Interview: Ilan Eshkeri on Scoring Shaun the Sheep

Over the course of the past decade, English composer Ilan Eshkeri has established himself as an exceptionally versatile talent, providing music for such diverse films as Layer Cake, Stardust, The Young Victoria, Kick-Ass, Still Alice and Black Sea. His latest effort is a tuneful, upbeat score for Aardman Animation's Shaun the Sheep Movie, which gives the characters of the charming British television series Shaun the Sheep their first big-screen adventure. What sets Shaun the Sheep apart from most animated films - aside from Aardman's distinctive brand of stop-motion animation, anyway - is its use of grunts, indecipherable mumblings and sound effects in lieu of traditional dialogue. As such, the music is brought to the fore on a regular basis, and even plays a key role in a number of the film's audiovisual gags. I interviewed Mr. Eshkeri via e-mail about his work on the film.

Clark Douglas: Shaun the Sheep's lack of traditional dialogue and emphasis on physical comedy have caused some to draw comparisons to the silent films of the 1920s. Do you feel the absence of dialogue gives the music a more significant role than usual?

Ilan Eshkeri: Yes, I think it does. Often I like to think of dialogue as the lead vocal and the film score as the accompaniment supporting it. With no dialogue the music has to have its own lead voice all of the time. This meant that the score had to be full of melodies, motifs and entertaining devices all the way through. 

CD: You incorporate the beloved Shaun the Sheep theme song in your score – how much the did the musical tone established by the television series inform your work on the film?

IE: The film makers and I all agreed that doing Shaun without the Shaun theme would be like doing Bond without the Bond theme. Whilst Shaun is on Mossy Bottom Farm, where the TV show takes place, I used the TV show theme and its quirky acoustic instrumentation. As the adventure expands into the electrified city we introduced electric instruments. Also as the scale of the adventure and emotions grew into a bigger cinematic experience I started to introduce orchestra. By the climactic ending of the film we've gone from a quirky band to a fully symphonic Hollywood score. 

CD: This is a very diverse, playful score that runs through a lot of different sounds – traditional orchestral material, plus elements of folk, rock, pop, disco, classical - I imagine the recording sessions must have been a lot of fun.

IE: The sessions were enormous fun. I got to work with a lot of very brilliant musicians; Tim Wheeler from Ash, who not only sang the title song "Feels Like Summer" but was also the heavy metal guitar voice of Trumper, Tim Carter from Kasabian who was the electric piano voice of Slip the homeless dog, Daisy Chute from All Angels who voiced the Baa Baa Shop Quartet, and Nick Hodgson from Kaiser Chiefs and the brilliant Eliza Doolittle worked on the songs. I could go on. There were so many wonderfully talented individuals who were a part of this score. I think people just wanted to work with Shaun!  

CD: Your main theme (first heard on the soundtrack album in “Humdrum Day”) has a rural sound befitting the initial barnyard setting, but the whistling also hints at the famous march from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Is that an intentional reference?

IE: The whistling was conceptually about being in jail. Many films and songs have used it as a device, and I wanted to create this feeling of the sheep being like a chain gang, imprisoned and doing forced labour, but it still had to be upbeat and light hearted. In the same spirit, the percussion backing track in "Humdrum Day" is a rock hitting a metal grate and a stone floor, performed by my score producer Steve McLaughlin. His time as a punk rock drummer in the 80s served me well on this one!

CD: One of my favorite cues is the energetic “Runaway Caravan.” The rhythm and descending bass line seem to evoke Charlie Daniels' “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Was that your inspiration for that cue?

IE: Actually, at the time, I was thinking somewhere between a boogie woogie bass and a Stones riff, but I do love Charlie Daniels. Thanks for the compliment. 

CD: Looking back over your career to date, is there a personal favorite score among the many you've written?

IE: My career has been eclectic, and I'm grateful for that. Sometimes my favourite work is just because of the wonderful people I had the opportunity to collaborate with on the film or project. I'm very proud of my work on The Invisible Woman, it's a Violin and Cello duet. It's neo-classical and I think unusual for a film score. I loved composing it, not least because Ralph Fiennes is a very inspiring director and collaborator.

CD: Can you tell us a little bit about the projects you're currently working on and what sort of music we can look forward to hearing from you next?

IE: I'm just finishing my score to Collide (previously Autobahn), with Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley. It’s a completely electronic score made with analogue synths. It's been super fun working with those instruments and the score is very stylised. I've never done anything like it before and I personally haven't seen a film with a score that was so uncompromising in its dedication to using only analogue synths. I have to thank Eran Creevy, the director, for allowing me to go down such a bold musical road and I'm delighted with how it’s turned out. I hope people agree when it come out!

CD: You've had the opportunity to score a wide array of films, but is there a type of score you'd like to write someday that you haven't had the chance to tackle yet?

IE: I really want to do a science fiction film. I grew up loving Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers and many more. I've always been fascinated by space and sci-fi, so I hope I get to score an epic cool science fiction film one day!