Aardman Studios have always been into their sci-fi – Wallace and Gromit’s first outing took them to the moon for A Grand Day Out, there’s the Terminator homage in A Close Shave, not to mention that pesky Were-Rabbit. In their next film, though, Aardman are bringing us aliens for the first time. The follow-up to 2015’s global hit Shaun The Sheep: The Movie, Farmageddon sees a cute alien called Lu-La crash land near Mossy Bottom Farm, an event which causes an outbreak of alien fever amongst the local folk and leads the Farmer to stage the titular extra-terrestrial festival. Shaun must get Lu-La home safely, whilst avoiding the shady Men in Black types out to capture her.
“The [first] film itself, in movie terms, was quite low concept,” says producer Paul Kewley. “It was really just taking the sheep out of their comfort zone. This time we wanted to do something much bigger and hopefully more exciting and exploit a genre and an area that Aardman haven’t done before.”
“In the first film, we took Shaun away from the farm and into the big city,” says Farmageddon co-director Richard Phelan. “As it was coming to an end, we started to brainstorm ideas and think what else we could do. We thought ‘let’s bring something to the farm, rather than Shaun leave.’ Then it’s ‘what’s the craziest thing we could bring to the farm?’ Let’s bring an alien to the farm! Let’s bring all the tropes of sci-fi with it, so the farmer now grows corn for big crop circles. Of course, if you bring an alien in, it means you’re allowed to have secret government organisations and all those kinds of things. Then we can go into outer space and travel round the universe. That’s how it started, and then it became ‘what’s the Shaun version of this?’, and how much fun can we have with it?”
Like all Aardman films, the audience will certainly not be limited to kids, and some of the references in there will shoot way over the heads of the tots and land squarely with parents. “We watched a lot of old B-Movies,” says Phelan, “Like Earth Vs The Flying Saucers and The Day The Earth Stood Still. There’re also references to literary science fiction, so there’s some HG Wells in there, some Arthur C Clarke. We tried to hark back to some of those things but also we’ve watched Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and really modern day things. There’s Doctor Who references in there.” There is also a ‘mech suit’ which is inspired by Robocop’s chunky predecessor. “There’s little a bit of ED-209 with its sort of chicken legs,” says Phelan, “It’s incredibly top-heavy, which as a puppet is really hard to move, but the animators have really taken on the challenge and brought it to life.”
“We’re always drawn to film references anyway,” says Paul Kewley, “So obviously there are lots of sci-fi references in here. And they’re inspirational – we love Amblin. How can you not love ET?”
“A lot of sci-fi doesn’t have a huge amount of dialogue in it,” says co-director Will Becher, “It’s always quite quiet and atmospheric, so that fits Shaun quite well.”
The list of inspirations is not limited solely to sci-fi films. Production designer Matt Perry is very proud of the set for the headquarters of MAD (the Ministry of Alien Detection), the biggest interior set built for an Aardman film so far. A design sure to bring a smile to the parents, it is incredibly Bondian. “Unashamedly!” Matt enthuses. “It’s a [James Bond production designer] Ken Adams nod. If you see the car that they have a chase on, it’s very similar to You Only Live Twice. I trained as an architect, and I get to see towns and things come together in a matter of months! It’s fantastic! I wouldn’t trade the two jobs at all.”
Obviously, a big new development is the presence of an alien among the flock. “We spent a lot of time designing her,” says producer Paul, “We had a lot of iterations. One of the challenges with Shaun is you’ve got the pre-set design language. To get her to fit into the world was a challenge. One of our storyboard team designed her, and it ended up sticking. Then the colour, we played a lot with different kinds of colour. We were very conscious that we wanted her to stand out in our world. Traditionally the farm’s quite green, obviously, so the colour palette of this film’s quite different. It’s challenging because you have to work out how she moves, how she works in the environment. We always instil human qualities in our characters, because otherwise you can’t relate to them, so we’re trying to work out how you get the relatability into that character but then make them feel a bit weird and off-the-wall. It’s the kind of challenge we enjoy, it gives you something to think about.”
Shaun has been a national treasure for over a quarter of a century, and his character isn’t going to change, but this film will show a slightly side to him through his big brother-esque relationship with Lu-La. “We all know about Shaun,” says Will, “If there’s a button, he’ll press it, and he’s cheeky and he’s that kid who just wants to have fun with his mates. But in this film, for the first time, he’s having to look after a character who’s basically like him but slightly worse.”
“We’re always developing ideas for Aardman characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if pretty soon we started talking about what other adventures Shaun could have,” says Richard Phelan. One can only imagine where Shaun will end up next, but it’s absolutely clear that for Aardman the sky is nowhere near the limit.
A Shaun The Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is released on 18 October.