This summer, Shaun the Sheep and his mischievous cronies are flocking to Sweden.
June the 18th will see the opening of Shaun the Sheep Land at Skånes Djurpark in Sweden. This zoo is owned by the Lund Group, one of Europe’s oldest and most established amusement companies.
Animals Without Cages
Skånes Djurpark is a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. It was established in 1952 as a foundation by the government and a diverse group of business people.
Before global-warming, there was a ski resort close to the park, which made a lot of money in the winter. The idea behind the park was to invest that money into an attraction that would bring guests year-round.
“So they bought this huge farm property, 800, 000 square metres of beautiful, natural oak forest. Their intention was to create a park where guests would actually be able to see the animals whose tracks they can see in the snow at the ski resort, ” explains Lund.
“And they said, ‘we should not be a city zoo’ – at that time there were a lot of city zoos with concrete walls and concrete cages; ‘we want them to see the animals which are native to this region and to the Scandinavian region; no exotic animals – people do not come here to look at lions, because lions are not native, and it should be animals without cages – huge enclosures with native animals.’
It was very progressive when it was established: probably the first park in Europe that had the slogan ‘Animals Without Cages’.”
The park evolved focusing on the Nordic heritage, growing year after year until in 2009, the park’s peak year, it welcomed around 250, 000 visitors.
And then, just when things were going well, the park unexpectedly suffered a downturn in its fortunes.
“There was a change from the government side where they said, ‘well, we can’t go on funding these huge deficits, now we’re going to give the park a one-time grant, and after that it must stand on its own feet.’”
Without an annual government subsidy, and with a new CEO who spent a lot of money on non-essential infrastructure which didn’t benefit the guests, the park began to struggle.
“The prices were raised without any new experiences being added, ” says Lund. “That brought the park from 250, 000 visitors to 100, 000, and close to bankruptcy.”
It was at this point that the park approached the Lund Group (Lund Gruppen Holding).
We Fell in Love with the Place
“They contacted us to see if we were interested in looking at the park and taking over the operations side. We operate parks and attractions all over Scandinavia; our company dates back over 120 years and has operated in Sweden before: my great-grandfather was a part-owner of Liseberg, a park in Sweden, when it was privately owned.”
Established in 1895, the company operates Lunds Tivoli, large music festivals, Kongeparken, one of the leading theme parks in Norway, and Skånes Djurpark in Sweden. Håkon is a fourth-generation Lund, has an MBA in law and was nominated for Entrepreneur of the year in 2014.
“So we were asked if we were interested in coming to see it, and we just fell in love with the place.
“It lacked major investment in infrastructure, and the guest service needed to be brought up to standard with, for example, modern toilets, fibre optics…
“We saw the wonderful potential that this park had, and we loved that it was all native animals: there were no exotic animals; there was no issue about ‘why do we have a lion here’ – it was more about telling the story of how we take care of the nature we actually live in today, and how we in the Nordic countries should care for wolves and bears and their environment.
“We’ve done turn-around projects before: we own a park in Norway that went bankrupt three times before we took it over, and now it’s one of the most successful theme parks in Norway.
“We specialise in guest experiences, and taking the guest’s immersive experience to the next level. And, that’s where Sean Clarke comes in, and Shaun the Sheep, and Aardman.”
The Search for a Story
Approaching the park as a project, Lund and his team realised it needed a framework – a story.
They considered numerous IP holders, from domestic Swedish companies to international ones. Although it is located in Sweden, Skånes Djurpark is a mere hour from Copenhagen in Denmark. Germany, too, is very close.
“So we were looking for a cross-border brand. Another thing that is very important to us is that we have something we can integrate into the zoo. Our mission is to bring animals and people closer, and we have a very strong conservation message. If we were to bring in a plastic fantastic brand, it would not fit well with the loyal hundred thousand visitors the park had when we took it over, having seen it go through almost bankruptcy and [a phase of not being at its best], but still being very devoted to the mission of the park.
