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From Single To Score: Composer Ilan Eshkeri Covers The Flock In “Shaun The Sheep Movie”

By Marjorie Galas

Ilan Eshkeri was awestruck when he witnessed his voice coming out of a sheep’s mouth. The composer behind the score in this month’s Aardman Animation release “Shaun the Sheep Movie” grew up watching “Morph”, the studio’s earliest foray in stop motion. The plasticine creation had a short, reoccurring segment in a popular British TV show, a bit Eshkeri always enjoyed.

“It’s like living the dream. I get to do the music for the things I loved as a child,” said Eshkeri.

Eshkeri’s involvement in “Shaun” arose directly from his score to another dream project. After roughly ten years of scoring a wide variety of film and television projects, Eshkeri wrote the score for “The Snowman and the Snowdog” – a revisiting of UK’s popular 1982 children’s classic “The Snowman.” In addition to providing the score, Eshkeri also wrote a single for the half hour special. His efforts on “The Snowman and the Snowdog” resulted in a 2012 BAFTA nomination for “Best Original Television Music.”

“Adding singles into the movie has always been part of my job. I like it because I get to live my rock guitarist dream,” said Eshkeri. “I collaborate with a lot of musicians. Creating ‘Feels Like Summer’ with Tim Wheeler and putting these great rockers in the score is great fun for me.”

Eshkeri wanted to use “Feels Like Summer” as a tool to capture the tone and setting of “Shaun”. With lyrics that highlight the value and of true friendship and crisp open settings, the instrumentation represents 90s British pop. This musical style represents the period when Shaun first entered the Farmer’s life , and the type of music the Farmer would listen to as a young, carefree man. Variations of the melody appear throughout the film to emphasize every stage of the flock’s journey: from embarking on an adventure, the fear of the unfamiliar and the longing to reconnect with their family. While the melody re-appears sporadically throughout the film, the song has proven to be an effective stand along piece. “Feels Like Summer” has earned a regular rotation on a popular UK radio station. At the time this article is published, it’s ranked at #8.

Just as the single stays true to the Farmer, the score had to stay true to the popular TV series, “Shaun the Sheep”, be welcoming to a new generation of viewers, and infuse Eshkeri’s unique stamp of creativity. He found thinking of the music as a device to extend story lines in the TV series a means of clearing that hurdle. For example, Bitzer, the Farmer’s sheepdog, has an older brother in the TV show. When the brother enters the doghouse, he’s seen descending stairs to a mysterious room. Although the older brother is absent from the film, Eshkeri took the allure of the mystery room and transformed it into a late 70s, early 80s seductive R&B sound that is heard when Bitzer sees a bone.

Simplicity was also an element Eshkeri played with to represent the joy of living on a farm. He used the most basic forms of instrumentation, including hand claps and whistling as building blocks for certain sections. In a sequence illustrating Shaun’s humdrum feelings about his daily routine, Eshkeri played with the hand clap, whistling, and some random found objects, utilizing the basic elements to explore a feeling of imprisonment.

“There was a metal grate outside the studio. I took two bits of stone and bashed them against the grate and the floor to get the rhythm,” said Eshkeri. “Adding the whistling gets a prison mood. It reminded me of when you see people working on a chain gang.”

The sounds Eshkeri chose always had to help usher the storyline forward, for the film has no dialogue or narrative. During the flock’s adventures in the big city, Eshkeri used specific instrumentation to highlight character’s intentions and shifts in mood and tone. Heavy metal guitar licks accompany dog catcher Trumper. Classical piano evolves into a ragtime riff when the flock’s cover is blown in a fancy restaurant. Eshkeri even lent his own voice to a tongue in cheek “Baa Baa Shop” quartet rendition of “Feels Like Summer.” Once satisfied with his musical outline, Eshkeri hired professional musicians who recorded the score over a three-month period at famed Abbey Road Studios in London.

“I had an endless group of musicians going in. It was a very lengthy process,” said Eshkeri. “The largest group was the orchestra, which I paired down because I wanted to keep the scale of the sound minimalistic.”

Eshkeri was pleased with the final outcome of the film and the music. In reflection, he does laugh at moments he discovered he was being too precious with the score. After some edits, the score was not only modified but messures dropped, a musical faux pas that would make any properly trained musician cringe. Eshkeri laughs at those moments that seemed to important at the time, realizing the beauty of the film is everyone’s ultimate goal.

“When Shaun is on the bus leaving the farm I was using 12 bar blues. There was a cut that left the music at the eleventh bar,” said Eshkeri. “Blues needs the 12th bar and it’s a little upsetting for me without it, but this is the filmmaking process. Our job is to make the best choices for the film. Plus, on the album, the piece is back to its original version.”

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