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Man behind Shaun the Sheep talks animation

Software Engineering in practice

The man behind Shaun the Sheep and other hit productions has warned UEL students it’s tough for an aspiring professional animator to get noticed, but they need to keep trying.

Richard “Golly” Starzak started out with Aardman Animations long before the Wallace and Gromit movies which made the company a household name. During a recent guest lecture at UEL, he told students they needed to be persistent.

“I’m a firm believer that if you keep doing what you love it will eventually become a career,” he said. “Maybe not always the way you thought, but it will be a career in some way,” he said.

As a youngster, Mr Starzak spent his days drawing cartoons. He told students he wanted to animate but, at the time, the craft “was only for the rich.” In the 1970s, an animator needed a camera, film, a way to process film. Kids today just need an iPhone and a piece of modelling clay to create something magical, he noted.

Mr Starzak eventually earned a fine arts degree, creating paintings and sculptures infused with elements of humour.

When he joined animation studio Aardman in the early 1980s as “employee number one” he didn’t think his new job would be sustainable as a long-term career. But the fledgling company started getting work and eventually so many projects were pouring in that Aardman was turning down commissions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Besides Shaun the Sheep Movie, Mr Starzak has also directed the award-winning programmes Robbie the Reindeer, Creature Comforts and Hooves of Fire. He wrote, directed and animated the cult classic series Rex the Runt. He also worked on the Shaun the Sheep television series and Peter Gabriel’s Morph and Sledgehammer.

With Shaun the Sheep Movie, Mr Starzak said he envisioned creating a modern-day (mostly) silent film - there’s no dialogue in Shaun. But he worried about whether an audience could handle 80 minutes without any talking. Creators even came up with a few contingency plans, including having a narrator periodically jump out from behind a tree.

But “we didn’t need any of that. Once we got the reels we realised it would be no problem at all,” Mr Starzak said.

Mr Starzak said that it was important to him that the animation in Shaun the Sheep Movie isn’t perfectly smooth. “I like to see some of the technique revealed,” he said.

He compared his vision to 19th century impressionist painters who moved toward more abstract works as photography arguably negated some of the need for truly lifelike paintings.

“When you go to see Shaun the Sheep Movie, you will see thumbprints. You will see how the film is made revealed,” he said.

Starzak said he had a hunch the original Shaun the Sheep television series would make a good feature-length film.

“After two or three years of Shaun I thought the characters had some emotional depth. We’d developed the series enough to move into longer form and I really wanted to make a film,” he said.

“They gave in and let me do it,” he continued.

His advice to UEL students interested in pursuing a career in animation: “Keep doing it, learn your trade and understand what companies want.”

Aardman will forgive some rough animation or not-so-great storytelling if an animator can make viewers believe the characters are real and more than just puppets, he said.

It’s tough to get noticed in the animation world, Mr Starzak admitted. But he advised students to be patient. It might be six months or more after someone sends in a clips reel that Aardman even thinks about hiring new workers. Come to the studio and meet people, he said. And keep your ear to the ground for information about upcoming Aardman projects – that’s when the studio is most likely to hire newbies.

Most of all, just keep at it, he said.

“I think most of the people that work at Aardman, whether it’s model-making, set building or even animation, it’s a kind of vocational thing. They love doing it because they love doing it,” he said.

You can see Richard Starzak's full talk here

Shaun the Sheep director speaks to UEL

Note to Editors

The University of East London (UEL) is a global learning community with students from over 120 countries world-wide. Our vision is to achieve recognition, both nationally and internationally, as a successful and inclusive regional university proud of its diversity, committed to new modes of learning which focus on students and enhance their employability, and renowned for our contribution to social, cultural and economic development, especially through our research and scholarship. We have a strong track-record in widening participation and working with industry.