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'Pirates!,' 'Chicken Run' Director Peter Lord: How Stop-Motion Animation Actually Works

As a co-founder of Aardman Animation (the studio behind Wallace and Gromit), the always-reliable stop-motion animation company across the pond, Peter Lord has worn many hats. He's a producer, he's a writer, he's a businessman and he's a director (his last film was 2000's Chicken Run). Working out of Bristol in the UK, Lord has helped shape Aardman into the creative powerhouse it is today, and his latest, The Pirates! Band of Misfits should be another notch on his success belt. The movie, starring a bumbling Captain voiced by Hugh Grant, ups the scope of any stop-motion animated film I've ever seen (Lord stopped by to screen exclusive snippets from the film, a sweeping adventure on the high seas packed with Aardman's signature comedic style), with giant model ships, detailed towns bustling with an eclectic population and plenty of physical gags that toy with our eyes and imagination. The tangible nature of the whole production makes Pirates! something to behold—plus great characters, story and laughs piled on top like the world's biggest cherry.

I sat down with Lord after catching the footage presentation to discuss his latest film, what really goes into making a frame-by-frame stop-motion film, his interests in slapstick comedy and what the future holds for the his Pirates! franchise (the movie is based on a series of books, so a sequel seems only natural).

But it's all by eye at this point, right?

Peter Lord: Yeah. You learn by practice. There are techniques of making it accurate. The best option—because you were calling it 'frame by frame'—you can see what you've done accurately. But you can't see what you're going to do.

People are constantly playing up to the current frame. And that flip to-and-fro thing…you flip from the frame you have taken to the one you're about to take. So then you can see the hand going from A to B. But still, even so, what you can't do—if you're moving from Position 1 to Position 20, what you can't do is do Position 1, and then do Position 20, and then do Position 10, and then do Position 5.

When you have the script, what are the processes? I assume that design takes up a large portion of it in, maybe, your decision making processes. But when they're actually shooting, how involved is it?

PL: I'm not a control freak. And when they're actually shooting, I wouldn't even see what they're doing 'til the shot is finished. But I have almost always rehearsed it with live action first, if I can. I think that was my favorite weapon of control—video rehearsal. I was very involved in the script. Up to my eyes in the storyboard, design. Then I would do the voice records with the actors. Then I would choose which takes to use, which is actually quite a big deal. When I've got a given take of a line of dialogue from Hugh Grant, that's the take I've chosen. And I've chosen it because I've got an idea in my head of how the scene plays. And then I would act it out for the animator, miming to Hugh's voice is what I would do. Hugh's voice plays and I mime along to it.

This may sound obvious, but how is your team animating to the voices when they're actually crafting the stop motion? Do you have it detailed, planned out, every frame beforehand?

PL: The lip sync is entirely planned. The lip sync is planned fairly early on. We've talked about these rapid prototypes, these printed mouths.

So, I've chosen this line of dialogue. Then there's a whole department whose job was to choose the mouths on the computer, and try the lip sync on the computer. Same mouth shapes in CG form. Then the animators have a shot. They come look at that, and make some remarks, and change it a bit. And in that way, they would evolve the lip sync. And, to be honest, I didn't really concern myself with the lip sync very much. As long as it's right, I don't care.

It's detail-oriented stuff for the people who know how to do it.

PL: Exactly. Even if you see it now, it's still not fully in sync. There are people working, today, putting stuff properly into sync.

Really?

PL: They might be moving the sound around now, we can't change the picture. So the process of choosing which mouth to use in which order for how long is all planned out and doped up and written down on the dope sheet, printed out so the animator knows exactly that on frame 50, mouth number 165B…

What drew you to the Pirates! books? Was it simply, 'I want to make a pirate movie!

PL: I think I had this very generalized, very approximate, unfocused notion of what a pirate movie was.

There are boats…

PL: Boats…

Pirates…

PL: Cannons… [Laughs] Swashbuckling. Swordfights. That's it. Treasure is buried, and that's it. It was about that level of sophistication in my brain. But I do like the historical thing. 'Historical' in the most approximate way. It pleases me. I love sailing ships. I love long coats and big boots and swords, and stuff like that. I don't have them in my wardrobe. I knew that world would be fun to play in. I knew that would be great to play in. Chicken Run, which, Heaven knows, was the last thing I actually directed—what have you got? Chickens in a prison camp. We couldn't have that much fun. It was quite limited.

Now you're hitting the open sea.

PL: Exactly. Visually, it was limited. Suddenly costumes, horses, explosions, swashbuckling, damsels in distress, that kind of thing.

It's bigger in scope than a lot of the other films you guys have done.

