In a non-descript office park about an hour and a half outside of London, the magicians of Aardman Animation are hard at work bringing their next stop-motion movie, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, to life. At least they were back in October, when I got the chance to visit the studios. If you’re not familiar with the name Aardman, they’re one of the best animation companies in the world and they’ve made great music videos, short films, TV shows, and feature films like Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Quite simply, when you see the name Aardman, you know you’re going to get something special and it’s going to be unlike anything else out there.
In their latest film directed by Peter Lord, which is based on The Pirates! book series by Gideon Defoe, Hugh Grant stars in his first animated role as the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain who is trying to win the much coveted Pirate Of The Year Award with his rag-tag crew (Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson, Russell Tovey, and Ashley Jensen). However, with a diabolical queen (Imelda Staunton) and bitter rivals like Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) trying to stop him, it’s not going to be an easy task. Hit the jump for more.
Before going any further, I really suggest watching the featurette that Aardman released on the making of the film. While I could try and explain how incredible the sets were or how difficult it is to bring characters to life using stop-motion animation, this featurette will do it better:
Like I said, back in October I got to spend a few hours at Aardman with a few other reporters and I felt like a kid getting to visit Santa’s Workshop. In every room and on every floor, I got to see animators and artists show us how they bring their films to life and I was floored by the process. As you saw in the featurette, bringing a stop-motion movie to life requires incredible patience and discipline, and I can honestly say I could never do it.
Also, while technology has advanced movie making so that anything a director dreams of can come to life, the process of stop-motion animation is still very similar to when it was first invented. That said, I learned that the two big changes to their industry have been digital cameras and pre-fabricated mouths.
Before digital cameras, an animator would have to wait for the lab to develop the film to see if what the shot turned out the way they hoped, and if it didn’t, they’d sometimes have to redo an entire scene which could take weeks. With digital cameras (like the Canon 5D) now being used to shoot the movie, an animator can see the results immediately, so if a frame is off or a problem arises they can fix it right away.
The other big change to the process is pre-fabricated mouths. When Aardman made the Wallace & Gromit shorts and many other earlier projects, they would have to create everything from clay. As the character got used on set, the clay would get worn and they’d have to create all new sculpts again and again; it was an expensive and time consuming process. With pre-fabricated mouths, each character has a full array which represents every sound, so all an animator has to do is swap in the correct mouth for the scene. The mouths are held in by very small magnets, and with a small bit of digital cleanup in post production the process is much faster for everyone.
During the rest of the tour of Aardman I learned a lot and also got to participate in a very small group interview with director Peter Lord. Here’s 15 Things to Know followed by the interview. I should note that some of the things listed were provided by Sony. For more on the history of Aardman, click here.
- Since Peter Lord has so many things to do at once, they record video rehearsal for the animators so he can show them what he wants out of each scene.
- Since they’re shooting digitally, they’re able to fix mistakes much easier. If a character falls over or a light goes out, they can fix it and go right back to filming.
- They’re able to now make the characters airbone with big steel rigs that can be removed digitally in post-production. Before, they were limited to using fishing line and nylon threads to hold the puppets up.
- They don’t design characters to match voices, they come up with the full characters separate from the voice actors.
- Wallace and a character named Morph appear as Easter eggs in the movie.
- When creating the puppets, they don’t have joints small enough to fit the fingers so they used aluminum and copper wire in order to make the fingers expressive.
- They used to have 15 plasticine mouth shapes that they would physically have to re-scupt each time they wanted a new mouth expression, but now they sculpt a multitude of hard replacement mouth shapes beforehand so all they have to do is swap one mouth out for another.
- At the bottom of each puppet are drilled holes that help tie them down to the set so they don’t fall over or get knocked off balance.
- Each time there’s a costume change, they have to resculpt an entire puppet from scratch. They can’t just throw a jacket on an existing puppet.
- Peter Lord got the idea to make this movie during a meeting where a copy of Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists: A Novel was lying on a table which he picked up and started reading, laughing out loud.
- A crew of 320 people worked on this film including 33 animators and 41 shooting units in 4 studios.
- The pirate ship was completely hand crafted and made up of 44,569 parts. It took 5,000 hours of development and ended up weighing 770 pounds. The ship was 14 feet long and 20 feet high.
- Approximately 30,000 lentils were glued onto the hull of Queen Victoria’s flagship, the QV1, to make rivets.
- Queen Victoria’s treasure room boasts over 400,000 gold coins.
- Aardman’s props team also created more than 220,000 background, key and animatable props to fill the film’s sets. Additionally, Aardman’s specialist glass blower, Kim George, created an array of bottles, lamps and glasses specifically for the film; each piece was custom made.
- The Pirate Captain’s beard has a special mechanism to animate it made from a guitar tuning head. This mechanism went through 5 different designs before the final version. The beard has 65 swirls in it.
- Over 6,800 puppet mouths were created for this movie including 1364 for the Pirate Captain alone, along with 257 mouth-shapes to convey his speech and reactions. Each mouth was designed on the computer first, complete with teeth and tongue, and was then printed out via a 3D Rapid Prototyping printer. Every mouth was pre-posed in a shape that relates to the vowels that are most often used.
Peter Lord Set Visit Interview – Click here for the audio
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. Did you see that?
We saw one of the sample runs.
Lord: That is pretty embarrassing. [laughs] 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 it is shot. 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 [laughs]. 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, and that is your performance. That is very unlike most of the other animation in the world. CG animation, because it is 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 you will see many movies that lend itself 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 3 days, or sometimes two weeks. They are one shot for 2 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.
Lord: This baby has been around for about 5 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 5 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 5 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.
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 here 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 4 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.
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.
Are there any Easter eggs to the other things that you have done in the film?
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.
Was there one 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 that breaks the Queen’s ship apart. 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.
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. It is 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.
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 3 or 4 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.
What are some things 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.