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An interview with Jay Grace, director of Shaun the Sheep The Farmer’s Llamas

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When it comes to what to watch Aardman have long been a staple form of top quality entertainment at Christmas. For three decades The adventure of a man and his dog taking on a lunar adventure in search of cheese still delights audiences young and old and that singular adventure has evolved into an empire of entertainment in the shape of the Wallace and Gromit films and legions of fans throughout the world. One of the fruits of the Wallace and Gromit franchise is the globally adored Shaun the Sheep which has enjoyed a long and healthy presence on the TV as a series and most recently taking the leap to feature length with both being critically acclaimed.

This year Shaun returns to star in the format he first appeared in, a half hour Christmas special, and whilst Wallace and Gromit will be nowhere to be seen the developed cast of Shaun, Bitzer, Timmy and the rest of the flock are sure to delight as the Shaun the Sheep brand has, in some parts of the world overtaken the popularity of its predecessor becoming much, much more than a spin off.

The new film gives the audience a little more of Shaun’s personality than we have been greeted with before as three boisterous Llamas trick their way into Shaun’s affections and onto Mossy Bottom Farm delivering a valuable lesson in peer pressure to our young hero. The short is a triumph of slapstick and stop motion from perfectly timed comedic set pieces (watch out for the auction scene) to some world class wonderful stop motion animation (anyone who can animate a moving shot of a cocky Llama nutmegging a team of football playing sheep deserves all the awards you can throw at them), this half hour special certainly is something special.

Helming this half hour adventure is Jay Grace, series director on Shaun who is no stranger to creating specials, having directed How To Be A Pirate, to accompany the Pirates feature film. What makes this film special is how it return to the tight Aardman tradition of not wasting a single second, delivering a hilarious story with a emotional purpose and filling the audience with a satisfying glee at the end, not bad for a plasticine sheep eh?

We caught up with director Jay Grace to talk about making The Farmers Llama’s

Shaun kind of follows a “Beano” tradition that is well established by Nick Park (and Richard “Golly” Starzak) which we can compare him to a naughty ten year old schoolboy, and that follows on with the Llamas in the new film. It get’s a little dark though

It does get a little bit dark though, I suppose what we wanted to explore with this half an hour is we know what Shaun is like, we know what mischief he can get up to but we thought it would be interesting to see what happens when he actually get’s involved with some slightly older kids, its basically the story of an impressionable ten year old who sees these mid teenage older boys having a good time and he wants to be a part of the gang, its basically the story of how he becomes part of the gang after he becomes enamoured by them when he someone tricks the farmer into getting them back onto the farm. It’s initially great fun but he eventually discovers he has no influence over them at all, He’s so used to normally being in charge of the flock and the rest of his gang and he is pretty much their leader so for him to be taken away from that place of authority and put him at the bottom of the pack is a bit of a surprise for him and the film is about the consequences of those actions, it’s a classic story – be careful what you wish for.


How did the story begin?

The initial idea for the story, the idea of having Llamas in it is something that Richard Starzak (Golly) thought would be fun to make a film with Llamas, there was nothing else in it at that point and it got shelved when he started working on the feature film, then the opportunity for this half an hour story came about and we blew the dust off it and started to explore it. One of the best thing, perhaps the greatest challenge is that we don’t have the time to tell a complicated story but its longer than the 6 minutes we have in the series episodes where we can only really tell a simple gag, you can’t play it out too much. For me this half hour was a chance to explore the emotional things you don’t really get do do in 6 minutes, I guess that’s where we started to scratch the surface of Shaun’s character and explore a little more of those deep and meaningful emotions that a kid of his age might feel. It’s one of those things where you have the character and the scenario which people are familiar with so to then take the character and explore something different is a little bit scary at time, but I really wanted to try and make it a little more than just an extended 6 minute episode, which is why I wanted to delve a little deeper into his character I suppose.

What’s the difference between directing a 6 minute episode and a special? Taking a character and expanding them?

The film making process is similar, a collective of us work on the initial story then a writer called Nick Vincent Murphy worked with us to develop it into a shooting script. That’s the initial stage before storyboarding so the actual process itself doesn’t change a lot, the difficulties and hurdles I personally had to overcome switching from 6 minutes to half an hour was plotting the story arc really clearly. In 6 minutes you can get away a little more with story arcs not having to pay off in an ultimately satisfying way, relying on slapstick or comedy and simple themes that carry through the 6 minutes with the punch lines being a little button on the end which hopefully works. With the half hour you’re trying to put in enough plot that makes it interesting for the audience but it also allows for the things that make Shaun fun, the observational comedy and the slapstick whilst also allowing time for the set up of the drama so you can bring it all to a satisfying conclusion.


Is there a luxury of having the extra time?

There is a luxury but there’s also a burden and the danger of treading water waiting for the next dramatic beat to come along, allowing enough time for the audience to enjoy the moment without it becoming overplayed or stagnant.

It’s funny watching the short back, its quite a fast paced short, there is something like 550 shots which is a lot for half an hour but at the time when you’re putting it together you don’t notice. I suppose it comes from the animatic phase when you’re cutting it together because it can get quite boring looking at a still drawing for a few seconds, so the refinement process involves stripping away a lot more of the stuff you don’t need, that was new to me in compression to the 6 minutes which has more of a limitation on the types of shots we can do. Having said that we did shoot this short in a short amount of time too, there was a definite awareness of what we could achieve in the time we had.

How long was the shoot?

From beginning to end it was just over 12 weeks.


… Still quite a long time but for half and hour when you’re still trying to keep the production values high and make it feel like it bridges the gap between the 6 minutes and the feature, I wanted it to be closer to the feature than the 6 minutes in terms of production value and visual quality of it which was a challenge to maintain over 12 weeks.

Incredible, the last half hour Christmas special we saw from Aardman was A Matter of Loaf and Death, which had more time but you obviously had to construct everything from scratch there I suppose?

Yeah the shoot for that was about 10 months, but I think Nicks approach to it is that he’s definite with what he is trying to achieve, also he’s nick park so there is more flexibility in the amount of time he is allowed to do these things, there lip sync as well which takes a lot more time, especially with the hand crafted look that nick has, you really couldn’t do that in 12 weeks, so there are some bonuses o doing Shaun because we are not held up by that labour intensive clay work that Wallace and Gromit have, having said that it would have been nice to have maybe a few more weeks! (laughs)

I suppose the difference between the two is that the sets and characters already exist from the series and the movie and only a few extra things such as the Llamas need to be created?

You’re exactly right there, everything was set up and everything was ready to go and I also had a brilliantly well primed and experienced crew which had just come off of the back of the feature film so the actual physical making of the film on the studio floor was very pleasurable as it always is because the crew just knows what to do, its almost think to yourself as the director “if I wasn’t here would it still happen” and it probably would you know because all of the information is there and as the director your just steering the ship.

The Farmer’s Llamas airs Boxing Day 18:10 BBC One, 27th December 9:05am on CBBC and on New Years Day 2016 at 16:05. You can listen to the full interview on the Skwigly Animation Podcast below, also available to download

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