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Space lamb – how Shaun the Sheep went interstellar for Farmageddon

Shaun the Sheep is Britain’s most famous movie star. With his second feature film Farmageddon seeing the globe-conquering creature going to infinity and beyond, we caught up with directors Richard Phelan and Will Becher plus veteran Aardman producer Paul Kewley to discuss the secrets of Shaun’s appeal

In Farmageddon, Shaun the Sheep boldly goes where no domesticated animal has gone before (since the early days of the space race anyway). On paper, he is probably the least appropriate lead in a science-fiction film, but that’s what makes him perfect, according to the film’s director Richard Phelan.

“He’s such an iconic character,” says Phelan. “I feel he would fit in anywhere – political satire, a corporate drama with no dialogue. It’s just about finding the right stories for him.”

After a young alien crash-lands near Mossy Bottom Farm, Shaun is tasked with helping them find a way home while dodging government agents trying to track down the extra-terrestrial. The retro world of Aardman harks back to the good old days when conspiracy theories were about UFO sightings and crop circles instead of whether or not the prime minister lied to the Queen in order to prorogue Parliament.

The film is also steeped in cinematic nostalgia, recalling Aardman’s own heritage by nodding at Wallace and Gromit’s debut A Grand Day Out, and back further through ET and 2001, all the way to A Trip to the Moon. As soon as cinema was invented, it was aiming for the stars.

Since Shaun is a sheep of few words (bleating is provided by Justin Fletcher aka kids’ favourite Mr Tumble) silent films are constant touchstones. “We watch and study Keaton, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy,” Phelan says, “looking at how they composed their shots to tell the stories and the jokes, but especially at how they put the emotion in with no dialogue.”

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“Shaun is the modern-day Buster Keaton,” adds producer Paul Kewley. “I have a seven-year-old son and the brilliant thing about those films is that if you show them a Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy they burst out laughing. They think it’s the funniest thing ever. Slapstick is timeless and travels the world as well – that’s why Shaun is so successful.”

Phelan and co-director Will Becher are both young enough to have grown up inspired by Aardman Animations. “I taped The Wrong Trousers off TV as a kid – I must have watched it 100 times,” remembers Phelan. “The train chase at the end is so inspired, so crazy – but at the same time you totally believe it. So magical.”

“I fell in love with animation at the point at which I started seeing Aardman’s work,” continues Becher, who went on to spend three weeks of his school holidays doing work experience at the studios. His job entailed making chicken wings for Chicken Run.

“The two entry positions are: a runner, where you get a sense of working on the production team, collecting mugs and sweeping up, or you go in as a trainee model maker. You either sand silicone – using tiny sandpaper to remove seam lines – or make things out of Plasticine. That’s what I was doing – and I loved it. I was hooked.”

Their experience has instilled a sense of Aardman’s DNA in them, best described by Kewley. He says: “The films don’t work if you don’t have those three ingredients: characters you identify with, funny stuff that will travel around the world and stories that you fall in love with. That architecture is underneath and it holds the film together.”

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is out now in cinemas

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