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 Who wants to be a buccaneer?
Who wants to be a buccaneer?

Aardman’s roistering adventure ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ is their second big-screen epic in fourth months. Robin Askew talks to director Peter Lord about sexy pirates, Charles Darwin and leprosy.

There's a giant pirate ship in the reception area of Aardman's Gas Ferry Road fun factory. No one seems to know how it got through the security doors, but you'd like to imagine that an Aardman-esque ship-in-a-bottle technique was deployed, using a complex system of ropes and pulleys. In his office at the top of the building, affable studio co-founder Peter Lord is sporting a Blue Peter badge, seated by his trusty cutlass, and feeling justly proud of the new 3D stop-motion film that has swallowed five years of his life: 'The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!' He wrestles a little with the concept of studio secrecy ("I really must ask what I'm allowed to say") so I never find out the film's budget (less than 'Arthur Christmas', apparently), how much it needs to earn for corporate paymasters Sony to greenlight a sequel, and what on earth Nick Park is beavering away on in the office next door. But everything else is up for grabs, from the Great Leprosy Controversy to the joys of being rude about Charles Darwin and why the film doesn't have a big cheesy moral.

The film boasts a seamless blend of stop-motion model animation and CG. That's something of a first for Aardman, isn't it?

There was a shot or two in 'Chicken Run'. But here, in the Royal Society and the Pirate of the Year Awards sequences, there's probably 40 shots that have lots of CG background characters in. There's not much beyond that, except sea. And yet, there's a substantial digital element in 75% of the shots – just putting the seas and the skies in. The shoot was quite technical, but digital technology has got so good now that it's easy.

Isn't there a danger that CG is now so easy that it could slowly take over from the more expensive, labour-intensive model work?

There could be. But I wouldn't let that happen. Although I say 75% of the shots have a digital element in, I would hate it if people thought it was a 75% digital movie. It isn't by any means. I would hope it looks like a 90% stop-frame movie. That's where the magic goes in. It's cheaper than 'Arthur Christmas'. Stop-frame shot in Bristol is cheaper than CG shot in LA. So, in fact, the pleasing thing is that we're still – I won't say cheap – but the cheaper option. And we're handmade, which is nice.

'Pirates' was made entirely in Bristol, but 'Arthur Christmas' was shot in LA. Do you think Aardman could ever make a CG movie entirely in Bristol?

That's an interesting one. We are interested in the idea. But I'm slightly horrified about the idea of starting another bloody studio. A dedicated CG studio would be another thing again. We take on enough as it is. It was interesting doing 'Pirates', because when we started we had only puppet makers. We had no effects stuff at all. Then the CG people came in. And by the end there were 150 of them. When I saw how good the footage looked, I thought it's not that far from doing a whole [CG film] in Bristol."

It could be argued that Aardman has always been in the business of 3D because of the model work. What do you make of the modern 3D process?

I can't say, hand on heart, that it's vital. Not artistically. I will say the film looks lovely in 3D. Ideally you should see it twice – the first time in 2D and the second time in 3D. This'll be great for packing them into the cinemas! The first time you see it, you should be enjoying the whole experience and absorbed by the story and the characters. Enjoying the environment is a slightly different experience, which you've got more leisure to do when you've seen the film once. The sets, I think, look fabulous in 3D. When the camera's in the Pirate Captain's cabin, there's all this clutter on the walls and you're kind of surrounded by it. The soundscape is very good as well, with the creaking walls around you and the gently swaying lantern and the sea lapping against the hull outside. It's so immersive. I think it's a really good use of 3D.

Was it intentional that the relationship between Charles Darwin and his mute chimp Bobo should remind us of Wallace and Gromit?

No, it wasn't. Hand on heart. I don't think we ever thought about that. The relationship between the Captain and Martin Freeman's character, The Pirate with a Scarf, was a bit Wallace and Gromity because it's the classic master/servant relationship – which is Wallace and Gromit or Jeeves and Wooster or whatever. The master is a dope and the servant is the smart one. Martin Freeman is sometimes Gromity in his reactions to the Captain. I suppose Bobo is contemptuous of his boss too, but I honestly hadn't thought of that before. Now you mention it, it is the same thing in that the servant is smarter than the master and thinks his boss is an idiot. He does roll his eyes a couple of times in a Gromity way...

Did you enjoy being so disgracefully unpleasant to Darwin?

Yes and no. Let me say, before we go any further, that nobody respects Charles Darwin more than I. I rather enjoyed throwing mud at this revered character – this great man that nobody ever laughs at. It was just funny to be giving him such a terrible time. And please tell your readers that I'm not playing to Middle America with this. That's what people will think. But it's not the market I'm angling for. Gideon Defoe, who wrote the books and the screenplay, is a great respecter of Darwin. It's just funny the way we found that the film inexorably moved that way. This is the man that always becomes the fall guy for everything. It just seemed funny. I'm sorry. I'm very sorry.

You attracted protests from a leprosy charity and, er, Stephen Fry over a leper gag in the film's trailer. Did you ever anticipate such a reaction?

It did cross my mind, to be honest. I thought this might offend some people, but it's a good joke. It wasn't done to offend people, of course. It was done as a stupid schoolboy joke, of which I entirely approve.

