'Shaun the Sheep' Composer Demonstrates Turning 'Baas' Into Music: Exclusive Video

Shaun the Sheep Movie
Courtesy Photo

Ilan Eshkeri tells Billboard about scoring this sheep-out-of-water story.

Shaun the Sheep, the beloved star of the long-running British stop-motion animated television series of the same name, gets the big screen treatment on Wednesday (Aug. 5) with the Shaun The Sheep movie.

To score the fish-out-of-water story -- or sheep-out-of-pasture tale -- Aardman Animation turned to Ilan Eshkeri, best known for his work on such dramas as Still Alice, Hannibal Rising and The Invisible Woman.

“I was always a secret grown-up fan of Shaun the Sheep,” Eshkeri confesses. 

There’s a line in the title song for the TV show that Eshkeri always hoped would come true: “‘Maybe one day you’ll find a way to come and bleat with Shaun the Sheep,’” he recites. “And I did!”

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In this exclusive clip, Eshkeri goes behind the scenes to reveal how he created the music for the film, which comes from the makers of Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. (An early Aardman Animations project was Peter Gabriel’s 1986 video for “Sledgehammer.”)

The wide-ranging score reflects a “crazy tapestry of different styles,” the British composer tells Billboard. From banjos and ukuleles to a 65-piece orchestra, Eshkeri logged more individual scoring sessions with musicians than he'd done for any previous film. Shaun the Sheep first utilizes folky instrumentation as the sheep go about their day on the farm, but after they arrive in the city, the score shifts to electric guitar and more aggressive riffs.

Unlike in live action films, the sheep and other characters don’t talk, so the music has to speak for them. “You have to put so much heart and energy into the characters to bring them to life,” Eshkeri says. Growing up a metalhead, Eshkeri enjoying scoring themes for Trumper, the animal catcher, the most. “We used electric guitars for him. We figured he listens to heavy metal. When I got my first electric guitar [at 11], I was really into Iron Maiden, Metallica and Megadeth. When I was writing [Trumper’s] scenes I was like, ‘I can write this!’ [We] had an Iron Maiden nerd-out.”

The movie also includes two songs that Eshkeri co-wrote, including the charming “Feels Like Summer” which serves as a recurring theme. Eshkeri wrote the poppy song with Ash’s Tim Wheeler and Kaiser Chiefs’ Nick Hodgson, with Wheeler handling singing duties. “It was quite difficult to write,” Eshkeri admits. “We needed this nostalgia song, and since there’s no dialogue in the film, it’s one of the only places where there’s words. So it was important to express the emotional themes of the movie and set the tone accurately.”

If finding the right lyrical mood wasn’t challenging enough, Eshkeri then had to re-record the song using “baas” instead of the words, since the sheep don’t speak. “We did so many versions of that,“ he says. “I spent hours in the studio, just in tears of laughter, waiting to get it right, and bursting into giggles. But we needed to map out the right version so the animators could animate and make sure the mouths of the sheep were right. It’s really bizarre to hear my voice going ‘baaaa’ and it’s a sheep on screen.”

The key to scoring an animated film aimed at children is to never pander. “You have to take the character seriously,” Eshkeri says. “You can’t say it’s animation and therefore it’s lighthearted. The emotions and relationships are real.”

Eshkeri worked on the score for more than a year, often planting himself in Aardman’s Bristol to be near the animators and soak up the vibe. “There’s a certain British-ness about Aardman, old world rhythms, like a romanticized Victorian bowler hat England,” Eshkeri says. “And you need to bring some of that into the process. I felt it was important to stay true to that.”

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Well into the process of writing the Shaun The Sheep score, Eshkeri was approached about composing the music for Still Alice, the story of a woman with early on-set Alzheimer’s disease (for which Julianne Moore won an Oscar). “I watched the trailer and I literally couldn’t hold back the tears and I thought I’ve got to make time to do this,” Eshkeri says, adding that his grandmother -- a member of the French Resistance -- was starting to decline from dementia at the time, making the movie’s plot all the more poignant. “I talked to Aardman and said I needed to take a little time and they were totally gracious and understood,” he says, letting him leave this “fun-loving sheep thing to dramatically change gears into this other emotional world.”

Up next for Eshkeri is Collide (formerly called Autobahn), a drama featuring Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley and Felicity Jones, for which he wrote an electronic score, as well as a ballet project.