Interview with EFA Animated Feature Film Nominee Peter Lord on his film THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS
What is your film THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS about and what was the initial motivation / idea?
Peter Lord: The film was inspired by a book of the same name (The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists) by a young English writer called Gideon Defoe. Of course it’s a swashbuckling comedy adventure with pirates, but I hope the name suggests something else: there’s a rich vein of absurdity, almost surrealism at times, and the film has a very modern take on its subject matter. We set about subverting all the stereotypes and assumptions of what pirates are meant to be.
The story concerns a Pirate Captain and his crew. They’re very content with their life until the Captain decides that he is destined to win the biggest prize in all of piracy: the Pirate of the Year Award. Unfortunately these are particularly incompetent pirates and it seems impossible – and wrong – for them to aim for this celebrity award. When I tell you that on their adventures the band of buccaneers meet Charles Darwin and sink his ship, and that they go on to have an adventure that includes – in passing – Napoleon Bonaparte, Jane Austen and The Elephant Man, you can quickly see that it’s not a conventional pirate story.
As soon as I read it, I recognised an exceptional and refreshingly different comic voice. Gideon had discovered a style of comedy which is playful, absurdist and anarchic - but at the same time fundamentally intelligent. I loved the book so much, I wanted to find a way to capture its spirit in a film, and eventually I decided to ask Gideon to write the screenplay as well – so there’s the most direct possible connection between book and film. It’s also true that I was very excited by the visual potential of a pirate film. Everything about the world suggested colour, richness and a swaggering, swashbuckling energy which I was very eager to explore. From my childhood, ever since watching Disney’s Treasure Island, I’ve always loved the settings, the costumes and the spectacle of pirates and their ships.
How would you describe the animation style (or styles) used in your film?
I believe the film is absolutely a stop-motion film. Certainly we used other techniques and other technologies, but 90% of what you see on screen is traditional stop-motion. The vast majority of the compelling character performances that you see, are created using beautiful puppets, moved frame-by-frame and by hand. At Aardman, of course, we love the technique. Not only do we love it, but we believe very strongly that it has an important place in cinema. Its great virtue is that it is fundamentally hand-made. A viewer is constantly aware that the world they’re enjoying on screen has been built and brought to life by dozens of skilled artists and craftsmen. Although much of the animation is very exquisite and delightful, we also embrace some of its inaccuracies and its organic energy. I believe that the very act of performing stop-motion animation has some of the spontaneity of a live performance.
But it is true that most of the special effects, notably the ocean, were generated in CGI. We had a large VFX team working alongside the stop-motion team, whose job was to make the world larger, richer and more ambitious than can easily be done in the stop-motion studio. I’m also proud that we cleverly integrated some CG background characters into stop-motion shots. I think the film is an amazing synthesis of techniques.
How was the work process from the first Idea to the finished film? And what were the main challenges along the way?
In many ways the Pirates followed a traditional work-flow. It’s true, but unexpected to most people, that a CG film (like the majority of animated films we see) follows a production model which is very like stop-motion. The big difference being that while we build, rig, colour, texture and animate our characters all by hand using real materials, in CG the exact same processes are carried out in the computer.
So we spent the most important time at the beginning working on the storyline and the script. I needed to love the script. Then we set about the design of the world and the characters – calling in many skilled designers. And we started on the storyboarding and the story reel (which is a moving sketch or pattern of the entire film and which we continued to work on right through the production). Finally, after three years of preparation, we moved onto the studio floor. This is the most exciting time for me, when the sets are moved in, and rigged and lit, and finally when the animators take the puppets and start making them live. We have a very large studio, and on any one day there may have been as many as forty different miniature film units in operation. Each unit contains a set, props, characters, lights and camera – each one is a studio in miniature – and as a working-environment it’s very magical. I love to pull aside a curtain and see a beautifully made and beautifully lit miniature set inside. And another of the pleasures of our technique is that although we have forty units and over thirty animators, the real heart of the performance is provided by, say, twenty animators. It’s really a very intimate cast of performers.
Do you have any idols in animation or in the film world in general?
In the world of animation, my first credit will always be to Ray Harryhausen, the absolute master of model animation. He pioneered an entire genre. Although I’ve never wanted to make a film in that genre, I remain amazed and inspired by his talent. He demonstrated that animation could be used in extremely sophisticated ways.
Also going back to the past, I really admire the work of two more pioneers – Ladislas Starevich and George Pal.
In the modern era, I absolutely love the mysterious and truly magical worlds of Hayao Miyazaki. His films – especially My Neighbour Totoro - have the authentic flavor of childhood for me.
And in live action, well I could go on and on: The Coen Brothers, Hitchcock, Fellini, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati…
What do you think is unique about animation „Made in Europe“ and what are the main differences to American and Japanese animation films?
This simple question is really the hardest to answer. Of course you can’t generalize about European film, there are endless subsets and national preferences. But what European films have in common is that they have simply developed from a different place – not from Hollywood!
As in many other technologies, the very idea of film developed pretty well simultaneously in different parts of the world. And each nation developed its own film language that grew out of local experience, local obsessions, local history and local taste. So naturally every nation has its own ‘flavour’. But as we all know, America industrialised and refined film-making to that nation’s taste and agenda – and di it brilliantly well. So film-makers around the world find themselves compared to that model.
So what is unique about ‘made in Europe’? Well to generalize wildly, we tend to be a little more pessimistic, a little less sentimental, a little more ironic (but of course you could produce a hundred European films that would destroy my argument in a moment).
Simply: European films are, or should be, concerned with European culture, experience, taste, history and IDEAS.
"THE FILM IS AN AMAZING SYNTHESIS OF TECHNIQUES"