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  • Right: an image from the finished film, starring the Pirate Captain, voiced by Hugh Grant. images: © 2012 Sony Pictures Animation Inc, photos: Luke Smith

This Year’s Model

Grant Gibson discovers the craft behind the movie ‘The Pirates!’

In anticipation of Real to Reel: The Craft Film Festival, we've delved into the Crafts archive to rediscover the talents behind the big screen.

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‘Metamorphosis is what it does. If you were fooling around with a lump of it in your hands, you could tweak it into a dog; you could squash the dog up and turn it into a chair; or squash it up and turn it into a man; or you could make the dog stand upright and the legs become longer and the arms shrink. That’s what you might do if you were just doodling with your hands. But we’d just record the stages on film as we went along.’ Aardman’s effervescent co-founder Peter Lord is in full swing, telling me about the history of this extraordinary company and why he fell in love with modelling clay. 

It isn’t easy to think of another company so closely associated with a single material or, for that matter, so imbued at virtually every conceivable level with craft. We’re talking in the company’s (rather beautiful) building near the middle of Bristol because, in partnership with Sony Pictures Animation and Columbia Pictures, the studio is about to release its latest feature film: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, a rip-roaring yarn set on the high seas and directed by Lord himself. I’ve already been on a tour of the company’s studios, located in a separate, low-slung building in the middle of a humdrum business park on the outskirts of the city, watching the final scenes used for the DVD extras being put together and have concluded that to describe the process of making the movie as painstaking would be doing it a profound disservice. As I chat to some of the production team I find it tricky to avoid asking statistically based questions – how long did that take exactly? And how many people were involved? The answers frequently elici a shake of my head ,in a mixture of admiration and disbelief. For the record, The Pirates! was around five years in gestation – two years of scripting; 18 months to storyboard, design and make the puppets and sets; another 18 months to shoot; and finally three months of post-production. In total 320 people worked on the production. The attention to detail is mind-boggling, while the intensity of the shoot is perhaps best illustrated by Lord’s confession that he has barely set foot in his office since it opened nearly four years ago – and indeed it seems oddly tidy, a pinboard above his desk half empty, as if he’s still to move in properly.

Images: © 2012 Sony Pictures Animation Inc, photos: Luke Smith

Making feature films with Japanese conglomerates is some distance away from the company’s origins. Lord and co-founder David Sproxton met at school in Walton-on-Thames. While they didn’t exactly live in each other’s pockets, a friendship was formed. Lord says: ‘We had a shared interest in making films. Thinking back on it now, it’s about building a world. That’s why animation is such an attractive thing to do. For that little space of time, that may only be 30 seconds, you’re briefly a God. You build it, you dictate what it looks like and everything that happens. Everything! Nothing happens without your say-so.’ 

It was Sproxton’s father, a religious programme producer at the BBC, who suggested the pair experiment with animation and subsequently helped them pick up their first commission for the BBC series Vision On in the late 60s. ‘We did stuff with whatever came to hand. There was no script, no plan. Just things moving.’ Their early drawn animation included a character called Aardman, from which the company’s name derives. In hindsight Lord says: ‘It was slow and rather mechanical to do. And having no flair for it, the results weren’t very good. Every day on kids’ TV you could see everyone else doing it better. And so we happily moved into Plasticine.’

It seems he and the material were a perfect creative fit. ‘I’ve never been a potter but modelling clay just suits me. My way is to mostly pull a shape out of a blob, rather than slapping stuff on and building up or chopping stuff down and sculpting. It’s about pulling and squashing and moulding.’ The duo’s breakout character was Morph, a tiny, wonderfully expressive Plasticine man whose job it was to irritate Tony Hart on the children’s show Take Hart. But over the years the company moved in a more adult direction, first with its Conversation Pieces for Channel 4 (where it started animating puppet characters to real-life conversations), and later projects like the multi-award winning video for Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Sledgehammer’ and Creature Comforts. It is also responsible for a slew of adverts for the likes of Heat Electric, Lurpak, Cuprinol and Cadbury’s Crunchie bar. In 1993 Aardman’s first 30-minute film, The Wrong Trousers (directed by Nick Park, who joined the company in 1985), won an Oscar, and seven years later it released Chicken Run, its first full-length feature funded by DreamWorks. This was followed by The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and, in 2006, by Flushed Away. In total the studio has been nominated for nine Oscars, winning four. ‘Our course has been quite steady: low on violent revolution, strong on evolution,’ says Lord. The pair moved from Surrey to Bristol in 1976 as their work with the BBC increased, and the city has played an important role in Aardman’s development. ‘I do think that we have a studio culture that’s not like other places. We’re like the Galapagos Islands. We’re sort of cut off. The basic philosophy and style of the place grew up in isolation. We’ve plenty of ambition and so on but it’s a different style of ambition.’ 

