By Gary Murray


Peter Lord looks like a modern day pirate.  With a thick white beard and twinkle in his eye, he has that spark one expects from a jolly seafarer.  But the man is one of the most lauded animators and directors of puppet animation films.  He is one of the creative geniuses behind Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films. 


Recently, he was in Dallas to promote the newest Aardman Animation film The Pirates! Band of Misfits.  The rollicking sea adventure is based on the brilliant Gideon Defoe novel The Pirates! In and Adventure with Scientists.  The film is about the luxuriantly bearded Pirate Captain and his ham eating crew who sail the seven seas for adventure. 


The Pirate Captain wants to win the Pirate of the Year Award from such blood thirsty competitors as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek).  Along the way, The Pirates! run across a young Darwin (David Tennant) who has this interesting theory about the origins of man.   The film is 90 minutes of madcap British fun in the vein of Monty Python. 


I wanted to know how Peter Lord got such a big name cast to commit to this animated adventure.  He said, “In the UK, people like us.  We are very well known and they are in safe hands.”  He added, very confidently, “We had a really good, funny script and frankly it is not a ton of work (for the actors).”  Then he said that Hugh Grant worked very hard on the character between rounds of golf.


The film did present some challenges for Aardman Animation.  “I suppose,” he said, “the ocean was the most difficult problem.  We had a good, long time at it.  We had a big wooden ship and the challenge was to have it wallow around in the crashing ocean.  A wooden ship shot on a green screen on a metal rig and it looks lovely as a ship and a year later it looks great in the ocean.”


The film combined both traditional puppet style animations and modern CGI animations.   

“More challenging was creating background crowds.  I was anxious about that.  All the foreground characters are animation puppets but to populate that scene with 200 background characters was either impossible or immensely expensive.  So, we went for CG background characters.  We were worried that the two styles would clash or be distracting,” said Peter.  The final effects were flawless and Peter admitted that he has trouble noticing where the two different styles mesh.  He said that 95 percent of the film is puppet animations and not computer generated images.  


Along with Peter Lord on tour was the star of the film, the Pirate Captain.  He is about 18 inches tall and fully articulated with a ball and joint skeleton under a sculpted silicone exterior.  Imagine a very detailed doll that can be posed in any position.  There were over 20 different Pirate Captains made for the film.  Each time there was a costume change, they crew had to build another puppet.  Every costume needed another Pirate Captain built.  


The film is also a first for Aardman Animation in another aspect.  It is the initial feature that was shot for the 3D projection format.  “The camera team became very expert at getting the 3D right.”  Peter Lord was pleased with the final cinematic vision.    “I find it very easy on the eye,” he said. 


The film is written by the author of the books, Gideon Defoe.  Peter Lord was thrilled to have the author so involved in the process of making the film, which is a very different and visual medium.  Peter noted that Gideon loved dialogue over some of the more image driven aspects of making movies.   Gideon Defoe had not done much scriptwriting so they got some more experienced screenwriters to mentor him.  “He did all the writing,” said Peter Lord. “I’m not taking any credit for the writing.” 


“It is different” he said of crafting the book into a working film.  “The book and the first draft of the script were definitely more wordy than what we had done before.  There is a lot of dialogue.  This is a visual medium.  It was a natural fit but a step forward for us.” 


“The humor in the film sways between being quite sophisticated and schoolboy humor,” said Peter.  “The basic unkind and inaccurate assumption that scientists are just nerds are just funny.  He sees the film as “Every school kid’s idiotic version of what a scientist is like.” 


One of the details kept from the books was The Pirates! love of ham.  “They depend on ham both for sustenance and for moral support,” laughed Peter.    He loved the absurdist train of thought The Pirates! takes.  “It leads you through the story and is really quite in our tradition,” said Peter.   “What is different (about this film) is the verbal play.  The film is filled with background jokes and bits to be discovered on multiple viewings.   


The medium of stop motion animation has been around since the silent cinema days.  Peter noted how important Willis O’Brien, the animator of King Kong, was to perfecting the process.  He noted with pride that he once shook hands with Ray Harryhausen, one of the junior animators working will O’Brien, a man who made the Sinbad series of films in the 1960’s.  Peter knows that he and his crew are indebted to these early animators and that they are just standing on their shoulders.  


“I will always be a passionate advocate for puppet animation” Peter Lord summed up as he discussed his lifework.  “This is a stop-motion puppet film.  I know that as soon as you say ‘puppet’ people say ‘that is for kids’.  Look at the Muppets.   They are puppets and they are for everybody.  There is something about giving life to an inanimate object which is very magical.  The fact that the audience knows that it is a puppet is important because they perceive it.  With our films they perceive that these are puppets.  They are made with clay, latex, silicone, wood, steel and resin.  The world around them is tangible.  It is handmade and I think that counts for something.  It is like in the real world–we like that something is handmade by craftsmen rather than by a factory.  We like it because we appreciate the craft and the love that went into it.  I think we react well to the inaccuracies.”


He finished his thought by saying, “Human error is a good thing.”    


The Pirates! Band of Misfits opens nationwide on April 27th.  Peter Lord was honored as a part of the Great Director Tribute series at the USA Film Festival in Dallas on April 12 

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