Shaun the Sheep's best pal

Shaun the Sheep's best pal

Animator Jim Parkyn helps a beloved cartoon character come to life

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Shaun the Sheep_L
Photo: Paul Yeung/SCMP

Shaun the sheep and his friends in the popular animations Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep never fail to amuse us. It's great fun watching the sheep in action as they scheme against their farmer, wage war against the farm's greedy hogs, and stop the cat from snitching on their secret barn parties. Sadly, each episode lasts for just 10 minutes.

But back in the studio, those 10 minutes last 45 hours. That's how much time animators spend on each laughter-packed episode. And that's no joke.

For each instalment of the stop-motion gag fest, the crew needs to move the characters frame by frame. It's a painstaking process that entails more than a million tiny changes.

Stop-motion animators also spend long hours creating the dolls and arranging them in scenes for the cameras.

Jim Parkyn can tell you all about it.

The British animator works as a senior model-maker at Aardman, the Oscar-winning animation studio behind Shaun the Sheep and such hit feature films as Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and The Pirates! Band of Misfits.

It's all the effort that goes into it which makes stop-motion animation special, he says. "As lovely as Toy Story is, you can't physically meet the star of the show," Parkyn told Young Post. "But you can see Shaun or Wallace and Gromit on the set."

The animator was in Hong Kong last week to promote an exhibition of his signature farm animals at New Town Plaza in Sha Tin.

Shaun the Sheep, now in its fourth series, alone requires 20 sets and more than 400 puppets, Parkyn says. All the characters are hand-sculpted from oil-based clay, better known as plasticine. Many of them still bear the thumbprints and fingerprints of their makers.

As the lead character, Shaun gets the most attention. There are 30 different clay versions of the sheep and 16 add-on facial expressions for him. His synthetic fleece is stiffened by treating it with a mixture of wood glue and water: it's then air-brushed and massaged.


Some of Parkyn's tools

"When you're touching and moving the models 25 times to make a second of the movie, it [can look like there is something crawling under his skin] which can be disturbing. This trick prevents that from happening," Parkyn explains.

Shaun also needs a built-in wire skeleton and ball-and-socket joints so he can be manipulated easily. He gets extra-long legs whenever he needs to get on his bicycle. And when he does gymnastics, he gets a double with stronger joints so he doesn't fall apart.

"We might be animating a scene over a week," Parkyn notes. "Shaun has to be there [next morning] where you left him in the evening."

It can take animators a day just to have Shaun wave his left hand for two seconds. That's because the motion needs to flow smoothly and it has to be created step by tiny step.

Once stop-motion animators relied on their memory and instinct; these days they have technology to help them out. A technique called onion skinning allows them to see several frames at the same time. That way, they are spared having to flip back and forth through footage already done so as to check.

But animators still have to grapple with their worst enemies: fire, water and zebras.

Fire and water can destroy clay puppets. If water is required for a scene, animators use cling film, beads and glycerine to simulate it.

Red and orange tissue paper is used to mimic fire that can be a nightmare for lighting artists.

As for zebras, if Parkyn needs one of the animals for a scene, he moves away the stripes from the animal's face so it won't break up its shape.

Parkyn and his team are already working on puppets for a brand-new Shaun the Sheep feature film, due out in 2015. What will the story be about? Young Post wants to know. "It's all top secret," Parkyn stresses.

Shaun the Sheep exhibition runs until August 20

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