The Pirates! Set Visit Part 2
20 Aug 2012
We head back to Bristol to take you behind the scenes on The Pirates!The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists has finally hit cinemas – and we’ve got more tales from our trip to Aardman’s headquarters in Bristol to give you another incentive to check it out. Click got the chance to head behind the scenes on the film late last year, and here we talk about spending time on a live set and checking out the 3D camera system. You can find Part 1 of our set visit here and also read our full interview with the delightful Peter Lord – co-director of Pirates! and co-founder of Aardman Animation. You can also read our review of the film.The Pirates is easily Aardman’s most ambitious stop motion film to date. At its peak, 2005s Curse of the Were Rabbit used around 28 sets. This time around, over 40 unique sets have been built and used, pushing the number of staff up over the 300 mark. As the stop motion process becomes more and more rare, Aardman have to reach out to artists all over the world who have any experience in the craft, bringing them all together for the feverish work that’s required to bring a film like this to fruition over a four year period.MODEL-MAKING
Our first stop on our studio tour was with Andrew Bloxham - a leading member of the model-making department. He breaks down a typical character model for us, in this case the scarf wearing pirate, later voiced by Martin Freeman. Each major character in the film can take six weeks or more to produce and the construction itself is fundamentally crude – the underlying skeleton consists of metallic ‘joints’ and limbs made from twisted wire. This gives the required motion and rigidity to allow for precise movements but also means that the constant friction can lead to breakages at inopportune moments.
The wire armatures are covered in moulded foam latex which forms the body of the character. We were given an opportunity to pick up the fully finished model and they proved surprisingly weighty, the latex cool to the touch and eminently squashable. Next, Bloxham showed us the inventive way the mouths are animated – using 24 different shapes which can be popped in and out of the head at a whim. This method leads to gaps at the edge of the mouths, which are smoothed out in post production.ART DIRECTION
We then popped in to see Matt Perry, who was the supervising art director on the film. Art direction involves practically everything you see on set, apart from the visual effects, and Perry’s workshop was a delightful mess of elements from the film, including a model used to create the full scale CG whale and a glimpse at the tiny, individually hand printed gold coins which make up part of Queen Victoria’s treasury. It’s here that the details Aardman are known for really come to fruition and while CG certainly helps with larger scale world creation, it simply can’t match the texture of real metal and wood.ANIMATION
But the real highlight of the tour for me was the chance to step onto a live set. My group squeezed into a tiny curtained off area to be introduced to Will Becher, who has been with Aardman for 10 years. Becher has been working on a scene in the Captain’s cabin which involves Darwin and the confused dodo Polly, who thinks she’s a parrot. The entire set measures no more than a few feet across and is plastered with a hundred tiny details which you’ll likely never even see on camera.
Speaking of which, The Pirates is shot on Canon EOS 1D Mark IV’s –professional grade DSLRs which are increasingly being used in movie making. But that function is of no interest to Becher, who exclusively uses still shots to capture the extremely slow motion of his subjects. The camera is mounted on a rig which moves the camera a fraction to the right for a second image every time one is taken. This movement simulates the scaled down distance between the eyes and allows for a 3D effect when the two are projected simultaneously.Becher has been working on this one scene, which will take up less than a minute of screen time, for six months. Typically, 12 movements are required from the characters in a single second but that’s just for one model in frame – without including ancillary extras or other motion within the frame. It’s a remarkably intricate process, but Becher also receives frequent visits from mad as a brush director Peter Lord, who insists on not only personally acting out every scene in the film but also on wearing as many silly hats as possible while doing it. It’s all inherently light hearted but it’s also clear that perfection is the aim – Lord has been known to toss out a shot if he isn’t happy.I’M NOT CRYING
Upon leaving Aardman’s Bristol based home, I was struck first by admiration for an immensely skilled team of people coming together to produce true movie art in a fashion that many had considered deceased long before the modern era. But the place itself also has a unique kind of aura, a sense of calm beneath the flurry of production and an openness far removed from the normal closed door policy of studio films. There’s the sense in Aardman that, if the financing dried up tomorrow, these people would try their level best to continue producing quality product not just for audiences but because of the kick they themselves get from creating these impossibly detailed, stop motion worlds of escapism. And it’s that feeling which pervades each and every Aardman production – using humour, sharp writing and the latest technology to give you the gift of sterling animated movies.The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists is in cinemas in Europe now and arrives in North America 27th of April. For more on the Pirates you can read our set report, interview with Peter Lord or ebullient review! Andrew Bloxham with the Pirate Captain