Aardman Animations takes to the high seas with The Pirates!, its biggest ever movie, and they’ve rewritten the stop-motion rulebook, says Jan Gilbert
It took 320 people five years, with 20 months of filming on 40 sets, for the Aardman animation whizzes to make their latest wickedly funny flick, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists. Out on 28 March, the film features Hugh Grant as a bumbling pirate captain desperate to beat Entourage’s Jeremy Piven and Puss in Boots star Salma Hayek to the annual Pirate of the Year award.
It’s Aardman’s biggest production yet, with 15 more sets and 100 more crew on board than their last stop-motion movie, Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. During a behind-the-scenes tour of their Bristol-based studio, Flipside spoke to director Peter Lord and model-making supervisor Andrew Bloxham about how they animate 30cm-tall puppets at an average rate of 4 seconds a week.
This is the first film you’ve directed since 2000. Is digital tech changing how you work?
Lord: I feel very free on this film. With Chicken Run, a lot of energy was wasted. If anything went slightly wrong you had to start again. If the sets moved overnight, you’d spend hours getting them back into position. With digital tech it’s easier to go back a bit. And green screen means making characters fly is easier. The puppet’s still supported by a metal rig, but we paint that out effortlessly afterwards.
You’ve added CGI into the stop-motion mix with Pirates! Why is that?
Lord: CG lets us extend the world. So, on Blood Island, there’s a row of sea-front shops which we built in amazing detail. But behind that, the ships sailing in the bay, the palm trees, that’s CG. On Chicken Run we only had so many huts and it was frustrating. You couldn’t put the camera where you wanted as there wasn’t enough set, but on Pirates! you could.
The models are made from silicon and foam on top of a steel armature. Do they last the whole shoot?
Bloxham: No, if they get moved a lot in action sequences, they get quite tatty. We touch them up with paint but you can’t make them look as good, so they’re used for further away or night-time shots, and retired. If it’s a full-body close-up, we use one we’ve just made.
What was the biggest challenge?
Bloxham: The pirate captain’s head. There’s lots of different mouth shapes, but his beard has to grip tightly to the sides of them all. We tried using aluminium wire in the beard so you could push it against the side of the head, but the wire poked through. So we put a slot through the head and a band through the middle which holds the beard against the sides of all mouth shapes.
Lord: We spent nine months getting the look of the CG sea right. There was a lot of discussion about how to make it flatter the stop-frame. For example, if it was too real, it looked like you’d just shot the sea and copied it into the frame.
This is Aardman’s first 3D feature. How important is that?
Lord: It’s very immersive. We make beautiful miniature sets, and 3D enhances the viewing pleasure as you’re more aware they’re real objects.
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