“In the UK, we’re on TV 365 days a year whether you realize it or not,” smiles Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord.
That’s because, while the company is known the world over for its stop-motion characters like “Wallace Gromit” and films like “Chicken Run,” the creative minds at Aardman turn out a constant stream of all variety of animation for commercials, film, music videos and virtually anything else you can imagine. For the last year and a half, though, the stages of their Bristol, England studios have been taken up by their biggest project yet, the offbeat stop motion comedy The Pirates! Band of Misfits, for which ComingSoon.net had the honor to step behind the scenes and witness the incredible process first-hand.
Based on the “The Pirates!” book series by Gideon Defoe, the film tells the story of a highly jovial (but somewhat misguided) Pirate crew and their quest for their Captain to win the “Pirate of the Year” award. Along the way, they find themselves teaming with Charles Darwin to go up against the pirate-hating Queen Victoria and some of the deadliest sea-faring, swashbuckling competition of all time.
Though the final film will star the voice talents of Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, David Tenannt, Imelda Staunton, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Piven and many more, all of the characters begin right here at Aardman where a simple sketch is fleshed out and first turned into a maquette, a three-dimensional sculpture designed to capture the essence of the character, usually in an action pose or featuring a particularly defining expression.
Enormously scaled, “Pirates” had, at one point, 300 people working on 42 different miniature sets (as opposed to 200 people and 28 sets for their Academy Award-winning Wallace Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). With each animator turning in, on average, just four seconds of footage a week, and 33 animators working simultaneously, the level of exacting detail for “Pirates” is simply astonishing.
In one workshop, a final model of the The Pirate Captain has been broken up into all its basic elements, which include dozens of large and small parts built out of foam silicon and latex (and, in this case, even some metal for the belt buckle). All of these pieces have been specially created and then molded so that multiple versions can be made for both the wear and tear of production and so that multiple scenes can be shot simultaneously with the same characters.
Beneath the colorful exteriors of the models is a metal skeleton that allows each character to be posed however the animator likes, even down to tiny aluminum and copper wires for finger movement, surrounded by a layer of silicon “skin”.
A far cry from the early days of the studio’s “Morph” and “Wallace Gromit” shorts (which actually required that each character’s mouth be sculpted from clay frame by frame), each member of the Pirate crew has a full array of pre-fabricated mouths, designed to represent every possible sound. Held in place by magnets, the mouths can be pulled from the model’s skeletal frame and swapped out, giving the illusion of full vocal movement.
Of course, the film doesn’t just include Pirates – a similar process is applied for Darwin’s monkey servant, Bobo, and the Captain’s dodo bird (which he thinks is a parrot), Polly. Trickiest of all the models, though, is Queen Victoria herself, whose skirt requires a fantastically complicated armature to accurately portray its movement as she walks.
Another workshop is devoted entirely to the films’s props which, like the characters, begin in drawing form and are then produced in miniature. Some are seemingly simple models, such as bottles of rum, pistols or slabs of ham (a Pirate’s favorite) but many are larger-scaled pieces, including a full antique-style carriage with its own interior lighting.
Glancing over the table of props being prepared to head to set, its easy to see a number of jokes that are going to ensure that fans can see “Pirates” again and again and always spot something new. Some are decidedly silly shop signs set for the background of a seaside port and others are hilariously deranged foods being prepared for the Queen’s kitchen, highlighting her fondness for dining on rare and exotic animals.
The awe of the production only increases seeing the animators in action, each working on a totally different set than that of the animator around the corner. In the Queen’s kitchen, characters are running in the foreground while, in the back, chefs prepare meals of baby panda over a hot stove. With so many moving elements, it’s not hard to understand why a shoot like this can take 18 months to complete.
Other stages reveal fully-realized islands, cobblestoned streets and, most impressive, the full-scale Pirate ship, framed against a green screen so that water can be added with computer animation. The vessel has been built on a special gimbal that allows for incremental rocking, simulating the motion of the waves when the footage is complete.
Part of what makes what Aardman does so fascinating is that, even after decades of pioneering, new animation techniques are still being discovered and employed. Following the studio tour, we sat down with director Peter Lord to chat about his history as a founding member of the studio and the work he’s doing as director of The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
Q: What goes into your daily routine as a director here at the studio?
