I always had the idea in my head that Aardman was the British version of the Disney owned Pixar Animation Studios; the main idea being that the place is a hive of activity and now, after having the privilege of visiting both studios, I can confirm that I was 100% right!
A couple of weeks ago, I headed off to Bristol in the West of England to visit a place oozing with creativity and a dedication to work in a way that has never been done before. As I’d been to Pixar previously, I was expecting the UK equivalent for Aardman; a purpose built building with all the trimmings but instead, I arrived and saw a rather drab looking 30 000 square foot warehouse! It was later explained to us that this building isn’t ‘Aardman’ but was acquired when they began making Chicken Run back in 1997 and the moral of the story – don’t judge a book by its cover because inside is a place of magic!
Aardman is probably most famous for their work with clay stop motion animation, namely Wallace and Gromit and more recently Chicken Run, but they now have departments responsible for all types of animation including CG, all of which are used in their latest film. The studio was started by Peter Lord (who became a legend when he invented Morph!!) and Nick Park who created the aforementioned comedy duo Wallace and Gromit. This latest venture by the world famous stop-motion specialists is called The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists (or The Pirates: Band of Misfits! if you’re in the US) and after visiting the studio, I am even more excited to see this movie that I was after watching the fabulous trailers.
The biggest production to date was Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit back in 2005 which has a total of 28 sets, but this new project dwarfs that with a total of 41 sets, many of which you’ll be able to see in the video embedded below or in the images attached to this post (all of which you can click to enlarge). On Were Rabbit, they had 200 people working on the movie and in Pirates! they’ve increased to just over 320 many of whom have been working on the project for it’s five year duration in which the script is developed to completion.
After being given an intro to Aardman and meeting the legendary Peter Lord (our interview with him will go up in a separate post nearer the film’s release), we were escorted around various section of the studio including model making, set design, poster design and then onto the huge sets themselves. I had no idea that the sets would be so big with each model being around 12 inches tall and worth a fortune! The first challenge with the models is getting the look right and after building multiple different versions, they ended up with what we now have today. As Production Desginer Anne King was talking us through the models, on the table were most of the cast of characters from the movie who all looked absolutely spectacular, standing tall with a large pile of concept art and a huge box of 48 different types of faces for all the different syllables ready to go for when they’re needed.
Director Peter Lord started to work mainly with one artist, Johnny Duddle, who did most the character designs. The model makers then work with those designs and begin by making the character sculpt using clay. From that, they’ll make the Production Sculpt which can be taken apart to make all the different individual pieces breaking it all down into parts. Initially, the models may be made into a silicon mould (again, what you’ll see in my narration video below).Anne King tells us that parts such as hands are made with a silicon allowing durability but springy where as bodies may be created with foam latex which is a lot softer. Once the character has been designed, they’ll move onto create an ‘armature’ which consists of many ball and socket joints which are quite rigid allowing the puppets to be moved in way that will be precise but will be unable to move themselves by being loose. They can customise each puppet’s rigidity to be different depending on how they know that character will move.
They also have to do lots of work on the colours of the puppets as the colours on screen will look different to how they may look by the naked eye. There’ a lot of colour-test work to make sure it looks right. They’ll take a piece of foam, spray it and see how it looks. We learn that there was a lot of work done on the gems and the gold studding on the Pirate King. The Pirate King actually has gold leaf to get the gold to look right on screen! He really is a King!
Moving onto their expressions in that box that I mentioned earlier, they break it down into different syllables. On Pirates, they used a new way of making the mouths. On this movie, they used a rapid prototyping 3D printing system, cleaned up and painted to create the mouth shapes where as in previous movies, there were be dozens of entire heads. This allows them to clip a different mouth to each puppet saving time and reducing cost. The characters have a magnet which hold the mouth onto the top part of the head.
These clever people will look at the script to see which characters need which words to say. So they’ll actually look to that before making the mouths and which words will need to be said to match the dialogue they’ll require! It’s astonishing how clever it is. Background characters will only have expressions for example where as main cast will have a full set of mouths. For the Pirate Captain’s beard alone, Aardman had to devise a unique way that his beard could attach to his face! There’s actually an allen key which you can inset into his face to adjust how high or low his beard sits on his face! Again, amazing!!
The build of a puppet from start to finish can take up to three months and then second one will take six to eight weeks which was still quite a long time. For the Pirate Captain , there are around 25 models for him alone for all the different shooting that they’re doing on the 40 different sets and each one has to be identical. We were told that a ‘simple puppet’ can cost around £6000 and something ‘more complex’ can cost £10-14k! EACH!
At any one time, 40 units could be shooting in the make-shift studios meaning that for the most used characters in the movie like The Pirate Captain played by Hugh Grant, there could be as many as 25 different models. Matt Perry (Supervising Art Director) gave us a little tour of his sets and showed us some insights into making a movie like this and it was absolutely fascinating! My eyes were immediately drawn to all the bespoke posters (many made by Gavin Lines) that were hanging on the walls and the Toby Jug of Peter Lord that will probably never be seen! Again, the attention to details was simply mind blowing. Matt’s role was overseeing the design and build from concept to finished articles and from what we’ve seen (and you’ll see in my video below), he’s done an amazing job with his team of people.
Matt describes Pirates! as a bit of a departure to what they’ve done before in sense of scale and also with the use of CG. Stylistically, it’s very different with a much more ‘hard edge’ than the likes of Wallace and Gromit had. Matt works in a team of four art directors working on the drawings and then passing them to the builders who then go away and build what they ask for.
You’ll also see in the video below, the way in which they have to design sets to get all the lights etc in and the animator and have to devise ways they can enter. An example is the theatre scene where the animator has to go up through the floor to be able to move the characters. Keep your eyes peeled in the video below and in the photos on this post for all the amazing set dressing that you’ll see. It really is blink and you’ll miss it type of film-making. There are cannon balls in walls, funny posters, odd names and so much more that you need to look out for.
One of my favourite sets has to be the Pirate ship which is absolutely massive! The whole thing doesn’t actually fit in the studio so they’ve had to build two thirds of it and then any wide show will be completed using CG. The ship actually sits on a gimble to give it the movement required to be on the sea. The rigging is all completely real and has aluminium wire running through each of the ropes to give it that sturdy feeling to it so they can be positioned as gravity would move in the real world. Literally every single aspect of this movie has been thought out to perfection. Even the lights are on trackers so that when the boat moves, the sense of the sun moving too is evident!
To put this amazing feat of film-making into perspective, one of the animators was working on Blood Island at the time we visited and he showed us 2.5 minutes worth of footage that he’d been working on. He then told us that those 2.5 minutes had taken seven months to achieve! The attention to detail and patience required to work on this amazing kind of film-making is simply amazing. There are so many hidden easter eggs. A tip from me, keep your eyes peeled for the Aliens in a jar in Darwin’s cabin to see a familar face from the Alien movies!
We’ve been provided some brilliant B-Roll footage which I wasn’t 100% sure what to do with so I decided to narrate the entire thing. It’s 17 minutes long but will give you an insight in the making of Pirates! that I could never explain in words without putting some imagery around it.
I’ve placed all the concept images below which you can click to enlarge. I hope you enjoyed my set visit report. Aardman really is an amazing place and thank you so much to Sony and Aardman for inviting us along for one of the best experiences ever!