When Peter Lord and David Sproxton first registered the name “Aardman Animations” in Britain in 1972, the company consisted of the two of them making puppet animation for ads and TV shows. Over the intervening four decades, the studio has become one of the most reliable names in animation, particularly thanks to the contributions of animator Nick Park, who won a series of Oscars with his 1989 short film “Creature Comforts” (which Aardman later expanded into two TV series) and his Wallace & Gromit shorts. Together, Lord and Park wrote and directed the studio’s first full-length stop-motion feature, Chicken Run, in 2000. Aardman continues to produce stop-motion features (2005’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2005) and expanded into CGI with 2006’s Flushed Away and 2011’s Arthur Christmas. It also continues to produce shorts and television series like Shaun The Sheep and Timmy Time.
Lord and Sproxton have both maintained active hands in the company, largely as producers. But Lord is back behind the camera with the studio’s newest stop-motion feature, The Pirates! Band Of Misfits, adapted by British writer Gideon Defoe from his popular comedy book The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists. The film is an absurdist romp about a pirate captain—whose only name seems to be The Pirate Captain—out to win the Pirate Of The Year award with the help of his hapless but dedicated crew and some interference from Charles Darwin. Lord recently spoke with The A.V. Club about Aardman’s earliest plans, why he sticks with stop-motion in a technical age, his favorite gag in the new movie, and how he landed a reluctant Hugh Grant as The Pirate Captain.
The A.V. Club: When you and David Sproxton founded Aardman, what was the goal? What were you trying to do back then?
Peter Lord: [Laughs.] Make some money. Make just enough to pay the rent, really. I mean, really, we couldn’t have dreamt I’d ever be here, in this fancy hotel… That was so far beyond possibility as not to be considered. Back when we started, it was kind of one of the laws of nature that only Disney made animated films. Nobody else did at all. They were all drawn animation, and we were doing puppet animation. The only use of puppet animation as far as I knew was for kids’ TV series, which we had in Britain. And it wasn’t fashionable; it was just for kids. So in all, we had no expectation of forming a studio, I don’t think. Another funny thing is that in the UK, there weren’t many role models, particularly; there weren’t many successful studios. There were some in London that made TV commercials, and they were the most successful ones. So that was probably the original ambition.
AVC: What drew you to animation back then?
PL: I like animation. I loved Ray Harryhausen, those movies like Jason And The Argonauts. I liked things like Warner Brothers cartoons. I liked Disney features, the good ones. I liked Yogi Bear and Rocky And Bullwinkle and stuff like that. But then again, so did everybody. Everyone my age liked these things. I always say I wasn’t drawn to animation until I did it, if that doesn’t sound too strange. We were encouraged by David’s dad to try experimenting with it one rainy day. He had the camera, so we experimented and did a bit, and having done it, we were hooked. It is a very special feeling, a godlike feeling, in a way. You go through this process, which is mundane in some ways; you spend your day moving things around slowly. Doing it is just a job, but then when you see the results back the next day—as it was then, on film—it’s amazing, completely amazing. It’s like, “Wow, that’s such a powerful thing to have done, to have made something come alive.” So I think that was it.
AVC: How much does the process of what you’re doing today on a movie like The Pirates! resemble what you were doing back in the early days of Aardman?
PL: It’s only the same in principle, really, because all the steps and details are so different. But in principle, it’s exactly the same. I mean, in principle, it’s exactly the same that’s been done for 100 years. The guy who animated King Kong was called Willis O’Brien, and his first film was in 1914 or something, and the technique was exactly the same as what we do now. I say “different” because back when we started, technically we had very few options; the puppets were just made of clay, solid modeling clay, and they stood up on heavy feet, big heavy feet. So looking at these puppets now, that was far from our experience. And also, we knew nothing when we started—we were completely self-taught. There was no lighting, nor camera work, nor anything. So it’s as if we’re now concert violinists, and you were asking, “What was it like when you were 4 and you first picked up a violin?” It’s the same, and yet different in every way.
AVC: Where did the original Aardman look come from, with the beady, buggy glass eyes and the big grins with the separately delineated teeth?
