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How Aardman Animation fought a pandemic to make Shaun the Sheep’s Christmas special fly

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Stop-motion animation is always a welcome holiday gift

Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas, holiday special Image: Netflix

If there’s one more Christmas special that can fill up your time in the week between the holiday and New Year’s, it should be Aardman Animation’s Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas.

Two sheep in Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas.
Timmy the Sheep (left) plays a crucial role in the story
Image: Netflix

The absolutely charming 30-minute special is on Netflix, and tells the story of busy farming-influencer parents and their child who, in unlikely circumstances, find themselves amidst Shaun and his entire flock of sheep.

A nearly wordless story, the plot mainly exists for a chance to watch one gorgeous stop-motion gag after another. Involving YouTube tutorials, robot vacuums, sheep snowmen, and incredibly fizzy soda, the charms and delights of Aardman are clearly at work here. A new piece in Variety shows exactly how long it takes to create a piece of holiday magic.

The Farmer and Bitzer in Shaun the Sheep: The Flight Before Christmas
The Farmer has some new ideas brewing. Bitzer is less excited
Image: Netflix

The making-of story for Flight Before Christmas started in 2018. Producers were discussing the idea of future Shaun the Sheep specials before the idea of a Christmas special was given the green light the next year. By 2020, it seemed like everything was moving smoothly, as had been the case for 2015’s Christmas special, The Farmer’s Llamas, and the 2018 movie, Farmageddon.

Producer Richard Beek told Variety that “everything was going great guns; we’d got the script into such a great place; really, really solid. People were happy with it internally. Our production partners were happy with it. So we felt like we’d used that six months really, really well. And we’re all ready to start [story] boarding … then COVID hit.”

That necessitated an eight-week shutdown at Aardman’s studio, with remote work filling in for storyboard and animatics. By the end of 2020, storyboarding became a “full-on process,” Beek said, with the limitations of COVID-19 narrowing the team’s focus.

The plot of the Shaun the Sheep series, for non-Aardman-heads, revolves around a sheep on a small British farm. First airing in 2007, there are 170 episodes that are full of delightful mishaps. Shaun is very clever, his Farmer is very foolish, and the Farmer’s sheepdog, Bitzer, often finds himself in more trouble than the sheep as he tries to corral them. It’s all very wholesome and silly.

In 2020, Aardman gave The Farmer a pair of not-quite rivals in the form of the influencer-farmer family of Ben, Jin, and their daughter Ella. But even if the farmer is at odds with the internet-famous couple, they certainly aren’t the villains of the series — that’s far too dastardly for Shaun the Sheep.

Ben and his wife Jin in the Shaun the Sheep The Flight Before Christmas
Ben and his wife Jin
Image: Netflix
Ella in Shaun the Sheep The Flight Before Christmas
Their absolutely adorable daughter Ella.
Image: Netflix

“We were very clear that the film didn’t have villains. So we have people who are causing problems for Shaun, but the family couldn’t be the bad guys,” Beek said. Ben and Jin are just careless in different ways than the Farmer. For instance, in The Flight Before Christmas, when Ella asks her father to read her a bedtime story, instead of actually reading it he gives her a screen with a video of him reading it. Their lives may be smoother than that of the Farmer, but perhaps missing his warmth.

It’s a warmth Ella is missing, and that she finds in the adorable form of Timmy the Sheep over the course of the new special.

It’s all very sweet and quite a bit different than Aardman’s most well-known work, Wallace & Gromit. It also required creating several new characters, which is an involved process. Ella started with two-dimensional drawings, and then eventually was given to Claire Cohen, who designed her metal skeleton (known as an armature), and everything from her clothes to her wild hair were selected in deciding her character.

That’s a tricky part of anything animated: every detail has to be thought through and added in hopes of creating a greater world. That goes double for Ben’s house. Director Steve Cox told Variety that the “art director, Andy Brown, was asking: ‘What kind of curtains do you want in here?’ and I said we need them to be ceiling to floor,” before finding the right solution in a car advertisement.

When Aardman finally got to shooting, it took six “furious” months starting in January 2021, Beek said. “It’s not as considered as some of the other work we do. But that’s part of its energy.”

It’s the type of work that can only be done with an experienced team. “All the things that are economies about Shaun are also part of what makes it Shaun. I think if we were to overthink Shaun, and to start rehearsing all the shots, maybe it would lose its spontaneity and energy,” Beek said.

All that spontaneous energy is certainly on display in Shaun the Sheep: the Flight Before Christmas, which is available to stream on Netflix.