Stop-motion animation is a notoriously painstaking process - a handcrafted, frame-by-frame means to a charmingly tactile end. It is a medium for the insanely patient, particularly when one is working with clay, which requires an obsessive attention to detail in order to maintain continuity. When done well, the results can be magical. It's just that, traditionally, the doing has been utterly laborious.
Though it might seem a little late in the day to be revolutionizing such an inherently antiquated medium, Peter Lord and the geniuses at Aardman Studios have made a rather significant breakthrough on their latest film, THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS, with their pioneering of pre-fabricated mouths. Rather than meticulously sculpting the proper facial expression for each character, the filmmakers now have an array of nearly 7,000 ready-made puppet mouths, which can be quickly swapped out and snapped into place on each character's head. If they can imagine the expression, all they need to do is design it on the computer and print it out via a rapid prototyping printer.
This saved the production an incalculable amount of time and, most importantly, money - thus allowing them to build this...
... a twenty-foot-high, fourteen-foot-long pirate ship, and beautifully detailed playgrounds like this:
All the better to envelop the audience in the swashbuckling tale of Pirate Captain's quest to win the coveted Pirate of the Year award. When the Captain (voice of Hugh Grant) and his plundering compatriots - including Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey), Pirate With Scarf (Martin Freeman), Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen) and Pirate With Gout (Brendan Gleeson) - inadvertently sink the HMS Beagle, they find themselves teaming up with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) and his "man-panzee" Mister Bobo against a villainous Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). Along the way, the crew must also contend with the Captain's Pirate-of-the-Year competition, Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek). Based on the book THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS, by Gideon Defoe, it looks to be the kind of smart, inspired lunacy we've come to expect from the folks who brought us CHICKEN RUN and, of course, Wallace & Gromit.
Back in January, I got to talk with Peter Lord about Aardman's first digitally-shot stop-motion film. We discussed the classical cinematic look of his films, the extent to which he was influenced by the pirate movies of Hollywood's golden age, and whether he misses clay.
Mr. Beaks: Have you had a lifelong affection for pirate movies?
Peter Lord: I think I have. (Pause) Yes, I have! I'm a healthy, natural male guy. Who doesn't love pirates? I love sea stories! Disney's TREASURE ISLAND was probably my introduction as a kid.
Beaks: Did you use any of the great cinematic pirates as a reference for your characters? Did you look to someone like Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD?
Lord: You know, not much actually. I have no objection to referencing other movies, but I haven't really done it much in this at all. It's a small genre, isn't it? I mean, we did look at CAPTAIN BLOOD. The one that gave me the most pleasure was THE CRIMSON PIRATE. But really we just came away with a generalized impression: it's guys swinging on ropes, crashing in through the wall, slashing around with cutlasses and that sort of thing. A generalized impression of a classic period.
Beaks: The massive popularity of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies no doubt gives you a big target at which to fire a few jokes. Did you slip any barbs in there?
Lord: I didn't really think much about PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN at all. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I didn't think about it when we were making it hardly at all. Obviously, they were referring back to the classic period as we do, but we shot off in different directions.
Beaks: One of the things that excites me about Aardman films is that you think in terms of pure cinema. Camera placement, mise en scene... everything feels deeply considered.
Lord: We just think of filmmaking. I will say that it's quite classical what we do, which is perhaps why it strikes you the way it does. Obviously, in the twenty-first century, there are many stylistic devices that we could use that we don't. For example, most of the compositions are classical, which is to say you might've found them in '50s movies - although Spielberg uses them as well. We're still strangely pedantic, but not so anal about crossing the line and that kind of thing. We talk about that a lot. We'll discuss it. "Is that alright? Does that cut?" And I always say, "Well, look at any film now. You can do anything. You can put the camera anywhere, and the modern viewer will take it in." But we still have those faintly classical instincts I suppose. I rely on my [cinematographer] very much; it's Frank Passingham on this one. He's just great. He makes my life so easy. And we try to keep the camera alive. I like a lively camera, but not an unduly restless one. I mean, you could if you cared to recreate the restless hand-held look in animation, but it would be such a pain in the neck. (Laughs)
Beaks: But imposing limitations can obviously inspire you to be creative in different ways.
Lord: I felt freer in this film than ever before. I think the use of digital cameras and green screen has been great. But I will tell you that there are times, day by day, where you say, "Can't we go wider?" Or "Can't we crane down?" You're limited by the number of camera rigs you have, but, for me, part of the joy of this film has been the freedom I've had.
Beaks: Do you miss clay?
Lord: (Pause) Um... no. I don't really. (Laughs) If I'm honest, no. I think some of the mouth stuff that we've done would've been easier and more flexible if we'd had clay faces. But the trade-off is enormous in terms of slowing down the whole production. I'm looking at the Pirate With Gout over there; he's got this very flexible face that's really charming and delightful. Also, by using these printed-out mouths you've heard all about, it does give great continuity throughout the whole movie. Sculpting the mouths by hand in clay allows the animators to stray off-model more. This forces them to stay on-model.
Beaks: Working in this fashion, what did it allow you to do that you've never done before?
Lord: Oh, so many things. I suppose a simple example is the "Pirate of the Year" awards ceremony. We've got these big crowds, and we've put in these CG background characters. It's really delightful. You've got the [orchestra pit] in front of the stage: on the stage is a character, and in front of the stage there's twenty people watching. They're all animated by hand conventionally. But then you can add behind them another hundred people sitting in the boxes and in the high galleries. That's just been thrilling. I wish we'd done more of that. And the whole thing working with the CG ocean obviously has been fabulous. It's so easy for me. The difficult thing is making the boat look like it's rolling through the sea when it isn't. That's kind of difficult. But my team could do that for me. And once you've got that... some of my favorite shots in the movie, like the ship crashing through the sea... there was hardly a need for input from me at all. I just leave it to my team, and they make it look beautiful.
Beaks: I really admired ARTHUR CHRISTMAS. I liked that you brought in writers like Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham, both of whom are known for being pretty edgy. Is this something you're looking to do more of in the future: hire edgy writers to spice up family films a little?
Lord: I'm certainly not in the business of making children and their parents uneasy. But I am in the business of treating them as if they're intelligent, and in the business of surprising them. Everyone likes to see something new. And so many CG animated films seem to follow rather predictable lines. I think it's a good thing for everyone to shake that up a little, give them different styles of humor and different styles of narrative. We will definitely continue to do that.
THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS hits theaters on April 27th, 2012. Polly, the dodo who thinks she's a parrot, says "Check it out."