In the world of animation, the charming stop-motion output from Aardman Animations ranks alongside Studio Ghibli and Pixar as the most consistently successful studio worldwide. In the 1970s, Peter Lord founded the company to satisfy his plasticine-fueled dreams. Years of successful work in the commercial and music video world followed, but the studio hit a new level of success when young whippersnapper Nick Park joined the team in the late 80s and his Creature Comforts and Wallace And Gromit shorts brought Aardman international success, a handful of shiny Oscars, and a definitive house style. With Lord and Park heading up the creative team, the studio went into the feature film business in 2000 with Chicken Run and never looked back. Wallace And Gromit’s feature length outing Curse Of The Were-Rabbit followed with almost inevitable box office and Award-winning success in 2005.
With the studio now also dabbling in CGI fare like Arthur Christmas, Peter Lord has brought Aardman back to their stop-motion roots with his new feature-length directorial effort The Pirates: A Band Of Misfits. Five years in the making, it’s by far his most ambitious project to date. Yet the final product—starring the voice of Hugh Grant as a lusciously bearded captain teaming up with Charles Darwin to win a Pirate Of The Year—still has the breezy and distinctly British comedic sensibility that made Aardman an international brand name. We recently got a chance to chat with Lord during an appearance in Toronto and probed his brain about his latest swashbuckling feature as well as the ins, outs, and what-have-yous of Aardman Animations.
Dork Shelf: Since this is the first time you’ve done an adaptation, I was wondering if you altered Gideon Defoe’s book much since the film is so true to Aardman’s house style?
Peter Lord: That’s a really interesting question, not many people have asked that. So much so that I’d forgotten that and you’re right. We haven’t done that before. I have looked at books in the past that have been suggested to adapt, but have never been interested in that at all. I just didn’t find anything that moved me. This book really made me laugh. It was exceptionally funny writing and I just couldn’t resist it. But you’re right though, it is slightly different. What we’ve got is the Aardman trademark look, style of performance, visual comedy (I hope), and then there’s this extra layer of sophisticated comedy from the book. Which is probably why I think it’s the best thing that we’ve done.
DS: Are you approached by outside writers and producers at Ardman often or do you try to work entirely in-house?
PL: Well, that’s interesting as well. We do keep it in house. In practice we do. In theory, I’m very open to bringing other people in. You have to be. You’d be a fool not to be. If an idea came by that was great, our job is to seize it when it comes. I think that is a key part of the art of making movies, to have your eyes and your mind open enough to see the good idea when it comes. The story for Arthur Christmas was given to us by a writer named Peter Baynham [Borat, Alan Partridge]. So that’s another example of being open to outside influence. There’s a great instinct or tendency to do it all in house, but I try to remind everyone to keep their minds open.
DS: Was this the most ambitious stop motion project that Aarman has attempted so far? It certainly feels that way based on scale alone.
PL: Yeah, it’s certainly the most ambitious that we’ve done. I think it might be the most ambitious project that’s ever been done in stop motion in terms of the use of CGI effects to make the world bigger and better. And also certainly in terms of cast. This is the thing that most people don’t tend to think about. In stop motion, every character has to be built from the ground up. I can tell you that process is very time consuming and very expensive. So, the total cast of Wallace And Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit was somewhere around at most 20 people. Pirates has a named cast of around 70 characters. That’s a huge cast and it’s part of the fun of the film. If there was a joke written that required a new character, we would just make one. We were very ambitious. So you make people like a waving mermaid or two hula dancers or three river dancing rats that only appear in one shot. We were very generous in our extensive cast.
DS: Do the characters change at all one you’ve cast the voice actors? Because the characters played by say Brian Blessed or Jeremy Piven for example felt very true to their sensibilities.