PL: [Laughs.] I must say, both those things largely come from Nick Park. The buggy eyes are faintly interesting. When we first did close-up acting with clay—it was a long time ago, in the late ’70s—we did a film called “Down And Out,” which really launched our career. When we were rehearsing for “Down And Out,” the first puppet had glass eyes like a teddy bear. And we thought, “Well, that’s cool, because we’ve got plastic-like flesh and these shiny, glassy eyes.” But when we looked at the animation, it was horrifying beyond belief, because the eyes were shiny and dead and didn’t move, and the face was moving; it was just like a zombie. So we were like, “Whoa, that’s scary,” and somebody said, “Oh, you should try using beads.” So we went and got some beads from a jewelry shop, and put those in their heads. You could put a pin where the thread goes, and move the eye around, make it swivel around and blink. So for us, that was the start of that. Then Nick Park came along, and he’d learnt from us, actually. He was at high school when we were already showing our stuff on TV. He had taken the bug-eyed thing and done it his own way, but then the big wide mouth was his idea, so we’ve taken that.
AVC: And you just hung on to that for visual recognition?
PL: In detail, there’s a great difference [between Pirates! and] Wallace & Gromit, but they’re from the same gene pool. To be absolutely honest, I’d be a brave man to change that now, because it is very much loved. It’s loved, but it works, that’s the thing. The bright eyes give a kind of innocence, which is important in a lot of what we do. It’s a very clear signal to the viewer of bright, cheerful innocence. The very articulated mouth with the quite dramatic mouth-shapes work really well. When I started doing lip-sync, I tried to faithfully copy what the human mouth really does, which is really hard work and not very faithful, because it was too understated. So the exaggerated use of the strong mouth-shapes has proved to be a successful formula.
AVC: As much as there’s a signature Aardman look, there’s also a signature Aardman sense of humor, which comes out in Pirates! even though it’s drawn from a pre-existing book and scripted by the author. The bright, cheerful innocence you mentioned in the eyes also manifests in the humor. Where did that voice originate?
PL: That is very hard to say, isn’t it?
AVC: Is it just a “you know it when you see it” type of thing?
PL: I think that is all it is, really. I don’t know how else to define it. We certainly don’t talk about that at work at all; it’s never discussed. A lot of it derives from classic English comedy, and when I say “classic,” I’m being quite broad. On one level, it might be the movies they made in the ’40s and ’50s called the Ealing comedies, which are very, very British. It might be Monty Python, which lots of us grew up on, and I still find very, very funny when I see it. It might be much more modern things, like The Office or Father Ted. I’ve mentioned four different forms; they’re very different. I assume they have things in common with each other. Certainly both Father Ted and Monty Python have absurdity and surrealism, which we often like. And character comedy is most important, which is to say establish a character, make him clear, and then you can play with him. Once they’re real, living people with hopes and fears and opinions and self-image, then you can have fun. When you’re there, when you’ve done the groundwork.
AVC: What drew you to Gideon Defoe’s pirates series?
PL: The tone is what drew me to it, actually. I literally read six pages of it during a reading—it’s a small-format book, so those weren’t very long pages—suffice to say, those six pages really grabbed me. I thought I’d never seen anything quite like it before. The tone is clever; you can see the writer’s clever. It has kind of a forced naïveté about it, and it’s very unexpected. I think the book opens with a gag we put in the film. It’s not my favorite gag in the film, it’s just a passable gag in the film, but the book opens with it. Some pirates are having a great big fight at the start of the book, and the captain comes out and says, “Shut up! What’s all this about?” And they say, “Oh sorry, captain, we were just discussing what’s the best bit about being a pirate.” That sets the tone of that—self-aware pirates discussing what’s good about being a pirate. Very self-aware, but chiefly innocent, fooling you as a reader. You think one thing is going on, and it turns out another thing is going on. They’re very self-conscious; they think about being pirates as if it was more than a career choice.
AVC: But they do treat like a career choice, like a job they chose and love. It’s not anything they were forced into by circumstance.
PL: They definitely sign on for it, yeah. It’s almost like if you can afford the costume and the ship, you can be a pirate. It doesn’t seem to require any degree of bloodthirstiness or anything like that. Anyway, the whole tone of that book absolutely charmed me, and made me laugh out loud. When I read the book—somewhere back in my office, I’ve got my first copy of it, where I underlined all the things I thought were funny. Page after page is underlined, which is very unusual. It’s not just one joke, or one sort of joke, but the constant stream of surprising and amusing ideas that kept coming was exceptional.
AVC: You said that the argument at the beginning wasn’t your favorite gag in the film; what is? What stands out for you?
