The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Q and A with Bradford Young
Sundance 2015
Shaun the Sheep
Christmas Again
Meru
Tangerine
The Visit
ASC Close-Up

Shaun the Sheep Movie


by Rachael K. Bosley


Directors: Richard Starzak and Mark Burton

Cinematographers: Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett


Given that Aardman Animations has partnered with a Hollywood studio on every feature film it has made so far, some might have been surprised to see its new stop-motion feature, Shaun the Sheep Movie, arrive in Park City in search of U.S. distribution. But Shaun is no ordinary indie. Adapted from a BBC TV series that has garnered a global following since its launch in 2007, it marks the evolution of one of Aardman’s most successful franchises.

Shaun made his debut as a trembling supporting player in Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave, and it was writer/director Richard Starzak (a.k.a. Richard “Golly” Goleszowski), another longtime Aardman contributor, who developed the TV series, which is currently in its fifth season. Key to Shaun’s international success is that it plays like silent comedy; the Farmer, the only human character, communicates in unintelligible growls and grunts as he tries to maintain order on the farm, where Shaun and his fellow sheep invariably get the better of him, his dog (Bitzer) and the neighboring pigs. In the feature, a mishap on the farm takes all the key players to a new and somewhat intimidating environment: the big city. The villain of the piece is an aggressive animal-control officer, Trumper, who is only too eager to add the Farmer’s menagerie to his containment center.

Shortly after Sundance wrapped, co-cinematographers Charles Copping and Dave Alex Riddett spoke to AC via Skype from Aardman, where they were in the midst of shooting the fifth Shaun series. Riddett has worked for Aardman since 1983, Copping since 1995, and both have credits on the studio’s features, shorts and TV projects. Both were emphatic that going the indie route with the Shaun feature brought out the best in the entire Aardman team. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

American Cinematographer: On the Wallace & Gromit feature [AC Oct. '05], you had a 22-month shoot, and two directors of photography were supervising five other cinematographers. How did the scale of Shaun compare?

Dave Alex Riddett: This shoot was about nine months, and apart from Charles and me, there was one lighting cameraperson, Laura Howie. We brought this in on a much lower budget than the previous films, but I think that was very much to its benefit. We’re very good at improvising. Because we had limited time, sets and props, we used some of the old tricks to create that impression of a big world. We even used cutouts for many background characters in wider city shots because we didn’t have the budget to create the dozens of characters you’d want for your city scenes.

How did you divvy up the work?

Charles Copping: We decided amongst ourselves who would take a particular sequence, and we pretty much stuck with it once we had it.

Riddett: With a few overlaps. We’d look at the drawings, see what was coming up and wrestle for it [laughs]! You always try to be fair and take some run-of-the-mill scenes as well as some interesting ones.

Having four Shaun series behind you must have given you a real leg up on prep. What were some of things you tested for the feature?

Riddett: The big difference with the feature is that we’re out of the farm and in the big city, so it was about getting the sense of alienation, the feeling of the sheep lost in a completely different world. I spent a couple of weeks shooting with some old sets and lots of cutout puppets to try out angles and other things, and one of [my] conclusions was to use narrow depth of field to create impressionistic backgrounds and some out-of-focus elements in the foreground.

Copping: I’ve shot the Shaun series from the beginning. We were quite wary about how the sheep’s faces would look when they’re projected — getting the balance correct between the blackness of their faces and the whiteness of their fleeces.

Riddett: Everyone’s used to the broadcast look of Shaun, and they’re quite simple characters, so we had to be sure they’d hold up on the big screen.

Copping: Another concern was that Shaun’s world has always been green and lush and plentiful, and this had to start off with the farm looking like a lot less desirable place to be, sort of downtrodden. So, we tested different levels of color for the grass. The look of the series is always bright and cheery, and we had to step away from that and get a bit more gritty.

Did you change your camera package for the feature?

Copping: We used Canon EOS 1D Mark III cameras, which we’ve also used on the series, but whereas on the series we use a variety of lenses, on the feature we used the Nikon prime lenses we had custom made for feature work.

Riddett: Tom [Barnes, Aardman’s technical director,] got a lot of the Nikons together for Pirates [Band of Misfits, 2012], which we also shot on the Canons. The cameras have been great; they’ve gone through several series and two features so far.

LED lights have become common on live-action shoots. Have they taken off in model animation as well?

