Aardman Set Visit: Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists

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With Aardman's new slice of stop-motion magic, Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, swashing its buckle in our cinemas next year, Empire took the opportunity to head down to Bristol for a look at the production and a chat with director Peter Lord. The Bristol-born filmmaker is one of the studio's founding fathers - creator of Morph (not to mention devious nemesis Chas) and the man behind Chicken Run. This time he's partnered with Sony Pictures to deliver an adventuresome adaptation of Gideon Defoe's seafaring tales. Move over Captain Jack, here comes Pirate Captain...

“Let’s make their gizzards shake!” bellows the pirate voice from the far end of Aardman’s boardroom. Empire is being treated to a sneak-peak at freshly-finished footage from the animation house’s latest stop-motion adventure, Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists/Band Of Misfits (delete according to your location and feelings about Charles Darwin) and, sure enough, our gizzards are shaking. All the gleeful Aardman touches are there on screen. There’s a pirate with a Blue Peter badge, a hapless Charles Darwin and a clutch of ham-loving bucaneers; not to mention a dodo that thinks it’s a parrot and a monkey that thinks it’s cleverer than Pirate Captain. Voiced by Hugh Grant, he's the big cheese aboard a bolted-together Pirate Ship adorned with a ‘Honk If You’re Seasick’ bumper sticker.

Thing is, the monkey is cleverer than Pirate Captain, who’s busy plotting a course around the illustrated sea monster on his nautical charts. It’s that kind of movie: joyous, energetic, packed with detail and just a little batty –like The Origin Of The Species rewritten by a man who’s just yo-ho-ho’ed his way through a barrel of rum and a thousand Errol Flynn movies. In short, pure Aardman.

As the cackling of an evil Queen Victoria subsides – oh yes, we forgot to mention that old Queen Vic loves nothing more than tormenting pirates (except perhaps wearing doilies on her head), Pirates! director Peter Lord stops in from the studio floor to answer the question that’s been troubling Empire since our trip to this quiet corner of Bristol. The Aardman co-founder quickly clears it up for us. “Nobody has a West Country accent in the film – or even a pirate accent. Hugh Grant did do a couple of ‘arrhhs’ for me but never the full ‘aaarrhhhh!’”

The effervescent Lord, creator of loveable box-dweller Morph, director of Chicken Run and Empire’s newest blogger has been trying to bring bucaneers to the box office for 15 years. His initial idea was loosely inspired by Captain Pugwash, John Ryan’s soulpatched swashbuckler. It was pitched to DreamWorks but “didn’t land”. Lord then stumbled upon novelist Gideon Defoe’s tales of a comically craven seadog and his ragtag band of sailors, and the stage was set.

“I thought it was the funniest book I’d read in a very long time,” Lord says with the grin of a man who’s read more than a few down the years. “I’m constantly excited by it. I know I’m the director – and I am stressed as well – but it’s so jolly and funny.”

Empire can vouch for that. The joy of Aardman – perhaps even more than their Pixar counterparts – is that nothing is spared from the typhoon of silliness. This is, after all probably the first film to make pitch national treasure Queen Victoria as the villain. If you imagine Pixar, another cutting-edge animation studio that emerged combining magical cinema with lucrative commercial work, as the team from CSI: Emeryville , Aardman is more like Sherlock Holmes: clever and creative and as English as crumpets and lawn bowls.

In truth, the company’s movie production arm, in a non-descript business park in Bristol’s suburbs, is also a world away from the gloss of Emeryville. Aardman’s commercial division, down the road in Bristol docks, is ultra-modern. Here, though, the video library in the canteen is stocked with VHS cassettes (Taxi Driver, Star Wars and Winnie The Pooh are currently in stock) and the carpets are well-trodden. “It’s not Aardman to be in a business park”, explains the studio’s long-serving press man Arthur Sheriff almost apologetically, “but it becomes Aardman as soon as you walk through the door”. Sure enough, there are reminders of its gilded 40-year history everywhere you look, from the three-foot Were-Rabbit that greets visitors in reception to early Wallace & Gromit concept art on the canteen walls. There’s also a certain gold statuette tucked just out of reach of thieving penguins.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Jeffrey Katzenberg flying in for weekly briefings, as he did during the tricky Flushed Away shoot, with barely space to swing a limo outside. The current partnership – this time with Sony - already feels much more ‘Aardman’ than that DreamWorks collaboration, and Lord is revelling in the creative control. “Pirates! is faintly nostalgic sometimes,” he explains, “and we’re celebrating those Aardman things we love to do, but on an even bigger stage.”

That “bigger stage” means more sets and more people – more than 300 compared with the 220 that worked on Were-Rabbit. There are more than 30 sets, varying from the size of a tabletop to the expansive shanty town set of Blood Island (pictured above), each is adorned with a thousand tiny details. One, the bearded-and-lipsticked figurehead adorning Pirate Ship’s bow, will bring a bit of Kenny Everett to the high seas.

Not everything has stayed the same, though, because this time the animators have a head start. Aardman has developed ‘rapid prototype’ jaws for their characters, enabling them to marry facial expression with shelves of pre-fab sculpted half-faces. It’s the stop-motion equivalent of home delivery, with trays of tiny faces being ferried from storeroom to set on demand. There more than 240 for Pirate Captain alone, each with tiny beards, most with that look of piratical determination. The upper half of each face is still tweaked manually, to the palpable relief of Aardman’s team of animators, but the time saved enables them to shoot at the (relatively) breakneck speed of up to 20 seconds a week with their Canon EOS1s.

Lord is revelling in technological innovations too. “This is so much easier than Chicken Run,” he reflects of his 2006 poulty pic. “We don’t have to send a bike to Heathrow to pick up rushes. All I have to worry about is performance because everything else can be fixed. [Back then] if someone jogged the camera or the sets bent over the weekend, it used to be a disaster. I laugh at them now...”

The other glad tidings for Lord is that, should his pirates strike gold at the box office, there’s plenty of Pirate! sequels to pick from. While there are gizzards left to shake, the stop-motion seafaring may just roll on. “Gideon Defoe lists 300 titles in the series”, the Bristolian enthuses, “although there’s no plan to do ‘The Pirates! In An Adventure With A Steep Hill’.”