England’s Aardman Studios, famous for the stop-motion animation of its “Wallace and Gromit” shorts and features like “Chicken Run,” employs the traditional technique—and a characteristically British style of humor—again in its newest movie “The Pirates! Band of Misfits.” Its producer-director Peter Lord, who co-founded Aardman with David Sproxton in 1972 and co-directed “Chicken Run” with Nick Park in 2000, visited Dallas recently, bringing along with him one of the malleable puppets of The Pirate Captain, who stars in the picture (as voiced by Hugh Grant), as well as that of the ship’s beloved “parrot” Polly, who’s revealed actually to be a dodo. That discovery sets the wacky plot (which includes appearances by a tyrannical Queen Victoria and a young, devious Charles Darwin) into motion.
Lord was drawn to the project when he encountered the book by Gideon Defoe. He recalled being taken by “the odd, the unique tone of the thing.” He immediately offered as an example the pirate crew’s festive celebration of Ham Night. “You launch into this book, and one of its assumptions is that the pirates like ham. There’s no explanation—and they don’t just like it, they kind of depend on ham for both sustenance and moral support.”
Lord spontaneously knew that Defoe would have to write the script, despite his virtual neophyte status. “He had done a couple of thirty-minute TV episodes, and that was it,” he said. “That was his screenwriting credit. We got some more experienced writers to mentor him a bit, because he was inexperienced. Then we worked very closely for a year, particularly on the story, because the story changed an awful lot from the book. We wrote the story together, we worked on the screenplay together. He did all the writing—I’m not taking any credit—but it was a very close relationship.
“The book, and the first draft of the script, is definitely more wordy than what we’ve done before. There’s a lot of dialogue, because Gideon loves writing funny dialogue. And we had to moderate that a bit—this is a visual medium. But it was a very natural fit. But also definitely a step forward for us, I thought. The absurdist train of thought that leads you through the story is really quite in our tradition, I think. What’s different, maybe, is the verbal play a new direction.”
The film uses the traditional Aardman technique of stop-motion animation, employing sculpted character models that are minutely altered from frame to frame to give the illusion of movement. But it adds to the mix the 3D format, a term that Lord didn’t think quite right.
“When we started in my career, doing puppet animation, we called it 3D animation, because everything else was drawn animation, Disney-style. There was regular animation, and then we were the strange people doing 3D animation. Then at a later stage the CG community came along and started cynically using the term 3D even though theirs was clearly not really 3D at all. And then to add to the confusion people started shooting in stereo and calling that 3D as well.
“Shooting in stereo—from two viewpoints—is actually quite simple in fact. I thought it would be a big problem. We worried. Particularly during the first three months of shooting, every shot that came back that was shot in 3D stereo we were worried about it and analyzing it. But the team—the camera team in particular—got very expert at it. And it’s quite easy to shoot. And now as I watch it, I find it easier on the eye. We were very attentive to not make it a strain. It’s partially about not asking the audience to refocus wildly from shot to shot—that’s the tiring thing.”
Another challenge came from using some CG technology for difficult backgrounds and to populate more extravagant scenes. What was the most problematic part of that process?
“I suppose the sea, the ocean, was, probably,” Lord said. “Yet for me it was fairly effortless, because I wasn’t involved in the work. And we had a good long time at it. We had a big wooden ship, and the challenge was to make that appear to wallow around in the crashing ocean. A wooden ship, shot green screen on a metal rig, and it looks lovely as a ship, and a year later it looks great in the ocean. So that’s a year’s work for some people, and lots of problems and lots of challenges, bit for me, I just touch base every six weeks and see how they’re getting on.
“More challenging for me was creating background crowds, because I was anxious about that. All our foreground characters are puppets, animation puppets—which is what we love to do. But to populate a scene with like two hundred background characters was either impossible or immensely expensive, so we went for CG background characters. And there various people, including myself, were worried that the two styles would clash or be distracting. But they don’t clash to that extent… [In one shot] there are ten pirates…and of those ten, five are puppets and five are CG, and I have to watch very closely to tell which is which.”
It wasn’t much of a challenge, however, to assemble an outstanding human cast—including Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Anton Yelchin and Brian Blessed–to voice the characters “In the UK, people like us, we’re very well known, and I think they know they’re in safe hands,” Lord laughed. “And then we did have a really good script, exceptionally good, a really funny script. And Hugh Grant in particular—he’s a very funny man, he said things like ‘This is no fit activity for a fifty-year old man, it’s not dignified’—but he’s very, very smart, and he responded to the script totally. Also, frankly, it’s not a ton of work for him, although he worked very hard. So he could fit it in between rounds of gold very easily.”