Riddett: Not really, not as main sources. I used a lot of them as practicals, particularly in the city scenes. The LEDs that let you dial in different colors are great for shop lights, for instance.

Copping: We taped strips of LEDs into the thin recess of the cupboard for the shot where Trumper opens the cupboard door and we see his gun dramatically uplit.

Riddett: But by and large, we’re using the same lighting equipment we’ve been using since our first feature, Chicken Run [AC Aug.'00]: Arri 650s, Arri 1Ks and [Altman] Micro Ellipses. The Micro Ellipses are probably our most commonly used lamp — they’re the scale of our characters, really.

There’s some dramatic lighting in the animal-containment center/prison, which we first see when Trumper brings Shaun into it. The camera takes Shaun’s POV, tracking with him as he moves down the corridor, getting a glimpse of the intimidating creature in each dark cell. How did you light that?

Copping: That was one of my sequences. The idea was to have stark, cold light in the corridor that dropped off in the cell so the cell would recede into darkness; I wanted it to look like it was fully lit for the humans without much care for the animals. I rigged a series of 50-watt Micro Ellipses all the way down the corridor for the main source, with absolute minimal fill. I banked a tiny bit of light off big sheets of poly board, but I flagged a lot of it off, especially in the corners of the cells. We had some very cold light, an Arri 650 with Slate Blue gel, coming in through the doorway when the door was open, and there was a red LED practical above it that I used to cheat smashes of red here and there; the practical was enhanced by a Micro Ellipses gelled Flame Red. Especially when the creatures are looking up at Trumper, there’s often a little flash of red on the wall [behind him] that’s not clearly motivated. But other than that red, it’s an extremely cold palette. Making the corridor lighting the only source also created nice cell-bar shadows that could fall on the characters.

Had both of you worked with the two directors before?

Riddett: I’ve worked with Golly since he started at Aardman — he was the first employee Aardman ever had. And Mark worked on the scripts of Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Mark is fairly strict about the logic of it all, and he’s very good at constructing gags and storylines. Golly is quite ‘squinky,’ as we say here — he likes things a bit weird, a bit left field. They’re quite different directors, really, but between the pair of them, it went really well.

Copping: I’ve worked with Golly quite frequently for the last 12 years. He was very hands-on in establishing the original look of the Shaun series. There’ve been a couple of series that drifted away from that ethos and look and design a bit, but the feature is quite close to it. That was the joy of it: suddenly, we had the leeway and the opportunity to expand Shaun’s little farm existence and give it more texture and detail.

Dave, earlier you remarked that Aardman is very good at improvising. What were some of the other solutions that helped make the lower budget work?

Riddett: Doing a lot of the effects in-camera, which is definitely important to the Aardman aesthetic. We always have to be very careful with CGI. All the details in an Aardman film are of that world, and once the audience believes in that world, you don’t want to introduce very realistic-looking CGI, because it doesn’t marry. We like the idiosyncrasy of trying to shoot things for real; we don’t mind seeing the fingerprints. You don’t want the chase sequence to look too smooth, too regular — you want the wobbles, the shakes. [laughs] There’s an immediacy to that. So, for example, we used crinkled cellophane for pouring liquids instead of CGI. There’s very little CGI, maybe two or three water effects and a bit of steam or smoke.

Copping: And even the CG water effects were just augmentation. To create a puddle, we’d cut out lighting gel, stick it onto the set and put K-Y jelly underneath to make it ripple, and then a bit of CGI was added on top. For the water fountain, we used cling film [plastic wrap] as a base and then added a few CG splashes to it. The CGI was never the focus of the shot, just an extra layer.

This is the first feature Aardman has made independent of Hollywood. How different was the experience?

Riddett: I have to say, it’s been quite a freeing exercise. We don’t have to make a big blockbuster, or appeal to things we don’t understand [laughs]. There’s an expectation of super-slickness [in America]; you get very worried about going over and over something and smoothing it out. That wasn’t our criteria on this film at all.

Copping: It was a very different process than, say, Pirates, where every imperfection was noted and corrected. We were a lot more forgiving. We’ve really worried about things like set shift on the other features — if a leaf popped out of a background hedge overnight, for instance — but if you look for that in Shaun, you can find plenty of it. On our technical approval of shots, there was a lot of discussion about what we should accept and what we shouldn’t, and with a lot of that overnight shift in backgrounds, we ended up saying, ‘It’s part and parcel of the whole feel, so let’s keep it.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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