“We needed to be consistent with our values, and consistent with the values of our partner: a cross border IP was important to us, as was the value statement for the partnership, and the third element was we wanted to target the zero to nine age-group, and adults. It’s very difficult to hit the nine-plus demographic.
“So, we were looking at all these IPs that would get adults to smile and laugh, and have the kids completely mesmerised.”
On being introduced to Aardman, Lund realised he had found a partner.
“Their craftsmanship is unbelievable: they are the best in their industry. And they are hands-on. They have a very down-to-earth culture and believe in the value equation of giving guests amazing experiences, and that’s the same type of base that we have.”
“The company that we operate believes in six core values: it’s about learning. It’s about playing and sharing and it’s about exploring – and then magic and excitement.
“Those values are a kind of acid test when we approach partners to see that they believe in continuous learning, both in their organisation and with the guests.
“And seeing what Shaun the Sheep has been doing with the agricultural approach, teaching kids about where food comes from, their wonderful recycling concepts, the stuff they do with the children’s hospitals… There aren’t many companies with such a strong emphasis on sustainability.
“And as one of our core values is sharing, we would like to have a partner who believes in its importance, and if you look at Aardman’s series, if you look at their movies, they’re all about sharing the time together, being with your kids, watching and laughing – maybe understanding different levels of the story – together. It’s just a wonderful sharing experience.
“We started discussing the possibilities with Aardman.”
The previous year, The Lund Group had launched Gråtassland – ‘The Land of the Little Gray Tractor’ at Kongeparken – a Norwegian IP based on a Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor, Fergie.
“It’s a very popular brand in Norway, and we won the THEA award for the best themed area.”
The attraction uses entertainment and the popular little grey tractor to teach about animals, farming and the importance of taking care of the environment.
“So, based on that, we invited Aardman to come over to see our park, what we believed in, what we were doing, how we interacted with the kids and how we created these unique experiences. For example, we have a chocolate factory at our Kongeparken in Stavanger – one of Scandinavia’s foremost theme parks – there’s a fire station where the kids are the firefighters, and learn about firefighting and smoke detectors, and then there’s the celebration of the ‘Little Grey Fergie’ character.”
“I think Aardman’s Sean Clarke and Ngaio Harding-Hill loved what they saw, and after that we drew up our vision of how we could realise their world in a 3-D environment.”
Bringing the World of Shaun the Sheep to Sweden
“We decided on one key concept. This was not to take Shaun the Sheep’s world and bring it into Sweden. That would not be possible. It’s a huge area, very beautiful with lots of trees. But it would be very difficult to make that into something that would look like a real English farm. Nobody would believe it.”
Instead, they came up with the idea that Shaun and the gang would be invited over to a traditional Swedish fair.
“Of course all the sheep disappear, and the kids have to collect them all and get them back in so we can get the show on the road.”
Of collaborating with Aardman, Lund says:
“Any partnership, when you’re working with somebody that is really professional and knows their stuff and are craftsman, will be rewarding. They know their skill.
“We’re not dealing with a holding company that does publishing: we’re working with the owner of the IP, which is crucial for any project like this to be successful.
“Aardman set out what they would like. We drew up the concept which we felt would be feasible in a theme park. Then we brought that back to Aardman. They worked with us, and we got all the small details in place. We’ve been working very closely ever since. We have at least one touch-down every week where we go through the project in detail.
“We had some amazing workshops together where we worked out the concept. These meant we were able to take the best from the screen world which is 2-D and the best from our 3-D experience, and merge that into a concept.”
Sean Clarke, Head of Aardman Rights & Brand Development, has this to say about Shaun the Sheep’s universal appeal:
“Shaun the Sheep is clearly set in the British countryside. However, I think it’s had its success around the world for a number of reasons. The fact that we’ve been very focused on continuing to create new series -we have 150 episodes. Also, we’ve just done a movie. In addition, we are in the throes of finalising green-lighting a sequel to that movie. So we’ve been able to build up a very good network of partnerships all over the world with the content over the last ten years.
“And then, the content itself just seems to resonate and connect with audiences all over the world. I think a lot of that, from the research that we’ve done, is because there isn’t any dialogue. There are noises, but the plot, the story, the gags and the humour are not reliant on talking. This means we work a lot harder on the visual gags, the performances and the characters.”
