The Pirates! Band of Misfits
The first time I came across a pirate I was nine years old sailing into Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Little did I know that almost 20 years later I would come face-to-face with a larger than life pirate. His name is The Pirate Captain and he possesses practically everything any self-respecting pirate could want: a colorful parrot (or so he thinks), a sea-worthy vessel (more or less), the best crew a captain could wish for (except for all the other crews), and a luxuriant beard (no argument here).
As the bearded Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant voices his first-ever animated role in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, directed by Aardman co-creator Peter Lord. With a rag-tag crew at his side, and oblivious to the odds stacked against him, the Captain has one dream: to beat his bitter rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) to the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. It’s a quest that takes this pirate from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.
Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Bristol, England to meet the team behind The Pirates! Band of Misfits at Aardman Studios. Known for their stop-motion style, Band of Misfits is the studio’s most ambitious stop-motion film to date. A small group of entertainment journalists got to witness the strenuous amount of work and collaboration teams of sculptors and animators experienced on a day-to-day basis.
Our first stop was with Bloxy, aka Andrew Bloxham, a member of the design team and model-making supervisor. His work station like others around him were filled with tiny, fragile, clay body parts. He told us different silicones and foam latex materials were used for each puppet. Some were cast in metal. In previous years, animators would manually re-sculpt different mouth shapes during a shoot, a very costly and time consuming approach that’s no longer used at Aardman.
“For each character every animator used to have their own set of mouth shapes. The way it used to be is they would have about 15 plasticine mouth shapes and they would physically re-sculpt each of the mouth shapes for their intermediate shapes,” said Bloxy. “Say for example a character is whispering to someone and you don’t want it just talking straight forward but you rather only show one side of the mouth. They would literally have to re-sculpt every shot. Each time they would take the plasticine off the face some of it would rip off so the next man would have to re-sculpt it all over again for every frame.”
According to Bloxy there were times when 24 frames were used in a second.
“What we decided was to go forward with a new system of hard replacements. We make every conceivable mouth shape for the characters up front and then they‘ll just select the ones needed as they go along. It’s a significant saving of time. We actually have a department whose entire job is to produce these mouth shapes and paint them. It’s an incredibly hard job to do, actually,” said Bloxy.
Over 6,818 puppet mouths were created for Band of Misfits, including 1,364 for the Pirate Captain alone, along with 257 different mouth shapes to convey his speech and reactions.
The Pirate Captain might come across at the most time intensive puppet to create but it turns out it was Queen Victoria who was crowned the most “complicated” puppet.
“She’s got a really, amazingly, complicated armature just to make her skirt,” said Bloxy. “When we first made Queen Victoria and ran a few tests she looked really strange. She’s got this enormous bustle and skirt and when she moved you just didn’t believe that was part of her body. It just looked like she was moving around with this robotic face. What the [animators] wanted was for her skirt to drag slightly. It’s those subtleties that actually make quite a difference to the final feel of the animation.”
The Queen’s ship and treasure room appear to be some the most lavish sets and projects created. Approximately 30,000 lentils were glued onto the hull of Queen Victoria’s flagship, the QV1, to make rivets. Her treasure room held over 400,000 gold coins. Aardman’s prop team also created more than 220,000 background, key, and animatable props to fill the film’s sets.
My favorite part of the trip was coming across the Captain Pirate’s ship. It was completely hand crafted with over 44,500 pieces. The massive ship weighed in at about 770 pounds and it took 5,000 hours to create it. I was quick to pose when the on-site photographer offered to take a picture (Right).
We ended the day with a delightful conversation with director Peter Lord. He co-founded Aardman Studios in 1972 with David Sproxton and he’s the current creative director. In 2000, he directed Aardman’s first full-length feature, Chicken Run.
Over tea, cheese and crackers we sat down with Lord and talked about how the digital era is influencing Aardman studios, working with 3D technology and the bitter sweet moments experienced while bringing The Pirates! Band of Misfits to life.
Q: Based on the sample run we watched it seems like a lot of reenacting, explaining and humor goes into every form of direction.
Peter 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. Most animation is not very spontaneous. 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.
Q: How long have you had this idea?
Lord: This baby has been around for about 5 years now. It started as a book by British author Gideon Defoe, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. Every so often we look at books to possibly adapt into movies. I must have looked at hundreds and normally it doesn't interest me at all. I just look at the books and think, "I don't care." But I saw this book five 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 did think, "Oh, I must do this. There is surely a movie in here."
Q: What technology have you guys reached that you wish you had 20 or 30 years ago?
Lord: 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 me and they love film. 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. 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 four days of work." Now, you know that you can fix it, and that is so liberating.
Q: When you're going through the casting process, do you already have the look of each character set?
Lord: We do, actually. 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.
Q: Was there one particular action scene in this film that you knew going in was going to be incredibly challenging but would 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. 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.
Q: What are your thoughts about the 3D revolution and can you talk about working with 3D?
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. 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.
Check out the clip below for a behind the scenes look at the making of The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
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