This Friday, "Pirates! Band of Misfits" opens, the latest whirligig stop motion contraption by the cracked geniuses at Aardman Animation, the studio that, over the years, has brought us such astounding wonders as "Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit," "Chicken Run," "Arthur Christmas," and the underrated "Flushed Away." 'Pirates' is their second film in conjunction with Sony Pictures Animation, their new home after leaving a partnership with DreamWorks Animation ("The Croods," Chris Sanders' next movie for DreamWorks, was an idea originally developed by Aardman but retained by DreamWorks Animation after the split). We got a chance to talk with Peter Lord, director of "Pirates! Band of Misfits" and the co-founder of the studio (he's a kind of cuddly British John Lasseter proxy), about what drew him to this pirate world, what's next for stop motion animation, the split from DreamWorks, and his new Batman short films.
We first wondered what drew him to this pirate-infested world, which is based on a series of books by Gideon Defoe (who also wrote the screenplay), and focuses on a hapless batch of good-natured plunderers led by a pirate captain named, er, Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who desperately wants to be awarded Pirate of the Year. Things then take a turn for the wacky when they befriend an equally desperate Charles Darwin. "An enormous sense of fun, that's my short answer," Lord said, belying the fact that the answer fit in neatly with his paradigms for making an animated movie. "I think that animated movies should be fun to watch, fun to make and funny. I really care about that. I know that they need a great story and great characters, but you can build those in time but what you can't fake is fun at the heart of it. If you don't start with an idea that's inherently fun, then that's it. And this pirate world that Gideon has created is unlike anything you've seen before. It's magnificently wacky and strange and absurd. And I thought, 'That's a great place to start.'"
Lord said that many ideas are proposed but few make it all the way to production. "I've seen a lot of ideas over the years and usually when somebody pitches you something, usually there are many reactions – outright dismissal at one end and then at the top end, 'Yeah you could probably make a good film,'" Lord explained. "But the level beyond that is 'Oh, that's fantastic!' You so seldom see the 'that's fantastic!' This was one of the 'that's fantastic' ideas."
We attended a presentation of footage from 'Pirates' earlier this year that showcased both finished product and some behind-the-scenes stuff, narrated live by Lord. At one point he said that there were 40 teams working all the time on the 'Pirates' movie, and so we wondered how he could delegate tasks while also making the movie and running a studio (something that his counterpart Lasseter knows all too well, having directed "Cars 2" in the midst of a similar maelstrom). "You know the old boiling a frog metaphor?" Lord asked rhetorically. "It's like that. If this thing took me 5 years from start to finish, for the first couple of years I could get involved in the senior management team, I could talk to development, I could even drop in on the guys in the commercials department. And all of that just fell away piece by piece until by the end all I had to do was the movie. It's the most time-demanding job in the world."
But at least with this film he was in a place that felt safe. Sony released "Arthur Christmas" in the crowded holiday movie season and while it didn't get the audience it rightfully deserved, was marketed and released in a loving and attentive way. By the end of their relationship with DreamWorks Animation, they had all but abandoned the Aardman material, to the point that Jeffrey Katzenberg reportedly demanded that the "Britishness" of the movies be toned down, which led to some creative compromises (most notably in "Flushed Away" – you can feel the tonal tug-of-war while you watch the movie). We had to ask about what happened there, and Lord was surprisingly forthcoming.
"We did grow apart like a married couple," Lord said, matter-of-factly. "Jeffrey started to think that the Britishness was a problem. And as DreamWorks got bigger their ambition got bigger, so you had to have a very, very big box office to be counted as a success. That was probably the main thing." But Lord also says that DreamWorks Animation didn't fundamentally believe in the format. "Also, it was that he didn't think stop motion was a good idea. That was the main one. If we possibly can, we want to make stop motion films and our own films because those are the films that we make best. And Sony has been amazing. This one, particularly, isn't obvious. It a bit of risk-taking on their part."
What Lord is quick to point out, however, is that the studio will still be making computer animated films (like "Flushed Away" or "Arthur Christmas"), but that each film will be evaluated and decided what method they should use to bring it to the screen. And ultimately there will be some kind of melding, as Lord mentioned that nearly every frame of the very stop motion animated "Pirates! Band of Misfits" has some computer generated tinkering. "Every shot in the film has some effect work," Lord declared. "Sometimes painting out these lines [he pointed to one of the full-sized models which has a segmented jaw that they can swap out] or putting the sea in. Skies are put in digitally afterwards." They even had full characters who were computer generated. "It has been interesting because we made the puppets for puppet animation and while we were doing that the CG department was copying them faithfully. And then they started making extras – background pirates and background Londoners. It looked so good I wish we had done it earlier and put more in!"
While he couldn't tells us specifically what's going to be around the bend at Aardman (although he said that both Nick Park and his 'Curse of the Were-Rabbit' co-director Steve Box were working on new features, Park's is stop motion while Box's is computer animated), Lord did talk up something that will premiere this summer that should get people's blood up – a series of stop motion animated Batman shorts that will appear on Warner Bros.-owned Cartoon Network. " Oh yeah we are doing those Batman shorts! How'd you know about that?" Lord asked, laughing. "I've seen them, they're quite funny!"
With the immense time that these productions take, we wondered if Lord had thought about what the future of Aardman Animation will hold. He did. "The ambition," he said. "What we've felt is get a steady flow of features. It's always been feast or famine. And it was so crazy to make two films at the same time. We've got a lot of projects so we can now do one at a time at a sensible, regular pace – release one every two years. Meanwhile we're still doing 'Shaun the Sheep' [a popular animated series based on a minor Wallace and Gromit character] and there's a plan to do a feature length 'Shaun the Sheep.' And doing commercials still and the online guys are always up to stuff. Different projects take the baton at different times." And whatever project Aardman cooks up next, you know we'll be there.
"Pirates! Band of Misfits" opens on Friday.