Clearly, Shaun the Sheep transcends culture and language differences to connect with global audiences, and its appeal crosses the age spectrum, as well. As Clarke points out, this is rare for an animated series, with perhaps the exception of a few shows such as The Simpsons.
“That’s one of the Aardman hallmarks, ” he says.
It has found a very broad audience who enjoy it at different levels. In territories which wouldn’t be top of your list, such as Indonesia, it has become a huge hit. Of our 6m followers on Facebook, 2m of them are from Indonesia.
“It has connected very well with the Middle East, too. We have a stage show that is doing a second tour of the GCC territories. We were also the second Western company to go into Saudi Arabia with a stage show. It transcends all cultures and religions – it’s something that everybody can enjoy.”
The brand has been around now for a decade. Aardman plans to continue developing new content, so the natural progression is to look at moving into both live events and themed attractions.
Shaun the Sheep and the Championsheep
“Over the last few years we’ve developed stage shows, ” says Clarke. “We’re always trying to do things a bit differently. Rather than just doing what we call ‘meet and greet’, where you can meet the characters, we’ve come up with this concept called ‘Shaun the Sheep’s Championsheep’. We’re a bit puntastic, ” he adds, sheepishly.
“The idea was that, rather than meet and greet the characters, a venue could hire, over a weekend, this concept of Championsheeps. There you as a family could do funny sports on the farm. Everything from welly-whanging where you throw wellies at scarecrows, to egg-and-spoon races. That’s worked very well.
“So we have this concept that can travel round and tour the UK. It’s been to places like the Eden Project, Kew Gardens. We’ve also got it touring the Middle East, we’ve got a version in Indonesia, and we’re developing one for Germany.”
The first foray into themed attractions was with Wallace and Gromit at Blackpool Pleasure Beach: a match made in heaven.
“And then, ” Clarke explains, “because of this interest in the brand, we were then getting inundated with people wanting to talk with us. In particular, there were enquiries from Asia, about themed attractions.”
Aardman’s Biggest Markets are in Asia
Aardman’s biggest markets are in Asia. Historically, Japan was their biggest market, but it has now been overtaken by China.
As an independent producer, lacking the resources of Hollywood, the company nevertheless competes on the same global playing-field:
“If we were going to do something, we wanted to do it well. So we started the process of talking to various people about, if you like, how we could go into attractions. We wanted to use these award-winning creators who are fantastic at creating these compelling characters and stories. We understood from talking to people in [the attractions industry], if it’s a good attraction, it needs a strong narrative and a strong story. It seemed a natural progression that we harness the creative power of our guys and start to find people in the industry that shared that vision, [and work with them].”
It was at this point, having worked on various ideas, that Clarke took a call from Håkon Lund from the Lund Group.
“To cut a long story short, we ended up going over to see Kongeparken in Norway. We just really loved what he was about. We loved what he stood for and how they executed the rides. So that as well as being entertaining there was some underlying educational messaging, and we sort of did the deal.
“From the first day, we could see there was a meeting of minds creatively. This in relation to how we would establish a narrative for the ride. Also, on what the vision could be. We developed this into what’s going to be three rides within a Land.”
“That’s sort of the back story. We had a whole group of people, from our storyboard artists, to our animators, producers and scriptwriters. It’s been a lot of fun, actually.
A Meeting of Minds
“Håkon has really enjoyed the process, I think. He’s found it an interesting process in learning how we work, as we have how he works. I’m really excited about what else we can do in the industry now.”
The successful collaboration with Håkon Lund at Skånes Djurpark is, for Aardman, the first step towards expanding into a new space.
“We are storytellers, ” says Clarke. “This whole area is a great way of telling stories in a different way. If we’ve got this global audience that really enjoys the animation, then this is another step to broaden that world and create a more rounded, immersive experience.”
The aim is to create something that will, like the series and films, appeal across the age-ranges. Clarke makes the point that it is still relatively rare to find an attraction with that sort of appeal. One that can be genuinely enjoyed as a family, rather than the parents being dragged along by the kids.
