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‘Pirates’ Director, Master Animator Peter Lord Really Digs Clay

Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Updated: Thursday, April 26, 2012 15:04

Pirates

Columbia Pictures


Aardman Entertainment is best known for its incomparable use of stop-motion animation, one of cinema’s oldest and most respected techniques. As one of Aardman’s co-founders, director Peter Lord worked on features such as “Chicken Run” and had a hand in the creation of Wallace and Gromit. Now Aardman and co. are releasing a new comedy, “Pirates! Band of Misfits” a piratical adventure starring Hugh Grant, Salma Hayek and Martin Freeman. College Times spoke with Lord, director and master animator for “Pirates!”, to discuss the passion and process of making clay dolls come to life.

College Times: First off, the biggest laugh for the grownups came from a gag that’s going to go over a lot of younger heads. For movies like this, how do you find that balance between what you think children will find funny and adults will find funny?

Peter Lord: Well, that’s a big question, isn’t it? What we try to do is we really just try to do what makes us laugh. It really is as simple as that. I don’t know what else you can do, honestly. There’s no, like, calculating about it. There’s no cynicism about it. […] That’s really the only thing you can do. “Does that gag make me laugh?” Yes, it does. […] So I guess you could say that we tried to find the inner child in us. But we’re not idiots. We also know that you have to do a variety of ways to have fun.

Since making movies like this is such a huge endeavor, how do you pick that one script that’s going to make you want to put the next five years of your life into it?

God, yes. It’s obvious to say but you’ve got to really love it. I mean, like, really love it. Nothing less than complete, absolute conviction will do, which is why I can’t choose a new movie. We go through a process of developing new ideas. People often produce a thousand ideas, and you don’t take any of them because they aren’t good enough. If you look at the idea and it’s like, well maybe with a bit of work I could kind of turn it into something – that’s not good enough. It’s got to whack you between the eyes and seize you by the throat and demand to be made. It’s got to be that good. […] That’s what we’re looking for and in this case when I saw that book, it’s a book originally, a really, really funny book […] I hadn’t directed anything for a decade and I thought, “This is the one.”

There were only a handful of actors that had recognizable voices, so how would you cast actors to not sound like themselves?

The big one was Hugh Grant, really wasn’t it? Because he was kind of…playing, well not his usual role, let’s put it that way. […] I would listen to all the stuff he’s done before, all his movies. And there wasn’t much in those movies that hinted that he could be the Pirate Captain, but what there is, is great comedy. He’s a very, very comic actor. So that’s what I was looking for, [and] then when you get into the recording studio, then the adventure starts, because you work together to find the voice that’ll work. With Hugh, he stood up tall and he puffed his chest out and he stroked his imaginary beard to get into this role, which was unusual for him.

Do you see any focus on animation in film schools regardless of the type of animation?

If it’s a good school, then that’s really beneficial. I quite like it. There are two things: there are, like, […] schools where people learn storytelling techniques and filmmaking techniques. That’s a great thing. But that doesn’t teach them to be an animator, it teaches you to be a filmmaker. And then there’s the craft of animation, which is … I always say it’s like learning to play a musical instrument. If you pick up a guitar or a violin or a piano and you play it for five years then you’ll be good. After 10 years you’ll be better, 20 years you’ll be better still. You need to do a lot of it to get really good. The same with animation, so it’s good to go to school, to have some inspiration and advice and some positive criticism. The other great thing is just find the space at home and just practice a lot, a lot, a lot.

Because the animation in “Pirates!” was absolutely gorgeous, what advancements have been made in the stop-motion business, even in the last 10 years?

The interesting thing is the technical advances, certainly, [and] the fact that the whole thing is shot digitally, is very liberating in many ways for me as a filmmaker, so I like that a lot. But technical advances don’t really affect the quality of animation. That’s like an illusion thing. [There is] a new generation of people with better and better skills [and] that’s what it is. Like in sports, […] they just get faster and faster. On the “Pirates,” […] I had some guys working for 20 years who […] honed their skills over the 20 years and who’ve become immensely clever and talented. I had that and then I had new guys I had never seen before in my life join the team, and wherever they had been teaching themselves, they just got better and better. So I genuinely found that the quality of the animators, the braveness of the animators and the ambition was just getting better and better.

Technical question: How do you animate the mouths?

The mouths are printed out. They start out as a clay original. The clay original is scanned into a computer. Then in the computer we animate the mouths into all the different lip syncs. And then we print them out on a rapid processor like machine: a three-dimensional printing. Then they’re in resin, they’re hardened, exact color match, and the Pirate Captain had like 250 different mouths made that way.

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