With The Pirates! Band of Misfits Peter Lord and his team have outdone themselves with another delightful, beautifully crafted animated movie.
We’ve all seen stop-motion family pictures, Hugh Grant comedies and pirate adventures on the big screen before, but nothing has quite prepared us for the spectacular concoction that is the new Sony/Aardman outing The Pirates! Band of Misfits.
This entertaining spring release, which is based on the effortlessly brilliant books by Gideon Defoe, has everything you can ask for in a family movie: Eye-popping stop-motion animation by the crack team at Aardman? Check! Clever jokes, memorable characters and a delicious storyline? Check! A talented voice cast of acclaimed actors such as Grant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, David Tennant and Imelda Staunton? Triple check! It’s not surprising that the film’s director/producer Peter Lord, who co-founded Bristol’s Aardman Animations with David Sproxton in 1976, fell in love with the source material when he first read it five years ago.
“I remember when the book crossed my desk, I picked it up, read a few pages and laughed so hard,” recalls Lord as he shows a visitor to the Sony Animation building in Culver City, Calif. some of the actual puppets used in the production. “I thought the author’s way of looking at the pirates’ world was so fresh. Here was this story about a crew of relentlessly optimistic pirates that was perfect for us.”
Lord then had to convince the top brass at Sony that the project would be a reasonable one to bank on!
“I promised them that it was nothing like that other live-action pirates franchise out there,” jokes Lord. “They were very encouraging and bought into it.”
The movie, which reportedly cost twice as much as Aardman’s last stop-motion feature (the 2005 DreamWorks co-pro Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) revolves around an eccentric group of seafarers led by Pirate Captain (Grant) who sets out to beat his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz for the much-desired Pirate of the Year Award! Captain’s adventures take him and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the meticulously re-created streets of Victorian London and in contact with historic figures such as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Lord tells us that he thought from the very beginning that the movie would work best if it was a stop-motion project as opposed to a CG-animated extravaganza like last year’s holiday effort Arthur Christmas.
“We are very keen to do both CG and plasticine because some stories—Arthur Christmas, for example—really don’t lend themselves to stop-frame because of the scale of the project. Stop-motion is what we like and what we do best. This was really about going back our roots.”
The charming animation veteran, who has two Oscar nominations for his work on the Aardman shorts Adam and Wat’s Pig, admits that the movie is bigger than any of the previous stop-motion movies his team has worked on before.
“I don’t believe that bigger is necessarily better, but we certainly got to play in a much bigger field this time around,” he says. “In Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the action took place in one small town, it had a very village-y feel to it. Here we go from the Caribbean to Victorian-era London, etc. Our goal was to make it as big and generous and colorful as we could.”
This time around, the Aardman team also had a very large cast to play with—more than 60 different characters populate the Pirates universe, that’s three times more than Curse of the Were-Rabbit had to offer. The puppets were made of hard resin, with silicon used for hands and metal for the metallic parts. (The lead character’s beard is made of rubber material and took over six months to be designed.) In addition, hundreds of plastic mouths were also created for each character using a rapid prototyping 3D machine to express different syllables and expressions. For example, over 250 mouth shapes were produced for Pirate Captain alone. Because of this methodology, the animators can concentrate more on the physical aspects of the animation, instead of sculpting the mouths all the time.
Clothes Make the Puppets
“From day one, we knew that pirates needed to have belts, buckles, swords, gold sashes, bandanas, scarves, etc…and you simply can’t create those in plasticine as we had done before,” explains Lord. “You simply can’t create a luxurious beard in plasticine. The colors, the details, the extravagance dictated the material we had to us.”
Shooting with a digital camera also opened more doors.
“Using a small camera as opposed to a 35mm camera is great because it’s much less intrusive on a miniature set,” says Lord. “Although I’m a bit sad because we have a warehouse full of film equipment. I loved working with film equipment, but now you can’t really give it away!”