PL: I think my favorite gag, personally, is when the Pirate Captain is talking to his loyal but long-suffering lieutenant, and the lieutenant—who is called “The Pirate With A Scarf,” that’s his only discernible name—says, “Captain, do you remember that little chat we had?” And the Captain thinks for a moment and says, “The one about whether pigs are a type of fruit?” And the lieutenant looks at him, astonished for a beat, because even though he knows him well, he can hardly believe how stupid his boss is. And then he says, with a certain degree of impatience, “No, no. The one about following harebrained schemes ending in us facing certain death.” “Pigs are a type of fruit,” as a notion, is just amazing to me. Where the hell did that come from? That’s a great, funny line. And what’s funny is the character comedy—the captain’s innocence and his mate’s sophistication and exasperation. I just find that to be very charming.
AVC: You initially had trouble getting Hugh Grant on board as the Pirate Captain. What was the holdup, and what convinced him?
PL: He’s very loath to act. [Laughs.] He really is. He keeps saying, with all sincerity, that he doesn’t want to act anymore, almost like he thinks it’s a ridiculous job for a 50-year-old man to be doing. So in that sense, he was hesitant. I had talked to him before about another project, which he hadn’t agreed to at all. And I think he was a bit skeptical about his credentials to be a pirate, but then when he saw the script, then we were fine. Because he’s a very intelligent guy, Hugh, very intelligent actor. I’ve heard him say many, many times that he sees many scripts sent to him, and with very few does he get past page five. He thought this was an exceptionally good script, which is the best possible reason to come on board.
AVC: Given how technology’s eased your animation process, do you still run up against technical challenges where you can’t do what you might want to do?
PL: Yeah, you do. On this film, it’s technical and it’s budgetary and it’s time. Yes, you find, for sure, there are things you can’t do. We’ve achieved much, much more than we’ve ever achieved before, and it’s a very bold production, I think. Within the company, the attitude of the team was very bold. They were always saying, “Yeah, we can do that. We can do that,” whatever it was, which is lovely to hear as a director. The last thing you want to hear is people going, “Ooh, that’s a tricky one, not sure if we’re going to be able to do that.” They had a very good can-do attitude. But I know, knowing the film intimately, that there was stuff we didn’t do that we wanted to do. Particularly toward the end, we were saying, “Sorry, we don’t have the time or money, we can’t do that.” But the good news is that having done it now, I’ve learned a great deal, and would know better next time. There were things like, I’ve used CG cameras to flesh out the scene, like extras. In movies, you’re not supposed to look at the extras. The whole point is you don’t look at them, they’re “extra.” They’re backdrop; they’re creating an atmosphere, but you’re not meant to look at them. And I think we handled that very well. There was a scene in the Royal Society, with people just talking politely in the background just being extras, and that worked out really well. I thought I’d like to use more of that, and I wish we had.
AVC: You started out thinking you were going to do this film with CG animation, but you decided on stop-motion after building a reference model and seeing what the physical object looks like. Given that Aardman has made several CG films at this point, why stop-motion this time out?
PL: Because we love it. [Laughs.] Yeah, we love doing it. It is such a delightful way to pass the time—no, not pass the time, to work. The sets, the props, the lights, the puppets… the real sets are great. It’s so much more interesting than working in CG. Just practically, minute-by-minute, day-by-day, it’s so much more interesting. And obviously, or I hope obviously, we believe in it. I believe it does something special that is beyond CG animation. I am a believer in the handmade-ness of it all. To me, it’s very like a live performance by a live band, whether that be a classical orchestra or a Cajun band. Slightly inaccurate—like accuracy is not the most important thing—but full of life, and full of, everywhere, all the cues that tell you these are real people doing real things. So in the band, it would be the real sound of a string twanging and the real sound of wood vibrating. In artists, it’s the sight of fingerprints; it’s the slight inaccuracies; it’s the knowledge that it’s real, tangible, touched by hand, that I believe comes across onscreen. I think it’s a warmer, more human experience than CG, personally.
AVC: What’s next for Aardman? Defoe has written a whole series of these pirate adventure books; do you have any intention of adapting more of them?
PL: I would love to, because genuinely, it’s such a nice world to be in. Great atmosphere in the studio, very enthusiastic team, fun design. I’d love to go back to it again, but I’m afraid it’s out of my hands now; that’s in the hands of the population of the world. [Laughs.] Whether enough of them go and see it. It’s all about box office-now. Right now, in the studio, we moved out the ships and the seaside and the London back streets, and they’ve shipped in the fields and the barns and the hillsides for Shaun The Sheep. So that’s what we’re doing now.