Peter Lord: It is a lot of hard work. You have to go around and visit — not everyone by any matter of means — but, strategically, you have to visit the important sets and make the important decisions. We do quite a lot of video rehearsal… It is not exactly high art, but it is what we do. It is the most direct, accessible, and fun way to direct the animators. In the past, you could go to the same place by talking through everything, but it is a lot of talking. It was a lot gesturing and saying, “Do it like this and like this,” until they get it. It is kind of easier to just record it. It is also fun because it is experimental. Most animation — and CG is most animation — is not very spontaneous. It is this entire pipeline that produces a finished shot. The great thing about stop frame is that it is really genuinely spontaneous. You can improvise the shot the hour before. You can change the timing, have a new idea and it is very exciting. I believe that this style of stop-frame animation is quite like live performance. Maybe they don’t believe me and say, “No, it is not! It takes forever!” Which it does. It is slow, but the sense in which it is like live performance is because, when you do it, you start at the beginning of the shot and you work your way through to the end. That is your performance. That is very unlike most of the other animation in the world. With CG animation you plan the start, the end and then you plan the middle. You can block it through and, if you don’t like it, you can go back and change it. It is iterative, as they say. You keep on taking one piece of performance and playing with it. You see “Arthur Christmas” and see many movies that lend themselves well to a polished performance, and it is great. But this is why it’s like live performing. Once you have started, you don’t exactly know where you are going. You have planned it, of course, and it is not random since you planned it. But you can’t precisely dictate where you are going and what the gestures are going to be. So it is continually a discovery and an adventure for the animator all day, or all three days, or sometimes two weeks. They are one shot for two weeks and they start at the beginning and they finish at the end. They can’t go back and change what they have done, or it would open an enormous expense. So it creates an enormous intensity and focus in what they do.
Q: How long have you had the idea for the film?
Lord: This baby has been around for about five years now. It started as a book. There is a book by a British author called Gideon Defoe. The book has the British title, which is “The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists”. Every so often in this business, like every other company, we look at books to possibly adapt into movies. I must have looked at hundreds and normally it doesn’t interest me at all. There is something about it — Maybe I’m a great respecter of literature. Normally, I am not moved to do it. I just look at the books and think, “I don’t care.” But I saw this book five years ago just lying on the table in a meeting. We talked about a hundred possible ideas. I picked it up, idly flipped through it, read about five pages, and I thought it was brilliantly funny. I thought it was brilliantly funny and I didn’t know what the story was at the moment. I only found that out later. But I did think, “Oh, I must do this! There is surely a movie in here.” It had a tone like nothing I had ever seen before. The things that I always refer to about it are things that I care about – playfulness, the joy of life, gleefulness, mischievousness. It was words like that suggest that it is playing with its audience the whole time. It is having fun and being mischievous, impudent and those things that I really loved about the book. I loved it and tried to put it in the film.
Q: Is there a certain technology have you guys have now reached that you wish you had 20 or 30 years ago?
Lord: It is not one thing, but if it was one word it would be “digital technology” and “digital camerawork.” I will confess that people her are — many of them are more mature guys like myself and they love film. Down there somewhere on the studio floor where there are, like, 40 excellent 35mm cameras in really good condition that will run for 50 years that nobody wants. They are just antiques now. So we have gone digital. So after some sentimental regret of putting the old cameras away, I now love the digital technology. I love, love, love it! It makes my job so much easier and that is why I love it. If something goes wrong, you can fix it so easily. That is great! In the old days, if something happened on the set that wasn’t meant to happen like if the set moved, or the character falls over, or a light goes out, it was a nightmare. There would be some little mistake and you would think, “Good, lord. We have lost four days work there,” and everyone would be depressed. Now, you know that you can fix it, and that is so liberating. I feel the same way about the ability to make the characters leave the ground. That’s such fun. When we started with “Chicken Run,” which was like 15 years ago, one of the first shots the hens were running and they were suspended in the sky on fishing line, nylon threads. That is the old way and that kind of worked, but it was really difficult and time consuming. So the fact that I can just have him supported by a great big heavy steel rig and then just paint it out digitally afterwards is very liberating. I love that. Now, in the studio, we have a big VFX team as part of the production, and that has been fantastic. Their ability to complete a shot by giving me atmosphere, the moving sea, the moving sky, explosions, dust, background characters, and all of those things have been great. There are lots that I love and it is so much easier than it was.
Q: When you’re going through the process of picking the actors, do you already have the look of each character set?
Lord: We do, actually. We don’t do that thing — I know there are some studios that design the characters to match the voices. We don’t do that. I think it is partly because it doesn’t particularly interest me. I don’t want the audience thinking about the actor the whole time. I want them enjoying the story. We start to design them way, way back. So I didn’t really do that. I know there are some actors who think we did, but we didn’t.
Q: Are there any Easter eggs that Aardman fans should be looking out for in theaters?
Lord: There isn’t very much, although we talked about it a bit. There is Morph, who is a character that I created a long time ago for kid’s TV. It is kind of like an English version of Gumby. So he appears in gold form and Wallace appears in gold form as well. That is kind of it, I think. The whole thing is just a celebration of what we have always done and an extension of it.
