Shaun of the city

Shaun the Sheep Movie, adapted from a popular British animated TV series, will be screened on the Chinese mainland this weekend.Photo: China Daily

Based on the popular British animated TV series about Shaun, a relatively small yet smart sheep, Shaun the Sheep Movie will hit Chinese mainland theaters on Friday.

It was released in the United Kingdom in February.

Richard Starzak and Mark Burton, the directors of the movie, say they are impressed with the series' popularity in China, adding jokingly that they will consider making a sequel titled "Shaun the Panda" for the world's second-largest movie market after the United States.

Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave (1995), an Oscar-winning short film, and gained his status as the protagonist of a four-season animated series, produced by Bristol-based Aardman Animations.

The TV series was aired by BBC in 2007 and has been viewed in around 140 countries since then.

China introduced the dialogue-free, clay animation series in 2012, and now all the episodes can be watched for free on several major video-streaming websites, such as iQiyi and Letv.

Figures from the sites show that most of the episodes have been watched more than one million times in the country.

Alongside children, Shaun and his flock have gathered many adult fans in China, as evident from popular reality TV shows-Divas Hit the Road and Running Man-on which the cartoon characters appeared on T-shirts as cultural icons.

By Tuesday night, the movie had up to 11,000 followers on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and more than 8,000 reviews on Baidu Tieba, one of the country's largest online movie platforms.

In the era of computer-generated imagery, such cartoon titles spark nostalgia among younger Chinese, many of whom grew up watching clay models or puppets of animated characters on TV series in the 1980s.

"They were like puppets manipulated by the animators. With skeletons inside their clay bodies, they could move their arms, legs and eyes," says Starzak, 56, known for the clay animation comedy franchise Creature Comforts. He uses his fingers on a tabletop to show what is known as the stop-motion effect.

Stop motion, a technique that originated in The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1898), makes a physically manipulated object or person move in small increments between individually photographed frames, creating the illusion of continued movement, when the series of frames are played in a sequence.

Up to 150 crew members worked for three years on Shaun the Sheep Movie at Aardman Animations, sometimes with just a few seconds of the 85-minute feature completed at the end of a long day.

The British directors spoke to China Daily on the sidelines of a media event on Tuesday, after which they left for a promotional tour of Shanghai, Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, and Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province.

During the screening of a trailer in Beijing earlier this week, Burton knelt down on the floor to mimic a sheepdog.

"Sometimes we practiced the shots and rehearsed the shots. So when we animated, we could get the comic timing right," says Burton.

In an attempt to make the movie "fresh" as compared with the TV series, the feature isn't set on a farm but instead in a big city, just like "Beijing with lots of vehicles and people", says Burton.

When asked about their Chinese box-office expectations from Shaun the Sheep Movie, which has grossed $70 million globally to date, Starzak gives the figure "between zero and 1 billion yuan", displaying some British humor.

Among the few imported animated titles this summer, Shaun appears positioned for competition in China, where 18 homegrown animation movies are up for release through August across 2,000 cinemas on the mainland.

"Write a good story. I've talked quite a lot with some Chinese animators," Burton says. "The crucial element is the storytelling."

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