By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By IAN FAILES
Stop-motion might be one of the oldest kinds of filmmaking effects, but it doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. That’s partly because of continual developments in stop-motion techniques and technologies. For example, the past few years have seen radical advancements in 3D printing, filming animation with digital cameras, and combining practical sets and puppets with digital effects.
Aardman, one of the leading studios known for stop-motion, has taken advantage of these new methods in their recent films, while also continuing to approach their projects with old-school stop-motion methods (the kind audiences continue to embrace). That’s evident in their latest feature, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, a follow-up to the 2015 movie and the television series.
Directed by Will Becher and Richard Phelan, Farmageddon sees Shaun and his friends encounter an alien, LU-LA, who crash-lands near their farm. Many adventures ensue as the mission becomes getting LU-LA back home. The film saw Aardman build nearly 70 sets, and have 35 units shooting at any one time. A team of 28 animators crafted shots with hand-built puppets – one frame at a time – to produce just two seconds of animation per animator per day.
“We threw everything at it that we could think of. There’s plasticine and that clay look to the puppets. And then there’s all the alien powers and the spaceship technology, and they are largely CG elements.”
—Richard Phelan, Co-director
Audiences are likely to already be familiar with Shaun the Sheep (apart from the first feature, there have been 150 episodes of the TV show). But in Farmageddon there is the new character, LU-LA, that Aardman had to introduce and bring into that world. “The main challenge was to make her exciting and fun, but also to make her feel like she belongs in the universe of Shaun the Sheep,” outlines co-director Richard Phelan. who felt they needed to make her someone Shawn would find appealing and want to hang out with her all the time.
Having worked on many of the Shaun the Sheep episodes, Phelan says for the feature the obvious difference was scale. “For the episodes, we sit around in a big room, we talk about lots of ideas, and we talk about our own lives and then go, ‘what if Shaun did that?’ And then try and make it really relatable. Because it’s six minutes, generally one problem happens and then Shaun and the flock have to solve it. But with a feature film, the running time means you want to increase the scope and also the emotional heart of the story. So we had to create a bond between Shaun and LU-LA. There has to be some tension. The feature films allow us to explore characters so much more in depth.”
This relationship in the film between Shaun and LU-LA is of course key, but it was made somewhat harder by the fact there is no dialogue between the characters, and that the movie had to match the comedic aspects of its other incarnations. In shaping the humor of the film, scenes were, as is custom, tried out first with extensive storyboarding, based on the script.
“What we normally do is storyboard the scenes multiple times to try and find all the best jokes,” says Phelan. “Then we test screen it in-house to see if it still feels fresh and that people aren’t ahead of the jokes or ahead of the story. And then it’s about trying to bottle that, and then you hope some time later that an audience will also find it funny.”
“We would have the puppets for the animators to work with, and they do that work up against greenscreens. And then the art department or matte painters would do these beautiful giant landscapes to give things a huge scale.”
—Richard Phelan, Co-director
A typical Shaun the Sheep puppet is about 6¾ inches tall and weighs 3½ ounces. That’s a small puppet compared to other stop-motion productions, but from that puppet – which is also made up of simple facial features and almost no mouth – Aardman’s animators needed to elicit a high level of emotion.
“It’s hats off to the animators, really,” notes Phelan. “Somehow they use one tiny eye flick or one little smirk and you know what Shaun’s thinking or what he’s feeling. Figuring out the timing is also a big part of that skill of the animators.”
One thing Phelan and his co-director Will Becher did to help with that timing and emotion was to generate live-action videos, or LAVs, for just about every scene (animators made LAVs, too). They are like rehearsal videos where the action will be acted out over and again until, says Phelan, “we know exactly what we’re going to do. And then the animator will take that away and embellish it and push it further with the puppets. You get to go further than the storyboards this way.”
Becher and Phelan would share playing each of the characters while making LAVs. “We’ll do it multiple times, like 10 or 20 times,” states Phelan. “Then we’ll watch them back and go, ‘I like that little eye flick or that thing you do with your hands is really nice.’ The animators take away several takes with them to the actual animation unit. If there’s time we’ll take it back into the edit and we’ll chop them up and build a sort of Frankenstein cut. The animators soak it all up and have it in their heads while they’re animating.”