Q: Was there a particular action scene in this film that you knew going in was going to be incredibly challenging and a lot of hard work, but that you thought was going to be well worth it?
Lord: There is quite a lot of that really. [laughs] The thing that we are working on now is the big cataclysmic ending. It is a big technical challenge. I have been worrying about that for the longest time. The chase in Darwin’s house in the bath tub is also pretty enormous. We knew that would be a big challenge. I remember when the idea came up. For some reason, we were sitting out in the sun and we were at a table. I think we were drinking tea and we had a different sequence and chase. We thought that it was kind of conventional and somebody said, “Well, we do the chase all over the house,” and somehow the bath tub came in. I thought, “That’s got to be it. There is your idea right there! The old bath tub chase!” But it is very, very difficult. It is big technical challenges because of the scale of the whole thing. Every shot in that chase is a completely whole new adventure in terms of making it, positioning the camera, building the sets, designing the sets to be big enough, all of the special effects stuff that is going on at the same time, and there is the motion blur that we put in to make it very kinetic with the fact that it is blurring the whole time. That is easy in real life, but quite difficult in stop-frame animation, and especially in stereo stop frame animation. It is very technical and I won’t bore you with it, but we knew it was going to be a challenge, and it was.
Q: What was the first step in defining the look of each character?
Lord: It was the usual kind of thing. We had a series of designers and there was probably a period of about a year where we were kicking it around. It is amazing how long you can keep kicking it around. In that time, you try bits of everything. Sometimes the figures are much more cartoony and sometimes they are more naturalistic, taller, thinner, fatter, or whatever thing you are trying. Then there are practical concerns in this form of animation. I like it and it intrigues me because you have a sort of nice crossover between the purely aesthetic and the practical. You come to an agreement and you negotiate between those two things, which I like. We had different designers. We had story artists doing designs, I did designs, and we employed professional specialist character designers. All of their work is in the roots. Nothing that they do is wasted, I always believe. This character will contain elements of many different hands although, ultimately, in fact, it is designed by one hand. The designer was in here today, actually. You missed him. He’s a guy named Jonny Duddle and he did the ultimate character design for everybody. He had done some pirates work before. He is a very vigorous, lively, and interesting designer. It is not terribly polished, and I liked that. I didn’t want — slickness and polished are not words that are particular compliments. I don’t like that. I am looking for energy, spontaneity, life and a sense of fun in the design. Jonny definitely has that.
Q: What are your thoughts about preparing films for 3D?
Lord: I’ve enjoyed it, I must say. It is the thing that audiences are meant to love – that immersion in the world, I definitely get that. Every day we sit here and see the dailies three or four times a day and, conventionally, you watch it in mono to check the performance and the lighting. Then we see it in stereo and I really enjoy that. It does seem to work particularly well for our medium because, as you’ve seen for yourself, we make these beautiful sets and it is a very immersive way of enjoying those sets. Obviously, they really exist in real space. They are real and tangible. It seems to me that the stereo 3D effect makes them more real for the viewer, which I think is a good thing. It always interests me and amuses me that what we are doing — any filmmaker will tell you that believing the characters, following the stories, and being moved by emotion, those are the important things. But, in our world, enjoying the physicality of what we do is also part of the fun. Audiences like that and I constantly hear it from audiences. The whole time they are saying, “We love the sets. We love seeing the detail that you put into the sets.” So 3D helps with that, I think. Technically, it has been pretty simple, which is good. I thought it was going to be a nightmare at first and I was really worried. It has certainly added many, many thousands of hours of extra work for the people doing the special effects. But it doesn’t make very much difference on the studio floor, which is a good thing for me. The interesting thing — I hope it’s interesting — is that stereo 3D is obviously based on the distance apart of your eyes. The two lenses are the distance apart of your eyes, and that is where the illusion comes from. We discovered quite early on that there had to be distance apart from his eyes or otherwise it would feel like you were a giant in a small world, and that is not what we want. So we brought down the intraocular distance to only about 4 millimeters, to a tiny distance. That means that audience feels like they are his size rather than our size.
CS: Are there items that you have in your home that are on display personally in your office or in your home from other works that you have been involved with?
Lord: I always have Morph, the little plasticine guy. But I can always make a new one very easy because he is so simple. At home, I do have Rocky and Ginger from “Chicken Run,” which I am very proud of because we had this fire. So a lot of chickens were lost. It was a chicken conflagration, a tragedy. There aren’t that many of them left. So I am very lucky that I saved mine before the fire.
The Pirates! Band of Misfits sails into theaters on April 27th. Check out the new behind-the-scenes clip below!