How 'Shaun the Sheep' Became a Star

The woolly celebrity gets international attention from the likes of Prince William.
Courtesy of Lionsgate
'Shaun the Sheep'

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A new star has joined the pantheon of animated characters who have achieved worldwide popularity: Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Homer Simpson, make room for Shaun the Sheep.

Shaun may be a sheep of few words — actually, he communicates mostly with simple, though often expressive "Baaas" — but Shaun the Sheep Movie, his first starring feature vehicle, made a lot of noise. Released in the U.S. in August by Lionsgate, it has been both a critical hit (achieving a near-perfect 99 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes) and a financial success (made for roughly $20 million, it has topped $100 million at the global box office). The Blu-ray and DVD will be released Nov. 24 in the U.S.

Shaun has been no overnight success, though. His screen debut was a supporting role in U.K.-based Aardman Animations' 1995 Oscar-winning Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave. He had just seven minutes of screen time in the stop-motion animated film, but his appearance garnered so much attention that it set him on a meteoric trajectory to become a global star and Aardman's biggest property.

"The studio is known for Wallace & Gromit, but Shaun has the biggest reach; it's probably our only brand that's growing in a 360-degree way," says Sean Clarke, head of rights and brand development at Aardman. Shaun is the star of a popular children's TV series, which debuted in 2007 and now airs in 170 countries, reaching as far as China, Japan and the Middle East. In addition, Shaun the Sheep merchandise brings in an estimated $50 million a year, and the brand extends to broadcast and digital platforms, games, live events, exhibitions and promotions.

This year alone, Shaun was featured in promotional efforts for the Visit England tourism brand and also for the recently held Rugby World Cup. Aardman launched Shaun the Sheep Land, an interactive exhibition at Land's End in Cornwall, England; and Shaun in the City, an art installation that placed artist-decorated Shaun sculptures around London and Bristol. The sculptures recently were sold at a charity auction, raising more than £1.1 million (about $1.17 million) for Wallace & Gromit's Grand Appeal and Wallace & Gromit's Children's Charity.

"After A Close Shave, we had a lot of anecdotal evidence that he was a really popular char­acter, and we released some Shaun the Sheep merchandise, including a backpack that kind of broke him into fame," says Richard Starzak, who directed the pilot and several episodes of Shaun's TV series and went on to become co-director and co-writer of Shaun the Sheep Movie. "One of the Spice Girls was photographed with it, and overnight all the backpacks sold out. We knew we had a potential star on our hands." Starzak believes that the widespread appeal of the clever, Chaplin-esque sheep is "partly because there's no dialogue," plus its "universal themes and slapstick humor."

Still, taking the woolly celebrity from TV to the big screen required extreme care with a focus on character. Explains Shaun the Sheep Movie producer Paul Kewley, "The worry was that the series was very successful, and the challenge was to get the movie right while being true to what the world already knew of Shaun."

The team chose to keep Shaun in the familiar company of the farmer, sheepdog and his flock — all of whom appear in the series — while digging further into his unique personality. "Shaun has always been an irrepressible sheep that wants to push the boundaries and have fun," says Starzak. "We got more deeply into the consequences. In the series, his flock is seen as a kind of workforce; for the film, we started to define them more clearly as a family. We wrote a story about the farmer and Shaun as more of a father-and-son story."

A sequel, planned for 2018, already is in the works, but fans won't have to wait that long for more from Shaun. A new 30-minute special, Shaun the Sheep — The Farmer's Llamas, will debut this holiday season on the BBC in the U.K. and around the world, and already is streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S. (Amazon Prime also carries the series).

And if his new movie succeeds in corralling a Golden Globe or Academy Award nomination, Shaun could even find himself walking the red carpet in 2016.