Bespoke (Aardman) Animation
“I think Håkon takes the same view. There will be a lot of humour throughout the rides, in the queue lines, the shop.”
“It isn’t just going to be a ride with these plastic things that move. We’ve spent a lot of time creating bespoke animation as a part of it.”
The attraction goes live in June:
“…so it’s at that stage where it’s all hands on deck. Ngaio Harding-Hill who works for me has been over, and all is in good shape. The project is, essentially, at its simplest, a tractor ride. Rather than rely on obvious moving animatronics, we have focused on creating a feeling that the sheep are there. So you may see an animated shadow that goes past you, rather than the figures being in your face all the time. Part of it is making your imagination work overtime.”
Diversification and Evolution
Aardman partnered the British Council to set up Shaun the Sheep English language centres all over the world, in Guadalajara, Singapore, Santiago and Barcelona. There will also be an English language centre in their FEC.
In 2015, Bristol was the Green Capital of Europe. Aardman partnered with them to create a multi award winning game using Shaun the Sheep. This encouraged people to look at the environment and sustainability.
“I think there’s a neat way within an FEC where we can create something enjoyable that also has an underlying message.”
In the light of the numerous enquiries, particularly from venues in Asia, Aardman has been fine-tuning a strategy with expansion into new areas in mind.
After Shaun the Sheep Land at Skånes Djurpark in Sweden has been launched next month, Clarke will travel to Shanghai. Because there, Aardman has been doing a lot of work on FECs.
“We wanted to do a lot of work to give us the tools and controls to assess these enquiries. We need to look at each it its own right. Consider them in terms not just of commercial viability, but also that they will be executed the way that we want.
Shaun in Asia
“As well as our guys having lots of ideas, we wanted to ground them in a way that we don’t stray too far from the practical, in terms of queue lines and budgets and everything. We work with a guy called Paul Lanham from P.E.L Creative. He did the master planning for some of the Lego Discovery Centres.
“So we’re off to a good start. We’re really excited about launching with Hakon, at (Skanes Djurpark) in Sweden. Even before we get to Shanghai there are two or three leads that we’re talking to.
“One of the big focuses for us in Asia, we just want to get it right – make sure we have like-minded partners.
“It’s been a really exciting, manic twelve months. I think we’ve got a lot to offer, and I’m hoping that the Swedish project is the first of many. I have a lot of respect for what Håkon does and I also think it will be a nice showcase for us.”
It is clear that the Swedish project will act as a springboard for Aardman. In addition, it will be a starting-point from which they can map their exploration of this new space.
“It’s something that we’re serious about. We plan to harness all the creativity in the studio to work with other people, to talk about our vision.
“There are a lot of people out there who see what’s emanating out of Hollywood, but that comes with lots of bureaucracy, bigger relationships, and I think we have characters that have worldwide appeal. We’re probably a bit more nimble, and collaborative.”
A colleague of Clarke’s is responsible for all Aardman’s third party content. This is where characters for third parties, mostly advertising agencies, are created.
Developing New IPs
Clarke sees the potential for creating an intellectual property to be launched in this space.
“IP is the buzz word. Everyone wants intellectual property, something that will tell a story. Now, in a digital world, you can carry on that connection with your audience outside of the park. And you can use it to bring them back. Because it’s all about story, about characters.”
There are precedents. Places like Europa Park are already launching their own characters successfully.
“If we could work with somebody like that from the outset, with a captive audience, and doing all the social media around it, we can launch IP. We can launch an IP with a zoo, for instance, working as a co-production, and sell it to other zoos around the world, ” says Clarke.
“There’s a lot of excitement [around] what we can do in this space.”
Increasingly in the world of theme parks, the quality of the story is everything. Technology may bring people to a park, but it is the story that keeps them there, and brings them back.
And, no one spins a better yarn than Aardman.
(Shaun the Sheep Land opens at Skånes Djurpark on the 17th of June.)
Images kind courtesy Lund Group and Aardman