Since the film is in 3-D, each shot had to be taken twice, one for the right eye and another one for the left—which was a technique that was first introduced in Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion feature Coraline.
“The digital technology allowed the studio to run more efficiently,” adds Lord. “In the past, the whole rhythm of our production was reliant on sending rushes to the lab, and now we can move on without that constant waiting.”
Advances in CG technology also allowed the studio to incorporate complex animation in scenes where stop-motion would prove almost impossible to do.
“The post tech is great as we can always add the background, the seas and the skies in some of the scenes,” says the director. “The water you see in the movie is all CG. You have our beautiful, solid, puppet-animated pirate boat and set it against a wonderful CG sea. You can see it rock and roll and slosh around and it has the greatest freedom, this sense of space and energy, and it just looks beautiful.”
The Best of Both Worlds
“The stop-motion animation and digital extensions of the set blend very well together,” says Aardman veteran Jay Grace, who was the film’s animation director. “I think it was quite important that the CG guys were all part of our team. They were using a similar approach. We were using live-action references. We had the great recordings of the actors’ voices and used a video camera to refine the performances and the CG team was doing the same thing. At first, I was a bit worried about how the water and set extensions were going to fit with the rest of the stop-motion animation, but the CG is so clean and polished. They really nailed the look of the water, and it all fits well with the hand-made look of the ship.”
Grace, whose credits include the Creature Comforts TV series, Chicken Run, Curse of the Were-Rabbit and the Wallace and Gromit short A Matter of Loaf and Death, also points out that the emotional dynamics between the main characters is really something special.
“The Captain and the crew are inspired by the lovely comic talents of Hugh Grant, David Tennant and the rest of the actors. The performances are quite strong and varied, and the animation really reflects their tone of humor very well.”
A Pirate’s Life for Him
The film’s character designer Jonny Duddle is quick to tell us that working with the Aardman team was a dream come true. The illustrator and children’s book author had the perfect qualifications for the movie. Not only had he written two well-received books called The Pirate Cruncher and The Pirates Next Door, he actually worked on an educational pirate ship (in full pirate costume).
“Peter would describe the character to me and I would do several drawings,” says Duddle during a phone interview. “When it got more developed, the modeling department would get involved, and I would refine the drawings based on the clay sculpture. I always kept the Aardman style in mind, of course.”
Duddle says the characters’ features were finer and tighter than any of the previous Aardman movies and TV shows.
“I had some experience in drawing pirates, so I would keep drawing and refining the characters until Peter responded to them.”
He says one of the favorite parts of the job was coming up with the pirate with prosthetic leg.
“He was a lot of fun to draw. I actually like him best because the puppet actually resembles what I drew the most. It came directly from what I had done!”
In the next few weeks, The Pirates! will set sail on numerous theater screens around the world, competing with heavyweight CG-animated studio efforts like Universal’s The Lorax and Disney/Pixar’s Brave for family audience’s attention. But Lord says he’s simply happy about the fact that he and his talented groups of artists were able to create such a glorious world.
“We like to push ourselves in both the CG and stop-motion worlds,” he says. “Over at Bristol, we have the Shaun the Sheep TV series in production, and Nick Park is working on his next feature film project. Richard Goleszowski is also busy with a Shaun the Sheep movie project [which is expected arrive in 2013 or 2014]. We are also talking about a possible sequel for The Pirates—touch wood!”
Now that he has seen the fruition of several years of hard work on The Pirates!, Lord says he’s very pleased with the bright spirit of the film.
“Making a movie is a long, slow, challenging and sometimes grinding process,” he says. “If throughout that, you keep the torch of fun, good-heartedness, kindness and generosity of spirit alive, then you have succeeded. I want people to be delighted by that spirit, so that when they see the movie, they come out of the theater smiling—not just because it’s funny, but because it has real heart, and we’ve given it everything we possibly could!”
Sony/Aardman’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits will open in U.S. theaters on April 27. The film premiered in the U.K. and several other European territories on March 28.