Shaun The Sheep bar by baa

Composer Ilan Eshkeri talks about scoring Aardman Animations' latest.

by Amber Wilkinson

"When you're on the farm, you've got to have the Shaun The Sheep Theme – otherwise that would be like having James Bond without the James Bond theme." Photo: Studiocanal

Shaun The Sheep breaks out of his pen and into UK cinemas this week, after Aardman Animations' latest film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. In Utah, I caught up with British composer Ilan Eshkeri – whose other recent projects include Jared Hess's Don Verdean, Submarine thriller Black Sea and Still Alice - to talk about what Shaun has in common with James Bond and his approach to scoring.

Music is particularly important in the Shaun The Sheep The Movie because there is no dialogue, with the humour stemming from visual gags and the score.

"Undoubtedly the music plays a much more vital role," says Eshkeri. "It was a massive learning experience because working on this kind of film is very different from other types of film. Usually, with animation, you get stages. You get a black and white drawing, then you get a digital thing that looks kind of crap, then it gets rendered and slowly improves. But with this, you get a sort of moving storyboard – it's just black and white drawings that hold for five seconds and then move on to the next – and the next thing you see is the finished film, because they just shoot it. So there is no in between stage and that's kind of quite shocking and it's a different process.

Ilan Eshkeri:
Ilan Eshkeri: "I try to collaborate as much as possible" Photo: Maike Eilert
"The no dialogue thing is interesting. Because people aren't saying stuff, it's full of movement and full of action and the story unfolds very quickly. So even though, I kept thinking, 'It's 90 minutes, how difficult can that be? It's not like it's 120 minutes of full-on symphonic music.' But, my God, it was the hugest amount of work and not just because artistically and musically it was a huge endeavour – and I'll tell you why – but just in terms of how much material that you had to fit in to support the scene, with all the things that were going on. It's just jam-packed full of stuff all the time."

The film tells the story of how a mix-up leads to Shaun's farmer being forced off their farm. Shaun and his flock have to embark on a daring trip to the city to try to rescue him. Eshkeri says that the movement from the pastoral setting to the urban environment was a challenge.

"You're a very big part of the emotions of the character," he says. "It's always like this with animation, but more so with this because there isn't dialogue. The other thing that was so difficult about it is the huge amount of styles. When you're on the farm, you've got to have the Shaun The Sheep Theme – otherwise that would be like having James Bond without the James Bond theme. People love that and to give the audience what they're expecting and what they want is a great thing, let's do it.

"So he's on the farm and we play it like the TV show but then as the adventure grows and gets bigger we went from this British sort of folky thing that Mark Thomas uses in the TV show and expanded it into more of a Mumford and Sons-y kind of British pop thing and then we expanded that into more of an orchestra to make it a bit more filmic."

Trumper: "I thought, he should be a heavy metal guy, so I asked my mate Tim Wheeler out of the band Ash. I said: 'Bring the flying V down and let's do some heavy metal stuff.'" Photo: Studiocanal
As the characters don't speak in the film, the music also helps to give them depth and Eshkeri explained how he collaborated with some of the UK's top musicians to bring them to life. Speaking about arrogant animal catcher Trumper, he says: "We thought, he's always listening to heavy metal and kind of fancies himself.

"I thought, he should be a heavy metal guy, so I asked my mate Tim Wheeler out of the band Ash. I said: 'Bring the flying V down and let's do some heavy metal stuff.' So I wrote a heavy metal thing that Tim performed for that. Then I wrote songs with Nick Hodgson out of the Kaiser Chiefs and Tim performed one and Eliza Doolittle performed the other and that was great. But we did go round all the styles. The music credits are ridiculous, I've never had so many overdubs – banjo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, upright bass, kazoo, harmoniums, harmonicas you name it." Eshkeri began playing the violin at four years old – "I just made scratchy sounds," he says – but began dreaming of rock and roll stardom after he got an electric guitar when he was 13. He built a career in composing out of "sheer determination" and admits that one of the reasons he likes to work with pop stars is to "vicariously fulfil my rock and roll dreams".

He adds: "It was so much fun to bring together all these great musicians. I try to collaborate as much as possible. When you write music, you can write out something that musicians call a 'turn', which is a little twiddly embellishment above a note. You can write that out by writing out all the notes, and it's very specific, or you can write it out by putting a squiggle over the top of the note – it's a baroque thing to do. I will always go for the squiggle and the reason is because that allows the musician to interpret it how they want to within the context of the music.

"You're a very big part of the emotions of the character" Photo: Studiocanal
"I like to cast musicians in the same way I imagine a director casts an actor – let's get the right musician for this part, even if it's the orchestra, let's get the right trumpet player etc. I know the musicians, I've worked with them for years, so I cast them and I like what they have to bring to the music and I like to give them a bit of leeway. It was the same on Shaun The Sheep, sometimes I would be non-specific. I don't play banjo, I don't know a huge amount about banjo, let's get the banjo guy in and see what he brings to the table. There's the melodies and the core idea but you see what the musicians bring to it. When you do that, it's like being in a real band and it gels together."

Eshkeri – whose next project will be a film collaboration with British visual artists The Chapman Brothers - also says that research forms a big and enjoyable part of his composing.

"I'm always learning about different combinations of instruments and musical, cultural references,. He says. "I can get quite nerdy about it. I worked on Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman for a year and a bit and there was a lot of music in the film, and I studied a lot about Victorian music and how it was at the time pianos were being created and printed music was becoming more easily achieved on a wider scale - all these things contributed to more people learning music. So you pick up all these interesting cultural references as you go along. The same is true doing Shaun and Still Alice, you learn about music in relation to the world that the film is set in and that is forever fascinating for me."

When it comes to his own film watching, Eshkeri says he tries not to get drawn in to separating scores from the action, although if something is particularly good, it's tricky.

Ilan Eshkeri with Christine Evangelista at the New York premiere of Black Sea.
Ilan Eshkeri with Christine Evangelista at the New York premiere of Black Sea. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
"Like in Birdman," he admits. "I loved that score and I was sad it got disqualified from the awards as I thought the score was brilliant. But, in a sense, I was so kind of taken by the improvised drum thing and how it worked with the film that it slightly took me out of the film, I was really caught up with it."

Despite his youthful dreams of band stardom and the importance of scoring to a film, Eshkeri is keen to point out that it is not the principle concern when he approaches a project.

"My belief about the film composer is that you're the same as everyone else on the film set – it's all about being a storyteller," he says. "It's all about narrative, it's all about understanding the story you're telling and my medium for telling the story is music. But the musical element is always secondary to the narrative and, if what is required is just one note from the violins held for three minutes, then that's what's required. And if what's required is a huge, anthemic theme, then that's what's required. But the primary purpose is to tell a story.

"I'm always curious how a listener engages with a soundtrack album because I always think the music doesn't have its complete meaning without being attached to the film. Often when I'm writing music in a film, I feel like the dialogue is the top line, like the lead singer, and I'm supporting it, like recitative in an opera. So to remove that... I worry about how well that holds together. Occasionally, I have taken that music away and written a suite of the music, and you put it into a symphonic or musical form so that it has its own integrity. I don't mean in its moral sense but in its structural sense and has a beginning, middle and an end. I find it very hard to separate the music from the film. "

Shaun The Sheep The Movie is in UK cinemas on February 6 and is screening at Glasgow Film Festival. Still Alice is released in the UK on March 6. Read Part 1 and 2 of our interview with Wash Westmorland about Still Alice.

For more about the film, visit the official site

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