Why Does Clay Animation Matter at Hollywood's Annual CG Conference?

Shaun the Sheep Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Shaun the Sheep Still - H 2015

This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

At this year's SIGGRAPH convention, there will be the usual panels about breakthroughs in virtual reality and other cutting-edge developments in computer-generated entertainment. The projected 14,000 attendees at the Association for Computing Machinery's 42nd annual gathering of the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, set to take place Aug. 9 to 13 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, expect nothing less. But one panel in particular will offer a unique peek into an animation process so sophisticated and specialized that only a handful of geniuses have mastered it well enough to succeed in Hollywood: molding lumps of clay with one's fingers.

It indeed is ironic that a convention dedicated to super-high-tech computer graphics would hold a panel for Britain's Aardman Animations, one of the last studios in the digitized world still producing old-fashioned handmade stop-motion cartoons. But the timing couldn't be more perfect: Aardman, home to Nick Park's beloved Wallace & Gromit films — including the Oscar-winning shorts A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers and the Oscar-winning feature Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit — will release its latest feature, Shaun the Sheep Movie, on Aug. 5, only days before the conference-opening panel.

"I think there's a danger that you can take technology to an extreme," says Shaun executive producer (and Aardman co-founder) David Sproxton, who will appear on the panel alongside the film's cinematographer, Dave Alex Riddett. "It can become a little bit too polished or too CG. The imperfections of stop-motion give it charm because you can sense the craftsmanship. And the other key thing about stop-motion is that the animators themselves have to be performers in their own right."

From left: Shaun on the run with pooch pals Slip and Bitzer.

Park didn't direct Shaun — he's in England preparing to shoot his next feature for Aardman, Early Man, which is said to be set in prehistoric times. But as with all of the studio's projects, his DNA is all over the screen. Shaun co-director Mark Burton was a writer on Park's The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Shaun the Sheep himself first appeared in 1995's A Close Shave before the character got his own BBC show in 2007 (produced and directed by Shaun's other co-director, Richard Starzak).

"We were certainly inspired by the way Nick Park animated Gromit — he's a very deadpan puppet," says Burton, referring to the clay-animation dog's ability to convey a wide range of emotions without saying (or even barking) a word. "We tried to be true to that with Shaun; you have to let the audience know what's going on in the character's head at all times. If you do that, you don't need a lot [of dialogue] — it's a little look or a slight movement of the eyes that will tell you everything you need to know."

But in the world of stop-motion animation, those little movements can take months to get on film. To make Shaun, craftsmen constructed 197 sheep puppets (21 for Shaun alone), 157 human figures and dozens of miniature motorcycles, cars and bikes — along with a mini town square where some of the "action sequences" take place — all of which painstakingly had to be adjusted and shot one frame at a time to give the illusion of movement. Making a stop-motion feature takes so long and can become so involved, it's easy to lose track of what's real and what's clay. One of the animators even might have gone slightly bonkers during production.

"He invented a little story for each character, so he was talking to them while he was animating them," says Starzak. "It helped him remember what the character was up to. It looked a little bit insane, but it worked."


Must-See Panels at SIGGRAPH 2015

Cracking Animation — 9 a.m., Aug. 9

A look at the past three decades of Aardman’s stopmotion animation with co-founder David Sproxton and cinematographer Dave Alex Riddett.

The Renaissance of Virtual Reality: Are We Going to Do It Right This Time? — 9 a.m., Aug. 10

Current developments in virtual reality are explored, along with past successes and failures.

Industrial Light & Magic 40th Anniversary Presentation — 2 p.m., Aug. 10

ILM’s nine-time Oscar-winning effects supervisor Dennis Muren discusses the company’s early days making Star Wars.

Inside the Mind: The Making of Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out 2 p.m., Aug. 11

Members of the Pixar team, including effects supervisor Gary Bruins, discuss the making of their latest hit film.