PL: Yeah, with Brian Blessed, he’s such an icon in the UK that we had him cast probably first in the film. So we may have even designed his character after that. Jeremy Piven was interesting because his character was designed before Jeremy agreed to do it. So it doesn’t look like Jeremy at all, but it ends up performing like him, and I think that’s what people notice. Jeremy’s vocal performance was very strong and it inspired the animators. Animators love to work with stuff like that. And his playfully mocking tone was a very American delivery and really strongly suggested how his character should move. I think that’s how it normally goes, not the other way around.
DS: Since this style of animation requires such a long production process do you like to keep tweaking the script throughout?
PL: Yeah and actually I think that’s true of all animation, in my experience. In fact, I sometime wonder if it’s a fault in animation. That’s been true to every film I’ve been involved. Because the production process is so slow, you have time to think about a scene that’s coming up and make some little adjustments to it that you think will be valuable. Of course you only do it with the best moments. So what happens is you go to Hugh Grant and in the course of say three voice sessions you probably record 75% of the movie and that 75% is enough to keep us going for at least a year probably. But then after six months one of the scenes that came later in the film will be slightly changed, maybe because you find something to improve or maybe because, as sometimes happens, you realize certain scenes are taking too long to animate and have to be cut down and then rewrite a later scene as a result. So what happens is that then you go back to Hugh Grant and say, do you remember that scene we did which took us a whole afternoon before? Now we’re going to do it again with slightly different words. That happens quite a lot.
DS: Pirates like all the Aardman movies have a very specifically British sensibility. Is it important for you to maintain that as the international audience for your films grows?
PL: I think we take quite a simple approach, really, which is we try to be really instinctive and honest with what we do. So the sensibility isn’t at all calculated. We do what makes us laugh and most of us are British. That’s the truth of the matter. I did have on board some Americans and actually a Canadian was our head of story, and because of his different culture, he certainly brought some jokes that we wouldn’t have done normally. But it’s as simple as this, if we like a joke, we’ll use it. If it makes us laugh, we’ll use it. And that happens a lot actually. There are a lot of his jokes in the final film.
DS: Since you’ve started doing CGI features with Arthur Christmas and Flushed Away, will stop motion continue to be the focus of Aardman?
PL: I think that stop motion will absolutely continue to be our principle business. I think that’s true to say. Because we do it very well, it’s what we know best, and we have a very loyal and much loved crew back in Bristol where we work. And part of my motive is to keep that group bust because they’re so great.
DS: Do you already have the next stop motion feature underway since the production is so time intensive?
PL: No, I wish I had. We should have done that by now. That was a mistake on our part not to get going faster. We’ve got another one, which Nick Park is working on now. He’s writing the script, but that’s still kind of a ways off from production. I wish I could say it’s more advanced.
DS: Do you and Nick Park continue to collaborate extensively, or do you work separately now that Aardman has grown so substantially?
PL: It’s more like that. You know, we’re the best of friends and we always comment on and critique each other’s ideas. That’s very important. But we actually do our projects separately now.
DS: Since you’ve been with this company since the 1970s, how would you say the landscape of animated films has changed?
PL: Wow, beyond recognition, really. Totally beyond recognition. When we started there was sort of an unspecified international agreement that only Disney were capable of making commercially successful animated films. You know, you’re talking about the days of The Jungle Book and things like that. So Disney ruled the roost of feature films and of course there was no internet or CGI, so the landscape has changed out of all recognition. For example, when we started it was very hard to even find an outlet for animation. Where do you look? There were very few places. Now kids can obviously put their stuff out online and get a very loyal following that way. Some things can start as a little online joke and then become a successful business venture. And also, the last part of that is that when we started almost no one was doing stop frame animation. It was strictly for kids and for little kids at that. Now that’s grown as well. You know, everybody talks about the huge boom in CG animation, which of course is obviously true. But we are going to have four stop motion films in quite a small space of time between ours and Jiri Barta’s film and Tim Burton’s new film and something else from Henry Selick. It’s remarkable really, something we never even dreamed would be possible when we started.