PL: Yeah. I was happy about that. Wallace and Gromit are [very] loved. And part of their charm is that their scope is very small. I get that, totally. But this isn't Wallace and Gromit. So, I thought, 'Well, let's have some fun. Let's build some big sets. Let's have some great toys around the studio.'

Part of the charm of the stop-motion is the fact that it's real, it's physical. You mentioned when we were watching the clips that Sony was really on board with it. Was it ever hard to convince them to allow you to make a stop-motion film because it's so much building versus CG? Audiences love their CG movies.

PL: No. Obviously when we went to Sony…we're best known for stop-frame, aren't we? That is what we're famous for, and that was the understanding, I think, absolutely. I think that Amy and Michael felt very much the same. They make CG movies at Spar. There are many, many, way too many studios in the world making CG animated films now. It's kind of common. I've got to say, I think they thought we had the unique thing to offer. The puppetry.

But Aardman has delved into CG films now. Arthur Christmas was a delight, to be honest. Is that the direction that Aardman is moving in?

PL: I think we'll always be making stop-motion films, until a time when we can't raise any money for it. I don't see that. Even then, we'd still make 'em in some shape or form.

You mentioned before wanting people, as they watch the movie, to see and feel how the animation is done. Is there a certain instance in the film, a particular animated sequence, where that insistence is more evident? Marvel not only at the fun scenario that is playing, but look at the animation!

PL: That's an interesting question. That is an interesting question, because there are no effectsy things. Almost all of those are digital. The animators still like doing things like water splashing. There was a guy—we got quite a good shot of him—a guy climbing out of the sea all wet, and he puts arm down. As he swings his arm across, a great shower of drops flies off his elbow.

We even saw vinegar and baking soda exploding in kind of a liquid volcano.

PL: [Laughs] Yeah. Actually, we've got a very good brief scene. They're flying in a balloon. Flying through all kinds of terrible weather conditions. They're flying through a rainstorm. And there's water splashing everywhere. And the rain is CG rain, but all the splashes are little tiny resin drops and liquid glycerin trickling down. So that's all handmade. But in a way, it's the sheer scale that is unfamiliar. People don't often see—it's rare to see thirty puppets in shot at the same time.

Those bar scenes.

PL: There was laughing in that bar scene. That was good. Did you notice the chicken in the background? Probably not.

I imagine the animator begging for mercy. 'Why are you doing this to me!?'

PL: No, no, no, no! He was totally up for it! He suggested the chicken! We had the chicken for another scene. We have to have our handy chicken lying around in model-making. He went through the model-making department and said, 'Can I have the chicken flying up in the air?' I said, 'Sure! Enjoy yourself!'

They want to challenge themselves.

PL: They love it.

You mentioned that you're a big slapstick fan, and there's plenty of that in The Pirates!. Interestingly, I feel like the slapstick we love is from a long time ago. Who are your favorite modern day slapstick artists?

PL: That's a good question. I don't know, actually. Rowan Atkinson is.

Mr. Bean definitely comes to mind.

PL: Yes.

Why don't you think there are as many great slapstick artists as there have been?

PL: I'm glad you asked! Just next week, back at home, we're going to be giving a prize to a man called Pierre Étaix. He's French. And he is a surviving slapstick artist. He's about eighty-five. And he made films not in the classic period, actually, but in the sixties. He made some very visual films, including slapstick. And he said, in an interview, in French—they did translate it—he said that all the greats came from circus and vaudeville, and stuff like that. So they were trained that way. They just did it. That was how they trained themselves. And nobody does that anymore. Some people have the timing, but none of them have the physical bravery.

That's why we have animation, I guess.

PL: Yeah, exactly! Exactly. Apart from the danger, just the throwing your whole body through space. No one could do that these days. Well, I guess some dancers could.

I know that Pirates! took about five years to make. Do you guys have anything else in the works?

PL: Nothing that's close.

At least five years out?

PL: Nick Park has a project, which, unfortunately, I can't say anything about at all. I would say, with a following wind, three-and-a-half years out?

Okay. That gives us hope. I'm always ready for something else from Nick.

PL: Yeah, me too. And I would love to do a sequel!

I was about to say, the title of the movie lends itself to sequel-ization.

PL: It does, yeah!

Are there more books?

PL: Yeah, there are. He's got The Pirates! in an Adventures with Scientists, The Pirates! in an Adventure with Whaling, The Pirates! in an Adventure with Communists—

'…with Communists?'

PL: Yeah. It doesn't make any sense at all.

Which one of those would you prefer?

PL: None of those, actually.

An original sequel?

PL: Yeah.

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