and zoomed around pretending to bump into things. 

Animation director Grant Maisey stresses the importance of this boisterous physical comedy in the dialogue-free adventures of Shaun the Sheep, something which he and the animators throw themselves into. "We're actors who don't like being in front of the camera," he jokes as he shows me around the set, "expressing ourselves through a bit of rubber or silicon."

Packed with references to everything from Alien to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon is a delightful slapstick romp packed with Aardman's signature detail. Having visited the studio and experienced the painstaking, deliberate process of making a stop-motion film, I feel like it's a million miles away from the mischievous, energetic final movie. But even if the lights and camera seem still and quiet, the action is there -- in-between the thumbprints.

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Originally published Oct 16.