Even before animation happens, the animators also will be provided with the fabricated puppets and do a kind of ‘rehearsal’ process after the characters are discussed in terms of their motivations and emotions. Says Phelan, “the animators go away and animate small scenarios, and they give it their own inflexions and ideas, and then we’ll review them as a group. We’ll go, ‘We love the way LU-LA turns her head,’ or ‘You’ve really captured that sort of joyful nature of her,’ and all the animators will then discuss how that was done and see if they can push it further.”
Farmageddon certainly feels hand-made and hand-animated – and it is – but the film also takes advantage of significant visual effects work (overseen by Axis Studios co-founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Howard Jones). Both new and old techniques were certainly always intended to be part of the mix, says Phelan. “We threw everything at it that we could think of. There’s plasticine and that clay look to the puppets. And then there’s all the alien powers and the spaceship technology, and they are largely CG elements.”
Occasionally, some of the film’s characters needed to be replicated in CG to enable VFX shots. The long-suffering sheepdog, Bitzer, was one of them. To get the dog into digital form, Aardman would set up the real puppet and then carry out a 3D scan. “We used that for a ‘blink and you miss it’ speed shot where we wouldn’t be able to film the action,” notes Phelan. “He wasn’t actually animated in a stop-motion way. I think given everything that’s happening on the screen, we got away with it.”
Visual effects also helped in lending the film a grand sense of scale for certain set pieces. In fact, the filmmakers devised large matte paintings to enable this. “We would have the puppets for the animators to work with, and they do that work up against greenscreens,” explains Phelan. “And then the art department or matte painters would do these beautiful giant landscapes to give things a huge scale.
“For example,” continues Phelan, “we wanted to create this location with this huge sense of depth so that you got a real kind of tension that if someone fell they’d plummet forever. Of course, the studio’s not big enough to build that. We built a tower that we had to lie it down, turn it around, and it would touch the floor to the ceiling and go through the roof. And then the matte painter extended it even further to almost ridiculous proportions. We just found the bigger we made it, the funnier it became.”
While many may have predicted the death of stop-motion, a host of stop motion feature films, television shows, shorts and segments remain a part of the industry. Here’s a look at just a few of these, either recently released or coming soon.
Guillermo del Toro is making the classic tale as a stop-motion musical with Netflix. The director said in a statement related to the project, “no artform has influenced my life and my work more than animation, and no single character in history has had as deep of a personal connection to me as Pinocchio. I’ve wanted to make this movie for as long as I can remember. After the incredible experience we have had on Trollhunters, I am grateful that the talented team at Netflix is giving me the opportunity of a lifetime to introduce audiences everywhere to my version of this strange puppet-turned-real boy.”
This indie stop-motion short from filmmakers Dale Hayward and Sylvie Trouvé is a National Film Board of Canada production, made in association with Hayward and Trouvé’s See Creature Productions. It was an ambitious outing for an independent film – the team utilized CG and 3D printing to craft 1,500 replacement faces, and even built a three-foot animatable house of bones. Interestingly, budgetary restrictions helped with the printing of the main character’s wrinkly face, since the low-cost fused filament fabrication printers used for 3D printing gave the face a desirable larger ‘layer stepping’ than intended, adding to the character’s emotional performance.
Rebooted, from writer/director Michael Shanks, and funded by Screen Australia and YouTube, is a short film that celebrates the history of special and visual effects. It follows ‘Phil,’ a stop-motion animated skeleton monster, who is struggling to find work in modern Hollywood due to him being an out-of-date special effect. There’s even a scene where the protagonist catches up with similarly out-of-work friends: an animatronic Velociraptor, a hollow Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon style rubber suit, a 2D Rubber-Hose era animation (confined to exist on a piece of cell paper) and a mid-’90s-Liquid-Metal-Man. Stop-motion, CG and digital compositing made the short possible.