Images: © 2012 Sony Pictures Animation Inc, photos: Luke Smith

All of which brings us to the huge (and, yes, ambitious) production that is The Pirates!. Where Morph was barely storyboarded – ‘because I’d written it and I knew what I was doing,’ explains Lord – their latest movie has fundamentally been made three times. First through the complex string of drawings, which involves a team of 5-10 artists creating 3,000 images, then in a stage called Pre-vis, where the storyboards are put into a computer, providing a 3D computer-generated black and white layout version of the film, which informs the team of camera angles and supplies a technical 
perspective. Finally the shoot itself begins. 

As all this is going on the extraordinarily detailed scenery (loaded with puns and visual jokes) and the puppets themselves are being produced. The sets are largely built out-of-house by Cod Steaks, another Bristol-based company, while John Wright Modelmaking made some specialist props, such as the Penny Farthing, all of which require special engineering. However the other props (around 220,000 of them) and the puppets are an in-house specialty. On the tour around the maze-like studio I meet Andrew Bloxham, one of the puppet designers, who explains his part in the making of the movie. Like the film itself, each puppet goes through a number of iterations before the finished version is reached. Using a 2D reference from the company’s character designer, an initial maquette is made from Plasterline, which Bloxham describes as, ‘like Plasticine but a bit more waxy’. ‘It’s not a sculpt we’re going to make a puppet from,’ he explains. ‘It’s just something to show the director – a character in 3D for the first time. It’s at this stage the director is probably going to make changes and give you a lot of feedback.’ The character is sculpted again, this time making sure the body is divided into pieces, so moulds can be taken from them. Subsequently a full metal armature is created, complete with ball-and-socket joints in the right places, which fit into the moulds, and they are then injected with silicon. The number of these moulds depends on the complexity of the character (the Pirate Captain, for instance, voiced by Hugh Grant and the film’s star character, uses 20). 

After this the separate parts then need to be painted, which is a skill in itself. As Bloxham reveals, ‘We need to colour match a load of different materials.’ Eyebrows are made of Plasticine, hands of silicon, other parts from foam. ‘All entirely different materials but they all have to look exactly the same on camera. You can’t necessarily look at it by eye and say that’s the colour – the camera picks it up differently. There’s a lot of painting things and getting them colour-tested.’ Once this has been achieved all the bits are glued together, some permanently, others so they can be taken off. The more often a character appears in the film the more versions are made – 14 identical Pirate Captains were used on set, for example. 

For the first time on an Aardman production the company has used rapid prototyping to make the characters’ various mouth shapes. (On my tour a room devoted to the new machines is pointed out to me.) The technique was first used for Coraline, the movie Henry Selick directed for Universal (see Crafts No.221, November/December 2009) and comes with a raft of practical benefits. Previously, mouths were all made using Plasticine and, as Lord acknowledges: ‘It’s quite a totemic thing, working with modelling clay and seeing the finger prints.’ However, on a movie of this scale, saving valuable studio time is of the essence. ‘One thing I noticed was the animators were spending a significant number of hours a day working on the lip synch. I felt for the sheer energy of the animation it was breaking up the day too much, because I don’t think lip synch is very important. It’s annoying when it’s wrong, but the acting is all in the eyes and the eyebrows.’ 

Working with such a large team of animators, who all inevitably come with an indi­vidual touch, it also brings a sense of uniformity to the production. ‘Because the mouths aren’t malleable – they’re hard, rigid – everyone animates the same.’ So rather than smoothing on a Plasticine mouth, now a rapid prototyped shape is simply snapped on and the join line between the mouth and face is brushed over in post-production. Is it as good as using modelling clay? ‘I’ll be honest,’ says Lord, ‘and say you lose a little bit. I think the lip synch is a little bit less expressive and certainly less flexible.’ Ultimately though the economic benefits outweigh artisanship. Like much of the craft world you sense for Aardman the relationship between technology and craft is one that has to be carefully managed. The Pirates!, for instance, makes use of CGI – something Lord is obviously fascinated by. ‘It was outrageously pleasant and alarmingly seductive,’ he tells me. ‘As a director it was so liberating. I loved it! I could just say what I wanted and they could make it happen. When we made Chicken Run I remember constantly compromising because we couldn’t do that shot. On this there was still self-editing – there usually is in film making – but when I wanted CGI for big moments 
I could always have it.’ 

The computer-generated sits cheek by jowl with traditional animation – allowing the movie to be ‘bigger’ which as Lord freely admits, is ‘a great luxury. A great power to have.’ However, it comes with an important caveat. ‘I don’t want technology to get in the way. The main reasons for choosing rapid prototyping, for instance, were pragmatic rather than artistic… If CG is in the foreground, the audience notices the difference. So I have no desire to shoot a fake puppet animation film with CG figures. That would be a horrible idea.’


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 edition of Crafts magazine

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