The Aardman Animation veteran talks about their latest stop motion aquatic adventure during our visit to the set
Peter Lord was one of the founding members of Aardman in 1972 and has been an animator, writer, producer and director on a variety of films over the years. In person, he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about the stop motion process and filmmaking in general, despite being nearly 60. Fresh from shooting on one of the stages, he’s happy to sit down for a cup of tea during our set visit to fill us in on The Pirates in his own inimical and gently meandering fashion.
CLICK: I suppose the first big question is, now that you have the option, how do you decide whether a film is going to be CG or stop motion?
PL: Yes a good question. Well I mean we do love stop motion we just do and you haven’t seen around the studio yet. We’re a highly evolved stop motion organism now and we do it better than anybody else and it’s an easy choice. I will say right at the outset I did think about doing it in CG because of its ambition and it did occur to me. And I would have been happy to do that as well. But I’m very happy with what we’ve landed on! I suspect that making a stop motion animation film is more fun than making a CG film. I suspect it is, but don’t tell anyone!
CLICK: It’s a mix of both though these days, isn’t it?
PL: Yes more and more. And you know the CG element of the film is I must say an enormous pleasure to me, a real delight. There’s a whale flying through the air you know so you storyboard it and you plan it and then you shoot the bits that don’t have the whale in, that’s fine. But then when they finally put the whale if you go ‘Whoa – that’s pretty cool!’ It’s an amazing thing and it looks like a puppet whale really and it’s great for big bold gestures, big bold scale. And then they can put in little pirates running way from the whale and little CG boats that weren’t available. And that’s great, you know – taking the spirit of the thing and bettering it.
CLICK: You’ve been doing stop motion now for decades; does the process ever get any easier?
PL: It is really easy now, but don’t tell anyone! In the sense that – just yesterday, I was sitting in this very room, looking at a shot and something bad happened in the background like one of the lights moved or something. And 10 years ago it would have been a disaster, we’d have to go again whereas now we laugh at it – ‘Ha, ha, we can fix that.’ We can fix anything! It’s liberating. You don’t worry about stuff like that. So in the past when I'm checking shot half my attention is scanning the frame to see what’s gone wrong, which is a very negative way of approaching it. Whereas now I only think about the performance and if the performance is right, anything else is fixable. That’s a nice feeling.
CLICK: How did you decide on a Pirate story?
PL: When the idea first came up it must have been more than 12 years ago. Then we forgot about it and then these books came along and that was it as far as I was concerned, all the possibilities seemed to open up for a Pirate story. But it’s not just about Pirates, is it, it’s that we’ve got this whole very odd world set in the unspecified past, set in the olden days, technically speaking! And I just thought it was so liberating because they had such a fun irreverent manner to them, it seems like you can just brush aside all sorts of boring problems. Literally getting the sea to work has been a very big deal; we’ve spent an awful lot of time on that. We discussed every possible option for putting the pirates to sea, including not going to sea at all! That seemed a shame! But I was sold from the get go. In fact what happened was when we found the books I wasn’t down to direct particularly; I was doing my other job as sort of a creative director for this department. And I thought, ‘if I don’t do this some other bugger will!’ [laughs.] So I thought I’d take that and as a result everything else was thrown into confusion but I’m so glad I did. It was irresistible!
CLICK: What was the writing process like, having Gideon adapt his own book?
PL: Yes Gideon Defoe. Now I look back on it I think that was brave as well because he hasn’t very many credits as a screen writer! He’s done some half hour TV stuff and in the early days we mentored him with some other writers. But he’s taken it on extraordinary well. Apart from being delighted and amused by him I’m very impressed by the way he’s done it. He’s an intelligent guy and he got the challenges of screen writing very well.
CLICK: Because the process is so long, do you always feel beholden to make the film as short as possible?
PL: There’s a budget which was chosen four years ago and part of the deal of that is that time is money, screen-time is money. And you kind of know how far you can go, it’s not possible to budget an 80 minute film and make a 100 minute film. So by cheating it up from 82 to 86 or thereabouts, that’s it really. It does encourage economy, that’s why most animated films I think are economically lengthed. They tend to pack stuff in and they tend to be short. Even the Pixar ones they stretch up to two hours but they’re normally around 90 minutes.
CLICK: And this is your first 3D stop motion movie – did that change the process much?
PL: Well the decision was a kind of a business one, almost. I mean everyone else was doing it. Of course it will be shown in 2D as well but if it wants to be a big set piece movie, for a big audience, than it was important to approach it with all the confidence and bluster of a big movie. Initially I was alarmed by it because I thought it was going to be difficult. It’s not technically very difficult…
CLICK: It’s just two cameras instead of one?
PL: Or even one camera – one that goes [makes a whirring and clicking noise, gesticulates]
CLICK: Oh, one that takes two pictures!
PL: It’s funny, you’ll see it, it’s very cute. It just travels like 3 or 4 millimetres that’s all it does. So technically it’s really very simple and I do think it’s very flattering to stop motion animation.
CLICK: I remember in Coralline it worked really, really well.
PL: Yea. It’s an odd thing though because part of the appeal is that you look at the screen and there’s a depth to it. Like in the captain’s cabin, which is a nice confined set, the sense that you’re really inside it is extremely attractive. But I think that if the movies good you should forget about it. Because it’s a comedy we’ve allowed ourselves to do a couple of comedic poke ‘em in the eye moments but obviously that’s considered vulgar in the world of 3D so we don’t do it too often. But I'm perfectly happy with it. It does effect composition a little bit, but I got used to that. So there are limitations to it but it looks lovely.
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is in cinemas from the 28th of March. You can read about our set visit over here and head back soon for a full review!