Stop-motion is back again this year with three animated releases: Aardman's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" (opening tomorrow), Laika's "ParaNorman" (Aug. 17), and Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" (October 5). And from what I've seen of all three, the bar has been significantly raised technologically to keep up with CG but at the same time staying true to the tactile nature of the technique. In the case of "The Pirates," Aardman has especially come a long way since its signature "Wallace & Gromit" franchise. The puppets are slicker, the sets more extensive, the overall look more vibrant, and the VFX more authentic. But, of course, the wacky British humor is still delightfully Aardmanesque: social misfits and idealistic dreamers longing for fantastical adventures to escape their humdrum lives. Whether or not the droll pirate shenanigans on the high seas will connect with a U.S. audience is hard to tell, but it will surely be an Oscar contender for its scope, wit, and craft.
Indeed, craft has always been what it's all about for director and Aardman co-founder Peter Lord. He discovered Gideon Defoe's book ("The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists") lying on a table during a development meeting and latched onto it immediately for its gleeful, mischievous tone about pirates and Darwin (evolution clashing with devolution). Naturally, the highly evolved chimpmanzee, Mr. Bobo, steals the movie from Hugh Grant's vain Pirate Captain, who wants more than anything to win the Pirate of the Year award, even if it means parting with his precious dodo, Polly.
"Obviously, it's a very different look than Wallace & Gromit," Lord contends. "With pirates they need gold braid, belts, buckles, sashes, scabbards, lace. And you couldn't do that in clay or anything like it. So I didn't try to pretend that it was clay. I went for a different aesthetic entirely."
And the most proficient way to achieve the new stop-motion aesthetic in the digital age these days is through rapid prototyping (introduced on "Coraline" but now much more advanced). Replaceable puppet mouths along with heads are made by an in-house department at Aardman. These are computer designed and printed in resin (complete with teeth and tongue) via a 3D printer. Thus, the animators make the characters speak by using mouth replacements that are attached to the head by magnets. More than 6,818 puppet mouths were created for "The Pirates," including 1,364 for the Pirate Captain alone, along with 257 mouth shapes to convey his speech and reactions.
"The digital pipeline has been liberating for me," Lord adds. "Shooting digitally you can move on a shot any time of day or night. But shooting digitally with confidence on green screen backgrounds is wonderful. I really enjoy the CG enhancements. We have the CG team in-house so we're all under the same roof and it feels like a team. But the water is the obvious thing. The fact that we can take a big ship, which is made of wood and metal and string and canvas, and make it move as if it was at sea and then put the sea around it digitally afterwards is absolutely amazing. But it's stylized water that has to fit with the models.
"There's nothing I like more than the classic pirate image of a great, big ship thrashing into a wave, sinking, splashing, and rising above. Our model ship is the real star of the movie. It's actually two ships that have been badly stitched together. There was some crooked, backstreet shipyard that rather carelessly stuck two ships together. The front part is from 1820 and the back half is from 1680. But that's part of the backstory that's never discussed."
It's all about the marvelous detail, whether it's the captain's beard (animated from a guitar tuning head with 65 swirls on it) or the finely crafted Victorian London sets. However, Lord says there's a danger in getting mired in such detail. "The whole process gets slower and slower and a lot more agonizing. I actually believe in working as fast as you can. The faster you work, the more you hold the spirit of the shot or scene in your head. So that was my thinking. Some animators love to suffer — it's a kind of macho thing. But I'm interested in animation energy and performance energy."
And is Lord anxious to make Defoe's follow-up book, "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling"? Absolutely. " I know for some people sequels are a dirty word, but this has proved to be such a great world to play in, so I'm very happy to do the second book." It all depends if "The Pirates" proves profitable for Sony.