Now you've changed the offending line to refer to the plague, presumably you're hoping there isn't a lobby group for plague victims?

[Laughs] Yes, that's right. D'you know, we were sitting in an edit suite throwing ideas out. And with each idea, someone was going online to see who would be offended.

The film certainly offers plenty of potential for taking offence. You could upset amputees, royalists, Darwinists…

Scientists generally. It's a mischievous film. It has a mischievous sense of humour. I can picture a scientist coming on the Today programme and saying, "I'm so disappointed in this movie because it really portrays all the old stereotypes of scientists as boring, and it's most unhelpful when we're trying to encourage science in schools." I can do the speech for them. I know all that. But I just thought it's fun. It's not serious. It's just a joke. To have pop at the orthodoxy is always good fun.

There's a serious point here, though, isn't there? These days, everybody seems to demand the right not to be offended, which must surely have a deadening effect on comedy?

Yeah, it's a bit rubbish that. Women might be offended by our film as well. In the Royal Society, the woman who's coming along behind Charles Darwin in the queue is propagating 'Lady Science', which involves kitchen-based things. In fact, I'm happy to say that we had the man from the Royal Society coming to check us out to make sure that we weren't defamatory. He said, "Women weren't allowed to join until way after this period. So you've actually portrayed the Royal Society as being progressive."

Did the existence of a certain other big Pirates film franchise have any impact upon the film?

I saw the first two and left halfway through the third one because I'd lost the will to live. So I knew it was out there. But we just didn't refer to it at all. Everybody uses skulls and crossbones. What can you do?

There's a scene in 'Wayne's World' where Garth asks Wayne whether he was turned on when Bugs Bunny dressed up as Girl Bunny. Did you ever look at the model for Salma Hayek's Cutlass Liz and think "Phwoarr!"?

She's hot, yeah. [Laughs] She's written in the script as being really hot. So she was clearly sexy. Then our character designer drew these various sexy pirate ladies and we built her. Then we came to animate her first entrance and I was acting it out. I was doing my best sultry catwalk strut. But we chose a female animator to do it, which was a very smart move. She sneered at my efforts.

Would it be fair to say that Ashley Jensen's character, Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, was stolen blatantly from Monty Python, specifically Terry Jones?

Yes, it was. I will happily say that we looked at 'Life of Brian' to see what false beards look like.

You've made no secret of your desire to make a sequel.

Gideon has a joke in one of his books where he makes up thousands of sequels. I would love to do a sequel. Honestly. Because it was such fun. It's a fun world.

It would certainly be an opportunity to do more with the Pirate Captain's rivals, who don’t really have much involvement in the plot this time round.

No, they were really good characters that are introduced and don't really have much to do with the story. They get such an elaborate entrance that it might seem overly significant. I'm as suspicious as the next man of sequels, because lots of them are cynical. But I'd happily go back and have another go.

One of the most refreshing things about the film is the fact that it doesn’t have one of those big, cheesy, sledgehammer moral messages that so many US animations inflict upon us.

No, absolutely not. To be completely honest, I think Gideon probably thinks we've sold out to sentiment with what we have done. But I think it's nice to feel warm at the end. To feel that the world is in some way put right is a good way to end the movie. Films often state their message clearly, but we have: "You can't always just say 'arr' at the end of a sentence and think that makes everything all right." Remember, kids! I'm delighted not to do that stuff, because it doesn't please me. I don’t go to films to learn a bloody life lesson. I go to be entertained. And to feel good. I'm into that.

You must have been pleased with the box office performance of 'Arthur Christmas', particularly in the UK [£20m, sneaking into the year-end top 10 for 2011]?

Very happy over here. It was a little disappointing in the States. I'm sure the figures will look enormous to outsiders [$46m, fact fans], but we don't have a big reputation over there. We have a niche reputation. It's hard to break out of that. We're like British bands. Cracking the States is so bloody hard.

Shame the film missed out on an Oscar nomination, though.

I'm a bit pissed off that it hasn't been nominated for an Oscar. And it missed out on a BAFTA too. I put that down to that perverse British thing that sometimes adores you for being British and sometimes turns around and bites you on the leg: "That'll teach you to be so British!" But I was more annoyed by the Oscars, because to not get nominated was bizarre. It was the best-reviewed animated movie of the year. So to not get nominated is pretty insulting really.

We've seen an extraordinary burst of productivity from Aardman, with two films in four months. But there doesn't seem to be anything else in the pipeline. Does that mean you're going to fall silent on the feature film front for the next few years?

Yes, we are, actually. I won't say that's great timing. Because it isn't great timing to have two sitting on top of each other. Nick is working on his own stop-frame thing. But although he's well advanced on the story, he's not close to starting it. So there will be a long gap. I can't say what it is, and I must get some bloody advice, but there's a sort of lightweight feature idea out there that might possibly fit in the gap. It is very hard, I can now tell you, to keep this business running on a steady cycle. We tend to get this peaks and troughs thing. I blame Nick Park for this. If he'd got his finger out earlier on his film, then we wouldn't have a gap. But he didn't. So we have.


Copyright Robin Askew 2012







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