Lord spoke with special enthusiasm of a scene in which the pirates attend a meeting of the Royal Academy of Science. “I could love that scene, I must say. I think that’s really…” he trailed off (apparently not wanting to add “my favorite scene”). “The humor in the film, to me, I keep on saying, is incredibly funny. But it sways between the quite sophisticated and schoolboy humor, really. And the basic unkind and inaccurate assumption that scientists are just nerds is very funny. And so we treat them very badly. And we say that they’re kind of boring, to make a dramatic contrast between the world of pirates, who are so spectacular and colorful and fun-loving, and these very straight-faced gents with huge white beards sitting around smiling while the captain makes a fool of himself. I just love the scene, and then there’s Frankenstein’s monster in there, and Rubik’s Cube and a brain in a jar…every school kid’s idiotic version of what science is like, but treated with good Victorian solemnity. When they get to the door of the science place, apart from Frankenstein’s monster with, presumably, Frankenstein there holding his leash, there’s a guy with an atomic bomb, apparently, under his arm, and the security man is tapping it dangerously with his pencil. You can hardly see it, because there’s something else going on in the foreground. It doesn’t distract…but it’s there to discover on second viewing.”
It’s clear that although Aardman has ventured into CG animation (as with its last feature, Arthur Christmas”), Lord intends it to continue concentrating on stop-motion work. “I will always be a passionate advocate of puppet animation,” he emphasized. “This is a stop-motion puppet film, as far as I’m concerned. This film is a 95% puppet film. All the character scenes—everything with the Pirate Captain—is [stop-motion]. The only time the Pirate Captain isn’t a puppet is when you’ve got a long shot of the ship, out at sea, and he’s on the deck there. And he’s tiny in the frame. Then he’s a CG copy of himself. Otherwise he’s always a puppet.”
And not just one puppet—many puppets. “I think there were high twenties in number,” Lord said. “Eighteen look like this,” he added, handling the one he’d brought, “and then he has various costume changes. In a regular movie, costume change is very simple. You go to the wardrobe and put on a different coat. But for us, it’s a huge deal, because you have to build him again. He can’t his coat off. This coat is him. He’s built into it. So when he wears a girl scout uniform, they have to start again and resculpt him as a girl scout. When he’s a scientist, he’s resculpted as a scientist. When he’s in his underwear, ditto. So when the writer cheerfully says, ‘He comes on disguised as a clown,’ you go, ‘Oh, lordy,’ because that’s going to cost another five thousand pounds just to make a new one.”
Lord was eloquent in discussing the history of the stop-motion process. “It’s basically like the original ‘King Kong,’” he said. “All the principles are exactly the same. Different materials, you know. [But] the people who made this puppet are standing on the shoulders of the people who made ‘Kong’ and the many years in between. Funny enough, the guy who animated ‘Kong’ was Willis O’Brien, and his very first films were prehistoric films, like ‘Prehistoric Poultry,’ made in 1915—ages ago. And his pupil, his great disciple, was Ray Harryhausen. I’ve met Ray, I’ve shaken hands with the guy that shook hands with the guy that invented this medium a hundred years ago. There’s an amazing continuity there—very few people take you through the whole history of the genre. And it’s traditional, but with all the CG extensions and set backgrounds and the visual effects everywhere, it’s very sophisticated as well.
“I know that as soon as you say ‘puppet,’ people say, ‘Oh, that’s for kids.’ But look at the Muppets. They’re puppets, and they’re not for kids—they’re for everybody. There’s something about giving life to an inanimate object which is very magical. And the fact that the audience knows that it’s a puppet is important, because they perceive it’s a puppet, made of some clay and latex and silicon and wood and steel—all kinds of stuff. But the world around them is very tangible. The sets are real. If you were lucky enough to be in the studio when that was shot, you know you could touch it. You know you could reach in and lift the captain out. And the audience perceive that—maybe just at the margins of perception, but they perceive it. And it matters, because it’s hand-made. And I personally think that counts for something. We like that. And why do we like it? Because we appreciate the craft, we appreciate the effort and the love that went into it, and I think we react well to the inaccuracies of it as well. Perfection is kind of boring, and slight inaccuracy, human error, is a good thing. That’s what we do. And if the world changes and we can’t persuade anyone to fund us, so be it. But as long as we can, we’ll keep doing it, because we love it.”